In the first two parts of this drasha, we saw Ran assert that our central purpose is to worship Hashem, that we ideally have prophets to show us how to best worship, and that we can fail Hashem in ways that do or don’t affect our character, that do or don’t pass to our children.
|Prior essays in this series|
In this last part, he draws us to the issue he’s wanted to discuss the whole time: the superiority of the land of Israel for achieving prophecy and for knowing how to worship Hashem.
Fooling Yitzchak About Giving the Bracha
As in an earlier drasha, Ran wonders why Yitzchak needed to be fooled into giving Ya’akov the main blessing—why not simply inform him Ya’akov is the better recipient? Second, if Yitzchak was fooled, how could it take effect? In other areas of Jewish law (such as vows), mistaken intent doesn’t count. How could it in terms of a blessing?
Ran’s answer revolves around his belief that the blessings were a prophecy, in which case these were not Yitzchak’s wishes for his son, they were what Hashem was telling him to say about the man standing in front of him. However, achieving a prophetic mood requires a certain frame of mind, and it was unclear whether Yitzchak, hearing the distressing news that Esav was not worthy of the best blessing, would have been able to put himself into that frame of mind. Fooling him into thinking Esav was standing before him averted that problem, and then Hashem’s word could flow through him.
Distancing the Brothers From Each Other
The other reason for fooling Yitzchak is that it would add to the existing tension between Ya’akov and Esav, which Ran had previously said was part of Hashem’s plan. It started with their physical differences, despite being twins, was locked into place by the sale of the birthright, and sealed with the taking of the blessing.
That distance will last until the End of Days, as made clear in the book of Daniel (7:3-8).
Ran has articulated a view of history here; since it is based on the book of Daniel, some version of it is actually central to all Jewish thought. One way to frame the story of human history, Ran is saying, is as a permanent rivalry between Esav and Ya’akov. That rivalry was put into place deliberately by Hashem, for reasons Ran doesn’t elaborate here.
I think Ran forces us to wonder whether we see any central idea to human history, even as tradition is clear that we should. Whether we accept Ran’s phrasing of it, how we see the unfolding of history must be a concern to any thinking Jew.
The Reason for Our Lack of Clarity
The remaining five paragraphs of the drasha are, to my understanding, the heart of what Ran wanted to teach us. He notes that Daniel says he was troubled by the visions he saw, since he didn’t understand the indications of how long it would be until the redemption. Daniel says this in 7:28, 8:27, and again in chapter 12. The last time, he’s told the answers to his questions are intentionally hidden, and will be until they come to fruition.
Ran offers two reasons for this lack of clarity. First, people might lose hope if they knew how long it would be until the redemption. Second, prophecy was already on the wane (Daniel is chronologically the last semi-prophetic figure in Tanach), bringing a decline in clarity as well, as is true of the prophecies of Zecharyah, which Ran describes as leaving commentators without any foothold to produce meaningful interpretation.
That also explains the difficulty in attempting to predict the End of Days—not only is it generally hard to match predictions with reality (Ran gives examples from the Egyptian and Babylonian exiles), the people making these last predictions had to also struggle with waning (and therefore less clear) prophetic visions.
But Ya’akov’s dream was clear that the fourth kingdom is Amalek (Esav/Rome/ Christianity). That vision, on his way out of Israel, and his meeting up with a group of angels on his way back into Israel (at the place he called Machanayim, camp of angels), was to show him that Israel is where the upper and lower worlds meet, and therefore more open to prophecy.
Not Quite Saying It
The drasha ends there, so this is all we have to go on in trying to understand Ran’s point. But this is a drasha that repeats large chunks of three earlier discussions, and whose new content says Ya’akov was twice shown the importance of Israel, in that he needed greater protection when he’s outside Israel and in terms of receiving prophecy.
I believe Ran was addressing a populace that had a particular concern with the End of Days, and wanted to know why Mashiach hadn’t come yet (this would fit well, for example, with these sermons being a reaction to the Black Death). He wants to teach them that we cannot understand those visions, and that the best place to have clarity of vision is Israel (a subtle push towards moving there, I believe).
But those can be hard messages to swallow. Do we accept that Daniel’s visions tell us truths about the End of Days, even if they are too obscure to be useful? Note the distinction between not useful and not meaningful—is it that we believe that Daniel tells us how and when the End of Days will happen, just we cannot understand it, or have we stopped believing that that’s what he tells us?
Second, in what is very practical today, do we accept that the Land of Israel is superior to the rest of the world, both in that it is literally safer, because we have more natural protection from Hashem (do we feel safer in Israel than elsewhere in the world) and in that it is a place where it is easier to understand what Hashem wants of us, which is the central part of being human?