Akedat Yitzchak, Beginning the Third Sha’ar

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The first two she’arim of Akedat Yitzchak carved out a greater role for nature than we might have expected from a thinker who makes a principle out of rejecting the ideas of philosophers (which in his time included people we would today call scientists, all those who believe they can fully explain the world solely through the use of their own intellects). We’ve already seen R. Arama say we can only find information about Hashem through study of Torah or by following the ladder of causation in nature; we’ve seen him argue for the plausibility of the view that no angels control natural events, despite his later bowing to tradition and agreeing there are in fact such angels. It’s too early to tell, but he certainly seems to want us to appreciate the importance of the proper understanding of nature in forming our picture of the world.

Without a Regular Pattern to Nature

The third sha’ar supports our intuition, since the one-sentence summary he gives as the topic of the sha’ar says he will show why we cannot have free will unless Providence operates naturally. He points us to Avot 5;1, which says Hashem created the world with ten sayings. It’s not immediately clear what counts as the ten, since the creation story only says va-yomer Elokim, Gd said, nine times.

Once he identifies those ten sayings (he disagrees with Rashi, who thought the tenth was the first word of the Torah, Bereshit), R. Arama intends to show us the way Hashem both guides the world and leaves full room for human free will.

He assumes the Torah makes a goal of guiding people to their maximal success, which can only be based on freely chosen actions. To leave people such freedom, nature must function consistently, says R. Arama [I think he means too obvious a Hand of Hashem makes it impossible for people to rebel; unless disobedience is a real option, people’s good choices do not count for much]. Aside from establishing Hashem’s existence, as we saw in a previous sha’ar, the Torah tells us the Creation story to show us how and why nature was made regular and consistent, looking as if it went along on its own.

In an interesting aside, R. Arama assumes people will actively and enthusiastically seek reasons to deny free will, because it justifies the prohibited behavior which tempts them. [We still see such reasoning today—those tempted to flout Jewish law or prevailing societal standards will sometimes say they have no choice but to be as they are].

We’re Interested in Creation, Not What Hashem Said

Before he takes up his view of the ten sayings and what they mean, he notes and objects to previous explanations of these issues. This is an unusually long sha’ar (as we’ll see, he goes through the entire Creation story, carefully, creatively, and enlighteningly), so I am going to skip all he says about those earlier views.

One comment he makes seems to me continuingly relevant to his analysis. The Mishnah wonders why Hashem made ten pronouncements when the world could have been created with one. R. Arama calls our attention to the Mishnah’s focus on the world, not Hashem; rather than say “when He could have said it with one,” the Mishnah says “when He could have created it with one.”

[He means were the Mishnah trying to figure out why Hashem acted a certain way, from Hashem’s perspective, it should have contrasted Hashem’s choice to use ten sayings with his ability to use one fully effectively. Commentators to Avot read the Mishnah exactly that way, but R. Arama thinks the Mishnah stresses the world could have been created with one to mean the ten sayings are there to make a point about the world, not about Hashem].

A World Which Shows Hashem’s Presence But Does Not Force Recognition of It

He argues the ten sayings were Hashem’s way of elevating the importance of our human choices to support or damage the world [as the Mishnah says]. In his count of ten, the Mishnah adopted the view more explicit in Pirkei De-Rabi Eliezer  and Peskita, the ten sayings start with “yehi or, let there be light” and finish at Va-yechulu (since the word means the creation ended).

He knows Ramban took the first word of the Torah to refer to an act of creation, bringing forth the hiyuli, the fundamental matter of heaven and earth [not our issue, but Ramban was positing a different nature for the heavens and the earth, embedded in the original moment of creation.]

