Prophecy Teaches Us What We Would Have Adamantly Denied

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar 25

Writing these summaries takes a lot of work—R. Arama writes at great length, with many digressions. I read slowly, I think, and end up excising more than I include, after which I have to do my best to make his ideas intelligible, after robbing them of more than half their context. It’s more than worth it, to me, because R. Arama frequently surprises us with ideas more immediately relevant to specific issues of our times than I would have expected from a fifteenth century writer.

The beginning of the twenty-fifth sha’ar offers an excellent example. R. Arama says the sha’ar will explain how prophecy often forces us to reject what our intellects proved, just as the intellect often disproves what we had thought intuitively. In one short sentence, he captures what I think of as one of the significant religious challenges for many Orthodox Jews today: accepting Scripture as a superior source of knowledge to the intellect.

[Let me emphasize: we have to accept what Scripture insists is true. Often, people have ascribed to Scripture claims it had not made, causing problems when reality contradicts what people had said Scripture meant. That’s not what R. Arama means to address, as we’ll see; he means when we think we’ve proven something logically or even scientifically, as scientists today also often assert what the evidence does not—we must always remember Scripture is a higher source.]

Rejecting the Intuitive

Although he uses the word dimyon, usually translated as imagination, I think we will do better to speak of intuition or inherent assumptions. His example is one of imagination, people can think up a creature from parts of animals they see [such as a unicorn or dragon, examples mine] although the creature does not in fact exist.

One of R. Arama’s examples is about gravity, although he does not call it that. He tells us people have difficulty accepting that the soles of those standing on the two sides of the Earth’s diameter face each other [a reminder Columbus did not need to prove the world was round, as many of his time knew that; he aimed to prove the world was small enough in circumference to make a westward route to the Far East a better choice than travelling through Europe]. People assume they would have to fall off the Earth, were that true, yet they do not.

People struggle with it, but the scientific/intellectual evidence leaves no choice.

Absorbing the Prophetic

Similarly—maybe exactly the same—he wants us to understand the challenge of prophecy. Those who develop our intellects, work to comprehend everything around them, are sure they have reached good and valid insight. Sophisticated as they may be, they must still be ready for prophecy to tell them they are wrong, regardless of whether they can see how they went wrong.

Scripture gives examples of prophets who made such errors [more surprising from them, because we know they accepted the reality of prophecy, and still failed to realize how much it needed to guide their worldview]. Hashem sends Shemu’el to pick a replacement for Sha’ul from among Yishai’s sons. Shemu’el is sure, R. Arama thinks, a king of Israel must be tall and handsome [to inspire fealty, I think]. He had praised Sha’ul’s height, back in I Shemu’el 10. Seeing Eliav, in I Shemu’el 16, he was sure the same was true, and moved to anoint him.

Hashem goes beyond pointing out his specific error; Hashem tells him people see outwardly, Hashem sees the heart. It disqualified Eliav and reminded Shemu’el (and the rest of us) of the limits of the human intellect.

The prophet David consulted about his desire to build a Bet HaMikdash (Natan) thought it a good idea, told David to go ahead, using the words Hashem imekha, Gd is with you. That night, Hashem appeared to him, to correct him, tell him David would not be the one to build it. R. Arama thinks Hashem had Natan be the prophet to revoke the permit (there were other prophets alive at the time) to teach Natan (and us) a lesson about overconfidence, about trusting our intellects when speaking of what Hashem does or does not want.

I am skipping his reading of I Melakhim 22, where he argues Michayhu b. Yimla at first told Ah’av to go to war because it sounded like a good idea to him, and then he, too, had a prophecy telling him he had misread the situation. [I am skipping it because we would have to delve into the texts, and he’s made his point.]

Prophecy Informs or Tells Us to Think Better

Yitro (Shemot 18) gets it right, R. Arama thinks, telling Moshe to appoint judges/ officers only if Hashem commanded it (after Yitro offered the idea). If in the conduct of ordinary human affairs Yitro correctly told Moshe to consult with Hashem, all the more so with issues of higher knowledge, divine truths, knowing the ways of Hashem. We have to know our limitations, R. Arama is saying, know what we can know and what we cannot, and be open to ideas we could not get to on our own.

Yeshayahu 58;8 reminds us Hashem’s thoughts are not the same as ours—in three ways, says R. Arama. Sometimes, Hashem’s view contradicts our well considered views, no matter how well considered, as happened with Shemu’el, or Mikhayhu.

Other times, Hashem’s prophecy invites and urges us to look again, investigate further, prods us to understanding we would not have thought to get to on our own. It’s true of various visions in Scripture, such as those of Yehezkel in the first chapter (where he sees Hashem’s Chariot, as it were), and of Yeshayahu in the sixth, where he sees Hashem’s Glory filling the Bet Ha-Mikdash, the surrounding celestial beings saying kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, the threefold declaration of Hashem’s sanctity we make a centerpiece of our own prayers.

