The God of Broken Things: Thoughts on Maimonides and Rav Tsadok


As a general rule, we like it when things work the way they’re supposed to work, when things go according to plan. And yet, across the range of human experiences, this is not what actually occurs. In contemporary society, this perhaps most commonly takes the form of technology failing to live up to the expectations of its owners. Beyond the functioning of tools, this is a basic problem of human will, where we want to do one thing and yet end up doing another. In ancient Greek philosophy this was thought of as the problem of akrasia, and Freudian psychology has generated a massive theoretical discourse exploring this facet of human existence. In theology and religion this problem arises in terms of evil in the world and attempts at theodicy. If a good god made the world then why does it fail to be good? While the technological problems tend to be minor annoyances in our day to day lives, the anthropological and theological problems concern fundamental issues in how we think about God, reality, and what it means to be a person.

In this essay I want to explore three texts, one from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and two from Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz Hakohen’s (Rav Tsadok) “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” which touch on these issues. In doing so, these texts place God in the uncommon, and perhaps uncomfortable, position of the source of failure. These texts suggest that, in one form or another, God is the reasons that things don’t “work.”

Before launching into the texts, I want to make a methodological note. I am not going to attempt here to present a thorough and broad understanding of the theologies of either Maimonides or Rav Tsadok (with the former, at least, I’m not even sure that is possible); I am simply going to look at these texts in and of themselves. My goal is to examine the theological intuitions and ideas contained within the texts, rather than explain what Maimonides and Rav Tsadok think more broadly.

Guide II 32 – The Failure of Prophecy

Maimonides discussions of prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed cover all of the traditional issues bound up in the concept: what it is, what type of information it conveys, who can get it, how they get it, are there different levels, etc. In one of his discussions of it, in Guide II:32, he suggests that there are three primary opinions about the nature of prophecy. Only the third is of relevance to us, but it must be understood agains the background of the first two.

The first is that of the people, including Jews, whom Maimonides calls “ignorant people”:

Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways. (Guide, II 32, Friedlander translation)

According to the first group, the ignorant people, prophecy is a totally miraculous event (notably, this group seems to include Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. See “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” chapter 3). It occurs when God decides to impart it to a person, regardless of any other conditions. Moreover, it is entirely driven by God’s initiative, rather than man’s; it is entirely “top-down” as it were. Prophecy is, in this sense, entirely chaotic and arbitrary. There can be no question of prophecy “working” or going according to some plan, because there can be no plan.

This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the second group, the philosophers:

The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class; and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like. (Ibid.)

According to the philosophers, prophecy is not miraculous but natural. It is a capacity with which all people are born, though they have to develop it properly. If someone does develop their moral and intellectual faculties properly, and they have the necessary imaginative capacity, then they inevitably attain prophecy. This might be characterized as a “bottom-up” approach. Prophecy “works” in the sense that I have been discussing; it goes according to plan. If you attempt to achieve prophecy, and you meet every condition, you will necessarily receive prophecy. In contrast to the divine chaos of the first opinion, there is an entirely natural order.

The third opinion, which Maimonides attributes to Tanakh and to the fundamental principle of Judaism, is a significant variation on the opinion of the philosophers:

The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. (Ibid.)

Prophecy, according to this opinion, is achieved by way of a natural process wherein a person develops their moral and intellectual capacities to the point of perfection. As opposed to the opinion of the philosophers, however, achieving prophecy is not inevitable for the person who reaches the end of this process. A person could reach this peak of moral and intellectual perfection and still not attain prophecy, because God can prevent her from doing so. God intervenes in and disrupts the natural prophetic process.

To sharpen this a little bit, I want to correct a common misunderstanding about this text. I have often heard or read this third opinion explained as a combination of or midpoint between the first two. If the first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, then the third, it is said, is when the two sides meet in the middle; a person develops herself to a certain point and then God decides whether or not to bestow prophecy upon her. However, it is pretty clear from Maimonides’ words that this is not the case. The third opinion is not a midpoint or combination of the previous two, it is simply a variation on the second. Prophecy remains an entirely natural process; God only comes into the picture when the process fails.

This point is driven home in the continuation of the passage, where Maimonides expands this concept from prophecy to miracles.

According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). (Ibid.)

