R. Arama Finishes Parshat Bereshit

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

We ended last time with R. Arama’s idea Hashem turned towards Hevel’s sacrifice and ignored Kayin’s to make a point about avoiding overemphasis on the physical.

Kayin’s annoyance at the lesson shows why it was necessary. R. Arama thinks Kayin resented both the idea he could not indulge his desires at will as well as Hashem’s apparently giving his younger brother leadership and/or control over him. Hashem advised Kayin to make his peace with reality, accept who he was and where he could play a positive role; if he did, he could work hand in hand with his brother to achieve a happy outcome [I have often thought the same was true of Esav, who might have been able to participate in the Abrahamic people—which would not have been called Benei Yisrael had he joined—except he could not tolerate secondary status. It’s a challenge to many of us, to live with the possibility we will not be captains of the ship.]

Should Kayin reject the proposed path, Hashem says la-petach chatat roveitz, often translated as sin crouches at the door. R. Arama reads Hashem as telling Kayin he, Kayin, will be the sin which crouches, if he insists on striving for control or leadership, he will cause sins, will take himself and Hevel to destruction.

With the symbolism of Kayin as physical, the incident also teaches R. Arama excess focus on the physical goes beyond the physical damage, can overwhelm our concerns with morality and social welfare, bringing everyone down. The blame will rest on Kayin and his successors, those who turned us all towards the physical and refused to see its proper limitations.

The Verses Make the Same Points

After Hevel’s murder, R. Arama reads Hashem’s asking after Hevel as reminding Kayin his brother was supposed to guide him through life [another idea many today reject, that we many of us need leaders to follow, are not qualified to make some of our own decisions without guidance]. Hevel’s absence leaves Kayin a shepherdless flock.

For R. Arama, Kayin’s famous “am I my brother’s keeper?” protests his role, Kayin objecting to the job of watching and serving Hevel. He wants to live his own life.

Hashem’s response, Hevel’s blood cries out from the ground, goes beyond the problem with this one murder, expresses the certainty removing a Hevel from society will lead to a lack of justice broadly. The Hevels among us, who give the proper weight to the physical, make sure society runs morally and well; his murder will lead to others, and the collective cry of all the inevitable injustices has reached the heavens.

Kayin’s punishment is more like a natural consequence, for R. Arama. Destroying justice makes society unworkable, leaves Kayin no place to settle, because he cannot build a lasting society. He must wander, which also means he cannot farm, his source of livelihood. In killing Hevel, he killed himself, just more slowly.

Kayin Absorbs the Lesson

R. Arama is not the first to read Kayin’s reaction—gadol ‘avoni mi-neso, is my sin too great to bear—as contrite, meekly pointing out the punishment will spread beyond the bounds Hashem put on it. Exile also means no framework for social justice, dooming Kayin and his descendants to lawlessness, killing each other when need or mood arises.

R. Arama counts Kayin’s ability to see the bankruptcy of his world in the absence of a Hevel as repentance, and thinks the story here shows human beings’ ability to get back on track after recognizing and accepting sin. Hashem warns anyone who would murder Kayin of the consequences, and makes a sign of it—not only a literal sign, but a general idea prevalent among human beings that to act as Kayin is self-defeating and ultimately self-destructive [a lesson R. Arama seems to think people then learned, but which many examples of lawlessness in the world today would seem to contradict].

Before we move on, I pause to admire how well R. Arama’s symbolic reading of what he yet considers an historical event hangs together. If we accept his symbolism for Kayin and Hevel, the brothers’ rivalry and tragedy reflects well a continuing tension in all human societies, how to give the physical its proper place without letting it run amok, and the dangers of a society too enmeshed in physical pleasure.

Descent to Flood, Step One: Mistreating Wives

For R. Arama, the end of the parsha offers insight into the decline of humanity, the moral turpitude which led Hashem to bring the Flood. We do not have space for all the textual readings he offers; one interesting one starts with a Midrash where R. Azariah in the name of R. Yehudah bar Simon [the name has a samech in the original; it’s not an Anglicized version of Shim’on, it’s the nameSimon] claims the men of the generation of the Flood would marry two wives, one for procreation and one for sexual pleasure. The Midrash objects to the mistreatment of the procreative wife, whom the man would isolate and ignore other than when he needed to impregnate her.

