PROVIDENCE & COMMANDMENTS
Ibn Ezra & Ramban
— Rabbi Israel Chait —
Transcription of the1980s Pirkei Avos shiurim
“I appeared to Abraham to Isaac and Jacob as אל שדי but My name יהוה was not known to them” (Exod. 6:3). From this verse one can see there is some deeper understanding necessary to explain God’s names.
There is a concept that this verse points to, as Torah verses always do. Ibn Ezra comments on this verse which corroborates Maimonides’ words on God’s providence and how it operates. But in studying God’s providence, we are at a loss. We realize that we cannot understand it so we might say it’s fruitless to exert the effort.
Ibn Ezra writes (Ibid.):
And now I will reveal to you a little bit of a principle of אל שדי… If man’s soul is wise and recognizes God’s actions are without any intermediary, and he leaves the desires of this physical world and he secludes himself to attach himself to God, if in the arrangement of the stars (natural order) at the time of his birth it was determined [i.e., physical causes and effects dictated] that this person would experience certain negative occurrences on a certain day, God, Who cleaves to this man, creates causes to save him from of that evil. And similarly, if according to the arrangement of the stars somebody should be barren, God will fix natural law and she will bear a child. Therefore, the rabbis said that God said to Abraham, “Leave your astrology.” Similar to this is the idea behind “There is no constellations for Israel.” Therefore, God said to Abraham before He told him that He would increase his seed that He is אל שדי. The explanation being that He can save a person from the natural order. This does not mean the natural order is destroyed, rather that it is known that one who cleaves to God benefits from God’s goodness removing him from natural order. Therefore, Jacob said “the angel that saved me from all evil”— evil that I should have experienced naturally.
And this is the principle of the entire Torah, but the patriarchs did not reach the level of Moshe who knew God face-to-face. Therefore, Moshe was able to change the nature of the world and created miracles and wonders which the patriarchs could not do.
This Ibn Ezra explains our attitude towards God’s providence. God’s providence is not a magical phenomenon as people think in a childish sense: “If I do good I will magically be rewarded or saved.” If God’s providence was so simple, it would not be such an elaborate system. This is because God works according to a system of wisdom, as anyone who studies the universe will admit. The universe displays and inherent logical order. Ibn Ezra says there is a system to the order of the heavens. There are natural laws that dictate details and the details man experiences are results of fixed laws. This order stems from the world that God created and this is all dictated by wisdom. Thus, each particular result that man experiences can be traced to a source of wisdom [natural causes and effects. For example, the heat generated by this sun on a specific location on earth can cause atmospheric changes that result in a land slide that wipes out a city where a certain individual lives. His tragedy is the result of natural causes.] Judaism maintains this wisdom governs the universe and stems from God. Since the particulars of the universe, i.e., individual events, are governed by wisdom, when man partakes of wisdom he moves into a new metaphysical realm. Man then makes contact so to speak with the source [God] of the particulars. The fool thinks that particulars such as the physical pleasures are the real world as he gains satisfaction from them. He does not realize as does the chocham, that the world of wisdom [laws] is what governs all particular’s [physical creations and events] and that wisdom is more real than the physical expressions of wisdom. Even our sense perceptions are a result of intricate wisdom. The world of wisdom is responsible for the particulars we experience. A person involved in the desires is metaphysically corrupt for he ascribes reality to the physical world, feeling that it is the essence of life. But pleasure itself depends on a complex system of wisdom: how the nervous system operates, etc. But the chocham turns away from the physical [pleasure seeking] lifestyle as he views it as a mere expression of the world of wisdom that drives the physical world. The chocham is attracted to the greater world.
Ibn Ezra says that if man engages in the world of wisdom, he takes a step from the physical world to the metaphysical world, the latter being the ultimate reality that dictates the existence and behavior of the physical world. Once man makes that step and he lives in the world of ideas and wisdom, his relationship to God changes. He is moved out of the world of natural law [the order of the heavens] the world of particulars, into a different and metaphysical relationship with God, the source of all that exists.
Thus, through his mind, man determines in which worldly operates. If he lives a sensual life, he is subject to particulars, meaning the natural chain of cause-and-effect. But if with his intelligence man lives a metaphysical lifestyle, his relationship to God has changed and he now lives in the world that is responsible for the particulars. Thereby, he is no longer subject to the influence of natural law. [This explains why Abraham and Sarah had children in old age, and literally every other supernatural occurrence experienced by the prophets.]