According to the natural order, someone fitting to receive prophecy will necessarily do so. It is only through miraculous intervention that such people on in some instances do not receive prophecy. Moreover, this miraculous intervention is the same in form to all other miracles; they all consist of God interfering with and disrupting the natural order. Maimonides brings two proofs from Tanakh to show that this is how miracles work. Regardless of the existence of counter-examples, Maimonides could not have found better proofs if he wrote them himself. The first is from 1 Kings 13, when God saved an unnamed prophet from the Israelite king Jeroboam by causing the king’s hand to wither, and the second is from 2 Kings 5, when God blinded the Assyrian army. Maimonides argues that the withered hand and the blindness, rather than being direct acts of God, result from God disrupting the regular functioning of the natural order. Prophecy is a natural human capacity just like seeing and use of the hand, and God’s role in prophecy is solely causing it to fail.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 102 – “God sets up problems and obstacles for a person”

Rav Tsadok dedicates a good deal of his notebook, Tsidkat Hatsadik, to meditations on sin and repentance and their interplay with the divine will. In one piece on the topic, #102, he presents a creative reading of the rabbinic statement that people who have sinned and repented are on a higher level, in whatever sense, than people who have never sinned.

This is the meaning of the saying that in the place where repentant individuals stand, even the completely righteous cannot reach. God sets up problems and obstacles for a person, and the person must then repent and atone for his “sin.” Through this process he extracts treasure from garbage. (Excerpt from Tsidkat Hatsadik 102; translation is mine. [The linked version is missing a section that was censored out beginning with the second edition and only restored in more recent printings.])

Rav Tsadok is working with an intuition very similar to that of Maimonides, but he is talking about human sin instead of prophecy. The way most people think of sin is that there is a theoretical list of things that people should not do, and sometimes people attempting to adhere to this list fail to do so. Rav Tsadok argues, in contrast, that sin is not simply a function of human failure to adhere to this list, but is in fact, or can be, God making a person sin (cf. Tsidkat Hatsadik, 40, 43). Much like Maimonides’ natural order, human willpower works. A person can decide to do or not do something, and follow through on that decision. Sometimes, however, a person will fail to follow through. While note ruling out other potential reasons for this failure, Rav Tsadok says that, at least sometimes, it is because God wanted the person to sin. In this passage, Rav Tsadok suggests that God wanted the person to sin because the process of repenting for this sin is itself valuable. In some of the passages that appear after this one, Rav Tsadok meditates on other possible reasons. He maintains throughout this basic idea that God directly causes a person to sin. Notably, this is a distinct step beyond Maimonides assertion that God merely keeps people from getting prophecy, though the basic idea is the same.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 101 – Nothing Works

Both passages that I have looked at so far, from Maimonides and Rav Tsadok, asserted that God causes systems or processes to fail, for whatever reason. This idea is built up on the assumption that there are systems or processes that, barring external intervention, work the way they are supposed to work. I want to turn now to a passage from Tsidkat Hatsadik, the one directly preceding the last one we looked at, and see how Rav Tsadok reads a famous rabbinic statement about the creation of the world in a way that direct challenges that assumption (there are ways of resolving the tension between these two pieces, but I’m not concerned about that in this essay). As it is somewhat shorter than the other pieces we looked at, I will quote it in full:

In practice it is impossible for a person to stay within the boundaries of the law (shurat hadin), as the verse says, “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). A righteous person (tsadik) is careful not to stray outside the boundaries of the law [it is common knowledge that in the realm of practice (Olam Ha’Asiah) there are many kelipot, at all levels, but that is beyond the scope of this piece]. This only possible in thought, not practice, and in a person’s inner conscious will, where he decides in his mind that he will act in a specific way and not sin, only there is it possible for him to desire and think like this.

In truth, in the thought and will that transcend the worlds, that sinful act is also part of the plan and does not go outside the boundaries of the law, for everything is within the law (hadin).

This is what the rabbis meant when they said that initially God thought to create through his attribute of law [but God saw that the world could not exist like this, so he created it with compassion (rahamim) as well -LM]. Action therefore necessarily means going outside the boundaries of the law, while thought is the attribute of law, and does not exceed the boundaries of the law. In the verse, “God is righteous in all his ways, and pious in all his deeds” (Psalms 145:17), “his ways” means words of Torah, as the beginning of Tractate Kiddushin says and in line with the verse, “He made his ways known to Moses” (Psalms 103:7). God, too, behaves according to the Torah, but when it comes the deed he is pious, meaning not according to the strict boundaries of the law, as discussed in Tractate Shabbat (120a, and see Rashi there).

