Ya’akov’s Foiled Attempt to Reveal the Messianic Future

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Thirty-Two, Second Part

Ya’akov’s Foiled Attempt to Reveal the Messianic Future

This is the last sha’ar of R. Arama’s commentary on Bereshit. He tells us he plans to show there are actions where the bounds of the analytical do not apply, therefore invisible to Aristotle and his ilk, for they had no exposure to Torah. Linked to this, history has two kinds of outcomes, only one of them hidden from Ya’akov when he wished to reveal it to his sons. R. Arama intends to tell us which was which.

The idea builds off the Midrashic (and Talmudic) assumption Ya’akov gathered his sons to lay out for them the course of the future, Bereshit 49;2. He switched to blessing them when Gd removed the Divine Spirit from him, a sign he was not to reveal these matters. In the Tanhuma version R. Arama works with, Ya’akov called his sons together without asking Gd to join, Who took umbrage at being left out (as it were), and denied him the right to reveal the future.

Intellectual Service Is the Key

R. Arama will come back to the incident. As the first step in his digression, he notes some of the Torah’s mitzvot address the intellect, such as knowledge of Gd, the belief in providence, the obligation of fear/awe, and more, all ideas R. Arama thinks people could not find intellectually or analytically.

Once learned, these otherwise inaccessible ideas lead to acting in ways we would not have realized, as Kohelet shows with the last words of his book, the end of all matters is to fear Gd and perform His mitzvot. The best way version of each of us, for Kohelet kol ha-adam, all of Man,” expresses itself only when we follow a set of commands none of us would have reached by thought alone.

Adherents of Aristotle’s approach—we can think our ways to all aspects of a good life– miss this necessary element, that much of what it means to be good is opaque to the intellect. Worse, Rambam in Guide III;27 seems to side with Aristotle, where he says ultimate human perfection lies in an active intellect, with no actions or character traits.

To R. Arama, it is a moment Rambam‘s philosophical attachments led him astray, led him to ignore all the commandments that in fact demand actions and character traits.  [I believe defenders of Rambam as fully traditional within his philosophical mode would say he saw those traits and actions as means to the end of a perfected intellect, and struggle with whether there was a continuing role for them once they had achieved their goal. Not our current topic.]

R. Arama stresses how belief in Gd leads to performing commandments, as an extension of the intellect. Just like the intellect pushes people to be good citizens, once it accepts the truth of Gd’s existence, it would impel them to fulfill the mitzvot as well. As Kiddushin 40b says, study is great for it leads to action.

Step one of mitzvot for R. Arama, it takes our intellects in a direction we would not have gone on our own, teaching us sets of actions we must fulfill.

The Physical Observance of Mitzvot Shows Us Eternal Life

He does not mean to devalue the intellect, though, because he thinks we must also fulfill all our intellect tells us is worthy. By using our bodies how Gd wants, both as revealed directly and as we infer intellectually, we will secure the rewards the Torah promises, such as Devarim 6;24’s saying it will lead to long or eternal life—the soul reaping the benefits of our physical actions.

It’s a bit of a surprise, because the physical is usually seen as opposite to or at least very different from the spiritual, yet here is the necessary way to earn that spiritual reward. He suggests Gd set it up that way partially to make it more understandable. As physical beings, we have no vocabulary or insight for a purely spiritual reward, so we could never appreciate promises of such reward. By linking them, Gd gave us a path to the goal we could not have found on our own.

Once given the path, our intellects can take it further. Those with proper faith commitments, who know to resist the lures of temporary pleasures and desires, who have developed their intellects as far as possible, will then find themselves able to infer accurate new insights from the Torah, to further the project of serving Gd and earning the World to Come.

The Failure of Belief

In contrast, anyone unwilling to commit to the Torah’s demands and assertions [who finds it hard or impossible to accept the Torah’s claims about Gd and the nature of the world, in other words], puts him/herself in a tough spot, because no words or analogies will work for him/her. Such a person accepts only what s/he can verify, by one of the senses or the clear intellectual propositions. Such people deny divine providence, despite how clearly it is attested in Scripture, and will therefore leave the path of observance for the path of hefker, where they need not follow any rules.

