When Logical Is Still Wrong

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 9 Part 3

Teshuvah is impossible without recognition of Hashem’s continuing interest in and involvement with the world. Ran assumes people in the time of the Torah doubted this, as do some or many of his listeners. Today, too, people insist the world almost always runs according to the laws of nature, without Hashem’s providence. Ran seems to have hit on a lasting challenge, the question of how much room we leave for the Creator to still be involved with His creation’s workings.

The Value of Hukkim

Prior essays in this series

Ran quotes Devarim 4:1 (from VaEtchanan), where Moshe Rabbenu calls for the Jews to listen to the hukkim and mishpatim, laws whose reasons are unclear and those that are intuitive.  Five verses later, he refers only to hukkim—the nations will hear the hukkim, and say what a wise and insightful people we are.

Rambam in the Guide assumed that we would impress those nations with our ability to show how even the seeming hukkim have a rational basis. Ran sees it the other way: if someone’s life works out well because he always acts logically, there’s nothing remarkable about that. It is more noteworthy if life works out perfectly for someone who acts oddly.

So if the Jews do that which the intellect rejects, such as offer sacrifices (an interesting anachronism—in the time of the Torah, sacrifices were common, and would not have been a hok; for Ran, they were so outdated he offered them as the example of a nonintuitive law), and that odd practice leads to Hashem’s Shechinah residing among us, that will prove we are a nation possessing a higher form of wisdom.

Verse 8 returns to speaking about both hukkim and mishpatim, Ran says, because if we didn’t have any mishpatim, any logical observances, people would think we were just strange. It is our showing that we act logically, rationally, and reasonably in many areas that proves that our strange and incomprehensible actions—which are successful—are a function of wisdom, not insanity or foolishness.

The Importance of Remembering Sinai

The next verse speaks of the vital importance of remembering the events at Sinai. Ran says that this is because we have a tendency to remember recent events, especially miracles, more than older ones. But we need to remember Sinai, so we can retain the right attitude towards Hashem’s closeness to us, Hashem’s responding positively whenever we call Him.

The closeness of having our prayers answered can lead to the contempt of assuming Hashem bears some likeness to us. Sinai reminds us that that’s not true, which is why we need to remember it constantly. In the greatest mass revelation in history, Hashem was still so Other that there was no way to “see” Him.  And that was so despite the help with memory that visuals present, which is one of the reasons people made idols, to have a visual representation of a higher power.

Evil and Foolishness

That version of idolatry matters to Ran because it shows that the people who made the idols were not fools. They did not think the inanimate objects ran the world; they thought they could invest these objects with the spirit of the greater beings (like stars) that did run the world. This distinction explains for Ran why the Torah warns, Devarim 4:27-28, that if we stray from Hashem, we will be exiled to a land where we will worship actual wood and stone.

The idols the Jews worshipped in Israel were logical; they were attempts to relate to the greater beings that handle the general running of the world.  Once we sin that way, the punishment will be exile to a land where people worship true foolishness. When we join them, we will go from being evildoers into fools, worshipping that which has no hope or claim to be a force in the world.

Idolatry Starts with Deism

Ran thinks idolatry was the product of the best thinking of its time. It started with the proposition that the world is so beneath Hashem, that Hashem’s continued involvement with the world denigrates Him.  They denied Providence as a matter of respect.

Without the Torah, Ran says, it’s not only that we wouldn’t recognize Providence, we would think it the height of impudence to suggest such a thing. We would believe in God, but a remote God, Who created the world, set it in motion, and provided the continuing energy to keep it running. All the rest would be a function of the stars (today, we’d say the laws of nature).

The First Two of the Ten Pronouncements

Ran uses that insight to explain the first two of the Ten Pronouncements (commonly called Commandments) at Sinai. Makkot 24a tells us the Jews heard those two directly from Hashem. Ran wonders at the choice. Usually, we try our hardest to prove that which is most debated.  But since the Jews had just left Egypt, seen the Sea split, etc., why would Hashem “waste” the two Pronouncements He was going to make on what would have been obvious?

His answer is that the first of those Pronouncements wasn’t focused on Hashem’s existence; it was focused on Hashem’s involvement. Without a permanent reminder, we would come to believe the world operates on its own. That was true in the Torah’s time, in Ran’s time, and in our own time.

The necessary and non-trivial first step is Hashem declaring, for all time and in the presence of all Jews, that Hashem created the world and is continuingly involved in its running, and involved in the lives of the Jews enough to make demands of them. This is proved by the next Pronouncement, a commandment to avoid idolatry, which is so serious because it reflects the worldview we would have logically arrived at in the absence of our experiences with Hashem (Ran knows Rambam disagrees; Rambam held that idolatry was all foolishness).

And Yet, Teshuvah

The stress on its importance and the punishments that will come our way for violating this commandment might lead us to believe that we doom ourselves to distance from Hashem, or incur an onerous path to return. Devarim 4:30 tells us that when we are in distress, when all the warnings have come true, and we return to Hashem, Hashem will hear us and redeem us.  He will do so despite our only coming back because of our troubles.

This is a drasha that balances reassurance and remonstration, in ways that still ring true. He wants his listeners confident that they can find their way to Hashem, that Hashem cares about them (especially as a community), that Hashem is involved in what happens to them, and that Hashem will take them back as soon as they sincerely return.

But he needs them to know the indispensable prerequisite: making hard admissions, that they have been more than imperfect enough to justify whatever comes their way (as have been, Ran implies, all generations of humanity since Creation; we all just have to admit it), that their troubles are coming from Hashem, and that the best way out is to return to Hashem.

If they or we can do that, they or we can hope for the salvation Hashem repeatedly promised, in the Torah and the rest of Tanach.

About Gidon Rothstein

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