This is in line with the verse, “I will be gracious to anyone I want” (Exodus 33:19). This too is a verse in the Torah and is known to be one of God’s ways, just as “it is a time to act for God and reject the Torah” is an established halakhah, just as, when we get back to the level of thought, this too is part of the plan and the proper boundaries. (Tsidkat Hatsadik 101; translation is mine, as is the emphasis)

In this piece, Rav Tsadok argues that failure is built into the system. People and the world are not supposed to perfectly live up to their ideals. As a support for this, he references a rabbinic narrative describing how God intended to create the world such that it would function according to strict laws. However, God saw that such a world could not be sustained, and so he created the world with compassion instead. Compassion, Rav Tsadok claims, is just one form of exceeding the boundaries of the law, and now it is an inherent part of the world. People fail to live up to their ideals because that’s part of how people work. As opposed to the assumption underlying the passages we saw from the Guide for the Perplexed II 32 and Tsidkat Hatsadik 102, systems don’t work. Thinking that things work out the way they are supposed to work out is a mistake, verging on self-delusion. God does not directly cause failure, but God built a world that is broken, along with everything in it; none of it works as it ideally should, and that’s how it is supposed to be.


In this piece we have seen two different ideas positing God as the source of failure, built around two different intuitions about how whether people and the world “work.” The first says that things basically work, and God interferes with their functioning, causing things to fail. The second says that things don’t work, that failure is built into people and the world, and that God made it that way. These two ideas bear some significant implications for our religious lives.

Religion is in many ways about living up to certain ideals of action, belief, or both, something in which we are not always successful. We need to consider the degree to which we are really meant to succeed in this goal all of the time (Rav Tsadok says in piece 101, quoted above, that the system of halakhah includes its own violation). If we really are meant to succeed, if the system works, then failure might just mean that we didn’t do our part properly, and we have to work harder on our end. The real possibility exists, however, that we will find no fault of our own, and the fault for our failure must fall to God (cf. Bavli Berakhot 5a, “יסורים של אהבה”). In such an instance, we must reconsider how we understand failure. It shifts from being sin to “sin,” as Rav Tsadok put it, from failure to the first step of success.

If, however, failure is built into the system and success is never assumed, then it may be impossible to know why we failed in any given instance. However, failure also becomes less dramatic. It might not even be “failure” in the way we normally mean it. Failure is a part of what it means to be created by God, and humbly accepting our creatureliness means accepting the fact that we fail all of the time.

Finally, I would note that this is an issue of obvious significance for the days of Elul, when Jews have repentance on the mind. Both of these ideas take the edge off of sin, meaning that perhaps it should not be the focus of repentance. Instead, repentance should either focus on how the sin can be the first step in something better (the first approach), or in accepting the fact that we are not divine, and thus sin is to some degree an unfortunate inevitability. Either way, the primary emotion of repentance is not guilt but determination or humility.



[This post was influenced by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]


Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.

Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun,

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rambam begins the eighth chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah with a discussion of why the Israelites believed in Moshe. He rejects the position that they believed on the basis of the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and instead says that they believed Moshe because they witnessed Moshe being spoken to by ‘א at Har Sinai (notably, they first part of this statement clearly contradicts Shemot 14:31, but the second part works well with Shemot 19:9). In this he stands directly agains the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon in his work Emunot VeDeot, where he states that the reason Moshe was believed, the reason any prophet was believed, was because of the miracles they performed.

Rambam objected to this approach because he saw it as a manifestation of a larger trend where religion is seen as a tool for the betterment of life in this world (See also Hilkhot Tefillin 5:4). For RaSaG this issue is a non-starter, because while the emphasis was not on this world, RaSaG did see the mitsvot as being essentially for the sake of mankind. He begins the third essay of Emunot VeDeot by stating that ‘א created the world as an act of kindness, and that the giving of the mitsvot was a similar act of kindness, intended to enable the earning of reward, a motivation Rambam was very against. RaSaG therefore had no problem affirming the idea that a miracle might be the basis for Bnei Yisrael trusting a prophet.

Throughout the third section of Emunot VeDeot RaSaG develops this concept of the prophet as someone who proves the divinity of his message by performing miracles. He says that a prophet must predict the miracle beforehand, in order that it be clear that he performed the miracle. He also says that a prophet cannot be an angel, only a person, because people don’t know the capabilities of angels, and so the angel might be doing the miracle of his own power and authority, not ‘א’s. RaSaG develops a complete theory of prophetic confirmation by miracle.

He also, therefore, discusses the limits of this model. He asserts that a prophet cannot lie, because even if a prophet demonstrated that he had a divine message, who could then trust that he would transmit the message faithfully, and creatively interprets Tanakh to fit this model. He also discusses the possibility, in his discussion of the opinions that say the Torah of Moshe was already nullified, that a prophet might arise and perform miracles but say that the Torah of Moshe should not be followed. He rejects this, giving a more formal description of the process of a prophet giving instructions to the nation(3:8).

