Moshe Put the World in its Place, as Did the Flood

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

It turns out Pesach is coming, so I am going to skip ahead to a sha’ar of R. Arama’s from early in Shemot, about freewill and whether Hashem withdraws it as a punishment. I hope to have the first installment next week, but might have to take a week off.

Moshe Put the World in its Place, as Did the Flood

Last time, we saw R. Arama discuss the attempts of other Jewish thinkers to rationalize certain miracles, partially because they could not accept later prophets would outdo Moshe Rabbenu. We already reviewd one of R. Arama’s replies, miracles do not show the greatness of a prophet. Now, R. Arama offers ways Moshe was greater within the realm of miracles, even if we take later miracles at face value.

Two Ways Moshe Beats Other Prophets

One unmatchable feat was his role at Sinai, an event R. Arama thinks outweighs any other miracles in it abrogation of Nature. On those grounds alone, Moshe stands as the greatest prophet ever in terms of miracles, aside from having been the messenger who brought Hashem’s Torah from heaven.

Too, all later prophets built off Moshe’s model, which gives him a share of all they do. Hashem says as much when He promises Moshe (Shemot 34;10) to perform wonders never seen before; R. Arama thinks Hashem means to refer to miracles Yehoshu’a will call down on the way into Israel– splitting the Jordan, toppling the walls of Jericho, raining down large stones (and stopping the sun) during the battle of Giv’on.

Moshe did not catalyze such remarkable occurrences [other than the splitting of the Jordan], yet the never-before-seen wonders are ascribed to him, because his disciple served as his messenger. Yehoshu’a 11;15 says as much, says Yehoshu’a fulfilled all Hashem had said to Moshe (about the conquest of the land), all Moshe had said to him.

In R. Arama’s view, Yehoshu’a was completing his teacher’s mission, rounding out what had been denied Moshe because of the sin of the rock. He bases himself on Moshe’s prayer at the beginning of Parshat VaEtchanan, where he pleads to go into Israel, R. Arama thinks to be able to be the agent of Hashem’s promise of signs and wonders.

Hashem tells Moshe in reply, Devarim 3;28, to command and encourage Yehoshu’a, who will take them into the land, perform the miracles, as an extension of his teacher.
Hashem had previously told Moshe (Bamidbar 26;20) to place some of his hod, glory, on Yehoshu’a to link them to each other; from then, Yehoshu’a could function as a sort of avatar of his teacher, where necessary.

Rashi also saw Yehoshu’a as an extension of Moshe. In Devarim 31;29, Moshe says he knows the Jews will stray from Hashem after he dies, yet Yehoshu’a 24;31 says the Jews served Hashem all the days of Yehoshu’a. Rashi says the verses show a man’s student is as dear as his own self (Moshe did not die until Yehoshu’a did).

Further Problems with Their Claims

The rationalizers make two more mistaken assumptions when they think later prophets’ miracles exceed Moshe’s. First, miracles which affect heavenly bodies are not necessarily greater than ones which take place wholly on earth. In fact, the opposite might be true, in that a miracle on earth has to interrupt processes already underway, where a miracle in heaven prevents it from starting. One can more easily stop the flow of water to a mill than stop the turning of the mill itself, more easily kill lions than stop live lions from eating Daniel, says R. Arama.

Finally, the whole issue started with a misreading of the verse about Moshe’s greatness. R. Arama thinks the Torah meant no later prophet matched Moshe in the signs brought as proof of status as Hashem’s messenger. Regardless of what wonders later prophets did, none of them so fully demonstrated their connection to Hashem, their speaking with Hashem face to face, as it were, their being, always and at each moment, solely the mouthpiece of Hashem’s Will. Quality or wonder of miracles aside, Moshe was the most well-established prophet ever.

Growing Pains of the World

Moving back to the Flood—which he no longer has to worry we’ll be tempted to rationalize—he thinks it shows creation, too, because it speaks of a young world. R. Arama reads Sanhedrin 97a’s idea of the world as lasting seven thousand years to see each thousand years as parallel to a decade of human life. The first thousand and a half, the years up until the Flood, would be like childhood, when the moral sense is not developed.

