The Nature of Nature

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Maharal’s Days of Mashiach: The Nature of Nature

Maharal’s system forces the conclusion, in chapter 48 of Netzach Yisrael, that the Messianic era will last forever. Since he views perfection as ultimate form, once an item gets there, it cannot change or lose itself, because that would not be perfection. This explains, for him, why the song sung in praise of Hashem in that future time is considered completely new, because it’s when the world reaches everlasting perfection [I am skipping, for reasons of space and sensitivity, his analysis of why the new song is referred to as a shir chadash, in the masculine, whereas in our times songs of praise to Hashem are referred to as shirah].

The perfection of that time also means our connection to Hashem will be more unbreakable. He cites a Midrash that contrasts Hashem’s saying “I am the Lord your God” at Sinai with Yeshayahu 51;12’s line of “I, I, am your comforter.” For all that the Aseret HaDibberot had a second use of the word anochi, when Hashem says “for I am a God zealous to punish,” the doubled use in Yeshayahu signals a connection that will never change again. [Unlike now, when our exile has changed the relationship, even though it has not sundered it].

He closes this chapter by saying “and these matters are truly very deep, it is impossible to clarify this matter more, unless someone understands them himself.” That means, at one level, that I shouldn’t say anymore; it also is a reminder that Maharal believed he was tapping into truths that get at the essential nature of the universe, of our current time, and of that future one.

Returning to True Nature

Doubling down on a claim we saw last time, he repeats his certainty that the amora Shmuel could not have meant what he said, that the only change in the Messianic future would be political rule or independence for the Jewish people. For Maharal, it’s impossible he meant that as it sounds [I almost always find it fascinating when great thinkers assume something is clearly impossible; among other results, they then have to reread sources that say what they’ve rejected as out of the pale of possibility].

Shmuel must have known the world will not be as material as it is now, says Maharal [because he’s so sure that materiality is a lack of perfection], that the evil inclination will go away, and that all humanity will seek to serve the Creator. The world will then follow its true nature, which includes a general righteousness.

The true nature of the earth is to give great bounty. Sifra to Vayikra 26;4 reads the verse that says Hashem will give rain at its proper time to mean it will come at convenient times, plentifully, and with produce that is much larger than we see it now. Because it is sin gets in the way of our productivity, and the land’s.

What Counts as Miraculous?

Some examples of how he defines convenient, plentiful, and with larger produce—all based on Talmudic statements, so he’s not making any of this up; he’s just taking it literally—is that trees will be planted and yield fruit in one day, that even non-fruit trees will bear fruit. None of this counts as a miracle, either (so it’s not a violation of Shmuel’s idea), it’s nature being given the chance to express itself as Hashem always wanted.

Maharal is broaching a fascinating topic that often gets short shrift, the horizons of the natural and the line between natural and miraculous. Think of the basic plotline of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—if a nineteenth century man went back in time, what he could do would be obviously miraculous to the people he’d meet. That’s only gotten more so in our times—I doubt any of us would see cell phones or airplanes as a miracle, but if that’s true, how can we know what nature still has in reserve? How are we so sure, for example, that nature isn’t affected by people’s spiritual state, that the better our relationship with Hashem, the more nature itself can and will give us?

Supporting Maharal’s claim, Shabbat 30b has a series of Rabban Gamliel’s predictions about the future world (all inferred from verses)– women will give birth after a one-day pregnancy, trees will bear new fruit each day, the Land of Israel will grow loaves of bread (not the wheat, the actual loaves) and clothing (not the material for that clothing).

A student mocks each idea, citing Kohelet that there’s nothing new under the sun. Rabban Gamliel answers with an example from the world they knew with the characteristic in question. Maharal understands that back and forth to mean Rabban Gamliel wasn’t saying Nature would change, he was reminding us that the disappearance of sin opens natural we cannot imagine.

The New Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s great holiness and connection to Hashem should make it obvious that it, too, will find a greater expression of bounty, as Maharal cites sources to attest in chapter 51 of Netzach Yisrael. Baba Batra 75a has a story similar to the ones about Rabban Gamliel, only there R. Yochanan was interpreting verses as predicting that the walls, windows, and gates of Jerusalem will be made of precious stones in quantities that seemed unimaginable.

Again, a listener mocks R. Yochanan, but then later sees angels preparing exactly such stones; when he returns from the sea journey on which that happened, he ratifies R. Yochanan’s words, R. Yochanan rejects the support, saying that it’s not belief if you only accept it once you see it.

Maharal’s view is that Jerusalem isn’t a natural city, it’s a Godly one (so the rules of nature don’t apply as they do everywhere else; I note that this isn’t a testable proposition, because the rule could be that Jerusalem only reveals itself to those who believe in it or those who deserve it). If so, in that future time, it will be able to express itself in ways that it couldn’t until now.