RaSaG says that, counter-intuitively, the prophet does not perform the miracle, thus establishing his authority, and then proceed to deliver his now-authoritative message. Instead, step one is that the prophet delivers his message. Then, the message is evaluated based on whether it contradicts both the intellect and the received tradition(2 of RaSaG’s 4 sources of knowledge from his introduction). If the message of the prophet contradicts either of these, it is rejected immediately. The people do not ask the prophet for a miraculous proof, nor do they care if he provides one of his own volition.

Importantly, by “the intellect” RaSaG does not mean logic, but the plainly obvious, the truths that are inherent in the human mind, including moral truths. The reason for putting so much faith in the power of the intellect, to the point of letting it reject potential revelation, is that for RaSaG both revelation and intellect has the same source. Both are given to man by ‘א. The received tradition is comprised of the written and oral traditions of the people, which of course themselves were revealed to Moshe via this process, and so were also subject to rejection if they contradicted the intellect. Thus perhaps the most important arbiter in accepting prophecy as divine is the human intellect.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily believe that there are certain divine truths inherent in the intellect of man. In the age of globalization and the internet we are more than aware that not everyone automatically agrees with us, that the ideas we think of as plainly obvious are in fact culturally conditioned. However, our intellect remains without a doubt a gift from ‘א. He created man with the mental complexity to create societies and improve the world, with the intellectual tools to realize the Image of God and the blessings He gave to man (Bereishit 1:26-30). Thus while we cannot necessarily make the clear statement that our intellect is the final arbiters of the truth of revelation, we absolutely should be using our intellect to grasp revelation critically. Rav Saadiah Gaon doesn’t just invite us to analyze the torah with our minds, he enjoins us to do so, saying that the explication and realization of the Torah is only possible through the use of the intellect (3:10). We have an obligation to approach the Torah with our minds alert, ready to grasp and explore the will and wisdom of ‘א.

Parashat Yitro 5775 – When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in Relation to the Law

When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in relation to the Law

Leading up to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the people are commanded not to approach the mountain (Shemot 19:12-13). Bizarrely, right before the ten commandments, perhaps the most pivotal moment of  Sefer Shemot, Moshe is commanded to once again tell the people to stay away from the mountain (19:21-24). While superficially redundant, this second command differs from the first in that it refers not only to “the people” but also to “the priests that approach God” (19:22). This immediately presents a problem as the priests (כהנים) that the Torah normally speaks of, Aharon and his sons, have not been appointed yet, nor has the Mishkan, their place of work, been built yet, nor have the relevant laws even been given yet. Though there are multiple approaches within the traditional commentators when it comes to understanding this phrase, we will focus on the rather unique approach of R’ Hezekiah ben Manoah (more commonly known as the Hizkuni). In order to fully understanding why he chose the approach that he did, we will first look at some of the more common understandings, enabling us to appreciate the unique and powerful message of the Hizkuni’s approach.

The most common understanding of the “priests that approach God” is that they are the firstborns of the Israelite nation. This approach originates in the gemara (Bavli, Zevahim, 115b), and is taken by R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Behaye, as well as being mentioned as a possibility in the Ohr HaHayyim and the more modern Daat Mikra commentary. This interpretation is based on a few factors. First is the dedication of the firstborns to ‘א in Shemot 13, as a consequence of ‘א saving them from the death of the firstborns in Egypt. Perhaps more crucial though is the replacement of the firstborns with the Leviim in Bamidbar 3 (mentioned again in Bamidbar 8). The Leviim are dedicated to the work of ‘א’s Sanctuary, the Mishkan (Bamidbar 18:6). This implies that, before they were replaced by the Leviim, the firstborns were in charge of the work of the mishkan. However, this approach suffers from several problems. First is the understanding of the phrase “that approach God.” Ibn Ezra mentions two understandings of this phrase. The first is that this “approach” is their position during the Revelation at Sinai, that the firstborns will be standing closer to the mountain than the rest of the Israelites, though still beyond the border mentioned in Shemot 19:12-13. The problem with this is that the context of the phrase “that approach God” is the command for the priests to stay beyond the fence, implying that for some reason the firstborn would think they do not need to stay beyond the border. Thus the command has to be in response to something that happened in the past that would give the priests this impression. This is presumably what motivates Ibn Ezra’s second understanding, that the “approach to God” described in this verse is a reference to the priests bringing sacrifices on the altar that Moshe built after the war with Amalek. While this is certainly possible, and the altar was built just two chapters previous to our verse making it somewhat contextual, it suffers from not being explicit in the text. Without any explicit textual mention of sacrifices being brought on the altar, it is more likely that the altar was built as a memorial and as an act of gratitude to ‘א, in the manner of the Avot (cf. Bereishit 12:7-8, 13:18, 33:20, 35:7). However the larger issue with understanding the “priests” as the firstborn is that when the sanctified firstborn are replaced, it is not by the priests, but by the Leviim, so to say that they are priests here in Shemot 19 would be a little strange.

