Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

Pesach 5761: The Four Sons Confront Tragedy

The Haggadah tells us that the Torah addresses the question of telling the Passover story to our children by referring to four different kinds of children. One is wise, one is evil, one is uncomplicated, and the last doesn’t know to ask questions. Each son asks a question, even if the last does so in his silence. We can see from the question what they are looking to take from the seder experience.

I believe these four approaches follow through in how we react to tragedy as well. Given the dismal state of current events, perhaps this is worth some exploration.

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halachah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

This is the wise son’s reaction. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” The wise son is one who turns everything into a learning experience. His response to the seder is “What are the testimonial acts, the dictates, the laws, which Hashem our G-d commanded you?” How does G-d teach us to react to the events of Egypt and freedom? How am I supposed to react to tragedy?

When G-d presents tragedy to the wise son, they are called nisyonos — challenges or tests. Like the Akeidah, a learning experience for Abraham, to get him to fully realize his potential.

The second son, the wicked son, needs a wake up call. What the gemarah refers to as “yisurim”. In the weekday prayer “Tachanun” we ask G-d to forgive our sins “but not through yisurim or bad illness”.

The evil son of the Hagadah doesn’t respond to this wakeup call. He asks, — no, he says rhetorically, “What [good] is this job to you?” Our response is to blunt his teeth and point out that had he been there, he wouldn’t have been amongst those to merit the Exodus. We tell him that it’s not the tragedy that is leading him to rejecting G-d — it’s his rejection of G-d that lead him to the tragedy. I like to imagine he accepts this answer in the silence after the paragraph.

There is a second kind of yissurim, yissurim shel ahavah — tribulations of love. This is not where the person is being evil, but he’s not living up to his full potential. He too is in a rut, and G-d calls to him to break out of it and improve. G-d calls him to ahavah, to greater love and closeness to G-d.

This is the uncomplicated son, the one who believes with simple and pure faith. He asks “What is this?” and we answer with the Pesach story, with all that G-d did for us. Unlike the wise son, who wants to know all the laws of the day, all the nuances of how to react, the uncomplicated son is given motivation to cling to the A-lmighty.

Then there are times where the thing we want is a greater nisayon, a greater challenge, than the ones we don’t. And if we are not up to the challenge, if it’s a test that we couldn’t pass, G-d doesn’t make us face it.

There is a story told (Taanis 24b) of R’ Chanina ben Dosa, a man so holy that the Talmud tells numerous stories of miracles that occured to him. And yet one so poor that a heavenly Voice commented that the whole world was supported by R’ Chanina’s merit, but he himself lived off a small measure of carob from one Friday to the next.

Eventually his wife just couldn’t handle the abject poverty any longer. He agreed to her request that he pray for wealth. A heavenly hand came down and handed them a huge golden table leg. Certainly worth a fortune.

That night, R’ Chanina’s wife had a dream. They were in heaven, and all the other couples were sitting at three legged tables. Except for them. Their table only had two legs, it couldn’t stand.

Realizing that the third leg of their table was the gift they had received, she asked her husband to pray for it to be taken back. And it was.

R’ Chaim Vilozhiner associates the three legs of the table in this story with the mishnah (Avos 1:2) about the three pillars of the world: Torah, Divine service, and acts of charity. The Voice said, after all, that R’ Chanina supported the world.

The golden leg they received was the one of kindness. Until now, they had reason not to give more charity — they had nothing more to give. The story as R’ Chaim understands it (I wouldn’t say this about R’ Chanina ben Dosa on my own), suggests that R’ Chanina would have been unable to practice charity as he was worthy to had he had the opportunity.

So, R’ Chanina ben Dosa was poor.

Similarly, the person who is medically needy because that keeps him close to G-d. The person who, had he been healthy, would have been more distracted by the physical opportunities afforded him.

This is the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Unlike the wise son, who asks “How shall I respond?” or the son of uncomplicated, pure and simple faith, who asks “G-d, G-d, why have you forsaken me?” (Tehillim 22:1) this son isn’t asking anything. He isn’t capable of grappling with this issue — be it a tragedy, or be it the Exodus.

“You shall start for him.” Our response must be to help them grow.

Of course, these four sons are archetypes. Real people are wise on some issues, determined to be wrong about others. We have a simple straight to the point perspectives on yet other things, and there are those issues we aren’t prepared or ready to face. But it is only through growth that we can reach our goals as individuals and as a people.