[R. Arama has put his finger on a key aspect of those who lose faith, and the challenge of kiruv, bringing them back. Judaism essentially depends on signing on to claims the human intellect alone does not necessitate. The Jew unable to submit to the Torah’s truth will have to find someone who can convince him/her to do so, who can offer the right arguments or enticements to buy into a whole way of looking at the world. As R. Arama notes, the extent of the person’s inability to accept the Torah’s ideas will match his/her rejection of observance.]

To R. Arama, Tehillim 12 discusses this issue; as is my practice, I will not digress there except for what I find most interesting. For example, Tehillim 12;3 says shav yedaberu ish et re’ehu sefat halakot, they speak futilely to each other, meaning there is no validity to their words, but they do it with sefat halakot, smooth language. He reads the verse to mean they couch their words in attractive presentations, seem to be interested in fear of Gd and Gd’s service, where libam lo nakhon imam, they actually have no interest.

I noted the comment because it reminds us how easily we can be fooled by slick presentations, can think we can tell what’s true and not, convincing and not, yet those who stubbornly focus only on the fleeting world can be just as persuasive as those trying to bring us to the truths of Torah.

The Individualism of Human Achievement

He also says Torah makes us realize we are supposed to operate at two levels, the immediate needs of ourselves and our families, and then also the good of broader society. That should mean there is a shared element to the ultimate reward, since we have shared our lives with others. However, the Midrash says every righteous person has a place of his/her own in the future world, Baba Batra 75a going so far as to say other righteous people would be burned by the residence of his/her fellow.

R. Arama attributes the idea to the individuality of each righteous person. For all they all have manymitzvotin common, they will have done them in their own unique way and will therefore be given unique reward. The greatest Torah scholar/performer of mitzvot/ servant of Gd will still see something in the least of the righteous s/he did not incorporate in his/her own service and will, in that detail, feel singed by failure.

The elements of mitzvah performance involving contributions to the group or community will earn shared reward [I could have imagined R. Arama would say each person contributes to those, too, in a uniquely individual way, but he does not], the reason the Torah promises many group goods, long life for the nation as a whole, security in their land, superiority over other nations, as a response to their joining together as a group to produce a nation of Gd’s service.

It’s always hard to know, but this does feel like an oblique plea to join and remain with the community, a rejection of the possibility of being good as an individual, removed from the community. Especially because R. Arama continues with the claim the loss of connection among Jews has led to a loss of the common good, the Jews now being a downtrodden nation, reliant on Gd’s kindnesses to restore them (with the implication if the Jews take the first step in rejoining the community acting for and with it, Gd will more quickly restore their status as well.)

The Value of Freewill and the Unknown Date of the Messianic Era

The timing of when Gd will fulfill the various Scriptural prophecies through the agency of the Messiah is not known, says R. Arama, because the uncertainty of exile is itself supposed to help the Jewish people put aside their sins, circumcise their hearts to become more adept at striving for true human perfection.

It also had to be hidden to protect the gift of freewill, as R. Arama calls it, to leave it up to the Jews to come to their submission to Gd on their own.

R. Arama here sounds like he wants it both ways, Gd knows when Mashiah will come, but does not let Himself know, as it were, to protect freewill (he writes liba le-puma lo galei, the heart does not reveal to the mouth, a phrase Kohelet Rabbah 12;1 applied to a verse R. Arama quoted (Yeshayahu 63;4) ki yom nakam be-libi, a day of vengeance is in My heart. Gd has the day planned, as it were, but does not Himself know when it is, because the heart hides it from the mouth.)

Aside from the pitfall it would create for those too soft-hearted to bear the troubles of Jewish history until redemption comes, keeping the date hidden protects people’s ability to find their way to Gd’s service freely. [Again, if I’m correct about his audience, he is here trying to make a bug into a feature—they despair of redemption, he tells them it’s opacity is actually a help.]

Some will be tripped up by it, will use the freedom to cast off the yoke of Gd’s service, because the message of our ability to bring the Messiah sooner than contemplated will not penetrate; they will not be able to absorb Tehillim 95;7, hayom im be-kolo tishma’u, today if you hearken to His Voice. Sanhedrin 98b tells a story of Eliyahu reminding us the verse means Mashiah can come today, if Jews would all obey Gd’s commands.

So far, R. Arama wants us to remember we have to use our minds to figure out how to serve Gd, while at the same time remembering our minds cannot alone tell us all we need to know about it. We also need to take Gd’s commands as given, observe them with our physical beings, and bring our whole persons into the yoke of Gd’s service.

About Gidon Rothstein

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