Eyes on the Prize

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzchack, Mevo Ha-She’arim: Eyes on the Prize

Last time, we saw Akedat Yitzchak’s first introduction. This time, we will see his mevo ha-she’arim, the entryway to the gates. It’s introductory in that he has not yet started Bereshit, but I believe he thought was already part of the work itself. He starts from a claim people today might casually reject, challenging us to consider how sure we are he’s wrong. There’s also a surprise ending to the mavo, which gives us a bit of more personal insight into the man behind the text.

The Goal Pulls Us

As we study Akedat Yitzchak together, I will often skip medieval ideas which are no longer at all part of our worldview, because they would take too much time to explain and are not essential to his point. The mavo gives us an example of an idea I might on other occasions have chosen to ignore: R. Arama tells us setting a goal itself makes it more likely we will achieve it. As stated, it’s an idea we may or may not accept, but can understand without extensive additional explanations.

He however puts it in the philosophical framework of form and matter, where form is the essential version of an item, and matter is the particular shape it takes. R. Arama says once we set a goal, the goal becomes the form of where we want to get, and the path we then take is the actualization, the matter of it. He believes goals have a segulah nifle’ah, a remarkable or wonderful ability, to draw those who set their sights on them.

The simple-minded version of this view, still extant today in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles, sees it as a guarantee; if I set a goal, the goal will draw me to it and I will achieve it. Aside from the evidence of any clear-eyed consideration of life, in which certain goals are not met despite the yearning and sometimes heroic efforts of a person, R. Arama clearly did not mean his idea unequivocally, either, since he sees a hierarchy– the better (more important) the goal, the better the chance it will be accomplished. Once we know some goals will not be strong enough to bring their strivers to fruition, we realize he’s talking about a tendency. Goals “want” to be actualized; they pull a person in the direction of success, but no promises.

The Goals of Heaven

Chazal gave us good advice in Avot 2;12where R. Yose said, kol ma’asecha yihyu le-shem Shamayim, all your actions should be for the sake of Heaven. Most of us probably read the Mishnah as a way to improve ourselves, as guidance on how to make good life choices. R. Arama thinks R. Yose alerts us to how to put ourselves on the most likely road to accomplishing what we set out to do.

Roads often have barriers, detours, and stumbling blocks. For R. Arama, R. Yose was telling us the roads with the fewest barriers are the ones traveled by those acting for the sake of Heaven. R. Arama readsYeshayahu 40; 31, ve-koye Hashem yachalifu koach, those who hope for Hashem (or wait for Hashem) will renew their strength, in a similar way, such people will have greater ability to overcome whichever barriers arise.

For R. Arama, David was telling Golyat the same idea (I won’t usually give so many of R. Arama’s supporting texts, but these seemed to me well-known enough for his slightly different reading to be accessible and interesting). In I Shmuel 17;45, David belittles Golyat, who plans to battle with a sword, spear, and javelin, whereas he comes in the Name of Hashem. [The verse resonates with me because my teacher and master, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, cited it once to express his feelings about areas of Jewish studies which treat Torah inappropriately; since I spent some time in academic Jewish studies, the comparison stuck in my mind].

To R. Arama, David was telling Golyat he was backing the wrong horse. He was relying on his excellence in martial arts, in which he was proficient enough to strike fear in the rest of the Jews, and his goal was fame and praise. David’s advantage came from his better goal, to sanctify Hashem’s Name, to show the assemblage the power and benefits of adherence to Hashem.

Tehillim 20 (which we recite on most days in the morning liturgy) refers to eileh ba-rechev ve-eleh ba-susim, va-anachnu be-Shem Hashem nazkir, those who oppose us rely on their horses and chariots, where we rely on Hashem. In R. Arama’s view, the last verse of the psalm, Hashem hoshi’ah, ha-melech ya’aneinu, often translated as a request—Hashem, save us, O King, answer us!—is a prediction, Hashem will save us, since we rely on Him, make the sanctification of His Name our goal.

Psalm 27, which we started reciting twice daily with Rosh Chodesh Elul, articulates the theme as well. David says Hashem is his light and salvation, leaves him (and us) with no worry when enemies encamp, because we trust our goal of being Hashem’s people will protect us, give us victory.