© 2001,2002 The AishDas Society


Here is a domain in which the split between philosophy and relationship that we’ve been exploring for the past few posts comes to the fore.I developed a philosophy about theodicy, tzadiq vera lo, why tragedy visits people who live far more righteously than others who seem to be free of it. I explored four different reactions to tragedy, comparing them to the different kinds of tragedy named by chazal, and suggested their role in our lives. See my essay “The Four Sons Confront Tragedy” written uncoincidentally the Pesach after 9/11.

However, when news of the tsunami reached me, I was still devastated. Because I was in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 it became my emotional yardstick for tragedy. I still carry around a huge burden of anger toward the people who perpetrated the attack. Now we’re facing a tragedy that current estimates place at forty times the cost of life, with the real possibility of that number doubling due to the secondary effects of disease and hunger.

How can I not be angry? Or at least overwhelmed, shocked, and confused by my Father’s actions? The words that came to mind were those of Avraham avinu, when he learned of the fate of Sedom and Amora. “Chalilah lekha mei’asos davar kazeh, lehamis tzadiq im rashah — It should be far from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked; Chalilah lekhah, hashofeit kol ha’aratz lo ya’aseh mishpat — that the Judge of the entire world would not do justice.” I wrote something to this effect to an email list. As pointed out to me, and my brain knew this without their help, Avraham didn’t voice his anger after the fact, but was pleading with G-d to avoid the tragedy.

And if our goal in life is to “walk yourself before Me and be whole” then we should be looking to see how everything we witness was intended to be witnessed by us.

But to be satisfied with the explanations means that one is willing to settle for ideas about His existance than actually connected with Him. My response, although certainly inappropriate, was at least a real one. I think that much of the reaction that my comment garnered was from our habit to think about G-d, rather than to truly relate to Him as Beloved, Father and Master (c.f. Yedid Nefesh).

Another problem is that kiruv has focused on our ability to market traditional Judaism rather than our ability to teach it. Not everything can be tied up in a nice bow with a simple and satisfying-sounding answer. First, with respect to effective kiruv, admitting to a student that we simply don’t know is both more honest and more trust-gaining than pretending we have the answers to all the questions. As I wrote in “Four Sons”, tragedy exists to be confronted, not explained away. For much of Judaism, the beauty is in its ability to let us frame the questions meaningfully and productively, not answer them.

Divine Timelessness

Bereishis Rabbah( 5:5):

G-d made the creation of water conditional on its splitting before the Jews when they left Egypt….It was not just with the sea that He made a stipulation but with everything that He created during the six days of creation…. G-d commanded the sea to divide, the heavens and earth to be silent before Moshe…the sun and the moon to stand still before Yehoshua, the ravens to feed Eliyahu, the fire not to burn Chananya, Mishael and Azariyah, the lions not to harm Daniel, the Heavens to open before Yechezkeil and the fish to spit out Yonah.

(See also Rambam Shemoneh Peraqim, ch 8, his commentary on Avos 5:6, and Rabbeinu Bachye on Avos 5:8. Sources posted to Avodah by R’ Daniel Eidensohn.)

The problem with miracles is that they seem to imply that G-d changed His Mind between establishing the natural order and choosing to perform that miracle. However, G-d is timeless.

G-d’s timelessness seems to also pose problems with free will. How can I be free to choose when G-d already knows what my choice will be? Rabbi Aqiva seems to simply take it as a divine mystery, “hakol tzafui vehareshus nesunah — all is foreseen, but freedom is granted.” The Rambam, in Hilkhos Teshuvah, also describes it as a Divine Mystery. If we can’t understand what it means that He knows something, where He and His Knowledge are one, and where learning (which is a process of change, and therefore of time) is not involved, how can we discuss mysteries about how that knowledge interacts our free will?

The Or Samei’ach explains it slightly differently. Just as His Knowledge of the past does not change the nature of the present, so too His Knowledge of the future. Because to Him, past and future are the same.

Rav Dessler writes that our perception of the flow of time is a product of eating of the tree of knowledge. With eating the fruit, man’s free will became centered on a progression from desire to effort to fulfillment or frustration. This gives our concept of time a flow, a direction. Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. Adam saw “from one end of the world to the next”, an expression also used of a baby’s soul before birth. They see the map without the paper in front; all of time from one end to the other.

