by R. Gidon Rothstein
Finishing the Fifteenth Sha’ar
Last time, we saw R. Arama argue Hashem created a Nature which can react to more than the purely physical, with people playing a role in which tract Nature follows, the ordinary or the spiritually sensitive.
Bereshit Rabbah 8 reads the point into what Hashem tells Noach after the Flood. Hashem’s promise of control over the animals depends on fostering our tzelem Elokim; the destroyed generation had failed to do so, leading Nature to fail to maintain its stability, which is why it rose up and destroyed humanity and the world which ordinarily serves it.[A less restrained person than myself might use this excuse to make comments about global warming… I will notice R. Arama implies the Flood to some extent happened naturally, did not involve or require a special intervention from Hashem. But he does not pursue the point.]
Only Noach, who had conducted himself well, continued to be served by Nature, which let him save himself and his family.
Yeshayahu 65 (v. 17 and on) promises a new world, where animals will get along; to R. Arama, the newness lies only in that people will control themselves in ways needed for Nature to follow the track Hashem had always intended. People’s goodness would then lead to a full harmony of Nature, including the animals being at peace with one another.
Nimrod throwing Avraham into a furnace provides an example of two points R. Arama wishes to make. Avraham’s spiritual excellence meant his being saved was almost natural, while at the same time, the Talmudic tradition of what happened shows there are miracles beyond the ones embedded in this second track of Nature.
Nature Serves Hashem, Hashem Uproots Nature
Pesachim 118a says Gavriel asked Hashem to let him save Avraham from Nimrod’s fiery furnace. Hashem insisted on doing it Himself, as it were, promised Gavriel (the angel of fire, in the Gemara’s portrayal) he could save Avraham’s descendants. R. Shimon ha-Shiloni carries the story forward: the angel of hail wanted to save Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah from Nevuchadnezzar’s furnace. Gavriel pointed out there would be no glory to Hashem in that, and offered himself instead. He said he would leave the fire hot on the outside, cool it only on the inside, a miracle within a miracle.
R. Arama thinks the Gemara means to note the difference between subverting Nature and subduing it to Hashem’s Will. Were the angel of hail to be brought into play, Nature would have been changed, a sudden cold overcoming the heat of the fire. Delegating it to Gavriel, the angel of fire, produce a more dramatic effect. He stopped the three from being burned, and added an internal cold, showing how the fire itself (through its angel) obeys Hashem. The angel of hail could have overcome the fire, Gavriel showed the fire restricting itsel in response to Hashem’s command.
Avraham’s escape from the fire looks the same as the later three only if we fail to notice he merited a higher form of intervention, Hashem doing it Himself, as it were. Hashem’s saving Avraham reminds us even the more expandedly metaphysical version of Nature does not yet describe all possibilities. Hashem can still step in and change it all, in unknown ways.
The Greats Rule the Deficient
The idea of Nature being awaren of people’s excellence also fuels the story of R. Chanina b. Dosa being bit by an arvad, a dangerous lizard or snake. The arvad died from biting him; R. Chanina brought it to the Beit Midrash, to teach it’s not the venom which kills, it’s sin. Eichah Rabbati 1 makes a similar point when it says the Jewish people either strengthen or weaken Hashem, as it were—they strengthen or weaken Hashem’s Presence within Nature, the extent to which Nature does more than just the purely physical.
R. Arama extends the idea to variations among people as well. Much as humans rightfully control animals because of our tzelem Elokim, our Divine image, those of us who bring that Divine image to greater fruition also have the right to rule over fellow humans who, sadly, fail to actualize their tzelem. [This is R. Arama’s idea, not mine, and is ripe for abuse by those who wrongly claim to be better than others. Still, he defends it as a Jewish idea, and I think it will reward thought, without regard to putting it into practice.]
Among the examples R. Arama gives for the idea, Hashem ties the Jewish people’s higher status (Shemot 19; 5) to observance of the Torah. For R. Arama, the verse isn’t speaking in terms of reward/punishment, it means when the Jews follow the Torah, they become superior. He finds remarkable Devarim11;25’s promise that all other nations will fear the Jewish people, and ties it to Bereshit 9;2’s idea of animals fearing humans. In both cases, the ones being feared are those who are at a higher level of closeness to Hashem, through their greater development of the divine within each of us. Service of Hashem changes us in this-worldly ways, he insists.
David HaMelech provides an example. His confidence he can beat Golyat stems from the latter’s having denigrated Gd’s represenatives, the Jewish people. David’s certainty Hashem would not allow such mockery to go unpunished shows R. Arama his level of excellence. He is sure a servant of Hashem will necessarily do well when up against one who stands against Hashem and Hashem’s people [R. Arama takes for granted David could be sure he was worthy of being the vehicle of Hashem’s punishing Golyat, and that it would happen right then, both topics which warrant further consideration.]
The Discernibility of Spiritual Excellence
R. Arama goes a step further, says he is certain religiously excellent people notice each other. It explains Shaul’s odd question to Avner as he watches David go to battle with Golyat. Shaul asks who he is, when David has been serving as the musician to calm his bad moods, had moments earlier stood before Shaul to volunteer for the fight, and had tried and rejected Shaul’s armor. Avner’s claim not to know him is similarly jarring.
For R. Arama, David changed when he undertook to stand for Hashem, against the Philistine who mocked the camp of Hashem, became new to people who had known him a moment before. It was also why David mentioned his earlier defeats of a lion and a bear when watching his father’s flocks. David’s track record of relying on Hashem to help him overcome the version of Nature where only physical power matters readied him for this moment, when his total reliance on the spiritually sensitive track of Nature turns him into a person different enough for Shaul and Avner to notice.
We Shape the World Itself
The ideas developed here also explain the passage from Ketubbot 5a with which R. Arama opened the sha’ar. Bar Kappara contrasts Yeshayahu 48;13 toShemot 15; 17; the first verse refers to Hashem creating the world with one hand, the second speaks of Hashem’s hands, plural, establishing a sanctuary. To Bar Kappara, the verses show the deeds of the righteous (such as in building and serving at a Mikdash, a Temple) are greater than creation itself.
For R. Arama, the greatness lies in the righteous fostering a world where Nature reacts to a fuller range of human experience. Hashem gave the baseline and the possibility of more; the righteous bring out the more. To emphasize how much they contribute, after Noach had saved the world from complete destruction, Hashem concretized the difference between humans and animals, allowing humans to eat animals (once dead), although not their blood.
In doing so, we remind ourselves of the significant advantage in being a being who serves Hashem, aware of the greater horizons available to us, should we take advantage of them.
A sha’ar which started with miracles ends with people, because it takes people to actualize the miracle, natural and those from Hashem Himself, all opening the door on an existence within our grasp, if we only hone our Divine image to its fullest extent.