Avraham Makes Strides to Understanding and Excellence

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Seventeenth Sha’ar, Second Part

Avraham’s Path Starts with Generosity

Avraham starts with generosity, the trait R. Arama identified last time as a building block for many other positive traits. R. Arama notes Avraham’s treatment of Lot and the king of Sodom, without elaborating. I think he means he lets Lot choose whichever part of Israel he wanted, resuces him from captivity after they’ve permanently parted ways, and refuses any reward from the king of Sodom. As a final example, he welcomes the three men/angels who he does not know are about to inform him of Yitzchak’s arrival.

As we’ve seen, R. Arama until now had said one good trait will lead to others, or even all. The idea works for his view of Avraham, up to a point. He thinks Avraham did come to realize the lack of any ultimate value in possessions, did see they could not be the purpose of creation or worth devoting one’s life to acquiring, and had thought his way through to seeing the soul must have a higher purpose.

The next step, defining perfection of the soul (and where human beings are best advised to invest their energies), stymied him. Yeshayahu 64;3 says, ‘ayin lo ra’ata Elokim zulatecha, literally “no eye has seen Gd other than you.” R. Arama is reading it (without saying so) along the lines of Sanhedrin 99awhere several amoraim took the verse to say some aspects of life are inaccessible to human beings. The Gemara’s examples were opaque even to prophecy; R. Arama is claiming here the nature of human perfection can be found only through prophecy, not reason.

[For regular readers of these summaries—thank you for reading!—R. Arama’s idea here fits what he’s said elsewhere, yet rewards emphasis. We have seen how taken his audience was with philosophical culture, held philosophy to be the sole or main course to truth. Along the lines of rabbis who call themselves Centrist or Modern Orthodox today, R. Arama agrees to a great extent, accepts much in Aristotle and Rambam’s Guide. Here, he makes his audience aware of limits of the discipline, areas of life where human reason falls short. I think the same applies in our times as well, where many people delight in the accomplishments of the human mind, to the degree they too forget we cannot reason our way to all truths, nor even to all important and vital truths.]

Hashem Reassures Avraham

Avraham is bothered by uncertainty about his future. R. Arama calls our attention to 15;1’s use of the word machazeh, vision, a higher prophecy than he had experienced before. It was still an early stage of prophecy, however, and therefore—as Rambam said in the Guide about all early stage prophecies– much of it was expressed in metaphor or analogy.

The start was straightforward, telling Avraham his death would differ from many other peoples, would not be the end of his existence—a worry R. Arama says plagues all intelligent people. Hashem also promises to protect Avraham from any life events which might hinder his growth to his greatest potential, and mentions the great reward awaiting him as a way of saying he was in fact on the road to meaningful success.

Avraham asks for more proof, especially regarding the Land of Israel, which he had been promised twice (in an he’arah Elokit, a strong intuition which came from Hashem but was not quite prophecy). R. Arama thinks Avraham here shows ordinary human desperation for a desired goal, which leads him as it would lead us to seek more than the minimal guarantees. At this point, he is still childless, has followed his intuition far from home and family, with no heirs or social support system.

R. Arama thinks Avraham already knew or sensed a connection between events in the physical world and the spiritual one—when he asks about the promises already made him, such as the Land of Israel, he was also looking for confidence about his reward in the next world. Hashem tells him he will in fact bear an heir, and his descendants will receive the physical reward. In his view, the “land” his “descendants” will inherit encompasses Israel and the World to Come.

Hashem takes him outside to disabuse him of the power of astrology (as the Gemara says), to which R. Arama adds the idea Hashem was also telling Avraham he and other righteous people would be like stars, with the same longlasting (or eternal) existence (an idea he sees echoed in Daniel 12;3, the wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament).

Avraham accepts the guarantees, which shows a faith which firms his hold on this higher level of prophecy, leading Hashem to repeat the promise of the Land, including the Heavenly parallel.

A Lasting Promise

I am skipping R. Arama’s reading of the symbolism of the Berit Bein Ha-Betarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces, because of space and personal interest. Leading into the covenant, Avraham asks for more reassurance, R. Arama thinks because he worried he and especially his descendants might sin and lose their promised future.

Hashem responded his descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs, in R. Arama’s view a way of telling Avraham the experience of exile will always lead Jews’ hearts to submit and return to Hashem, after which they would leave with great wealth. Lest we miss the contemporary overtones—remember, R. Arama lived just before and after the Expulsion from Spain—he adds, “this statement continues to apply until the end of all the Exile,” which suggests to me he saw his listeners as having lost sight of the what the experience of being strangers in others’ land was supposed to inspire in Jews.

Exile—all exile—should produce submission to Hashem, which leads to redemption with great wealth, he understands Hashem to have told Avraham right at the start of our national history.

Avraham himself will not need such exile, as promised in “you will come to your fathers in peace,” meaning R. Arama feels comfortable Hashem can tell certain people they can rest comfortable, knowing they will never sin to a certain extent.

In the same way, Hashem can say the fourth generation will return because Hashem can be sure to find a way to remove all their sins within that time frame, during which Hashem will also give the Emorites sufficient opportunities to round out their measure of sin, for the redemption to come on time. [He does not bring up the ramifications of this presentation of history for human freewill].

The Covenant Between the Pieces, in R. Arama’s reading, brought Avraham to a new level of prophecy, told him he would recieve earthly reward and its heavenly parallel, assured him history would unfold in a way which brought his descendants redemption with great wealth and the Land, despite any possible weaknesses or sins to which they may fall prey.

Spurring Avraham to Prayer

R. Arama eventually comes to what he calls the peshat reading of the text, where he suggests Hashem wanted Avraham and Sarah to notice the bounty they were about to get (for their edification), and therefore wanted their prayers. (Chazal already said Hashem wants the prayers of the righteous—R. Arama is saying it is for their sake, to be sure they notice when Hashem brings them various goods).

When they do not pray (as R. Arama had said in the previous sha’ar, perhaps because they do not yet know prayer can work, or that Hashem’s Providence is so individualized), Hashem engineers a conversation in which Hashem makes promises, to spur Avraham to ask for and about his future (with the same effect, Avraham then being sure his upcoming bounty is from Hashem).

Sarah, too, clearly suffering from her infertility, is the only Matriarch who does not pray, which confirms for R. Arama her and her husband’s current uncertainty about Hashem’s involvement with this world and its events. Hashem let it ride, as it were, let Sarah give Hagar to Avraham, undergo the indignity of Hagar’s derision, because it moved Sarah to complain to Avraham, a complaint in which she said “yishpot Hashem beini u-veinecha, let Hashem judge between you and me,” her instincts bringing her to say a truth she intellectually might not yet have accepted, Hashem does judge the wrongs people commit against each other.

Conceived in Sanctity

The last point I can convey from this sha’ar says Hashem also wanted Yishma’el born, to show the difference between children of Avraham conceived before and after he was circumcised. Circumcision created a sanctity in Avraham which shaped his children differently, and better (as he will discuss in the eighteenth sha’ar).

Generosity might have come relatively easily to Avraham. For R. Arama, it was the beginning,  because any excellence of character takes us to places we would not have thought, given how intertwined it all is. In Avraham’s case, it took him to search for more than the usual human interests, brought him to prophecy in which Hashem showed him his reward, and laid out the beneficial future guaranteed him and his descendants.

About Gidon Rothstein

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