Rav Dessler’s metaphor is akin to Paul Davies’ description of Einsteinian spacetime. In relativistic physics, the universe is a four dimensional sculpture. We think of it as a 3d movie, with time having a flow that the three spatial dimensions do not. But that’s an illusion of our perception.

From this perspective, the Or Samei’ach’s answer is compelling. G-d is like an observer, looking at a sculpture. Yes, the observer could look at one point in the height of the sculpture while touching or moving a lower one. Just as G-d could Know the entirety of history while interacting with any one point in it.

G-d doesn’t know today what I will decide tomorrow, because G-d doesn’t have a “today”. G-d simply knows. The nearest way in which we can assign a point in time to His knowledge is when speaking of when His actions impact creation. And Hashem assures us, using Yishma’el as an example, that man is judged “ba’asher hu sham as he is there” not based on his future. Within time, the direction of causality is preserved.

Similarly, our opening issue. Miracles were written into creation because Hashem has no “initially” and “later”. The decisions were made “simultaneously”, for want of a better word to say “not separated by time”. And in fact, they were therefore the same decision.

This is true for every event of all of creation. God created a 4d sculpture. Not a watch that He could then leave to run on its own. (The use of the word “then” in the previous sentence is a tip-off. It makes sense only in the context of time.) Picture the printing of a timeline in a book. The spot of ink representing 1702 was printed in the same act as the spot representing 2004. Because from the perspective of His Action there is no time, all of the history of the universe is equally ma’aseh bereishis — the act of creation. Our persistence from one moment to the next is the same “strike of the printing press” as the six days at the far end of the timeline. Deism is simply not tenable if time is a created entity.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

There is a quote from the Christian Testament that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it is a rich man to get into heaven.It makes an interesting contrast to a Talmudic quote, a promise G-d makes the repentant: If you make for yourself an opening like the eye of a needle, I will make it into a doorway like the entrance to the Temple Portico.

This is a useful metaphor, as first the doorway was huge, roughly 30×60 ft (20×40 amos), and second because it suggests that G-d gives us the means, but awaits for us to actually step through the portico (ulam) to the holies and holy of holies within.

See also Eiruvin 53b, which speaks of the hearts of the earlies sages being like the doorway of the portico, but the later ones being as broad as the doorway of the heichal (“only” 10×20 amos). It’s a true “dwarves atop giants” type metaphor — the later sages are further within, but their hearts are smaller.

Mahadura Basra ad loc links this to an enigmatic gemara on Eiruvin 21a about the size of the Torah. For more info, see the Kollel Iyun haDaf Insights page for Eiruvin 21.

The line about the sinner having no hope is in the Qur’an 7:40: “The impious shall find the gates of heaven shut, nor shall he enter till a camel pass through the eye of a needle.” The difference is in line with Islam’s stress on Divine Justice to the exclusion of Divine Mercy.

Yeishu’s comment, OTOH, reflects their belief that man can’t redeem himself but must rely on external salvation. Playing down divine justice and only speaking of their god’s mercy. (I don’t capitalize for the trinitarian god, unlike Islam’s true monotheism.)

We, on the other hand, believe in a definition of Good that is tif’eres, a harmony, between the two. We recognize a human condition that is a set of dialectics; we must balance law and love, justice and mercy, truth and peace (think about tact). We therefore see G-d’s actions through two conflicting lenses. As Rashi quotes Chazal in his commentary on the beginning of Bereishis: the Torah uses the tetragrammaton when His actions look to us as those of mercy, and the name E-lokim (c.f. A-llah) when they appear harsh and the imposition of law.

The following is from Hamaayan by Reb Shlomo Katz, served off torah.org:

In the Friday night zemirot composed by the Arizal we read: “To the right and to the left, and in between them, the bride.” The “bride” presumably is Shabbat, but what is “to the right and to the left”?

Rav Pinchus David Horowitz z”l (the “Bostoner Rebbe”) explains:

In kabbalah, the “right” and the “left” represent the attributes of “chessed” (loving-kindness) and “gevurah” (strength) respectively. In our history, Avraham epitomized chessed (the right) and Yitzchak, gevurah (the left).

Avraham fathered Yishmael, who, according to the midrash, refused to accept the Torah because it outlawed adultery. Adultery is the result of chessed (love) gone awry (see Vayikra 20:17). Yitzchak fathered Esav, who refused to accept the Torah because it prohibited murder, which is the excessive use of accept the Torah because it prohibited murder, which is the excessive use of “gevurah.”

