Shiur #17: The Divine Influence (Part II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In the previous lecture, I cited a passage (I, 109) that summarizes the three attainments reached by a person who has become joined with the Divine influence:


1)   Prophecy (or something nearly approaching it) and revelation accompanied by grand signs and miracles.

2)   Providence and governance that are not subject to the laws of nature.

3)   Rising above physicality.


Thus far, I have dealt with the first element and its ramifications, comparing Rihal's approach to other approaches. I shall now move on to the next two elements.




[The land of Israel's] fertility or barrenness, its happiness or misfortune, depend upon the Divine influence which your conduct will merit, while the rest of the world would continue its natural course. For if the Divine presence is among you, you will perceive by the fertility of your country, by the regularity with which your rainfalls appear in their due seasons, by your victories over your enemies in spite of your inferior numbers, that your affairs are not managed by simple laws of nature, but by the Divine Will. You also see that drought, death, and wild beasts pursue you as a result of disobedience, although the whole world lives in peace. This shows you that your concerns are arranged by a higher power than mere nature. (I, 109)


     Rihal establishes here a most fundamental principle regarding reward and punishment. He distinguishes between the people of Israel and the nations of the world regarding the level of Providence that governs them. Rihal asserts that what sets Israel apart is not necessarily the good that God confers upon His people, but the fact that God watches over Israel for better or for worse.


     The nations of the world are subject to the laws of nature. This means that there is no necessary connection between what happens to them and their moral conduct. Nature does its thing, subject to the natural laws that were established at the time of creation. Rain falling in its season results from a succession of meteorological and other combinations, a chain of causes and effects, until the final result is reached – the falling or non-falling of rain. A gentile's moral conduct has no effect upon this system, and rain will fall or not fall, regardless of the behavior of the people.


Even supposing some nations had followed Him and worshipped Him, their conversion being the result of hearsay and tradition, yet where do we find His acceptance of them and His connection with them, His pleasure in their obedience, His anger for their disobedience? We see them left to nature and chance, by which their prosperity or misfortune is determined, but not by an influence which proves to be of Divine origin alone.  (IV, 3)


     This is not true about the people of Israel. The people of Israel, who have merited that the Divine influence adheres to them, are subject to a different system of causality. Just as the spiritual attainment of the Divine influence is above the natural influence, and just as the virtues of one who has attained the Divine influence are above the natural, so, too,  Providence over the nation in which the Divine influence rests is above the natural.


     According to Rihal, then, God's Providence over Israel may be called a "miracle." For a miracle refers to a deviation from natural law – that which characterizes God's governance of the people of Israel.


     From this point on, Rihal views himself as committed to the understanding that anything that happens to any member of the Jewish people stems from the system of Divine Providence unique to Israel.[1]


     Over and beyond this presentation of the idea on the theological level, Rihal struggles with the historical situation in which he lives on two levels.


     First, as we have seen, he himself mentions those who maintain that the success of the other religions testifies to a "strategic decision" on the part of God to abandon the people of Israel in favor of the followers of other religions.


     The success of the other religions, according to what Rihal argues, follows from the hand of nature and chance, and says nothing about God's attitude toward them. On the contrary! From the moment that these religions abandoned the source, the Divine influence, God abandoned them and left them to chance.


     Second, he deposits into the hands of Israel the key to deal with the troubles that befall them so frequently during the period of their exile. Rihal asserts that even the blows received from God are a form of relating to Israel; this is the way the yoke and troubles of the exile should be accepted. This noble approach, which allows Israel to lift its head above the deep waters in which it is sinks, is a unique. Rihal does not fool himself about the numbers of people who adhere to it:


You have touched our weak spot, O King of the Khazars. If the majority of us, as you say, would learn humility towards God and His law from our low station, Providence would not have forced us to bear it for such a long period. Only the smallest portion thinks thus. Yet the majority may expect a reward, because they bear their degradation partly from necessity, partly of their own free will. For whoever wishes to do so can become the friend and equal of his oppressor by uttering one word, and without any difficulty. Such conduct does not escape the just Judge. If we bear our exile and degradation for God's sake, as is meet, we shall be the pride of the generation which will come with the Messiah, and accelerate the day of the deliverance we hope for. (I, 115)




     That a person who joins with the Divine influence rises above natural physical life is alluded to in I, 109, but spelled out explicitly in another passage:


If we find a man who walks into the fire without being hurt, or abstains from food for some time without starving, on whose face a light shines which the eye cannot bear, who is never ill, nor ages, until having reached his life's natural end, who dies spontaneously just as a man retires to his couch to sleep on an appointed day and hour, equipped with the knowledge of what is hidden as to past and future: is such a degree not visibly distinguished from the ordinary human degree? (I, 41)


     Moshe, who realized his unique potential and merited the Divine influence attaching to him, reached a state in which he overcame natural life.


