A New Sefer, Starting with Bending Freewill to Gd’s Service

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Meshech Hochmah has a long introduction to the book of Shemot. To be sure we also had time for some of the actual parashah, I have taken only parts of the introduction, but much of it was too good to pass up.

Moshe’s Special Role in Setting Up Torah

He makes a point the Torah itself made and Rambam (among others, such as Ran in his Derashot) emphasized, Moshe’s prophecy was proven true and eternal in a way qualitatively superior to all other prophets. Meshech Hochmah thinks all other prophets established their status either with miracles or by certification from an already-accepted prophet, such as Eliyahu telling the Jewish people Elisha would be prophet after him [Rambam disagrees, but that’s a digression we do not need right now],

Problem is, neither of those paths prove the truth of a prophet indubitably. Meshech Hochmah suggests such prophets are more like how courts believe two unimpeached witnesses; we are required to believe them, and probably most often they are telling the truth, but there easily could be exceptions. In particular, he notes tradition’s view of Hananiah b. Azur (a prophet of Yirmiyahu’s time, see Yirmiyahu 28), originally a true prophet, who later switched to making false claims as if they were prophecies.

Second, if miracles are the reason we believe a prophet, if someone later finds ways to do more impressive miracles [think: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court] that person could uproot the original prophecy. To ensure that would not happen with Moshe, Gd raised the entire Jewish people to the level of prophecy, so they could themselves directly witness/experience Gd’s speaking to Moshe panim el panim, face to face (as it were), and be sure this would not ever be replicated or replace. The knowledge and experience justifies rejecting any prophet who tries to reverse or change the Torah, allows us to be sure that prophet is false and to be put to death.

It is why Shemot 19;9 will say Gd is going to appear to Moshe in front of the people so they will believe in Moshe forever. Because we ourselves (as the continuations of our forefathers who stood at Sinai) experienced this, we know no other prophet can ever reach that level. (As a fascinating aside, he says Rambam dealt with these topics well in Yesodei ha-Torah 7 and 8, says all his words there are sanctified, and were without doubt said in a spirit of prophecy. Worth a whole discussion of its own.)

Free Will, Its Importance, and Moshe’s Lack of It

He struggles with Gd’s having placed such confidence in Moshe, because what if Moshe went wrong after that, said things that were not what Gd had wanted, even, Gd forbid, inserted them into the Torah? His simple answer is that Gd removed Moshe’s freewill; from that point on, Moshe was not fully his own person [he can’t mean this as broadly as it sounds, because then how could Moshe have failed at Mei Merivah? I assume he means in terms of claiming he heard ideas from Gd.]

He is not fully comfortable with the idea, because freewill (this too goes back at least to Rambam) is what makes people human, worthy servants of Gd. Angels have no freewill, always do what’s right, yet Gd wants humans to serve. More, the human soul did no wrong before being placed in a body, yet Gd decided to place it in a body, because Gd valued the lifelong struggle to overcome our baser instincts, to rise to higher and higher levels. Why would Moshe be denied this path?

[Theoretically, he could have said it was necessary for human history.] Instead, he says Moshe had worked on himself well enough to reach a level where almost all his freewill was gone anyway, and that’s the human goal. He has pulled a switch, now lets us know overcoming freewill is a first stage, the ultimate goal is to reach a point where one is no longer even tempted, where there is no need to overcome oneself.

We might think Gd wants people to live human lives, encounter and overcome temptation in the name of serving Gd. That is not wrong, only incomplete. The more accurate expression of Meshech Hochmah’s view sees the goal of service as being to ingrain it so fully it becomes literally nature, so we’re no longer even tempted (this, too, goes back at least to Rambam in his Introduction to Avot.)

Surprising steps one and two: Moshe’s prophecy has been firmly established by the entire Jewish people having been brought to enough of a level of prophecy to witness Gd’s “face to face” interactions with Moshe, to therefore know, more certainly than any other prophet after, that Moshe’s prophecy was true and would not be changed.

For Moshe to be the bearer of such prophecy, Gd had to be able to trust he would never go wrong, and did so by withdrawing his freewill, Moshe having already almost reached the height of human growth, where his freewill was no longer relevant anyway.

Yehoshu’a Also Shed His Freewill

All well and good, except tradition (he cites Makkot 11a) suggested Yehoshu’a too was empowered to include certain passages in the Torah, the last verses of the Torah [our Gemara says eight, where Meshech Hochmah says eleven, I think a reference to a comment of Ibn Ezra’s, another topic of its own for another time] or the parts about the cities of refuge.