Though mentioned by fewer commentators, there is an approach that avoids this issue. Both Rabbeinu Behaye and the Ohr HaHayyim mention the possibility that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19 are the sons of Aharon, who will in the future be appointed as priests. This however suffers from the same lack of precedent as the previous interpretation. Simply put, before Aharon’s sons are explicitly appointed as priests in Sefer Vayikra, they have no reason to think they should stand closer to the mountain than anyone else, and so it is unlikely that they would have to be told not to do so.

This brings us to the comment of the Hizkuni. The Hizkuni actually presents two possibilities. His first suggestion makes use of the initial understanding, that the priests are the firstborns, but changes it in a way that avoids the problematic lack of precedent. Hizkuni says that it was the 70 Elders that were firstborns.[1] This has the advantage of the firstborns approach in that they are sanctified to ‘א, but it also has an explicit textual precedent. In Shemot 18, the chapter immediately prior to the one we’re dealing with, the Elders eat a meal with Yitro and Moshe “before ‘א” (18:12). While the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, it would seem to indicate a degree of closeness or familiarity with ‘א that would require them to be specifically told that they need to stay back. However, this approach can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that the “Elders” is essentially a subcategory of the “Firstborns.” While this is possible it is also somewhat strange, and not only because it is unlikely that every single one of the Elders was also a firstborn. More importantly, in this understanding the seventy Elders are firstborns, but there were plenty of other firstborns who aren’t in this category. Thus the fact that the Elders are firstborns would be merely coincidental, and it is strange that the Hizkuni would mention it. More likely is the second reading, that the Elders and the Firstborns are two separate but identical categories, both of which contributed to them being called “priests.” Thus both the sanctification to ‘א and the eating before Him are significant. This too however suffers from a strangeness, namely that not only would all of the Elders be firstborns, but that there would only be 70 firstborns in a group with 600,000 men. This is likely what prompted Hizkuni to offer his second, more original, understanding.

Hizkuni’s second suggestion is that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19:22 are the Judges and Officers appointed in Shemot 18. While his assigning of the term “priests” to the judges is quite original, this understanding has a certain logic to it, as Hizkuni explains. As support for this approach, Hizkuni quotes Devarim 1:17, “for the judgment is God’s.” Thus their very nature as judges has a certain logic to it. Meanwhile, Sefer Devarim also conflates the priests with the teachers of the Law (31:11, 33:10), a job specifically referenced in context of the appointment of the Judges in Shemot 18 (vss.16, 20). So while the priest would be the teachers once they get into the land, Hizkuni sees the teachers as the priests before the giving of the Torah. Their special positions as teachers and Judges makes them automatically closer to ‘א , not to mention it separates them from the rest of the people who they would have seen as students. This alone might have been reason enough for them to think that they should stand closer to the Revelation at Sinai, but, as Hizkuni points out, there is another reason for them to think that. The Revelation at Sinai is the revelation of the Law, and as those responsible for teaching and adjudicating that law, it is quite natural that they would have thought they should be closer. This would not have been a privilege, but a responsibility, to be as intimately involved in the giving of the law as possible. In this, however, they are rebuffed, as Moshe is specifically sent down to tell them that they are not separate, that the entire people is equal before the law. The only exception is Moshe (Aharon is included only in his capacity as Moshe’s spokesperson), who throughout Bnei Yisrael’s journey in the Wilderness receives the law via prophecy, while the judges in the desert and after Moshe’s death do not (I have written about this here). Thus, while the judges and teachers of the Law are close to ‘א, there is an important distance between them and the revelation of the Law.

The Hizkuni’s comment has an important lesson to teach us about the relationship between the people of Israel, rabbinic authority, and the Torah. We know from Devarim that, “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (33:4). The law was not given to its teachers, to the judges, but to the entirety of the people of Israel. Rabbinic authority is not inherent in the rabbis, but comes from their familiarity with the law; not from creating the law but from understanding it. Thus it is incumbent upon all of Israel, each and every one of us, to approach the Torah personally, not to depend upon rabbinic intermediaries. The Torah belongs to all of us, and we each have our own portion in it. It’s not enough to trust that someone knows the law, we have to understand and appreciate it ourselves.

[1] In this he combines Zevahim 115b with מכילתא בחדש פ״ד.