The nations on the right and the left observe their sabbaths to the right and the left of Shabbat, i.e., on Friday and Sunday, respectively. It is to this that the Arizal’s song refers.

Each of these three nations –Yishmael, Esav, and ourselves — claims to have the true Torah of Avraham. When we observe Shabbat, says the Bostoner Rebbe, we add to it a few minutes from Friday and a few minutes from Sunday in order to solidify our claim. (quoted in Shoshelet Boston p.273)

Attributes of G-d

When we describe an attribute of G-d, we can’t mean “attribute” in the normal sense. If we said that G-d has properties that are not His essence, we would be saying He is divisible. Therefore, the Rambam takes these “attributes” to be one of two things: 1- descriptions of how G-d relates to man, or 2- descriptions of what He isn’t.Rav Saadia Gaon divides the Rambam’s first category further. Hashem’s actions are those we associate with given attributes, so we are really describing his actions. However, Rav Saadia allows for attributes of the relationship itself. Rachamim (mercy) can therefore describe either our perception of His actions, that they are actions we associate with merciful people. Or, it is an attribute of the G-d-man relationship. But this distinction is rather subtle, and not picked up by the Rambam.In the Rambam’s first category, we find such terms as Rachum (merciful), Chanun (kind, generous), Go’el (redeemer), etc… In the latter, there is Unity, Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and the like. The Rambam explains (Moreh I 58):

It has thus been shown that every attribute predicated of G-d either denotes the quality of an action, or… the negation of the opposite. Even these negative attributes must not be formed and applied to G-d, except in the way which, as you know, sometimes an attribute is negative in reference to some thing, although that attribute can naturally never be applied to it in the same sense, as, eg, we say, “This wall does not see.”… Thus we say the heavens are not light, not heavy, not passive and therefor not subject to impressions, and that they do not possess the sensations of of taste and smell; or we use similar negative attributes. All this we do because we do not know the substance.

There are two ways to understand “infinite.” Either we mean transfinite, large without end. Like the number of integers or the number of real numbers. The other is that the concept related to that limit is meaningless for the subject we are discussing. In the case of the unknowable, the Rambam insists that the second usage is intended.

The Rambam addresses Aristotle’s opinion that the universe is infinitely old by denying the meaning of an infinite regress.

In Aristotle’s and the Rambam’s thought, the idea of a “completed infinity” had too many paradoxes. Instead they dealt with the “potentially infinite”. Rather than saying X is infinitely large they would say that X is larger than any finite quantity you may happen to choose. For any finite sized rock, HQBH’s strength is greater. That’s a weaker claim than saying He has strength of limitless size. The latter also has the bigger problem of making Hashem divisible — Him, and His Strength.

When we say that He is Omnipotent we don’t mean that He has infinite power, rather that “potency” is not a meaningful concept with respect to G-d. Unfortunately, I can not even explain the previous sentence, which is why things are stated in their traditional forms.

Similarly, if we were to ask “where is ’1+1=2′?” there are two valid answers, “everywhere” since “1+1=2″ is true throughout the universe, and “nowhere” since the concept of location does not apply to mathematical truths. The Rambam clearly indicates that G-d’s infinity is to be taken in this second sense. Thus it is true that G-d is everywhere, yet that he is also remote, in heaven – location is meaningless.

Hashem and Logic

Can G-d make a square-circle, or a thing which is both red and not-red, or a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it? In other words, must G-d obey the laws of logic?This question is more serious than it seems. In Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell derives all of mathematics from the roots of symbolic logic. This means that if Hashem can not defy logic, he also can not make pi=3.5. Even worse, if physicists ever get a theory of everything, or if such a theory exists and is never found, than the laws of nature are forced by the laws of math which in turn are all derivable from the laws of logic. If we answer that paradoxes about Hashem aren’t true, we would need to explain, then, how miracles are possible.The nice thing about logic, however, is that a wide variety of things can be proven as long as you pick the right set of postulates. While all of math including geometry are derivable from boolean logic, there is no indication that reality has to map to Euclid’s postulates. (In fact, it doesn’t.) Math gives us many models, reality only conforms to one/some of them. Proofs are simply systems for taking a set of postulates and finding their conclusions. The postulates themselves, come before the application of logic.