     Once again it should be noted that the common denominator of all the attainments of one who has joined with the Divine influence – the way it is attained, the spiritual attainment itself, the Providence, and the way of life – is the fact that they all tower above the natural world.


     The intellect attained to perfection through philosophical inquiry will bring a person to the highest possible natural level, which he can exploit in the most perfect and balanced manner all of his natural faculties. The Divine influence, as defined by the Rabbi in his description of Moshe in the aforementioned passage, differs from the natural level in an essential, rather than a quantitative, manner. We are not talking about improved exploitation of a person's faculties, but with jettisoning those faculties and leaping to something well beyond them. This is the leap that takes place when a pious man moves from "spiritual exercises" to prophecy. This is also the leap from the social laws that allow for the survival of society to miraculous Divine Providence.


     This leap, as we saw at the end of the previous citation, changes one's attitude toward death as well. Death symbolizes the might and victory of nature, or if you prefer, of matter over man. From the days of the Garden of Eden, when man was but a step away from the Tree of Life, and until our very day, man has been preoccupied with attempts to overcome his mortality. This manifests in the attempt – in a certain sense ironic – to preserve and perpetuate man's body even after death through mummification of his corpse or the like. It continues with man's ceaseless attempt to extend human life and overcome the natural corruption of the body that ultimately leads to death. Nutrition, medicine, technology – all try to overcome death, but to no avail. Nobody escapes the drawn sword of the Angel of Death. Sooner or later, everyone succumbs.


     As we saw, a person who joins with the Divine influence "upgrades" his existence from a natural one to a supernatural one. The very moment that a person rises above the natural level, he defeats the king of nature – death – and even turns the tables and achieves control over death, and this in two ways.


     The first is described by the Rabbi in his account of Moshe, and is sharpened when seen against the backdrop of the following midrash:


For Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: What is meant by the verse, "Lord, make me to know my end, and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how frail I am." David said before the Holy One, blessed be He:  "Master of the Universe! Lord, make me to know my end." He replied: "It is a decree before Me that the end of a mortal is not made known." "And the measure of my days, what it is." "It is a decree before Me that a person's span [of life] is not made known." "Let me know how frail I am." He said to him: "You will die on Shabbat." "Let me die on the first day of the week!" "The reign of your son Shlomo shall already have become due, and one reign may not overlap another even by a hairbreadth." "Then let me die on the eve of Shabbat!" He said: "'For a day in your courts is better than a thousand:'" better is to Me the one day that you sit and engage in learning than the thousand burnt offerings which your son Shlomo is destined to sacrifice before Me on the altar." (Shabbat 30a)


     Many things may be learned from this midrash; I will relate to one central issue: "Make me to know my end, and the measure of my days, what it is." The decree that a person is not informed about his end intensifies the feeling that man has no control over death.


     King David presents God with a seemingly innocent request. All he wants to know is "when," not "why," and not "if." Only "when." God refuses this request, and it stands to reason that He had good reason to do so. David's persistence brings God, as it were, to accede to his request, but even then he does not reveal the date, but only the day of the week on which David will die. What could David do with such meager and insignificant information? One might have thought that this would not bring David to rebel against death's absolute rule, but he does. David has a reason why he does not want to die on Shabbat, but it seems to me that the reason is merely secondary; the main thing is that he not die on the day that had been set for him to die. A day later or even a day earlier would be fine, just not on that day. We are not dealing with man's natural instinct to push off the day of his death. Rather, we are dealing with a profound desire to rule, if only partially, over death. If I have to die, allow me, at the very least, to determine when.[2]


     Moshe, according to Rihal, reached this level. Rihal emphasizes "spontaneously," "on an appointed day and hour." Even Moshe's body remains a body, and as such its time will come, but his soul, which soared to heights far above the body, gained control over death by knowing when it would arrive.