Parashat Yitro 5774 – What Happened At Sinai

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

Shemot 19 and 20 frame the picture of the Revelation at Sinai. ‘א descends on the mountain. Moshe goes up. The nation stands and shakes from afar. The scene in set and the air is full of tension. The Ten Commandments form the crescendo to the narrative. The people then express that they would rather have Moshe speak to them than ‘א, at which point ‘א gives Moshe a message for the nation. These chapters are convoluted and confusing in their entirety, causing the commentators to jump through serious hoops to find compelling explanations. The strangest part, however might be the blatant contradiction between ‘א’s actions in chapter 19 and his words in chapter 20. The Torah goes out of its way to describe ‘א descending on the mountain, presumably an important piece of the narrative, and yet in 20:19 He says, “You have seen that I spoke to you from Heaven.” So from where did ‘א speak to them? From the Mountain or from Heaven? This question, and its attending philosophical difficulties, is interesting enough on its own. However, the midrashic explanations of these events, including some very creative attempts to resolve this and other problems of the text, have some very powerful messages to teach us not just about the Revelation at Sinai but about our relationship with ‘א on the whole.

Perhaps the simplest resolution in provided by a midrash in the first few pages of Mesekhet Sukkah (TB Sukkah 5a). Based on the verse, “The Heavens are the Heavens of the LORD; but the Earth hath He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16)[1], the gemara explains that ‘א’s presence never comes all the way down to Earth and Man can never go up to Heaven. Instead, when it says that ‘א descended on the mountain, His presence stopped a short distance above the mountain, close enough to be considered as having “descended on the mountain,” but still far enough away that ‘א could be considered to have spoken to the people “from Heaven.” This, however, stands in direct opposition to a large number of midrashim.

The Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael[2] resolves this problem by expanding the idea of ‘א descending on the mountain. Not only does ‘א descend, he brings Heaven with him. Thus ‘א descends on the mountain and is able to speak from Heaven simultaneously. This is very problematic in  regards to the midrash in Mesekhet Sukkah. If Moshe goes up on the mountain, and Heaven comes down to it, then has he gone up to Heaven? Perhaps, but regardless of that, ‘א and Heaven coming down to Earth would certainly clashes with the previous midrash.

This issue is further complicated Shemot 19:3 which reads, “And Moses went up to ‘א.” If Moshe went up to ‘א then presumably he left what is typically thought of as Earth and ascended to the divine realm. This can be explained as Moshe simply going to the location on the mountain from which ‘א had called to him, but many midrashim take it more literally. Not only do they describe Moshe ascending to Heaven, they give detailed accounts of what ensued there. Famously, the gemara depicts Moshe arguing with the Angels over who ought to receive the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Midrashic exegeses of the verses,“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty one, thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty prosper, ride on.”(Tehillim 45:4-5)[3] and, “A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and bringeth down the stronghold wherein it trusteth.” (Mishlei 21:22)[4] depict Moshe not just as receiving the Torah, but as actively going up into the depths of Heaven and taking it himself.

A subtle prerequisite for the midrashim describing moshe going to heaven and taking the torah is the idea that the torah was already existing in heaven for moshe to go and take. One midrash not only says that the torah existed in heaven for 974 generations before the creation of the world,[5] but also that when moshe broke the Luchot the angels rejoiced, saying that the torah was now returned to them.[6] It’s also the basic assumption of the famous midrash stating that ‘א “looked into the torah and created the world,” much the way an architect has tablets and notebooks.[7] The Sifre says that ‘א agree to the suggestion of the daughters of Zelophechad because that’s how it was written before him in Heaven.[8] A Gaonic responsa uses the idea of ‘א having the torah written before him in heaven to explain why a person should not recite verses from the Torah without the text in front of him.[9]

These midrashim are not simply cute stories attempting to fill in the details of perhaps the most important moment in the history of Bnei Yisrael. These midrashim discuss the very natures of ‘א, Man, and Prophecy, the connection between us. The gemara in Sukkah takes a view that is highly transcendent. Man and ‘א are very separate, and but for the fact that there is revelation one would assume they were totally unconnected in any way. A contrast is found in the doctrine of Heaven’s Descent, wherein ‘א is manifest within this world. The lines are blurred. Similarly blurring is the conception of Moshe’s ascent to Heaven. In  a world where the Finite and Infinite can manifest in each other’s realms, it becomes difficulties to absolutely distinguish between them. This of course, is the upshot of the view of total separation.