Both extreme positions are supported. The Ramchal (Pischei Chachmah 30) insists that G-d’s omnipotence is absolute, even with regard to things we would regard as impossible. The Rambam, on the other hand, (Moreh 3:15) states:

That which is impossible has a permanent and constant property, which is not the result of some agent, and can not in any way change, and consequently we do not ascribe to G-d the power of doing what is impossible. No thinking man denies the truth of this maxim; none ignore it, but such as have no idea of Logic…. Likewise it is impossible that G-d should produce a being like Himself… to produce a square whose diagonal is equal to one of its sides….
We have shown that according to each of these theories there are things that are impossible, whose existence cannot be admitted, and whose creation is excluded from the power of G-d, and the assumption that G-d does not change their nature does not imply weakness in G-d, or a limit to his power.

R. Aryeh Kaplan, in “Jewish Life – Summer ’74″ discusses the question of paradox. He raises a number of classical paradoxes:
How can G-d know what I will decide tomorrow, and yet I have free will in that decision?
G-d is unchanging. However, He is now “the One Who created the universe” whereas He wasn’t before creation. How?
Can G-d create a stone so heavy even He couldn’t lift it?
(I addressed the first two in terms of the inappropriateness of using time-based language when discussing G-d in an earlier entry.)

R’ Kaplan explains:

A very good analogy would be trick glasses in which the right lens is red and the left is green. Therefore, if a person wearing such glasses looks at a white paper, he sees it as red with his right eye, and as green with his left. If he looks at it through both eyes he sees some psychedelic mixture of red and green, but under no conditions can he perceive the color white.

With respect to the stone:

The attributes of action would say that He can create such a stone, “G-d is omnipotent and can do all things.” The negative attributes would indicate that such a stone could not exist.

So, the authorities are split: no (Ramchal), yes (Rambam), and all of the above (Rabbi Kaplan). That should give me some room in which to speculate.

When we looked at Divine Attributes, we defined G-d’s omnipotence as a negative statement. A declaration about what He isn’t. G-d gets results without invoking the notion of “power”. Thus, it is meaningless to invoke the notion of “a rock too heavy for Him to lift” as it is to talk about “a song too red.” G-d cannot just lift a stone of infinite weight, omnipotence means that weight is a non-issue to what He can lift, just as color is.

The other question is can G-d defy paradox in general. I’d have to agree with the Rambam at least to the extent that some system of logic must apply. Didn’t Hashem intend us to use logic to come to understand what we can of Him. If He is above logic, what use is it? How can one say “Since Hashem created logic, therefore …” as the Ramchal does to start his very argument to conclude that theological answers needn’t be logical? How can we the proceed with the rest of this discussion if we didn’t already assume that logic works?

Contemporary logic seems to bear out a position very close to the Ramchal’s. Human reason seems to be closer modeled by Bayesian probability or Fuzzy Logic than the old Aristotelian-Boolean kind. In English: we are equipped to deal with things other than a black-and-white true vs. false. We can reason about things we can only know are probably true. And while happiness and sadness are opposites, ambivalence, where a person feels both because of different perspective on the same thing, is common. As are dialectics: People can believe “The world was created for me” and “I am dust and ashes” at the same time. Quantum level events conform to a Quantum Logic, which is also non-Boolean and non-Aristotelian. An electron can be in a superposition state, where it’s both in one state and another, even though the two contradict; at least until observed. (Don’t try to understand that — I didn’t claim it makes sense, just that it’s how subatomic particles work.)

Aristotle’s Law of Contradiction applies to neither our minds nor the constituents of our atoms. Why need it apply to G-d?

Related to this is my essays on logic and eilu va’eilu (plurality in halakhah) in Mesukim MiDevash for Naso,
and earlier in this blog.

Or, to put it another way — even if logic is a part of Truth, and therefore of Hashem’s essence, which of the many possible systems of logic does that mean? Presumably one of Infinite richness, not the Aristotelian that both the Rambam or the Ramchal were discussing.

Divine Timelessness II, Hebrew Tenses

I – Perfect and Imperfect
Hebrew verb conjugation is usually taught by making the student memorize tables organized by tense and person. The tenses on those tables are past, present, future and imperative (avar, hoveh, asid and tzivui, respectively).

However, it’s unclear if these are the primary tenses in biblical Hebrew. Rather, many translators — from traditional Teimanim to Genesius — understand Tanakh’s Hebrew to be based around two tenses: perfect and imperfect. The perfect tense is used to describe events that are completed. “He went.” Imperfect, actions in progress, “He was going.” Both of my examples refer to something in the past, but one is from the point of completion, and the other not; perfect tense isn’t the same as past tense.

