by R. Gidon Rothstein
A lifetime ago, in novel coronavirus terms, we were studying the rich Biblical commentary of R. Yitzhak Arama, Akeydat Yitzhak. The last entry was posted on March 10, and then the world changed, as we entered the et Tzarah whose parameters we have not yet fully learned to navigate, whose rules we have not yet accepted the necessity of following, from which Hashem has not yet fully released us.
I turned to discussions related to the coronavirus, then to issues of shul, then nidui, because of my belief this experience has characteristics of being menudim la-shamayim, Gd having placed us in nidui until we learn key lessons.
With the conclusion of the Yamim Noraim, it is time to move on to another project, but before I do, I wanted to bring some kind of closure to my study of Akeydat Yitzhak. I have run out of the energy to continue studying it straight, so I at least wanted to finish Sefer Bereshit, bring some closure to our study of his rich thought. I offer the excuse Bereshit did cover a full third of his overall commentary, so we will have seen a significant piece of it. Then we will bid him a grateful au revoir, until life brings us around to his words again.
Let’s get back in. Where we last left our hero, R. Arama had argued the Jewish people served a purpose on earth similar to the stars in heaven, were the natural way Gd brought blessings to the world.
The Twelve Tribe Structure of the Jewish People
Once we know the Jewish people are constructed to reflect the heavenly hosts, the loss of any piece of their functioning affects the world more than we would have realized. The destruction of the Beit Hamikdash stopped the priests’ service, silenced the Levites’ songs; those losses hurt the world more than just in reducing sacrifice and/or the amount of beautiful singing in the world. As on Heaven so on Earth, and vice verse, the destruction of the Mikdash leaves us in a lesser version of reality as a whole.
[I intend to stay away from relating R. Arama’s ideas to our current reality; this one time, I will allow myself to point out the ramifications of his view for our times: I think he would say we as Jews should feel special responsibility to respond to the pandemic in ways we can hope would lead Gd to relieve us of its troubles, because we are the gateway for Gd’s blessings to the world. Second, he would remind us not to accept a lesser reality as fine. Just as we continually mourn the Temple, long for the return of all its services, know we live in a diminished world until they do return, we need to be sure we remember the strictures needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are not a fine new normal, they are reminders we have not been relieved or our troubles to this point.]
We see this particularly regarding the Tribes, who mirror the twelve central constellations of stars. Aharon bore the names of the tribes on the Hoshen, the breastplate through which Gd communicated to kings or other representatives of the nation, to show the number mattered, the tribes were the what connected heaven and earth, a central reason Gd imbued prophecy and Gd’s providence was more tied to the Jewish nation.
For two proofs, he notes Eliyahu’s choice of twelve rocks for the altar he built on Mt. Carmel during his “contest” with the prophets of Ba’al (I Melakhim 18;31), a number the verse says was to symbolize the twelve tribes. After the tragedy of the concubine at Giv’a, Shofetim 21, the Jewish people vowed not to intermarry with Binyamin, but were later horrified by the possibility of the tribe dying out; their horror tells R. Arama the number of tribes has more importance than we might notice. Their finding a workaround of their oath shows their commitment to all tribes’ survival.
Ta’anit 26b makes the point when it calls the fifteenth of Av one of the great holidays, because it was the day the Tribes came up with a plan to ensure Binyamin’s continuity. [The Gemara offers other reasons, too, but this is the one relevant to his idea.] In a comment sad for what it says about life in his time (and which might give another element of perspective to our current struggles), R. Arama says only such importance can explain Ya’akov’s extended mourning for Yosef, because rational people would never act as he did, it being too common for someone to die young. Especially a father of eleven other sons would be expected to handle it better. Avraham was willing to kill his only son [at Gd’s direct command], why would Ya’akov indulge such mourning, lose himself the experience of the Divine spirit for all twenty-two years of Yosef’s absence? More, why wouldn’t Gd rebuke him? To R. Arama, the answer lies in the extended consequences, the impact of the loss of a tribe on the whole world.
For Whom Ya’akov Grieved
Tanhuma to Va-Yigash has Ya’akov say he had a tradition that if all his sons survived him, he would know he would not go to Gehinnom, would receive eternal reward and not punishment. The loss of Yosef told Ya’akov he had been found wanting. All the time of Yosef’s absence, he was sad about his own state of lost prophecy, not as a matter of choice to wallow in his mourning, but because he wasn’t able to see himself as someone worthy of direct communication with Gd.
