The Jewish People as the Engine of the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Thirty-One

Bringing Ya’akov to Egypt

R. Arama starts the sha’ar with Midrash Shokher Tov’s quote of R. Yehuda, Ya’akov should have been brought down to Egypt in chains (for unclarified reasons), the incident with Yosef was a sort of favor by Hashem, a way to get him there more gently [the Midrash bothers me a bit each time I see it, because I’d bet Ya’akov would have preferred the chains to twenty years of fearing Yosef was dead, but that’s for another time]. R. Pinhas in the Midrash compares it to luring a cow to the slaughterhouse by bringing its calf, as Hoshe’a 11;4 has Hashem speak of leading the Jewish people with human chains, chains of love [a verse I first learned because Hazon Ish’s much quoted idea his generation was a time when the better approach to those distant from religion was avotot shel ahavah, chains of love.]

The Jewish People Reflect the Heavens

Moving away from the Midrash temporarily, he says Gd created a world with two controlling principles. First, natural law covers much of what happens, including the stars and their impact (I stress—R. Arama thinks the stars affect the world, allowing for accurate astrological predictions, and counts this as part of the  natural world; the cause and effect may be less clear than ordinary natural events, but they are a part of nature for him, with murkier workings]. Second, there is Providence, where Gd steps in, to reward or punish, depending on people’s actions.

To improve the odds of earning a better future, Gd gave the Chosen People the Torah, to teach ideas and actions necessary to elicit favorable responses from the divine. Jews’ success supports the survival of the rest of the world, R. Arama thinks, as a matter of Gd’s Will [I think he means Gd wants a world where people act in certain ways. While the natural and astrological can seem to operate immune to the spiritual state of people, such an attitude ignores providence, where it matters a great deal. Because most people choose not to engage with the questions or issues, Gd gave the Torah to the Jews, making His Will clear, and the Jews’ attempts to adhere to that are enough to keep the world going.]

Their crucial role in world survival led Hashem to set up the nation parallel to or reflective of the universe, to link the two aspects of the world that keep all the machinery running, as it were. (The heavens run the world at a technical level, so Gd made the Jewish people a sort of parallel heavens, because they make the world run at a providential level.)

His views of astronomy interest me here only in how they shape his picture of the Jewish people. The sun moves east to west, in contrast to other stars and planets [I’m not sure what he means—planets and stars also generally move east to west in the sky, I think], as did Avraham, who moved physically east to west, but intellectually and spiritually moved towards service of and connection to Gd, where the rest of the nations turned their back. (He throws in Midrashic notes that Gd’s appearance in the Temple comes in the West.

From the Sun to the Stars

Obviously, he didn’t think Gd was in the West, Gd is everywhere. Nonetheless, Avraham saw value (as Rambam had said it) in establishing a particular place for prayer, where it will be easier to remove distracting thoughts. For the site of the Temple, the place where Avraham stood before was best, and Yehezkel 8 sees it as a sign of how low the Jews have sunk when they turn their backs on that place to face the sun instead.

Avraham was also sun-like in affecting the movements of many other inhabitants of his realm, as the sun does with the stars. Avraham brought many closer to Gd’s service, some more, some less, but had an impact on all, as does the sun.

Again, the view of astronomy interests me less than how he applies it. He thinks a secondary body in the heavens affects the twelve constellations, from which the many stars then extend. Yitzhak bears Ya’akov, father of the twelve Tribes, from whom the millions of Jews come. Comparable to the seven stars he thought most influential, the Jewish people have Ya’akov, Levi, Kehat, Amram, Moshe, Aharon, and David [a remarkable list, taking for granted the greater importance of Torah, priesthood, and kingship than other aspects of national life]. Moshe sits in the middle of the list, as the sun is the middle of the influential stars, and Baba Batra 75a compares Moshe’s face to the face of the sun, as a metaphor for Moshe being the original source of the light of Torah from Hashem (as the sun is the original source of light from Hashem; he compares Avraham and Moshe both as the sun, because they each in their own era were sun-like in their influence on the world).

Among other examples, Shlomo Ha-Melekh looked to the model of the twelve constellations to build his model of how to finance the upkeep of the Temple, by obligating each tribe to provide a month’s support.  When Hashem tells Avraham his descendants will be as uncountable as the stars, R. Arama focuses on more than uncountability, gives other ways the Jewish people will be like the stars. Midrashim also speak of a Jerusalem of heaven, view the Mishkan and Mikdash as built to reflect the structure of the heavens. Ta’anit 5a makes the point explicitly about Yehezkel’s vision of a future Temple, the Jerusalem of below will be in parallel to the Jerusalem of above.

As in Heaven, So on Earth

The similarity of basic structure explains Yirmiyahu 31;34-35, where the prophet compares the eternity of the Jewish people to the eternity of those bodies—similar structure leads to similar life span. Bereshit Rabbah speaks of the Patriarchs as Gd’s Chariot in this world (a way for Gd to enter or relate to this world, I think is the easiest way to say it), and R. Arama thinks it’s true for those of their descendants who follow their path. Torah scholars, prophets, the righteous, all serve also as wheels of the Chariot, vehicles for Hashem to protect the Jewish people from annihilation, perform miracles on their (and the people’s) behalf, such as the Splitting of the Sea.

It started with Avraham and was solidified with the Giving of the Torah, when the good workings of nature were made dependent on the observance of mitzvot. The first of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot tells us I am Hashem, Who took you out of Egypt—for R. Arama, proof of Hashem’s ability to overcome the stars, make Avraham more vital to the universe than a human should be—and is the reason not to follow any other gods, because Jews are supposed to know Providence now depends solely on adherence to the Torah.

[Much of what he is saying here makes a point not all that controversial to rishonim, yet probably less included in Jewish belief today. He is sure the religious excellence of the Jewish people, or its lack, affects how nature works. Gd chose to link the physical health of the world to the religious health of people, especially Jews.]

Next time, how each Jew’s survival and success matters.


About Gidon Rothstein

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