How does this translate into biblical Hebrew? To continue with the example “go”, the perfect tense would be “halakh“, and the imperfect, “yeilekh“. To say “He was going”, we would use the imperfect tense. But we need to connect it to the point in time in the narrative that we’re up to, to say that it was still in progress at this point of the story, not at the time of hearing or reading it. Vav is the letter used to connect (and in fact a vav is a connecting hook, see Shemos 38:10), so we get “vayeilekh“. The vav hahipuch (tense reversing vav) is therefore not a distinct grammar rule, but follows logically. The switch from yeilekh (future) to vayeilekh (past) is possible because the placement in time is not a primary feature of the conjugation.

There is a significant philosophical implication. Time is only introduced to the sentence in relation to something else (which can equally be the time of telling or the time the story is up to). It makes biblical Hebrew better suited for communication between a Timeless Being and ourselves.

II Present Tense

What does it mean when we close the berakhah in Shemoneh Esrei with the words “bonei Yerushalayim“? Are we saying that Hashem is the “Builder of Jerusalem”? Or are we acknowledging that He is “building Jerusalem”, even today, although perhaps in a manner we won’t see until later?

In Hebrew there is what seems to be a basic ambiguity between the present tense and nouns. The word “boneh” is both “builder” and “is building”. Similarly a “shomeir” is a guard, but the same word is used to say “he is guarding”.

I said “seems to be a basic ambiguity because in order for a word to mean two things we have to be convinced that the two meanings are really different. Perhaps that is the whole point. In Western thought, we are taught to make a distinction between what a person does and who he is. However, in Hebrew, it is difficult to articulate that distinction.

Hu omeir” — he said and during that while, was a speaker. One doesn’t say “He is speaking” but identifying him as a speaker. Again, it eliminates the role of time in Hebrew conjugation. Hashem isn’t currently building Jerusalem, because He has no time, no “currently”. However, we can call Hashem “the Builder”, and say that we relate to Him in our now in those terms.

III Adjectives

Another apparent ambiguity arises earlier in Shemoneh Esrei. In the first berakhah we quote Moshe Rabbeinu who praises G-d as “HaKel haGadol haGibor vehaNorah“. Translations vary. Some render the phrase “The Great, Mighty, and Awe-inspiring G-d”. Others, including the Vilna Gaon, treat it as “The G-d, the Great One, the Mighty One, the Awe-Inspiring One”. One understands it as a noun and three adjectives, the other, as four nouns.

Again, in order for this not to be ambiguous, we have to identify adjective with noun, describing a feature of the thing with the thing itself. Aristotle makes a distinction between essence, what the thing is, and accident, properties it happened to pick up along the way. If Hebrew blurs the distinction, then the speaker of biblical Hebrew was discouraged from making this distinction.

So, in Biblical Hebrew, the same conjugation is used for nouns, present tense verbs, and adjectives.

There is a major mussar statement. You can’t fool yourself into saying that “really” you’re a good person, deep down. You are what you do. While you are building, you are a builder. You can’t fool yourself by saying that you just act one way, but deep down youare otherwise. (Of course, when speaking of ourselves, “otherwise” means “better”, and when speaking of others, we mean “worse”.) What you make of yourself isn’t simply adjectives, attributes atop your essence, it’s who you are.

We might see these possible sources of confusion as flaws, but in reality, we’re eliminating artificial distinctions that get in the way of understanding G-d and ourselves.


Shir haMa’alos: Mima’amaqim qarasikha Hashem
A song of ascents: From the depths, I call You, Hashem

- Tehillim 120:1
I’ve written a number of essays about tragedy from the perspective of philosophy and theory. But there are times when it simply isn’t the right approach.What do you say to someone who is in the middle of facing profound tragedy? A friend of mine recently lost his teenage daughter. You pay a shiv’ah call. What’s the right thing to say? Is there a right thing to say?Rav Nachum ish Gamzu would face every challenge and disappointment with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the good.” Similarly Rabbi Aqiva, who studied under Rav Nachman ish Gamzu, said, “Everything the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything has a role in Hashem’s grand scheme. If it occurred, it has a good and positive outcome.