Shabbat 30b tells us sadness prevents prophecy, as we learn from Elisha’s calling for someone to play music, to put him in a mood for prophecy, II Melakhim 3. Hearing Yosef was alive removed Ya’akov’s sadness at two levels, the bare fact of his son being alive and its assuring Ya’akov he was not doomed to perdition.
An Early Painful Investment Pays Off
Other verses envision such wholeness in the future redemption as well. Devarim 30;3 speaks of Hashem restoring shevutekha, your fortunes, Yeshayahu 27;12 speaks of Jews being gathered one by one, Yirmiyahu 3;14 says Hashem will gather us one from a city, two from a family. In that time, instead of some Jews being focused on Hashem, some of the time, occasionally having the Divine Spirit rest upon them, they will all always do what Hashem wants, will infuse their lives with the awareness of Jerusalem as the seat of Gd, to the point of influencing the rest of the nations to turn towards Gd as well, to fulfill Gd’s Will instead of their own.
R. Arama now returns to the idea of Ya’akov being brought down to Egypt by his love for Yosef instead of in chains, because he sees a parallel—Ya’akov’s early pains in the Yosef experience ended up being like pregnancy and labor, bringing a very desired result. The exile, with its eventual complete return, will bring us (the Jewish people) to the fulfillment of all the promises to Avraham. (We now see his stake in saying all Jews will make it back—like Ya’akov’s need of all his sons, unless all Jews are part of the redemption, R. Arama could not as convincingly say the current sufferings are a sort of investment in an eventual completely enjoyable result.)
Yosef’s telling the brothers they didn’t send him to Egypt, Hashem did, supports his idea. In his list of examples of what Gd made happen, R. Arama includes Ya’akov’s giving Yosef the ketonet pasim, the special garment his brothers took as evidence of Ya’akov’s favoritism. For R. Arama, Ya’akov already did not have full freewill early on, because Gd was bringing about the descent to Egypt.
He notes Ya’akov had mostly despaired of seeing Yosef (I’m pretty sure this is also meant to parallel the Jews of his time, a way of encouraging them not to despair). In R. Arama’s reading, when he first heard Yosef was alive, his heart skipped because he did not believe them, and it only renewed his anguish. He only began to believe them as they relayed words of Yosef’s.
Redemption Brings Other Worries
He knew he was headed to Egypt as he absorbed the news, instigating other worries, such as assimilation [a valid one, let’s remember, as tradition thought only 1/5 of the Jews left Egypt; here again, I think R. Arama is speaking about Ya’akov with an eye out towards his time, many of whom also had become so assimilated they did not know when it was time to leave. Historians, e.g., estimate a third of the Jews of Spain converted rather than leave in 1492.]
He also was concerned about his own burial, whether he would be stuck in Egypt. To allay his fears, he went to Be’ersheva, where his father and grandfather had prayed, and that’s why Gd came to him (Ya’akov sought it, in other words, it didn’t just happen.) Gd promised to take care of the Jews by keeping them separate, as we say in the Haggadah, the Jews became metzuyanim there, they stood as separate, and lived in a separate section [he ignores other Midrashim and traditions the Jews eventually did mix with the Egyptians.] The promise of anokhi a’alekha, I will bring you back up, was the response to the burial issue, Hashem promising Ya’akov would not be buried in Egypt.
I’ve skipped a digression where R. Arama explains how Onkelos refers to Gd without making Gd physical (a concern here because Hashem says He will go down to Egypt with Ya’akov, and Rambam and Ramban struggle with Onkelos). At the conclusion of his answer, R. Arama comments he thinks it deals with the issue without resort to philosophy [whose Jewish proponents often lost contact with true faith] or hidden and sealed matters [mysticism], a reminder of the two poles within which Jewish thinkers have long had to walk, each of which had problems for R. Arama.
There’s more, as always, but those are the main elements of the thirty-first sha’ar I found myself able to communicate, the Jewish people’s vital role in the world, the reason their national structure parallels the universe’s, the reason the survival of all the tribes mattered so much, an idea R. Arama could translate to his contemporaries’ struggle with their exile, could reassure them, implicitly, it gets better.
As we hope in our times, for ourselves, as well.