[R. Arama cannot have meant his claim as absolutely as he makes it, since Tanach is full of examples of people who had the same goals as David’s and were unsure of success. By the end of this introduction, we’ll see he was making a personal point which easily could have led him to exaggerate the extent to which goals ensure success. I do believe he thought setting better goals greatly improved one’s odds, but I doubt he thought it was as ironclad as he sounds here. I’m not even sure David was as certain as he sounds, or, if he was, that he somehow knew he was special, perhaps because Shmuel had anointed him, and he had already beaten a lion and a bear, telling him that in combat, at least, he had Hashem’s support].

The Structure of Prayer

Chazal told us to start our prayers with the praise of Hashem, Berachot 32a, both with pesukei de-zimra, the verses and psalms we say between Baruch She-Amar and Yishtabach, as well as the first paragraphs of the ‘Amidah. Only then do we register our requests, ask Hashem for what’s pressing on our minds.  

I have heard convincing suggestions for this order before. Some have said Chazal thought it would be inappropriate to rush in and begin asking without any kind of introduction or rapport-building, as it were. Or the praise might be there to remind us of Whom we are about to address, to instill the proper koved rosh, sobriety and respect.

R. Arama takes the second option, with a slight twist. He thinks the praise guides us to make the best kinds of requests. For one of his examples, when we say Hashem is nora, which he reads as meaning Hashem governs the world, metes out what each person deserves [R. Arama does not mean here to start a conversation about how Hashem’s justice does or doesn’t appear correct to us; he means we should remind ourselves of the fact of Hashem’s justice, whether or not we understand all its workings].

Keeping Hashem’s justice in mind would make us want to be more righteous, because we’d remember we’re being judged and treated accordingly. R. Arama adds it’s there for us to remember to ask only for that which stems from our righteous sides, because we know we’re being judged all the time.

Later in the Psalm we recite all Elul through Sukkot, Tehillim 27;9 (al taster Panecha mimeni, do not hide Your face from me) David asks for help to see Hashem properly, to not be led astray by others’ false claims. Just as Hashem told Shmuel people see the surface (when Shmuel thought to anoint David’s good-looking older brother as king), David now wants to be sure he thinks properly about Hashem (as should we, so we reach for the best outcomes in our prayers).

When David asks Hashem not to give him in the hands of tzarai, foes, verse twelve, R. Arama thinks he means mofetim enoshiyim, the ways people tend to understand the world. Despite being clear and obvious to people, such thoughts are often foes, lead us away from where we need to be going. The dangers of overreliance on our intellects will be a theme of the work, since R. Arama thinks Torah, mitzvot, and Chazal show us the true ways to act, many of which are not intuitive or obvious.

Goals and the Book He’s Writing

As I will do throughout out time with Akedat Yitzchak, I am skipping much of his exposition of Tehillim 27 and more besides. He eventually comes to the last verse of the psalm, where David calls on us to hope for Hashem, because putting one’s intent and diligent effort towards reaching Hashem’s purposes gives the best chance to get there.

Then comes the surprise. We might have read this all as an interesting exposition of his view of effort and success. Now he tells us he’s put this here because he wants us to know he has adopted exactly such goals in writing Akedat Yitzchak. His goal is to focus on Hashem, to speak of Hashem often [he reminds me of the Rashi about Yosef, who was identified as having Hashem with him because of how often he spoke of Hashem].

For other Jewish writers, temptations are primarily physical, the lures of our appetites. R. Arama is equally concerned about the draw of attractive ideas which lead away from Hashem and proper faith, which is why he is so firm about his goal.

Devarim 30;11 says Torah and mitzvot are not distant from us, not hard to acquire. R. Arama thinks the verse means Torah is not distant when we make our intention to find the truth of Torah broadly known. Once we decide we want to keep the Torah and speak often about our decision and desire, we will find it close to us (as the verse promises), easy to achieve.  As he opens the gates to his work, his way of showing us how to think of and approach the world with proper connection to Hashem, he hopes Hashem will make the Torah close to him as well.

Let me close by making clear this is my goal as well. I have taken up Akedat Yitzchak, a work which forces me to make hard choices about what to include (a task I undertake with some trepidation, some fear I will have treated it disrespectfully), in the hopes we will be able to learn from R. Arama about the best ways to serve Hashem, to make Hashem’s goals our own, and to find the maximal success in our lives.

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