The idea fits R. Arama’s model of two names for the first woman, isha (as Adam called her when he first saw her), a companion to man on his terms, intellectually and more, and Chavah, mother of all beings. The Midrash is saying the generation of the Flood decided to separate the two functions of women, to take pure enjoyment from one and pure procreation from another [which is wrong and corrupt, I’m pretty sure he means, because Hashem intended all women to operate in both terms; it’s unfair to deny the procreating wife the expression of her ishah side. It’s probably also wrong to help the other wife voluntarily refrain from her mothering side, which might be why R. Arama mentions she would drink a kind of contraceptive, to show us how wrong she went.

This passage in R. Arama also provides interesting counterbalance to other passages we’ve seen and/or skipped, where he adopted a view of womanhood we today would consider overly paternalistic, or relegating a woman to too subordinate a role. Regardless of how he conceived women’s roles, he did think they had the right to their full self-expression, could not be turned into tools for men’s plasures.]

Descent to Flood, Step Two: The Animalism of the Masses

Early on in human history, such as Kayin’s excessive indulging of his animalistic side, Hashem treated him as Tehillim 78;39 says He would later treat the generation of the Exodus, remembering they are flesh (too weak to hold to full account).

As later generations wrapped themselves further in the physical and animalistic, the argument wore thin, showing Hashem change was needed. However, as Bereshit 6;3 tells us, Hashem decided to wait 120 years. The text does not tell us why Hashem chose the time frame, and R. Arama thinks it was to let the line of Adam die out (other than Noach). These direct descendants had not deteriorated enough in their conduct to deserve to be in the Flood, so Hashem waited them out (Metushelach died a week before the Flood); on the other hand, they were not righteous enough to serve as a Noach, to build and live in an Ark and then repopulate the world.

He finds textual support for his idea Hashem waited out Adam’s line in a subtle difference between the synopsis of the people from Adam to Noach at the end of Parshat Bereshit and a similar set of lineages, Noach to Avraham, in Parshat Noach.

In the first list, the Torah tells us how long each person lived and then says va-yamot, he died. The second list only says how long, and that he sired sons and daughters. We infer death from the completion of his years of life, but the verse makes no point of it.

For R. Arama, the Torah tells us they died in the first genealogy to make clear they died of their own accord, not as part of the Flood. (He does throw in Sanhedrin 108b, the 120 years was to give them time to repent; it feels to me like a throwaway, subsidiary to the previous answer).

The Last Straw

Aristotle already differentiated a sin of action which reflects little or nothing about the person, such as a momentary succumbing to temptation, from a sin which reflects problematic values or intellectual commitments. Bereshit 6;5 says Hashem saw man was evil as were yetzer machshevot libo, the inclinations of his heart’s thoughts.

To R. Arama, the Torah was telling us the people were deficient in both ways Aristotle discussed. The second lack was the fatal one, their evil actions were consistent with who they were, and was why Hashem’s decided to wipe them out and start over.

Verse six describes Hashem’s reactions in terms a medieval philosopher could not accept as literal, Hashem regretting having created humans and being sad to his heart. He first reminds us of how Kiddushin 17b avoids any such problems, dibberah Torah ke-lashon benei adam, the Torah adopts human language and idioms. Hashem does not have emotions or regrets, the Torah expresses it that way to help us understand it.

R. Arama also reads the verb the Torah uses, mitnachem, in a way which minimizes the philosophical problems. He thinks it means to realize circumstances call for a different action than first contemplated, without implying any change of position or goals. Hashem was mitnachem his original plan to continue the world with these people because of the actions they took; there had been no change to the divine interest in building a world with human beings in it.

The sadness in the verse means a removal of shefa, the divine influence which keeps the world going at all times, without which the world and all life would stop instantly. In reverse, Tehillim 104; 31 says yismach Hashem be-ma’asav, which R. Arama reads to mean Hashem will continue to provide the supporting influence for all creation (rather than “will be happy with,” as a literalist might take it).

And that’s it—the end of the first version of the grand project of Creation was to realize the people created had misused it to the point where the best strategy was to flood it out and start over, as we’ll begin to discuss the time after next. In closing, R. Arama thanks Hashem for having been allowed to write his thoughts on this important portion, and recognizes the first eleven she’arim could be a book of their own. To make sure we’ve understood his book within a book, I will pause next time to share what seem to me the main points R. Arama has emphasized in these eleven she’arim.

About Gidon Rothstein

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