Saturday, December 02, 2017

Moreh Nevuchim

I recently finished reading Moreh Nevuchim. Here are my notes, organized by page number in the Friedlander translation. If you want to look up an issue, which is not directly referred to in Friedlander's chapter titles, this may be a useful guide.

44 Revelation is an inferior way of communicating what those who are capable should learn through philosophy (also 394)
78 Change implies imperfection either before or after. God as perfect being cannot have changed. Thus can only act on others, not be acted upon
84 Whenever you prove God doesn't have a certain quality, you become more perfect. The more qualities, the higher level you are relative to other people
95 YKVK=existence
99 One can use an interpretation which solves a problem, even if it violates certain grammar rules
104 God is the (Platonic) form of forms
130 Earth is round (also 277)
139 Omnipotence doesn't mean that God can do impossibilities
155 Purpose of the book
178 No-proof is better than a wrong proof
184 Proof from design and diversity (also 291)
195 Being moral helps you reason correctly
196 Directed to a specific person?
198 Aristotle's system is correct refarding the earth, but not the sky/spheres
199 Eternal universe contradicts Tanach less than does incorporeality and other important ideas
210 Miracles built into nature
212 Time created as part of creation
216 Secrets
218 Language is conventional, not natural
228 Intellect leads to logic and imagination. Prophet=both. Intellect vs senses. Teaching is better than learning
232 Torah is not painful, but seems cruel to the carnal
239 Anagrams in Tanach
248 Long lives in Breishit
250 Providence and free will
257 Disagrees with Onkelus re Yehezkel
261 Yetzer hatov <= platonic forms. Yetzer hara <= physical substance
264 Hebrew doesn't have words for bodily functions
265 Physicality = wall between us and God
266 Evil = absence of good. (Its cause: absence of wisdom)
297 Interpretation of Job excites Rambam
310 Only difference between philosophers and us is eternal universe
353 Midrash
356 Belief in God, angels, prophecy, law in that order
375 Torah, like nature, is only partly comprehensible - but that part is sufficient to give us a sense of wonder
385 True worship of God means thinking deeply about the idea of God
386 love of God=knowledge of God
387 intellectual worship of God, not "hollow emotions"
392 Loving God comes from theology, fear from mitzvah performance

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The well story

Parshat Chukat contains a short and cryptic story about a well:
...from there to the well, which is the well about which Hashem said to Moshe, "Gather the people, and I will give them water." Then Israel sang this song: "Rise up, O well - answer it - A well dug by princes, carved by the leaders of the people, with the staff, with their rods" (Bamidbar 21:16-18)
Even in this short passage, we see apparent inconsistencies.
  • First, God says that He will provide the people with water.
  • Then, the people say "Rise up, O well", which perhaps sounds like a well is rising miraculously, as God might do in these circumstances.
  • However, then the people say that the well was dug by human beings, not by God!
  • Then they say that the digging was done by the leaders (not normal manual laborers), and it used their staffs (not normal digging tools)!
How are these pieces to be put together into a single coherent story?

I think the answer is to look at how miracles were often performed in earlier events in the Torah. In Egypt, for example, the norm was for Moshe to point his staff at something, or hit something with his staff, and a miracle would then occur involving that something.

What is the parallel here? God announced to Moshe that God would provide water. Moshe and Aharon got their staffs, and pointed at or hit a certain rock. This caused water to miraculously come from the ground. At which point the people sung their song.

This explains how all the events could logically have happened. But there is still one inconsistency. Initially God announced that He would provide water. But in the song, the people do not mention God's role, but only the role of humans who "dug" the well. Why the difference?

To answer this, let's examine a very similar story from just one chapter earlier. At Mei Merivah, Moshe was commanded to take his staff and provide water for the people. It's not clear exactly why, but God saw Moshe's ensuing actions as a failure to "sanctify God" before the people. One common interpretation is that Moshe hit the rock, rather than speaking to it, which indicated that Moshe rather than God was the one providing water.

If so, at the time of our story with the well, the people might still have believe that Moshe not God was providing them with water. Here Moshe pointed his staff at the ground and water rose from it, which should have been a sign of God's miraculous intervention. But the people mistakenly saw it as an act of Moshe. And when they sang their song, cheering the rise of the well, they chose to praise Moshe and Aharon rather than God.

This understanding resolves all the loose ends in the story. How does it fit with our understanding of the rest of the Torah?

The most obvious question is about "song". There is a midrashic idea (appearing in the Mechilta, Tanchuma, the beginning of Targum Shir Hashirim, and other sources, generally searchable on Bar Ilan CD with the words "eser shirot") which lists ten "songs" that have been sung throughout history. The exact list varies slightly between sources, but here is a common version: in Egypt; after the splitting of the sea; at the well (our story); around parshat Haazinu; by Yehoshua; by Devorah and Barak; by David; by Shlomo; by Shlomo in Shir Hashirim; and the final song which will be recited in the future messianic era. The common element in these "songs" is that they are Divinely inspired, righteous, and holy. But according to my interpretation of the well song, rather than being holy, it was based on a massive theological mistake. It seems that my explanation of the story is incompatible with this view of "song". Accepting this midrash is not an article of faith, but we should be clear what we would have to give up by accepting my explanation.

The second question is the place of the story in Sefer Bamidbar. It is commonly accepted that the Jewish people's behavior was different in the second and fourtieth years of their desert journey. The second year was full of rebellions, culminating in the stories of the spies and Korach. The fourtieth year, in contrast, showed a Jewish people that had learned their lessons, and were now spiritually ready to enter the land of Israel.

But this picture is not so clear. The story of the snakes (21:4-9) was yet another rebellion ending in punishment (though for several reasons it might be more positive than the previous rebellions). And the episode with the daughters of Moav was so serious that God raised the possibility of destroying the people entirely (25:11). Of course there are also more positive stories, such as the people making and keeping a vow to God (21:1-3). So I think there is enough room here for another negative story. The people was still quite flawed, but after 40 years in the desert, they were sufficiently improved that they could handle conquering and living in the land of Israel.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thoughts on Shemot

Aharon your brother... he comes out to meet you, and he will see you and be happy in his heart. (Shemot 4:14)

Why does it matter that Aharon was "happy in his heart"?

Aharon was the oldest, firstborn brother, and here he was called upon to take a subordinate role to Moshe. Elsewhere in the Torah, older brothers typically get angry and jealous when their firstborn role is taken away from them.

The exile in Egypt started when Yosef's brothers sold him into slavery rather than accepting a subordinate role to him. Fittingly, it ended when Aharon was able to graciously and peacefully accept that Moshe had been chosen as the leader, and work together with Moshe to get the Israelites freed.