Nedarim 22b also implies Yehoshu’a’s prophecy was of a different type than other prophets, because it says that had the Jewish people not sinned, they would have been given only the Torah itself and the book of Yehoshua, suggesting there was something essential about his prophecy as well [Rashi thinks it is that Yehoshu’a lays out the conquest of Israel, in which case it’s not really about level of prophecy.] If so, Meshech Hochmah assumes, Gd must have taken away his freewill as well, because it was impossible to have a prophet with such power who also had meaningful freewill.

To prove it was true for Yehoshu’a, Meshech Hochmah offers two ideas. First, when the spies go to Israel, Rava in Sotah 34b said Moshe changed his disciple’s name from Hoshe’a to Yehoshu’a as a prayer that Gd protect him from joining the other spies. (Meshech Hochmah is taking that to mean Gd will make it impossible for him, by withdrawing his freewill.)

In addition, Moshe tells the people he knows they will descend into idolatry after his death, Devarim 31;29, when they did not do so for all the time of Yehoshu’a.  Midrashic tradition thought this showed a man’s student counts as himself, that it was as if Moshe was still alive all of Yehoshu’a’s life [I have seen this many times, but cannot locate it in my Bar Ilan; I did find Akeydat Yitzchak says it in his Humash commentary]. If Yehoshu’a is a continuation of Moshe, presumably he too had achieved the lack of freewill.

Stopping the Sun

Their spiritual level explains their ability to stop the sun, according to Meshech Hochmah. [While verses in Yehoshu’a say he did it, the Gemara in Ta’anit understands that Moshe did so as well, as did a man named Nakdimon b. Guryon. Once again, not our topic now.] The sun serves Gd as do angels, where only Gd’s Will matters, feel compelled to act as they understand Gd’s Will [not as coercion, as an awareness this is what should happen; remember that Jewish tradition speaks as if what we usually consider inanimate parts of the world have thoughts and feelings].

While people reach greater heights than angels (or heavenly bodies), they only do so by overcoming their animalistic instincts. Those who do so successfully can command the sun or moon, because they are at a higher level of Gd’s service, with the significant caveat there must be a guarantee they will not backslide. Iyov 15;15 says Gd does not trust even His most holy ones, as it were, because people are generally susceptible to failure even after long times of success.

Moshe and Yehoshu’a were different in their having reached a state where regression was impossible, because they had slain their freewill.

Quite an introduction, with themes I bet we will see again in the future. But let’s make sure to see two comments on actual verses of this parsha.

Moshe’s Father, Legislator

When Gd first speaks to Moshe, 3;6, Gd says He is the Gd of your father, of Avraham, of Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. Theoretically, the first phrase meant the Gd of your father Avraham, but Meshech Hochmah suggests it means Amram. In what way? He points to Laws of Kings 9;1, where Rambam lists how mitzvot came into the world, six to Adam, one more to Noah, one to each of the Avot and then says Gd commanded Amram in many mitzvot.

I’ve struggled with that comment, because it is not clear where Rambam got the idea. Meshech Hochmah suggests this could be one contributing text, that Gd counts as the Gd of Moshe’s father because Amram had been commanded in mitzvot [I do not think we know which ones].

I primarily notice it because it’s a Rambam I wonder about from time to time. In addition, though, it reminds us the process of bringing Gd’s commandments into the world was more piecemeal than we might realize, one of those events being Amram’s lifetime, when he preceded his son as a lawgiver to the Jewish people.

Coercion Helps Only Jews Do the Right Thing

Telling Moshe about the process it will take to get the Jews out of Egypt, Gd says  He knows Par’oh will not let the Jews go, 3;19, ve-lo be-yad hazakah. Meshech Hochmah thinks it means Gd’s mighty hand might eventually coerce Par’oh to release the Jews, but will never bring him to agree to release them.

This is in contrast to Jews, where tradition thinks (as Rambam famously phrased it in the second chapter of Laws of Divorce) a Jew who is forced to do the right thing, who seems to only be saying s/he wants to, really does want to, because the Jewish soul always wants to act properly, is sometimes waylaid by his/her baser instincts.

Not so with non-Jews like Par’oh, for whom coercion will eventually produce the needed outcome, but never the preferred change of heart in Par’oh himself.

Moshe and Yehoshu’a utilized their freewill to submit fully to Gd’s Will, earning status as conduits for the Torah itself, because there was no worry they would regress. Moshe may have learned it from his father, whose being commanded in mitzvot linked him to Gd in ways similar to the Avot. And in ways Par’oh never managed to achieve, even coercion not enough to get him to reach internal change.

About Gidon Rothstein

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