R. Arama has no problem with the idea, but thinks Avot’s ten sayings referred to sayings which led to aspects of the tangible world we experience (not anything as embedded as the basic nature of the world; I have skipped a whole discussion about this hyuli, a word the Greeks used to refer to original matter). In upcoming discussions, he will show ten sayings in the verses in the first chapter of Bereshit, but he also thinks the ten sayings refers to ten aspects to creation, its essence, how much of some item exists, what it’s like, where it is, when, its state, how it combines with other parts of matter, what it acts on and is acted upon, and how it moves (I think; he uses the word heilo, which, as far as I can tell, means its means of locomotion).

The Mishnah’s contrast of ten sayings to maamar echad, one, focused less on the number, says R. Arama, than on the nature of the world created. Were the whole package created at once, there would be no earlier or later parts, and no discernible causality. One saying would produce a world which worked purely by virtue of Hashem’s Will. During the Jews’ time in the desert, for example, food came to them daily, their clothing did not wear out, etc., but nature had been suspended, Hashem ran all those aspects of their lives directly. What Makes Us Human

A world always operated by Hashem’s direct Will (the kind of world created with one saying, without cause and effect) contradicts human free will and therefore the possibility of reward and punishment, both of which R. Arama thought essential to the human project.

A world run by Hashem directly would either have to be a world of happenstance or direct Providence.  [He does not explain, but I think he means a world of cause and effect had to be created step by step; without that, it can all be haphazard or it can all work well, but only because Hashem is directly involved in everything].

A world with no regularity leads people to deny Hashem, since the world would give no evidence of its Creator.  A world of Providence could work in one of two ways, everyone gets treated the same regardless of righteousness or evil, or people are immediately rewarded or punished for their deeds. In the first kind of world, people would again see no reason to serve Hashem [as is true today, even within a world R. Arama has some level of punishment for evil and reward for good; were the world to support everyone, like a universal basic income, there would be less reason for people to see value in acting well].

He points to the desert as such a time, when they received their daily man regardless of their sins, which gives room to think there’s no connection between sustenance and righteousness. [He does not notice the contradiction between this and his earlier use of the time in the desert as completely supernatural, so we’ll leave it.]

On the other hand, if good and evil garnered immediate and full response—good for the righteous, death and starvation for the most evil, with calibrated responses in between—free will would disappear [he may be exaggerating, since people who fully believe still sometimes do what’s wrong, and those who do not believe at all do what’s right, but his overall point seems clear].

Ignoring the Ladder

The “ten sayings,” in other words, are for R. Arama the equivalent of the ladder of causation he spoke about back in the first sha’ar. Hashem made a world which allows for free will while also spreading enough clues to Hashem’s Presence and Providence to guide those who choose to pay attention.

In such a world, Hashem has a threshold for responding to evil (and rewarding good) in this world, so as not to destroy its apparently fully natural workings. Wise people will see the world properly, follow its clues to understand how Hashem runs it, and therefore will act as Hashem wants. People on the other side of the spectrum take their success as proof they are doing what’s right (or productive, anyway), which will stop them from realizing Hashem was waiting, to give them time to repent.

The Mishnah’s idea of iniquity heightened because such people “destroy a world created with ten utterances” means—in R. Arama’s creative reading—Hashem created a world which points them in the right direction, were they only to have paid attention. When they don’t, they have none of the excuses they would have had were the world created with only one utterance, all coming direct from Hashem.

And the reverse for the righteous, who will be rewarded for in fact paying attention to the world. While they, too, know the sun will not stop shining on them if they occasionally sin, they accept the guidance of the ladder of causation, stay away from prohibited pleasures, deny themselves much of what they wanted because their recognition and awe of Hashem puts them on a different path.

These lessons, as well, are part of why the Torah starts with the story of creation rather than the first commandment (as Rashi famously quoted the question of R. Yitzchak). Creation sets up the world for us to handle it well or poorly, depending on the quality of our choices.

We’ll stop here, because R. Arama’s next step is to share his reading of the verses in the Creation story, to show the steps of Creation as he understood them. Next time, which is a few weeks away. Meanwhile, a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.  

About Gidon Rothstein

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