Is prophecy something that happens to Man or something that happens to ‘א? Who is the active partner and who is the passive? When Moshe goes to Heaven and takes the Torah, then ‘א is not an active partner. This is mirrored in the later view of the Rambam where Moshe, via perfecting his intellect, unites with ‘א and learns the torah. Moshe is the active one. This is even clearer if the Torah is already a whole item in Heaven, just waiting for Moshe to come take it. The idea of Heaven’s descent makes ‘א the active one. He descends on the mountain to bring the Torah. Moshe need not even ascend, and in fact, may not have been up on the mountain at the time of the revelation. This view doesn’t see revelation as a function of man’s perfection, but rather as a matter of ‘א’s purpose. When ‘א wants revelation to happen then it does not matter whether or not man is worthy.[10]

So which is it? Does ‘א reveal himself or does man discover the divine truth? Is the Torah a document from beyond time, born of Heaven, or is it a crystallization of ‘א’s relationship with His people at the moment[11] of Revelation? The answer, as usual, is more complicated than the either/or. ‘א descends on the mountain, but Moshe also goes up. The people aren’t allowed to touch the mountain, but they do need to spend three days purifying themselves. ‘א and Man are searching for each other. The truth of revelation is that it happens between man and ‘א, sometimes one side is more active, sometimes the other, but the consistent factor is that of the relationship between them. Revelation requires relation. And this is the greatest message of the Revelation at Sinai, the clearest truth from amidst an otherwise obfuscated pericope: that ‘א and His people desire to be involved each with the other.

[1] Biblical translations from

[2] Bahodesh 4

[3] Midrash on Tehillim, ad loc.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati 20:4. Strikingly, some of these descriptions are actually quite violent.

[5] This is an idea found throughout midrashic literature, based on the idea that the Torah existed for 2000 generations before the Revelation at Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai occurs in the 26th generation recorded in the Torah, which mean the remaining 974 generations have to have been before Creation. Explanations of this idea have ranged from the midrash about ‘א creating and destroying worlds before creating this one (the Arizal) to this universe actually being nearly 15 billion years old (R’ Isaac of Acre and R’ Aryeh Kaplan). It may be more likely that the Revelation at Sinai happens in the 26th generation because that’s the numerical value of YHVH, the Ineffable Name of God, also revealed in the 26th generation.

[6] Midrash on Tehillim 28:6

[7] Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

[8] Sifre Pinhas 134

[9] Teshuvot HaGeonim, Shaarei Teshuva 352

[10] The Kabbalistic idea that Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the whole Torah, rather just what was fitting for them, is an interesting combination of these views, and opens the door to discussion of the fullness of the Torah being revealed at a later date, a titillating and dangerous concept.

[11] This might be rephrased as the question, “is the Torah Timeless or Timely?” and it has serious ramifications for the way we interpret the Torah, including the relevance of using Critical Literary  techniques and parallels to other Ancient Near Eastern texts.

Parashat Toledot – Rivkah’s Oracle and Interpretive Responsibility

וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

Parashat Toledot opens with the story of the childless Rivkah and Yitzhak praying for a child, and then conceiving. Rivkah experiences a tumultuous feeling within her body, and so she goes to inquire of ‘א (Bereishit 25:22). She receives a detailed prophetic response depicting the future of her progeny. “There are two nations in your belly; Two peoples will depart separate from your womb. One people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger” (25:23). This seems like a clear and straightforward statement. Rivkah has twins in her womb, each of which will grow to be a great nation, and the older one will serve the younger. However, if Rivkah is presented with this clear message, then understanding the rest of Rivkah’s story (25:19-34; 26:34-28:9) presents us with numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the question of why Rivkah did not simply tell Yitzhak that Esav was destined to be in charge. However, if the oracle is understood as somewhat more ambiguous, then we can learn not only the story, but also about the way we relate to the Word of ‘א.

The first textual difficulty we are presented with is found in 25:24, “And the days of her term were full; and behold, there were twins in her belly.” The second half of this verse repeats information that we have already received not once, but twice before. Not only did it appear in the oracle in the previous verse, but the verse before that specifically references that she has more than one son within her. Thus this verse presents a redundancy that must be explained. Rav Dovid Kimchi (רד״ק) explains that this verse ought to be understood as “And behold, the twins were born.” This understanding is problematic however, as the verse explicitly mentions that the twins were in her womb, something that Radak’s understanding leaves out. Rav Shemuel Ben Meir (רשב״ם) and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understand the verse to be speaking from purely Sarah’s perspective, indicating that she was surprised by this fact. This explanation runs into the problem that Sarah already heard in the prophecy of verse 23 that there are two nations in her womb, and therefore there would be no reason for her to be surprised. However, the answer of R’ Hirsch and Rashbam makes a lot more sense if we simply assume that the prophecy is unclear. When Rivkah goes to inquire of ‘א, this is following the Torah mentioning that she is pregnant with multiple children in verse 22. However, the narrative voice of the Torah speaks from an omniscient, divine perspective, wherein it is already known that Rivkah gives birth to twins in just a few verses[1]. We, as readers, are therefore privileged to also know this, but Rivkah is not. Thus when we read the prophecy in verse 23 that says, “There are two nations in your womb,” we think, “Oh, so each of the children mentioned in verse 22 becomes a nation.” Rivkah, however, has no prior knowledge that she is pregnant with more than one child, and thus she might simply understand the prophecy as, “my child, and his descendants after him, will develop into two nations.” She also might consider both possibilities. But only when the children are born in verse 25, does she discover that the oracle really had been referring to twins currently within her womb.