For another example, after the Flood, when Noach offers a sacrifice, Hashem says man’s inclinations are evil mi-ne’urav, from his teenagehood, which tells R. Arama the Flood (and the Tower of Bavel) were examples of human adolescence, going wrong and needing correction and education. Child-rearing (through adolescence, R. Arama implies) involves teaching the child not to act in certain ways, similar to pruning a tree, cutting back branches to help it grow better and stronger.

The idea makes sense only in a created world; in an eternal world, there’s no obvious reason for the Flood’s timing. In an eternal world, everything happens in cycles (as Kohelet 1;9 says, what has been is what will be), so we should have seen floods before. [This last claim is less convincing in our times, because most of us proabably believe the scientific evidence of other cataclysms, making the flood less singular or unique. I don’t mean to doubt the flood occurred or was miraculous, only to point out this one piece of R. Arama’s argument might not have stood the test of time. Orthodox Jews will link those earlier destructions to the Midrashic idea of Hashem creating worlds and destroying them, which is fine, but still undercuts R. Arama’s celebration of the Flood’s uniqueness.]

The Flood Shows Hashem’s Reluctance to Punish

Telling the story of the Flood illuminates some of the workings of Hashem’s Providence, in a way which answers a complaint of his time, why doesn’t Hashem immediately destroy evildoer? Their struggle with the question had led some people he knew to deny the whole idea.

He says they forget Hashem created the world; similar to parents, Hashem recoils from hurting the work of His hands, such as the mother whom Shlomo ferreted out by proposing sawing a baby in half.  The four-letter Name speaks of compassion, R. Arama says, because Hashem holds out hope for the repentance of the evildoer, and/or to avoid harming righteous people along with the evil ones. Avraham correctly made this point when pleading for Sodom, and Hashem made it to Yonah when he reprimanded him for his harshness towards Nineveh.

Righteous people might protect a generation, Hashem might refrain from punishing those who deserve it until all innocents can be protected, or Hashem might hold back because those sinners actively protect others, all ways of Hashem’s compassion.

Imperviousness to Reproach and Social Wrongs Take Them Down

The generation of the Flood doomed themselves by ignoring the hundred and twenty years during which Noach built the ark, especially the last year, when he gathered all the species of animals and their needs. The preparations themselves should have moved people to reconsider their actions, besides Noach’s calls for them to change [an idea he takes for granted, although I’ve heard many others blame Noach for failing to try to convince others to change]. Their refusal to take heed was too much.

Hashem might still have given them more time but for the chamas, the robbery and theft, which ran rampant. Bereshit 6;11 says the land became perverted, which R. Arama takes to mean people acted in ways abhorrent to Hashem, and also filled with chamas. Verse thirteen, however, ties the coming destruction only to the chamas, telling us how much Hashem resisted destroying people. Were they only evil towards Hashem, they’d have had more time to fix their ways.

The Flood thus shows Hashem’s having created the world, Hashem’s involvement with it, and how Hashem punishes wrongdoing (and rewards good deeds), which keeps people from turning to hefker, to thinking there is no rhyme or reason for the world.

The rest of the sha’ar offers solutions to problems in the story of the Flood itself, such as 7;24’s reference to the water prevailing for one hundred and fifty days, in seeming contradiction to earlier verses which said it rained for only forty, and the tops of the mountains seemed to have shown already. R. Arama thinks all are true, the floodwaters remained strong enough to kill any life for a hundred and fifty days, long after the rain had stopped and even as the tops of mountains were showing themselves.

He has a few more such ideas, but we have seen his main points, the Flood as a way of disciplining a young world (and humanity), reminding them (and us) of Hashem’s having created the world, retaining control over what happens in it, able to upend what we think of as immutable nature, as part of meting out reward and punishment.

All to remind us to act as Hashem wants, to not dupe ourselves into thinking anything goes.

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