Such perfected individuals are no longer subject to chance, the meaning of “There is no constellation [governing] Israel.” Since the Jews are metaphysically different as we believe in a reality beyond the physical which is responsible for the physical world, the Jews stand in a different relationship to the Source of reality. Thus, the Jews are not subject to natural law but are directly influenced by the Creator.
This is Ibn Ezra’s outline. He says it is not that natural law is destroyed, but that man can leave the world of particulars and come under the direct influence of the Source of natural law, and no longer be subjected to natural law. Ibn Ezra says this is the fundamental principle of the Torah.
This was the level of the patriarchs, but not of Moshe. The patriarchs rose above the particulars and were in line with the world of wisdom and therefore experienced God’s providence. This is the fundamental principle of Torah because this is the metaphysics of Judaism. To suggest that thought is merely a tool, one misses this Torah fundamental. Thought is not merely a tool but the uncovering of the Source of reality. In doing so, man relates to God. This refers to the lives of the patriarchs.
Moshe was different; he knew God through his name יהוה. “This explains why Moshe could perform the miracles, unlike the patriarchs.” Maimonides states (Hilchos Chametz Umatza 7:2) the phrase, “The miracles that were performed through Moshe our teacher.” This means that only Moshe was able to perform these miracles. Of course, this is difficult to understand, for if we understood this concept, we would be on Moshe’s level.
The patriarchs partook of God’s wisdom, and in doing so, they benefited from God’s providence. But Moshe partook of God’s wisdom to the level where he could manipulate natural law.
We commenced by asking whether or not the world makes sense. The answer is that the world makes sense to man in a strange way. It simultaneously does and does not make sense. But that is descriptive; we must give a better answer than that:
For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways —declares the Lord. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways And My plans above your plans. (Isaiah 55:8,9)
There is a qualitative difference between God’s thoughts and man’s thoughts. Even the most brilliant man is nothing in comparison to God. Nonetheless, somewhere in human knowledge is a reflection of God’s knowledge. Where precisely that is we do not know. But the greater the chocham, the closer he can approach it. But the fundamentals of Judaism are that the world makes sense to us, we know there is a divine order, and we know that with wisdom we partake of it. So it is not that the world makes sense to God and not to man, because if it made no sense to us, we would have no relationship to the world. But to say the world does make sense to man is equally false because then we would understand everything, and that is not true. Our mind tells us there as a sense to the world which we partake of through employing our intelligence.
As one blesses God for goodness one must also bless God upon evil. (Sefer HaIkkarim, Maamar 2 26:7)
Maimonides says this should be stated with “happiness and a good heart” in the “same” way one blesses God for the good. But how can one be happy in the face of tragedy? This is because he knows that in the real world this tragedy is a positive thing, even though it does not make sense to him in his emotional framework. [As God designed the world where there is mishap, this must have a positive purpose. An example is that through eating spoiled food, one gets sick. The benefit is that his illness stands as an eternal warning to never repeat that mistake.]
Judaism obligates us to attach our emotional life to reality. Albert Einstein once said, “We know enough to know there exists a system of order beyond what we see.” Judaism maintains the same, but it takes this premise and attaches it to our daily lives, as expressed in this principle of blessing God equally for good and bad. We know enough to know that there is a divine order behind all that we see, even though we encounter tremendous problems.
Ramban says (Exod. 13:16) that the purpose of the miracles in Egypt was that man should know that God exists:
And now I will tell you a general rule about the explanation of many commandments. Behold, from the time of there being idolatry in the world—from the days of Enosh—the opinions about faith started to blur. Some of them deny the fundamental principle and say that the world is prior [to God's creation] and 'they rejected God and say, “He is not.’” And some reject His knowledge of particulars - 'And they say, “How can He know, and is there knowledge to the Most High?’” And some of them concede His knowledge but reject His oversight, and 'they make man to be like the fish of the sea,' that God not supervise them and there not be punishments and reward with them at all - they say, “The Lord has abandoned the Earth.’”
And when God favors a certain community or individual and does a wonder for them by changing the custom of the world and its nature, the nullification of these opinions becomes clear to everyone. As the amazing wonder teaches that there is a God in the world who innovated it, and knows and supervises and is able [to do whatever He wants].
And when this wonder is forecasted by the mouth of a prophet, the truth of prophecy also becomes clear from it - that God speaks with man and reveals His secret to His servants, the prophets. And with this, all of the Torah is established. And therefore, the verse states about the wonders (Exodus 8:18), "so that you will know that I am the Lord in the midst of the Earth," to teach about [His] supervision, that He did not leave it to happenstance, as per their opinion. And it stated (Exodus 9:29), "so that you will know that to the Lord is the Earth," to teach about [His] innovation [of the Earth] - since they are His, as He created them from nothing. And it stated (Exodus 9:14), "in order that you will know that there is none like Me in the whole Earth," to teach about His ability, that He determines everything - there is no one that stops Him. As the Egyptians rejected or were in doubt about all of this. If so, the great signs and wonders were trustworthy witnesses about faith in the Creator and about the entire Torah.
And since the Holy One, blessed be He, will not do a sign and wonder in each generation in front of the eyes of each evildoer or heretic, He commanded us that we should always make a memorial and a sign to that which our eyes saw. And we should copy this thing for our children, and their children for their children, and their children for the last generation. And [the Torah] was very strict about this, such that it made one liable for excision [Karase], for eating of chametz (Exodus 12:15), and for leaving the Pesach sacrifice (Numbers 9:13). And it required that we write all that was shown to us of signs and wonders upon our arms and upon our eyes, and also to write them at the entrances to houses in mezuzot. And [it required] that we mention it with our mouths, in the morning and in the evening, as the sages said (Berakhot 21a), "[The blessing that mentions the leaving of Egypt and begins,] 'true and enduring' is [an obligation from] the Torah," from that which is written (Deuteronomy 16:3), "in order that you remember the day of your leaving the land of Egypt all the days of your life." And [it required] that we make a Sukkah booth every year. And so [too], many commandments in memory of the leaving of Egypt, are similar to these.
And all of it is to be a testimony for us for all of the generations about the wonders, that they not be forgotten; and that there not be an opening for the heretic to speak and reject faith in God. As one who buys a mezuzah for one zuz and affixes it to his entrance and has intent for its matter, has already conceded to [God's] innovation [of the Earth] and to the knowledge of the Creator and His supervision, and also to prophecy. And [such a person] believes in all of the outlines of the Torah, besides conceding that the kindness of the Creator to those who do His will is very great - as He took us out of Egypt, from that slavery to freedom and great honor in the merit of their forefathers that desired to fear His name.
And therefore they said (Avot 2:1), "Be careful with a light commandment as with a weighty one," since they are all very desirable and beloved - as through them a person concedes to his God all the time.
And the intention of all the commandments is that we believe in our God and concede to Him that He is our Creator. And that is the intention of creation, as we have no other explanation for the first creation - and the highest God only desires the lower beings, so that man should know and concede to his God that He created him. And the intention of raising of the voice in prayer and the intention of synagogues and the merit of communal prayer is that there be a place for people to gather and concede to God that He created them and makes them exist, and to publicize this and to say in front of Him, "We are Your creatures." And this is the intention of what they said, may their memory be blessed (Yerushalmi Taanit 2:5), “And they called to God with strength” (Jonah 3:8) - from here you learn that prayer requires [an audible] voice; the brazen is victorious over the timid.
And from the great public miracles, a person can [also] concede to hidden miracles, which constitute the foundation of the entire Torah. As a person does not have a share in the Torah of Moshe, our teacher, until he believes that all of the things and events we [encounter] are all miracles [and] there is no nature or custom of the world with them, whether with regard to the many or to the individual. But rather, if one does the commandments, his reward will bring him success and if the transgresses them, his punishment will cut him off - everything is the decree of the Most High, as I have already mentioned (Ramban on Genesis 17:1, and Exodus 6:2). And hidden miracles regarding the many become publicized when they come from the objectives of the Torah in [the form] of the blessings and the curses, as the verse stated (Deuteronomy 29:23-24), "All the nations will say, 'Why did the Lord do thus to this land?'[...] They will say, 'Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, God of their fathers," such that it will be publicized to all of the nations that it is from the Lord, as their punishment. And regarding the fulfillment [of the commandments], it states (Deuteronomy 28:10), "And all of the peoples of the land will see that the name of the Lord is called upon you and they will fear from you.'" And I will explain this more with God's help (Ramban on Leviticus 26:11).