The second, and perhaps more critical, textual difficulty this approach solves is the question of why Rivkah did not tell Yitzhak about the prophecy. Even if one wanted to argue that this would not have changed his mind about loving Esav, doesn’t he deserve to know that one of his sons has received the divine imprimatur, that ‘א has decreed one to be superior. Moreover, while verse 28 makes it clear exactly why it is Yitzhak loves Esav, a reason is never given for why Rivkah loves Yaakov. It is certainly possible, as Rashbam suggests[2], that the reason she loved him was because he was favored by ‘א (this would imply a certain moral superiority that Rivkah may have favored)[3]. Certainly her actions in chapter 27, where she instructs, encourages, and enables her son Yaakov to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing, would seem to be an attempt to bring to fruition the final line of the oracle, “And the elder shall serve the younger.” However, this all once again assumes a privileged reading of the text, where we know that in the end Yaakov received the blessing of the firstborn, and thus we assume that the phrase “וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר” really must be understood as “and the elder will serve the younger.”[4] However, the syntax here is ambiguous. It could just as easily mean “and the elder will enslave the younger.”[5] Depending on how you interpret the word “וְרַב,” it could even mean that the younger will do an incredible amount of labor[6]. Thus Rivkah did not necessarily receive a clear message about which child was favored by ‘א, and she really had nothing concrete with which to approach Yitzhak. For all the text tells us she may have told Yitzhak, and the Torah simply didn’t feel it necessary to say so because no concrete course of action could be based off of the oracle.

This immediately raises the issue of why Rivkah preferred Yaakov to Esav (in contrast to Yitzhak), going so far as to plan and execute his stealing the blessing of the firstborn. As mentioned above, it is often assumed that this is due to the final verse of the prophecy indicating that Yaakov was favored by ‘א and was meant to receive the blessing, but as we have shown the prophecy says no such thing, and thus a new explanation must be found. Lacking any special prophetic insight, Rivkah remains the mother of Yaakov and Esav, and thus can be assumed to have a good understanding of their character[7]. The Torah itself does not tell us much about their character, but the Torah is generally very minimal in its exposition, using a minimum of text or a maximum of characterization. What it does tell us then, however minimal, will likely indicate what it was that Rivkah saw that caused her to favor Yaakov.

Towards the end of the story, Esav swears to kill Yaacov, and Rivkah knows this. However there is no indication of any murderous tendencies in the earlier parts of the story. Going back to the beginning, we are told two things each about Yaakov and Esav, besides for their physical state upon birth (25:25-26). We are told that, as they grew up, Esav knew how to hunt and was a farmer[8], while Yaakov was a wholesome man and a shepherd[9] (25:27). While seemingly minimal, this description actually tells us quite a bit. Firstly, the depiction of one brother as a farmer and one as a shepherd is very important. The dichotomy of the farmer and the shepherd is very common in Tanakh and, while the exact reason for this can be debated, it is very clear in the eyes of the Tanakh that being a farmer is something of a moral failure. Some good examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, where Kayin’s only apparent transgression before murdering his brother is being a farmer (4:2-5), or when Yaakov’s family descends to Egypt and must hide that they are shepherds in this new agricultural country (46:31-47:4). Thus the depiction of Esav is a clear indication of moral inferiority on his part. Since the second part of each brother’s description (“farmer” and “shepherd”) are a pair, it’s worth looking at the first part of each description with an eye to whether or not they are a pair as well. At first glance, this approach would not seem to bear fruit. While Esav is “a person who knows how to hunt,” Yaakov is “wholesome.” We don’t usually think of hunting and wholesomeness as necessarily opposed. However, as Ibn Ezra points out (ad loc.), there is something innately deceitful about hunting, as it involves tricking or forcing an animal into a position of weakness in order for you to kill it. