by R. Gidon Rothstein
‘Akedat Yitzchak, Finishing the Sixth Sha’ar
We interrupted our usual studies to look at Chanukkah in ‘Akedat Yitzchak last week. We were in the middle of sixth sha’ar. R. Arama was looking into the nature of the human soul, which sets people apart from the animals. The better we understand the human soul, the more we will know about how to achieve its perfection.
We have already seen his idea of long term thinking as a key component of what makes us human. Now he will discuss how people should use the ability.
An Ability Which Develops, Maybe to Prophecy
We all have the ability to make long term choices, although to different extents and along a different range of issues. The starting point matters less to R. Arama than how we handle it, because practice helps, says R. Arama. A person who follows the dictates of his/her intellect (by looking to the long term rather than the immediate temptation), who repeatedly chooses what is proper, develops his/her character and intellect by making use of his/her free will, sets his/her sights on insight into the nature of the world (unfailingly, with no laziness, says R. Arama), will improve.
He sees the process as self-sustaining, the person who starts on this path will want to progress further, will find him/herself renewed and fortified with additional spiritual elements (which, for R. Arama, mean intellectual ones as well). S/he will be sent powers or abilities from on high, what Yeshayahu 57;16 refers to as a ruach milefanai, a spirit from before Me (Hashem).
R. Arama tells us not to be surprised at or doubt the possibility of such change; it’s no harder for Hashem to recreate a person than to create the world in six days. [He seems to me to be fudging a little, since he had said Hashem chose not to create after those six days, to let the world unfold largely on its own; I think he means Hashem embedded the option of such self-recreation in human nature, which makes it no less likely than the original creation. Once Hashem can create, Hashem can create].
He says Hashem gave this power mostly (or solely, depending on how strictly we want to read his words) to the Jewish people, through the actions prescribed by the Torah. To achieve this infusion of divine spirit, R. Arama thinks a person must avoid all laziness and the lures of the pleasures of this world, whose value is illusory and fleeting anyway. From there, the person will find him/herself with a desire to understand the deep secrets of the universe, to come closer to comprehension of Hashem.
Such continuing effort brings yet another infusion of spirit from Hashem, of a much greater magnitude, taking him/her to the level of prophecy, the ability to perform signs and wonders. (I generally write him/her to be sure not to exclude women; I therefore note that R. Arama here himself makes the point, goes out of his way to say women, too, can reach prophecy, although he thinks it less likely because of their weaker nature. But the underlying gender equality of prophecy, in theory, is explicitly there for him.)
The Goal of Humanity
R. Arama says only Jews can reach these levels, what the Torah means in Shemot 33; 16, ve-niflinu ani ve-‘amecha, I and your nation will be distinguished from all others. When Chazal speak of the world being created for a specific individual (as in Berachot 6b, a source R. Arama referenced back in the third sha’ar), they mean someone who has reached this level. Such people’s connection to Hashem and Hashem’s purposes for the world, prophets and sages of Talmudic times, mean they can control nature.
R. Arama thinks Rambam shares his view of our human need to develop our intellects and our tendency to make good long-term choices, because Guide I;70 says people are not born with their immortal soul. We are born with potential, in Rambam’s view, which we actualize during our lives.
I am skipping his summary of how kabbalists see the issue slightly differently, for space reasons and because it does not seem to me different enough to be worth a deeper dive. He does remind us people with such ruach ha-kodesh, sanctified spirit, also gain the ability to see the future, as when Par’oh speaks of Yosef as having ruach Elokim speaking in him because of how well he read the dream’s predictions.
From ruach ha-kodesh to prophecy is not a simple move, and might only happen if needed. Sukkah 28a says Hillel had thirty students who had earned visitation of the Divine Spirit on the level of Moshe, but the generation was not worthy [there must be some hyperbole here, since the Torah itself said no prophet would ever be of the level of Moshe; R. Arama is more focused on the second half of the comment, the generation’s worthiness being a factor in the students becoming prophets at all].
The Torah is What Separates the Jews
His view of our need to work on ourselves, with Torah as the indispensable guide, is echoed in our morning liturgy. Soon after birchot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, we say a prayer which starts le-‘olam yehei adam, a person should always, etc. R. Arama points to a section where we question our value, starting with the words mah anu, mah chayyenu, what are we, what are our lives. Such a negative view refers to humans as born, all potential but no meaningful claim [as constituted then] to purpose or worth. Babies are little different than animals; people who do not develop beyond that might go the same place after we pass away (as Kohelet 3;19 worried, a verse he’s cited before).
Jews’ good fortune lies in the Torah, a gift our Patriarchs earned for us by their lifelong efforts to become close to Hashem. With a path to success, the least of the Jewish people are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is of seeds, as Chagigah 27a says. It’s whySanhedrin 90a can say all Jews have a share in the World to Come.
These last two sources remind us—R. Arama now says—Hashem does not obligate or expect people to reach the level of prophecy. On the other hand, as we realize the importance of good choices, we are forced to remember the consequences of bad choices, beyond whatever punishment they may bring. Choosing well ennobles us, actualizes our potential and purifies our original soul; going the other way does the opposite. Chazal say Ya’akov Avinu did not die, which R. Arama attributes to how he developed himself, leaving the rest of us to become more or less like Ya’akov, closer or further from eternal life.
The Soul Takes Us to Eternal Life
He now returns to the Talmudic passage with which he opened, Berachot 10a, where R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shim’on b. Yochai says Mishlei 31;26’s piha patecha be-chochmah, she opens her mouth with wisdom, was a way Shlomo referred to his father, David, who said he had praised Hashem in each of five different worlds, in Tehillim 103.
By “five worlds,” he means his mother’s womb, when he was born and saw the stars, when he was nursing, when he saw the downfall of evildoers, and when he confronted the reality of death. R. Arama reads those five to reflect the ideas we’ve seen already, and I will refrain from taking up your time with showing how he does it.
I instead use our remaining space to be sure we walk away from this sha’ar with the points he wanted to emphasize: we humans, especially those of us who are aware of the great guidance of the Torah, can rise to great heights. To do so, we must make good long-term choices, stay away from what binds us to the fleeting or inconsequential, choose always that which will take us closer to understanding Hashem and the world Hashem created.
If we do, we will change our very souls, convert our potential into what Hashem hoped, and become part of the purpose of the world. Or not, and become the opposite.