Very nice in theory. But how can a holocaust survivor, someone who lost his entire family, who saw children sent to the crematoria, possibly be asked to embrace this idea? How can parents bereft of their beloved daughter be told “everything has a plan, it’s really for the best” and not feel that the explanation is both emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest (as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it)? Particularly since rare is the glimpse that we finite humans get into the infinite and Absolute Divine Wisdom.

We find the same phenomenon in the book of Iyov. The book opens telling the reader the reason for Iyov’s future woes. The Satan, the challenging angel, believes that Iyov has mastered the art of serving G-d from plenty, and needs to learn how to serve Him even in the face of poverty and adversity. Yet Iyov goes through one disaster after another, seeks their meaning, and never finds one. The book closes with Hashem telling him that the search is futile, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know the understanding!” (Iyov 38:3) Knowing the reason exists is a far cry from either being able to understand it or embrace it.

The word “aveilus” is translated “mourning”. Etymologically, though, it’s a form of the word “aval — but”. Aveilus is a time when none of the answers make sense; the aveil says, “I know that Hashem has his reasons, but …” When my wife and I lost our infant daughter, a recurring question in my mind was, “Yes, but why me?” Aveilus is a state where the gap between our knowledge and our hearts is acute and the chasm of pain impassable.

So what does someone do when they find themselves “walking in the valley of Deathshadow”? If it’s not the right time for explanations, what does one say?

The standard formula is “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The message is that first, G-d is everywhere — He is with you in your pain. And second, you are not a single person suffering alone.

Shir hama’alos — What is the song of ascents, the means of lifting up from the pit of despair?

“From the depths I call you, Hashem.” “Qarov Hashem lekhol qor’av, lekhol asher yiqra’uhu be’emes — Hashem is close to all who call Him, to anyone who truthfully calls Him.” (Ashrei; Tehillim 145:18) Calling out to Hashem from the depths of one soul and the depths of despair brings Him close.

At the very moment that one is grappling with “Why me, G-d?” one is calling out to Hashem with unadulterated honesty and the core of one’s being. The sufferer is seeking a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. A tragic period in our lives is a unique opportunity not to explain Hashem, but to come close to Him. Not seek explanations, but to be warmed by his embrace.

Hashgachah Peratis as a level of abstraction

Say you were a chip designer, and you wanted to know why this particular trace (wire) on some particular microprocessor chip went from 0 volts to 3 volts….The answer could be given at various levels of abstraction.

1- In quantum mechanical terms: We could speak of the doped gallium arsenide that the chip is made out of, valence levels, electrons, and quantum tunneling, and get to the point where we explain how voltage going to one part of a transistor allowed the voltage to jump from another part to a third one that the trace is connected to.

2- In transistor terms: The power at the side of the transistor in the begining of the trace changed voltage, the transistor changed state, and now let power through to our trace.

3- In digital logic terms: Because the trace is the output of an “AND” gate, and both input to the gate were 1. 3v means 1, so the output was 1 as well.

4- In computer design terms: The trace we’re looking at holds the bit in the output of an adder that indicates whether the result is negative or not. The inputs to the adder were -3 and -5. Since the result is negative, the adder output has this
bit set to “true”.

4- Programming terms: The processor is implementing the code “sum = a[i][j][k] + y[x][y][z];”

5- Application terms: The user has a spreadhseet open. She entered -3 into cell A1, -5 into A2, and =A1+A2 into cell A3. It’s now computing the value to display for A3.

6- Human terms: A woman is using a spreadsheet to balance her checkbook, this wire plays a role in her knowing that at this point, the balance is negative.

All of the above descriptions could be true simultaneously, and as we get to higher levels of abstraction, intent becomes increasingly involved in the explanation.

Similarly, there is no contradiction between nature and hashgachah. A person who lives life staring at nature will see natural explanations for his experiences. One who lives for higher ideals will see events fitting Divine Intent. (This is just a variant of the Maharal’s and Rav Dessler’s explanations of nature vs miracle.)

Also, the more central one’s role is in the course of history, the simpler it will be to find the Intentional explanation. Just as it’s easier to explain the voltage level in a wire that denotes the sign of an addition result than it is to explain that used in routing data from one component on a chip to another. The former is closer to the purpose of the person balancing her checkbook.

And so, it may not be that the righteous experience more hashgachah peratis. We could say that everyone experiences a world that is both fully natural and fully hashgachah. However, the righteous merit more experiences whose hashgachah explanation is comprehensible and more obvious to us. They don’t experience more events of hashgachah, but more hashgachah in what could be the same events.