The Physical Wants to Express Itself

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

At the outset of this series, I pointed out R. Arama does not give equal attention to all parts of the Torah. Of his 105 she’arim, eleven study Parshat Bereshit, and thirty-three look at the book of Bereshit. The sha’ar we embark on this time ends his explanation of the first portion of the Torah, after which we will pause to see what Parshat Bereshit taught him, as far as we were able to summarize it.

Finding the Essentials

After some introductory material, R. Arama points out philosophers attempted to understand the essential aspect of each part of nature. A line differs from a point in having length, a plane adds width, plant life has a soul which seeks nourishment, animals have senses. In each case, he says, the endeavor forces us to establish the defining characteristic of one as opposed to another.

The philosophical consensus saw humans’ essence as speech. Without language, we would be an animal like any other. [These issues have become more complicated over time, since some animals develop languages; wherever we situate the line, I value his idea of articulating defining characteristics, knowing what separates type from type].

The Various Parts of Man

He reminds us of his idea of three parts to a person, called either adam, man, and woman, or adam, woman, serpent [the names subtly reminds us of his view of the external world as both real and metaphor; what actually happened in the Garden also symbolizes what happens within each of us]. He plans to investigate further how the three work together, why they had to be combined, and each one’s perfection, all of which will reveal the wisdom and workmanship of their Creator.

Those who know the proper and preferred role for each of their parts understand better how to maximize their potential, earn their best favor with Hashem, and avoid the many errors and losses which the failure to recognize certain truths brings.

The first part of the human soul/psyche, called woman or serpent, is the physical self which has senses and seeks nourishment. A second easily discerned part can be called ish, man, or woman, which speaks and seeks the colloquial human perfections, wealth, heroism, ordinary wisdom.

The level above ish, called adam, is an extra element of intellectuality, hidden enough for many less educated or wise people to deny it exists (R. Arama calls them ‘amei ha-aretz, which we usually think of as solely dependent on education; he means they do not understand human nature well enough to realize the need for this kind of thinking).

Philosophers who say speech defines humanity leave out this other essential human quality. Aristotle in the Ethics did make clear people need to study and learn as part of their humanity. Man is not defined by speech alone.

Why Our Intellectual Side Suffers Neglect

People cultivate their three sides to different extents because our efforts towards goals, R. Arama says, are conditioned by our desire for them, itself a matter of the rewards we expect. People resonate more instinctively with the expected rewards for acting as urged by their serpent and female sides, which is why they devote attention and effort. They tend to abandon the more purely intellectual, whose benefits are not as obvious.

Kohelet 4;7 speaks of yesh echad ve-ein sheni, there is one and not two, which R. Arama applies to our situation, people leave one of their essential aspects unattended. Kohelet calls the failure hevel, useless or wasted, because a person who focuses on earning money [R. Arama’s choice of example suggests it was a trend of the people of his time] will not see any reward—the person does not really want the money, since our most essential selves care about the purely intellectual. Nor will the person’s heirs appreciate the sacrifice, which is why the verse goes on to bemoan a choice to toil in areas with no lasting value, starving one’s truly human parts.

The Three-fold Chain and Choices of Emphasis

I’ve skipped his reading of the next several verses, but verse twelve speaks of two being better than one, and the three-fold chain not easily or quickly being cut. For R. Arama, the three-fold chain refers to a person who unites his/her three parts, allowing each to function as intended by the Creator.

Our material side is there to serve the intellect (which should be the master or king). Unfortunately, it often rebels, similar to a slave who overthrows a king, rejects authority and restriction, seeks control for control’s sake.

R. Arama also understands Kohelet to have generalized about human beings, some of whom are considered wise only because they recognize the limitations on the value of the physical, know it to be animalistic. Correct as they are, important a step as they have taken, such people do not yet know the highest form. They do have an advantage in that they will pay proper and appropriate attention to ordering human affairs along more than purely physical lines [they’ll set up societies, with laws, and morality, and care for the ill, etc., I believe he means].

They go wrong when they assume they’re done, have fulfilled their highest possible purpose, because they know nothing of the intellectual endeavors for which humans are meant [R. Arama touches a raw nerve; I worry about myself and others that we are self-detrimentally unaware of crucial elements of how we should be living our lives].

In addition, the group he’s described constitutes a small minority compared to the countless (his term) living people who are considered dead, because they follow the physical and animalistic [many Midrashim speak of resha’im, evildoers, as dead during their lifetimes; R. Arama is applying the idea to those too invested in the physical.]

History as Moral Lesson

The rest of the stories in the parsha also cannot only intend their literal meaning, nor would the mere fact of having occurred suffice to include them. For historical purposes, the Torah could have listed the generations from Adam to Noah (as it does at the end of the parsha). The choice to digress into greater detail on some incidents tells us to look for underlying messages in those stories.

[He’s not the first to make the claim, nor is this the first time he’s made it, and yet I think it bears noticing: however it fits with freewill, R. Arama thinks events in human history symbolize themes, patterns, and concerns for humans in general. Psychologists might attribute it to humans’ commonalities, such that archetypal stories feel relevant and illuminating to us all. Even so, unless we think Hashem engineered the courses of their lives, we would have to believe early humans managed to stumble into playing out some of our most fundamental dramas.]

It’s Hard to Admit We’re Not the Ultimate

For R. Arama, Chavah names her first born Kayin (“I have acquired [kaniti, the same root as Kayin] a man of Hashem”) because he was the emblem of physical acquisitions, such as taking/acquiring the pleasures of the Garden.
Hevel the shepherd epitomized social and political excellence. Scripture often uses sheep and flocks as metaphors for nations, especially the Jewish one, which tells R. Arama Hevel was the one who understood human relations, how to set up and run society well, and therefore earned and deserved the leadership role.

Hashem responded to Hevel’s sacrifice and not Kayin’s to teach them the flaw in focusing on Kayin’s path, the physical [I think he means showing any respect or welcome for Kayin’s sacrifice would mislead him and maybe both of them into thinking a purely physically-focused life was a reasonable alternative; to me, it is one of the first plausible answers I’ve heard as to why Hashem chose to ignore Kayin’s sacrifice].

Next time, we’ll see how Kayin reacts, how he does better on his second go-round, and then how humanity deteriorates to the point of the Flood. Not all fun stuff, but it will bring R. Arama’s study of Parshat Bereshit to a close. For now, we’ve had one more example of his concern with putting the physical in its proper place.

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