Remarkably—since it’s not necessary for his argument—Maharal rejects the simple reading of that story, that the mocking student saw the angels after his ship crashed. Maharal insists that the phrase “he went on a ship’s journey” means he gave great thought to the topic and came to realize R. Yochanan was right about how the world works. Nonetheless, R. Yochanan rebuked him for not accepting his words on faith.

There’s much to be said about that. It would take us too far afield to discuss, but I didn’t want to ignore it, either.

An Elevated Jerusalem

Baba Batra 75b has Rabbah quoting R. Yochanan that Jerusalem will rise three parsa’ot (around three or four miles, depending on how long an amah is). Without getting into the details of what the numbers symbolize, Maharal thinks that will be a function of the city’s holiness. Its residents, who will also be at a higher spiritual level than now, will be less bound by their physicality, such that the city’s elevation won’t present a problem.

So, for Maharal, the blessed future will look different, especially in Jerusalem, which will be higher than it used to be, and made up of materials that were, until then, so rare and precious as to make it almost unbelievable that you could make a city out of them. [If we want to see how some of this is already coming true, think of glass, a material that was very precious in the time of the Gemara, but is widely used today; there are others].

All because we will progress spiritually, according to Maharal.

The Temple and Pushing Nature to Its Extremes

This process of Nature revealing undreamt-of possibilities will show itself most in the future Beit HaMikdash. Netzach Yisrael 52 cites Michah 4;2, that many nations will decide to go up to Hashem’s mountain, to the House of the God of Jacob. Pesachim 88a makes the point that the verse doesn’t call it the House of Avraham, since he spoke of the Temple Mount as the mountain of Hashem, nor Yitzchak who spoke of it as a field, but Ya’akov, who called the site of the future Temple the House of God.

Why does that make a difference? Maharal explains that the Temple is where Hashem connects with the earth (that’s its purpose). Avraham and Yitzchak had their ways of connecting with Hashem—chessed and emet, kindness and truth—Maharal thinks Ya’akov epitomized the quality of rachamim, compassion, which he declares the main and essential way people connect with Hashem. (His reasons would take us too long to go into—way too briefly, rachamim stems from and creates a sense of connection between the compassionate person and the one experiencing the compassion. That also makes the connection created more permanent than either chessed or emet would achieve).

For the nations of the world, Ya’akov’s version of how to connect with Hashem is the one they can most easily included themselves in, which is why they’ll speak of going up to the House of the God of Ya’akov.

Sanhedrin 100a read Yehezkel 47;12 as saying that in the future a river will flow from the Holy of Holies, with all sorts of tasty foods on it. That’s because (Maharal says) the Temple is linked to the secret higher realms, from where all of existence is produced and influenced, so that the shefa, the lifegiving overflow, comes from there, which is what this stream symbolizes (Maharal leaves unclear whether he thinks the Gemara means it as metaphor, or there will be an actual river; the former makes more sense to me, because he’s been stressing how non-material the Messianic era would be. It would be odd if one of the expressions of the great impact of God’s Presence in the world would be something as physical as a river with actual food on it).

I am skipping one more Midrashic discussion he takes up—that Hashem will bring together four mountains to build the Beit HaMikdash. It adds one more piece of evidence for his contention that Jerusalem and the Temple in the Messianic era will be the sources of holiness, completion, and perfection for the world. He then prays for it to come speedily, as we all do.


There’s a bit more to Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael, especially his linking the future redemption to the Exodus, but since next Monday will be Chanukkah, I am going to switch to a discussion of that. Once I’ll have gotten off the topic of the Messianic era, I think I will stick with my new topic, places where Rambam lets non-halachic material impact and shape his view of halachah.

For next week, we will discuss how Rambam’s phrasing of the history of Chanukkah affects his view of the nature of the holiday. In the weeks after, we will take up aggadot—discussions in the Gemara we could have re-read as allegorical or metaphorical–that Rambam incorporates in Mishneh Torah, meaning he took them literally enough to see them ashalachically germane.

As we stop here with our discussion of the days of Mashiach, I close with the hope that seeing Rambam’s view of a world largely like ours, except that people are healthier, live longer, and have the time, space, and material bounty to focus on service of Hashem; Abarbanel’s—Mashiach is an extraordinary figure, with almost otherworldly abilities and the resurrection of the dead brings much of the world to realize how right we were all along; and Maharal’s sense of the world reaching its ultimate perfection, have given us more insight into how tradition views those days, and the times we can anticipate and hope to see more of, speedily and soon.

About Gidon Rothstein

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