The Four Minute Drashot haRan: Bringing Metaphysics Down to Earth

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

As Stephen Colbert said in a different context, if this is your first time reading my summaries of Drashot HaRan, I’ve got some terrible news—this is the last one.  On the other hand, doing Colbert one better, if this is the only one you read, you’ve picked a good one. Because here’s where I attempt to bring it all together, in a few hundred words.

Prior essays in this series

Metaphysics, the question of Hashem’s interactions with the world, is a hard subject. One option is to refuse to engage it.  Rambam, for instance, takes a fairly hard rationalistic stance, explaining the world with as little reference to the miraculous or metaphysical as possible (a notable exception, too little noticed, is his list of the miracles at the Sea, in his Commentary to Avot 5;4).

Some find that comforting, freeing us of the need to contemplate or grapple with exactly how Hashem deals with the world. I think Rambam did it for a more technical reason, his belief that we cannot know enough about Hashem to make sense on such issues. For a representative example, he raises the contradiction between freewill and Divine omniscience, and says it’s only a problem because we cannot understand the nature of Hashem’s knowledge.

All well and good, but it doesn’t answer the question.

Some kabbalists go to the other extreme, laying out their understanding of the workings of the divine realms in great detail, confident that tradition or insight have revealed much of metaphysics. We can know exactly which aspect of Hashem is active at particular moments, and how they shape world events, such kabbalists might say.

A Rational Metaphysics

What sets Ran’s Drashot apart—and makes the work appeal to me as a source of repeated insight—is that he takes neither road. Instead, he takes both nature and metaphysics seriously, trying to understand how they interact and intermix. He seeks places where the metaphysical shows itself, and how that affects the life we otherwise see as ordinary and natural.

It’s a remarkable challenge, to accept that life looks natural, largely is natural, and that we are supposed to live naturally, yet to be aware of and alert to the workings of the metaphysical (the Divine) hidden within it. Reviewing a few examples—ones that jumped out at me, with no claim that they are the most important or representative– offers a glimpse of how he did it.

In both the first and ninth Drashot, Ran noted Devarim 4;6’s reference to surrounding nations seeing Jews as a nation that was wise and insightful. While Rambam in the Guide thought the rationality of mitzvot would do that, Ran picked up on the verse’s singling out חקים, mitzvot without an obvious reason, as what led them to see us that way. His explanation is that seeing us succeed with actions that have no obvious reason will prove that we are acting as Hashem told us, a metaphysical avenue to success.

Moshe’s Prophecy, Prophets vs. Scholars

Ran several times stresses the supernatural nature of Moshe’s prophecy. While prophets must have certain natural physical characteristics, like wealth and strength (Rambam thought these were character issues, but Ran takes literally the Gemara that makes these conditions of prophecy), to be able to impress their audiences, Moshe was given a speech defect, to make clear that his prophetic success was not a matter of demagoguery or oratorical skill.

Ran elsewhere sees both priests and Torah scholars as having elements of the prophetic. The reward Aharon received for humbly accepting Moshe’s superseding him was that he was given the חשן משפט, the High Priest’s breastplate, which contained the Urim and Tumim. While prophets had direct prophecy, High Priests had the quasi-prophetic experience of seeing Hashem’s reply to queries posed by kings, with the answer coming from the Urim and Tumim.

Ran thought Torah scholars were also blessed with insight that was close to prophetic, and the Sanhedrin is a body that defines the ultimate form of la, a Divine justice whose value lies not in its practicality, but its showing the way we can bring Hashem into this world.

Not Neglecting the Practical, Natural, or Human

On the other hand. When he spoke of the Black Death as a call from Hashem for Jews to improve, Ran distinguished ordinary illnesses, which do not necessarily teach a lesson, from extraordinary ones, which must be sent from Hashem.

While the Sanhedrin might teach ultimate Torah law, the king’s job was to run a nation that worked in practice. His obligation to have a scroll with him at all times was precisely because he was not completely bound by the Torah—when circumstances called for it, he was to act as necessary, but only if the goal was to advance Hashem’s purposes.

The Sanhedrin itself—and Torah scholars in general—might have an element of the prophetic, but they consciously worked solely with the intellectual. That was why the arguments of R. Eliezer b. Hyrkanos that his understanding of Torah were closer to the truth did not hold water; he might have been closer to how Hashem originally understood the Torah, but once it was given, the question was how human beings understood it.

His reading of another Talmudic story also highlights the value and necessity of ordinary intellect. The story seems to cast Rabbah b. Nahmani as deciding whether Hashem or the Heavenly Court was right. For Ran, the question wasn’t who was objectively right, it was whether Hashem’s view was one that a human being could come to on his own. Because within Torah, what the human intellect can find is what counts.

Even when that intellect leads us wrong. Ran several times says that the Torah required us to follow the conclusions of the Sanhedrin even when they were wrong. Despite that meaning we would not be fulfilling the original Divine Will, we would be fulfilling Hashem’s desire that we follow human intellect where it leads us, and that would be good enough.

It Doesn’t All Come Together

It’s not one coherent presentation, starting with a set of premises and leading to a set of conclusions. It is more case studies, taking up the balance between the natural and supernatural, some of them more obviously connected to concerns of his time and audience (such as the Black Death) than others.

Perhaps that’s because recognizing the need to balance the physical and metaphysical, the natural and supernatural, forces the recognition that we cannot do it completely. It comes in glimpses. A moment arises where we see the metaphysical, spend some time defining where it appears and how far it goes, and that’s as far as we can take it at that moment. Then we move on, alert for the next time it arises.

As I bring this time through the Drashot to a close, it’s with a renewed awareness of our need to see the world in two ways at all times. We have to live in nature and we have to be open to the intrusion of the supernatural, frequently and even regularly.  Being aware of both, discerning which is which and how to react in each circumstance, is the challenge and the goal. A challenge and a goal I hope our review of Ran’s Drashot has furthered for each of us.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Lovely piece! It’s always fun to read your writings, Gidon! Kol HaKavod. About the prophecy business, it’s often overlooked, at least to me, that when we consider the ‘miraculous’ deeds of the prophets, we overlook the characteristics of the audience. There have been many many prophets; only a few have been canonized. The mere fact that the Rambam gives us a how to guide to prophecy tells me that he thought that it was an attainable goal. But a prophet doesn’t operate in a vacuum; he or she has an audience who must buy in to the miracle. Of course, the miracle is just the teaser to the real message-commit yourselves to God’s will. But still, what about those people. As a therapist who spends my life in the world of the human experience of suffering, I guess that all the discussion of metaphysics, in all the cultural traditions, is in some way to tell us that reality is not what we feel it is; that there is a backstory or a front story that guides matters beyond our sensory horizon. In some ways, doubt, the very thing that we often associate with despair, becomes a balm. It’s a balm because it lets me open myself to possibility and empowers me to push the certainty of my misery aside. That’s the tie in to the audience of the prophet; the audience must be ‘open’ to doubt and ultimately to the bigger message of the prophet.

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