Another example comes in the beginning of Parshat Va-Yetze, the topic of this sha’ar. The ladder dream comes to tell Ya’akov a truth his intuition/imagination would have found strange and perhaps absurd: Hashem has a special connection to one place in the world.

Surely, the Lord Is In This Place

Ya’akov says as much when he wakes up. He says he had not known Hashem was in that place, a statement R. Arama is taking to mean he had not known Hashem could be in one place. Intellectual/philosophical consideration of a Divine Being does not allow for It “residing” anywhere. Residence implies Hashem has dimensions (to fit into a House), moves (staying in one place much of the time, going elsewhere at other times), and has need of or interest in shelter.

All these are as false as people of intellect claim [he’s not rejecting the science of his time]. The vision coming to expand Ya’akov’s understanding, to show him what he would not have realized on his own, and without calling into question his intellect or way of securing information about the world.

In this case, the missing piece was Hashem’s interest in helping people to absorb the truth of Divine Providence, to see Hashem’s commitment to connecting to those who serve Him. Philosophy or other intellectual endeavors had no reason to think Hashem was so invested, no matter how true it is.

The human intellect alone does not and cannot arrive at basic truths, vital for life. A daunting idea, one I fear too many people today deny). We need prophecy, too.

The House Is Not a House

Yeshayahu 66 gives voice to our intellects’ denial Hashem needs a house, points out the ridiculousness of thinking a Being for Whom the Heavens are a seat, the Earth a footstool, could be contained in a physical House.

Hashem did it for us, like a king who moves to a small or impoverished town, to bring it the economic benefits of being the seat of government. In Hashem’s case, the benefit would come in added insight into Hashem, for those humble enough to accept it. (Yeshayahu 66;2 refers to an ani u-nekhe ruah, someone poor and low of spirit; the lowliness of spirit here means being ready to accept the limits of his/her human knowledge).

To me, R. Arama’s comment about humility reminds us the most intelligent among us might be those least likely to accept truths they cannot figure out on their own, their arrogance interfering. He thinks such people need to see how they limit themselves and be sad about it. People who deny their lacks—who are unwilling to admit prophecy teaches what science cannot, for example, because they are “all-in” on intellect; or do not care about what they do not know, for another– are beyond help, he says. Complacency in one’s limited understanding of Hashem makes one unreachable, in his view, [a scary idea, for me, because I often meet people who want to be left alone in their current stage of ignorance.]

In addition to humility, awareness, and desire for greater knowledge, R. Arama thinks a Jew needs to tremble with longing for perfection, to invest great effort in it, as did various characters in Tanakh when a prophet came to their area. (He is saying their trembling, in I Shemu’el 14 or II Melakhim 4, was excitement to learn more about Hashem).

The vision surprises Ya’akov because he had made the maximum progress of the intellect towards knowledge of Gd. His fourteen years at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, a timeline Hazal assume in Megillah 17a and Rashi demonstrates textually at the end of Parshat Toledot, left him sure Hashem is everywhere equally.

Only if he has reason to think he knew better could he say, surprised, “and I did not know,” after having been shown Hashem’s greater connection to the place he had slept. He had studied Hashem, knew all there was to know (intellectually) and could not imagine or deduce a Gate of Heaven connecting Hashem to the world.

Ya’akov Earned the Dream

He reads an additional layer of meaning in the verses, to point to Ya’akov’s role in the dream coming to him. After making clear he accepts the plain sense, R. Arama argues va-yifga ba-makom, Ya’akov hit the place, as also a reference to his hitting a roadblock in his attempts to understand HaMakom, Hashem (Hagigah 14b has the phrase hetzitz ve-nifga to mean someone looked for information about Hashem beyond his capabilities, and nifga, was damaged, the same root as va-yifga here, support for his reading).

Hullin 91b speaks of the journey being shortened for Ya’akov, to R. Arama a way of signaling Hashem had compassion on Ya’akov’s search for insight into the divine, shortened the path by having the sun set, to give him a dream with truths he could not find on his own.

Hazal’s idea the stones fought to be the one to go under Ya’akov’s head, with the Patriarch taking them all and they miraculously combining into one, symbolize for R. Arama the philosophical building blocks of true knowledge of Hashem (he points out Rambam has twenty-six introductory points before he talks about Creation, in the beginning of Part II of the Guide).

Each one of the stones could have been a point from where Ya’akov had his dream, a necessary but insufficient step to full knowledge. They all work toward the same truth, however, the reason Hazal said they combined into one. He went to sleep with Gd’s ways of interacting with the world in his thoughts, and had the dream.

[I pause to note R. Arama’s view of Ya’akov; on the run from Esav, after fourteen years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, facing unknown challenges in Haran, the pressing problems in his mind were his inability to progress further in his understanding of Hashem.

It reminds me of stories of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, as head of a Kollel in Boston in his younger years. I have heard of one occasion, maybe more, when he ended shi’ur with an unresolved problem, found the solution in the middle of the night and woke the students to share it with them then and there, unable to let the thought go until it was resolved.]

The Dream will then teach Ya’akov what he needs, as we will see next time.

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