by R. Gidon Rothstein
R. Yitzchak Arama’s Parashat Bereshit (week of 20 Adar Aleph): Balance in the Intellectualism with Which Humans Build Gd’s World
Parshat Bereshit takes up more than a tenth of ‘Akedat Yitzchak. We already paused once in his exposition, after the four she’arim which gave his view of the seven days of Creation. I will briefly summarize what we said then, and then see what the next seven she’arim added.
He thought the causality of nature points us unavoidably to Hashem’s existence and continued involvement in sustaining the world. The Torah shows us creation in the stages in which it unfolded, the creation of light meaning also the creation of the angels, who would play a role in running the world from then on.
During the rest of the six days, Hashem put the building blocks in place, the necessary materials for a continuing world. The seventh day, when Hashem “rested,” meant He stepped back, leaving the angels to (mostly) run it according to regular patterns, where life unfolds and develops in ways we experience as natural. People are a bridge between the purely physical and metaphysical, are supposed to foster the world’s growth and improvement, within the parameters Hashem wanted.
By assigning them this role, R. Arama takes an explicit position on a longstanding philosophical question, how much people matter to and in the world. He thinks verses point clearly to human beings’ centrality to the endeavor, and spends much of these she’arim trying to understand how they can best fulfill their purpose.
Intellect and Soul
R. Arama repeatedly stresses the importance of people’s intellects, the element of the soul which he understands to be what separates them from animals. In his view, the ability to weigh the long term against the short captures the essential power of our intellectual soul, is what we have to contribute to the world. [For the week of Chanukkah, I digressed to see how he wrote about the holiday; there too, R. Arama focused on the intellect’s ability to find Hashem. The eight days of the holiday were a time to put our intellectual realizations about Hashem into action, to commemorate what the Hashmonaim had done back then.]
Consistent adherence to good long-term choices develops character and intellect. It also builds on itself, to take the person to new spiritual heights, to earn infusions of the divine spirit, leading some people all the way to prophecy [this continues the idea of unfolding and development R. Arama had seen in the original six days of Creation.]
The people who make proper long-term choices, develop their intellects, do a favor for the world at large, since R. Arama understands the Talmud to say such individuals can justify the continuation of all of existence.
Balancing Our Desires and the Tree of Knowledge
R. Arama’s interest in choices shapes his view of what happened with the Tree of Knowledge. First, we should remember he reads the stories of Bereshit as true historical experiences as well as accurate symbolisms of the human condition. For example, the four rivers which flowed out of Eden, in his view, symbolized money, all other bodily needs, the intellect, and ordinary morality.
The Torah portrays indulging in ordinary mortality as eating of the Tree of Knowledge. R. Arama innovatively never prohibited tasting of the Tree, thought people were always allowed to be somewhat involved in questions of ordinary morality. Their partaking of the Tree had to be restrained, however, lest it overwhelm their more important endeavors, learning as much about Hashem as they could from the world and from human nature.
Chavah had not been able to learn the balance, had thought it better to stay away from questions of good and evil completely (which R. Arama translated into avoiding philosophy totally). When the serpent showed her philosophy had necessary lessons to teach and learn, she and Adam went the other way, eating of the Tree, making it the focus of all their efforts.
Loss of Balance and the Road to Burdens
R. Arama lobbies for a similar focus on proportionality when he discusses the three parts of the human being, which he calls alternately the serpent, woman, and man, or the woman, man, and higher man. Terms aside, R. Arama thinks people are made up of an imagination which hankers after pleasures, good and bad, a physical side, and an intellectual side.
Each have their role, if they’re willing to accept it (as Kayin, unfortunately, was not). The physical needs to control and reign in the imagination, is in turn to be controlled and reined in by the intellect.
With the correct balance, people can reach great heights, can infuse the world with Hashem’s spirit, can become conduits for bringing existence to its fruition.
The Different Kinds of Human Knowledge
To make the best strides towards such a world, however, we must account for the subdivisions within our intellects as well, must realize not all of what passes for intellectual activity expresses humanity’s noblest sides. The naming talent Adam demonstrates—which is how Hashem shows the angels humans have more knowledge—becomes, for R. Arama, a sort of parlor trick, a function of our sensory abilities, which allows us to name a common characteristic among examples of a species.
Such knowledge does not necessarily have great value, nor do many of the professions we might need for our physical survival. R. Arama gives the example of knowing how to plow a straight furrow in a field; it’s vital for growing food, no more.
We would be wrong to ignore our physical or imaginative sides, he is clear. However, we are more likely to do the opposite, indulge that side of ourselves excessively, since the rewards are more immediate and more immediately pleasurable. Because Hashem recognizes the temptation, He delayed punishing the generations before the Flood—and, later, responded less harshly to the sins of the generation of the Exodus than justice would have allowed—because humans are drawn to immediate pleasures, have a hard time foregoing the immediate for the long-term.
It All Has to be Part of the Picture
R. Arama best expresses his insistence on a multi-faceted tapestry of human life in his distaste for the two wives’ system of the men of the generation of the Flood. They would marry one for pleasure (physical and intellectual), another for procreation. Bothered by the injustice to the procreative wife, who was neglected other than when needed for childbearing, he seems equally put off by the fundamental error of the men: a woman is not either an intellectual/physical partner or a mother, she is and should be both.
As should men be all of what they are, imaginative, physical, moral, and more abstractly intellectual, seeking understanding of Hashem and Hashem’s world. All in their right measure, as evaluated through the lens of an intellect taking a good long-term look at one’s best courses of action.
Examples of which we will see in the coming parashiyot, as humans make choices good and bad, and receive Hashem’s continuing guidance on how to develop further, their basic purpose and goal.