     As stated above, a person who joins with the Divine influence achieves control over death in another way, beyond knowing its time, and that is connected to the significance of death.


For the only result to be expected from this is that the human soul becomes Divine, being detached from material senses, joining the highest world, and enjoying the vision of the Divine light, and hearing the Divine speech. Such a soul is safe from death, even after its physical organs have perished. (I, 103)


He whose soul is in contact with the Divine influence, though still exposed to the accidents and sufferings of the body, it stands to reason that it will gain a more intimate connection with the former, when it has become free and detached from this unclean vessel. (III, 20)


     Man's ascent toward the level of the Divine and his becoming detached from his material senses confers him with a new perspective on the world and mundane matter. When a person gets a glimpse or more of a new reality for which the body is merely a chariot, his attitude towards his body undergoes a change. A chariot has to be replaced every few years, and the wear and depreciation of value are necessary, but they pertain only to the chariot. Union with the Divine influence opens a window to the World-to-Come,[3] and this perspective reduces the conclusion of one's chapter in this world, which is reached with the arrival of death, to a matter of passing significance.


     Chassidut took this idea to the tranquil waters of the quality of equanimity. Union with God, in various schools of Chassidut,[4] brings a person to a state of serenity I what happens in this world, including death.


     Once again, this applies not only on the theological plain, but to man's existential situation as well. If regarding Providence, Rihal taught his readers how to deal with exile and troubles, here Rihal teaches them how to deal with death. A person who joins with the Divine influence, argues Rihal, looks down at death from up above, and not the other way around, in the way we generally look upon it.


When arrived at this goal, care not that you must die. Your death is but the decay of your body, while the soul, having reached this step, cannot descend from it nor be removed. (III, 53)




     I wish to conclude this discussion of the Divine influence by returning to the issue of prophecy.


     Prophecy, according to its various definitions, involves various elements:


1)   An expression of closeness to God – Rihal's primary discussion is directed toward this definition. Prophecy gives man the most precious asset of all: dialogue with God.

2)   Revelation of the future – Rihal also relates to this element in his description of the achievements of Moshe, but his formulation suggests that this is merely a secondary benefit, the main significance of which is proving the certainty of prophecy.

3)   Bringing the world tidings – whether through the exposure of historical facts or through commandments for the maintenance of a proper life style.


Rihal's understanding of prophecy is incomplete without this third element. Prophecy is not merely a mystical spiritual apprehension that a person strives for as an individual in order to get as close as possible to God. Prophecy is meaningless, according to Rihal, if a person keeps it to himself. A prophet is first and foremost a messenger, and not a "spiritual genius." The books of the prophets (Yeshayahu, Yechezkel, and Yona) describe prophets who hesitate and at times try to reject the mission cast upon them, but in the end, none of them escapes their mission, the most important objective of prophecy. God uses prophecy – from the prophecy of Moshe to that of the last of the prophets – to inform Israel and the world of the right path and to direct them along it. According to Rihal, prophecy must not be understood merely as an experience of revelation, but as an open conduit that allows for the streaming of abundance from God to man.



(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] For this reason, Rihal finds it necessary to deal with the issue of theodicy only with respect to Israel, for regarding the nations of the world the problem does not arise; they are not subject to God's Providence, but are rather given over to the hands of chance. What about Israel? Rihal writes as follows: "For the Divine influence is as the rain which waters an area (if deserving of it), and includes some smaller portion which does not deserve it, but shares the general abundance. On the other hand, the rain is withheld from an area which does not deserve it, although some portion is included which did deserve it, but suffers with the majority. This is how God governs the world. He reserves the reward of every individual for the world to come; but in this world He gives him the best compensation, granting salvation in contradiction to His neighbors."

[2] God's answer to David teaches that even that which appears to us as arbitrary has a reason, sometimes even a historical reason. At first glance, what difference does it make whether David dies on Shabbat, on Friday, or on Sunday? But from God's perspective: "One reign may not overlap another even by a hairbreadth," and "Better is to Me the one day that you sit and engage in learning than the thousand burnt offerings, etc."

[3] A separate lecture will be devoted to this issue.

[4] Whose understanding of union with God is totally different than that of Rihal. This, too, will be discussed in one of the coming lectures.