This Ramban appears to contradict another Ramban in Genesis we’re he says man is not always under providence. He quotes the verse “God’s eye is towards those who fear Him” (Psalms 33:16). This means that man is under God’s providence, but only if he fears God. But the Ramban above says:
As a person does not have a share in the Torah of Moshe, our teacher, until he believes that all of the things and events we [encounter] are all miracles [and] there is no nature or custom of the world with them, whether with regard to the many or to the individual.
On the High Holidays, we recite in our prayers “He who suspends Earth on nothingness” (Job 26:7). Maimonides says that we originally possessed an astronomy from Sinai together with Torah’s wisdom, but it was lost, and all astronomy we possess including the calculation of the months is based on the Greeks. Maimonides says that where the truth comes from is irrelevant.
The ancient astronomers did not know Job’s idea of God suspending Earth on nothingness, that Earth is suspended in empty space. They thought Earth is built upon solid matter all the way down. But this concept of Earth suspended by nothing is precisely what is stated in Job. Why did the Torah see it fit to teach us this fact?
People find satisfying that knowledge to which they are accustomed. But Earth’s suspension by nothingness in empty space conflicts with what we were raised to believe: things are not suspended in midair. This verse teaches that God’s knowledge is of a different kind: not the kind with which we feel emotionally comfortable. That which we call “sensible” stems from matters we are used to. That inherent belief that God’s knowledge is of a different nature, is not sensible to man emotionally, but is the fundamental principle of the entire Torah.
When Ramban says “there is no nature and all is miracle,” he does not deny the laws of nature, for he said so himself and it is an obvious fact. Furthermore, it is a verse in the Torah, “Thus said the Lord: As surely as I have established My covenant with day and night—the laws of heaven and Earth” (Jer. 33:25). Ramban says that unless a man fears God, he is subject to natural law. What he means by “there is no nature and all is miracle,” is that there exists no “power of nature” [an autonomous and random force operating without God’s direction]. This refers to a certain “power of nature” that people [erroneously] attribute to nature. Nature seems to make sense to people. But Ramban says that this notion is false. In truth, nothing really “makes sense”: a phrase referring to matters that are emotionally satisfying [and not that such matters have passed a rigorous analysis and are proven rationally, or are understood].
When Ramban says there is no nature and all is miracle, he means that since everything operates by God’s wisdom, this is [far] removed from human understanding and therefore, all is “miracle”— all is unfathomable [as must be so, as we are addressing God’s wisdom]. All that we experience reflects God’s tremendous wisdom—from the growth of a tree to the rising and setting of the sun. But as we have grown accustomed to these phenomena, we accept their existence and behavior. But in truth, if we thought about any phenomenon, all is “suspended in midair” so to speak; all is unfathomable [miracle]. Every manifestation man experiences expresses God’s wisdom and all is truly astonishing.
Yet, there is something in man that partakes of that ultimate wisdom…to a degree. This is why one must bless God equally concerning pleasant news and tragedies, as man knows enough to know that there is a divine order to the universe. [Despite bad emotional feelings evoked by tragedy, man must recognize all that exists— be it good or bad—forms part of God’s world that was designed with perfect knowledge and wisdom.] One who denies this principle that all operates by a divine and wise order, has no share in Moshe’s Torah.
This explains the repetition in so many mitzvos to remember the Egyptian Exodus, because that event and all the plagues demonstrated God’s control of [every region of] the universe. This repetition also serves to remind all generations of this principle, as God does not perform wonders in each generation.
In summary, man does not want to live in a world without order [without meaning]. People in search of that order who cannot find it, give up and become heretics, feeling that God abandoned Earth. Judaism does not satisfy a person by providing a feeling that the world makes sense emotionally. But it does provide the comfort that there is a sense to the world’s operation.
The obligation—philosophically and even according to halacha—is that a person should summon all his energies behind this concept through his dimension that perceives reality. That is, through Torah’s wisdom, man obtains knowledge of the system of divine providence. And this knowledge tells them that God relates to man in the system. Thus, the system must be rational [explaining the blessing over good and bad tidings equally].