History Which Educates

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Plain Meaning Also Counts

R. Arama tells us he will dedicate the seventh sha’ar to how the stories of the Garden of Eden and its tree and rivers teach about human beings, our essence, powers, abilities, and various actions. Before he takes up the issue, he pauses to awaken us to a truth he says our sleeping intellects might have missed.

People of sophistication, who see the deep truths in the Torah’s ideas, sometimes forget the value of the plain meaning as well. No one would deny clothing exist because they know there’s a more important body underneath, nor does recognition of the soul lead anyone to doubt the body. The same applies to the Torah, where the halachic conclusions should not lead us to ignore or doubt the story which taught us those rules, such as the laws of inheritance which Bamidbar 27 appends to the story of Tzelofchad’s daughters, or the laws of Pesach Sheini Bamidbar 9 tells us, in the context of the people who were ritually impure.

Especially in Bereshit, which is full of stories, important scholars have found and shared some of their deeper. For the example R. Arama uses, Ramban often spoke of ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, events in the Patriarchs’ lives prefigure and predict parallels for their descendants [as I re-read this, I realized psychologists today also believe certain family dramas play out repeatedly over the generations; Ramban meant his idea much more metaphysically and over longer periods of time, but still]. R. Arama worries Ramban’s true idea will lead us to focus too much on the inner, deeper meaning and ignore the lessons of the stories as they occurred. In his view, when Moshe tells the people (Devarim 32; 46) to take to heart (simu levavchem) all the matters he has told them, he was instructing them to focus on the plain sense, too.

The Divinely Two-Tiered Stories of the Torah

Mishlei 25; 11 characterized Proverbs as two-tiered as well, tappuchei zahav be-maskiyot kessef, golden apples in a silver plating. Rambam in the introduction to the Guide said the phrase means the ordinary ethical statements of the book have a deeper implication about the nature of wisdom and how to acquire it. Non-Jewish works, too, have adopted this esoteric and exoteric style, the plain meaning for all, the hidden one for those ready to engage it.

Torah goes them one better, says R. Arama, presents factual historical stories or mitzvot to enact in our ordinary human experience, which yet also have this second meaning. Only Hashem could engineer history [within the parameters of free will as well!] and the structure of a functioning legal system to also tap into the deeper truths of human existence and of world history. [He is contrasting the relative ease of Shlomo Ha-Melech’s two tiers in Mishlei,where goodness at all levels is somewhat parallel anyway, with the Torah’s stories and laws, which manage to cast the lives of the Avot and their families, as well as plain laws of how to live ordinary human lives, to the deepest truths of the universe.  Only Hashem could do that, says R. Arama.]

Making the Esoteric Known

Each generation should theoretically guard the esotericity of the system, revealing only what others before them have. Sukkah 28a praises both R. Yochanan b. Zakkai and R. Eliezer for saying only what they heard from teachers. Unfortunately, people’s weaknesses and failings mean esoteric knowledge cannot always survive in such a manner; without some intervention, we would have lost the esoteric knowledge of Torah, been left with only the simple meanings. Recent generations of scholars have therefore written many books (invoking ‘et la’asot la-Shem, Tehillim 119;126, the traditional source for violating a rule—in this case, as in the Talmud, the one against writing down oral traditions—for an overall gain) to keep the deeper meanings alive.

R. Arama intends to perform such a service for the stories of Bereshit, following the path of Rambam, Guide II;30, who saw creation as also symbolizing issues of matter and form.

The Garden as Microcosm

We often call it the Garden of Eden, but R. Arama reads Bereshit 2;8 more carefully, notices the verse says Hashem planted a garden in Eden. The garden, he thinks, was made able to grow the best produce, which would nourish people to their best health. All its physical aspects fostered insight and wisdom, a truth known to philosophers as well, well-formed physicality helps achieve intellectual perfection [mens sana in corpore sano, as the phrase goes].

In this sense, the Garden reflected the entire world. Hashem filled it with trees and other items which could lead humans, should they pay attention, to understand the broader world as well. The world was called Eden because all life is mit’aden there, takes pleasure (finds its fullest comfort and self-expression, I think he also means).

The garden was not at its physical center, it was the conceptual center, the focus of the world, embodied all its crucial points [had humanity managed to live within the Garden, in other words, they would have had all the same advantages as the world, in much better living conditions].

A bit later in the sha’ar, R. Arama adds what I think was generally accepted in his time, each human being is also a microcosm. Proper husbandry of the Garden would teach how to care for the larger world as well as how to care for oneself and other people [we have lost the assumed correspondence between nature and human beings, other than among radical environmentalists].

The human placed there were supposed to realize the world was created for their needs, and to take sippuko, what he/they needed (but not excess, I think he implies), to bring them to their most perfected lives. The lesson applies to all people in all places, R. Arama says, we’re here to use the world only as a means of support, to partake of it only as necessary, to let the easy fulfillment of our physical needs fuel our greater intellectual achievements.

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge

Once we know the physical pleasures of the garden were supposed to be subordinate to the intellectual achievements which were the real goal, most of the garden, too, was there to give people the physical substrate of their true purpose, expanding their understanding as much as possible. That’s why the Tree of Life—for R. Arama, a tree of intellectual life, wisdom [he will need to explain why Hashem had to ban access once Adam and Chavah eat of the Tree of Knowledge]—was in the middle, for people to remember it was the true goal.

The Tree of Knowledge next to it taught people how to make practical choices, in the real world, about good and bad. In learning to make good choices, people learn about the world, which also teaches them about Hashem (since the creation reflects the Creator).

Devarim 30;15 shows how connected they are, when Moshe says he has placed before the Jews life and good, death and bad, linking them—one can only choose life by choosing good (which the Tree of Knowledge shows).

The Garden also symbolizes the human intellect; just as the Garden was bathed by Hashem’s influence, the intellect gains from such influences as well, to find its way to full truths. Except this idea produces a paradox, in R. Arama’s view: if the Garden reflects the world and people, it seems to be more important than them, since it shows their highest version. On the other hand, if it symbolizes the intellect, the intellect is clearly more important than it.

While R. Arama knows of a debate in Bereshit Rabbah 15 about the issue, he thinks the verses better support the idea of Eden as the ultimate intellect [he’s sort of ruling on an aggadic matter, based on how the verses seem to read to him]. In his reading, Hashem set up an actual Garden, with physical reality, to symbolize to Adam and Chava the journey the intellect should take.

Next time, we’ll see the journey they should have taken and the one they chose instead.

About Gidon Rothstein

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