R. Yitzhak Arama and Money

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzkak, Sha’ar Twenty-Four, Part Two

All the negative comments about money we saw last time set up R. Arama’s trouble with the blessing Yitzhak gives Ya’akov, let  (or may) Hashem give you the dew of the heaven and the richness of the earth, an abundance of grain and wine, let other nations serve you, etc., the kinds of blessings we would have thought irrelevant and uninteresting to people of elevated spiritual level. What moved Rivka and Ya’akov to strive to secure those for Ya’akov?

Spiritualizing It or Seeing It as Supportive

Bereshit Rabbah 66 offers one type of answer, a series of readings where the elements of the blessing were code for other desirable outcomes. For example, one version read “dew of heaven” to mean the manna the Jews ate in the desert, the “riches of the earth” the water of the well accompanying the Jewish people throughout their time in the desert—their physical bounty was less the point than their being evidence of closeness with Hashem. Another way to go was to read the dew as Torah, the richness of the earth as Mishnah, and the abundance of grain as Talmud.

There are more I am not going to review here, with all the options agreeing Yitzhak was not promising anything as mundane as rain and grain, he was speaking of Hashem’s care for Ya’akov, and/or Ya’akov’s finding his path eased to knowledge and understanding of Hashem.

R. Arama presents all of those, then offers his own different direction. He notes Yitzhak opens the blessing with a vav, a connective letter, as if in the middle. R. Arama says he was in the middle the first part of the blessing left out of the Torah because of the idea of ayin lo ra’ata Elokim zulatekha, no eye has seen Gd other than you, a verse (Yeshayahu 63;4) tradition read to also mean there are secrets too esoteric for people. The real blessings are beyond us, so the Torah left them out.

In addition to those, Yitzhak was wishing his son all the ancillary elements of a successful life, wealth, the subservience of other nations, superiority over his brother. Although without inherent value, a life blessed with these helps the wise. In his view, one of the ways they help is by making wisdom more appealing to the masses [I could have imagined money helps a wise person avoid the everyday annoyances o f life, frees him/her up for higher pursuits; R. Arama is saying it’s also partially for wisdom to be attractive].

Reminding Us To Respect Hazal

R. Arama spends some time showing how his ideas are reflected in a series of aggadot in Baba Batra attributed to Rabbah bar bar Hanah (famous for their opacity, for how hard they are to read at any level, simple, metaphorical, allegorical). It would take us too far afield to engage them, although one point he makes seems easy enough to share.

The Gemara refers to a frog, and R. Arama thinks one of the roles of the frog is to parallel those who eat and drink solely to sate themselves, to achieve the pleasure of a full stomach. Such eating, he says, is unworthy (we should eat to support our health, to get energy to serve Hashem; we might take pleasure along the way, but if the goal is the pleasure, we are like the frog).

His closing shows there was more at stake than reading a particular (and particularly difficult) Talmudic passage. He calls on listener/readers to open their eyes, to see how verses in Mishlei (also skipped here) and this passage in Baba Batra make the same points, reminding us Hazal were teaching us lessons as valuable as those in Tanakh. Making the point clearer, he adds, “and let my words here be a proof about all their counterparts, even if problems arise in them…let the spirit of those who speak ill of Hazal explode, and I have already sanctified Gd’s Name on such issues, when a certain Xian wise man attacked me along these lines, and I answered him thus, and he conceded these were wise words.”

R. Arama is revealing to us non-Jews of his time were mocking Jews for their dedication to money and the physical, thought Ya’akov (and Yitzhak, who cared to give the blessing) was too focused on money. His answer was a defense of the Patriarchs and the religion, even more than an attempt to understand the text.

Hashem Helped the Cause

With the human role laid out, R. Arama says Gd helped as well. People who can see are not easily fooled (about identity, I think he means). Blind people are, and are also less sure of themselves (meaning, I think, even if they suspect a trick, they will not be confident enough of their instincts to follow through).

With Yitzhak not realizing Ya’akov’s better fit for the berakhot, Hashem eased the way to Ya’akov taking them by weakening Yitzhak’s sight.

He recognizes tradition denies Hashem ever does evil (and blindness seems a bad or an evil). He says it is why Devarim 31;17 can be sure the Jews will know troubles befalling them come because they are insufficiently connected to Hashem (were troubles random, there would be no reason to see them as evidence of religious lacks, a response we unfortunately see among Jews today).

R. Arama says the blindness here was not an evil, it was a good, paving the way for the future. In his view, Hashem was telling Moshe the same in Shemot 4;11, Who makes people mute, deaf, or blind (or the reverse). It is Hashem, when each of those results is better [it’s another element of the “why do bad things happen to good people” problem, some such things are long term goods.]

Blindness Has Different Parts

Bereshit Rabbah 65 gives three suggestions for how Yitzhak went blind (Rashi has a slightly different version on Humash): Hashem took Yitzhak’s sight to keep him close to home, spare him hearing from others about Esav’s evil; the tears of the angels during the Akedah went in his eyes, damaging his sight; and, also during the Akedah, Yitzhak looked up, saw Hashem too fully, as it were.

R. Arama thinks the three refer to three kinds of loss of sight, physical, intellectual, and prophetic (a bit later in the sha’ar, he shows how the other senses also each can mean more than their physical expression, with hearing also about understanding, such as in the beginning of Shema, where he takes Shema Yisra’el, hear, Israel, to mean understand; smell includes infusing a person with a certain attitude or spirit, such as Yeshayahu 11;3, va-hariho be-yir’at Hashem, literally fill him with the smell of fear of Hashem; taste can stand for actualizing an experience, such as Tehillim 34;9, ta’amu u-re’u ki tov Hashem, taste and see Hashem is good. I leave out here his derogatory comments about the sense of touch; I only mention them as a reminder of Jewish thinkers’ objections to excessive connection to physical pleasure, much of it a matter of touch).

Keeping Yitzhak home was about physical sight, the angels’ tears restricted the divine influence on his intellect, and reducing his “seeing” Hashem means he would not see as well in situations such as prophetically conferring blessings.

His overall reduced sight (and insight) kept him thinking Esav deserved the blessings, the result Hashem wanted, to ensure he administer those blessings with the fullest possible heart. As we will see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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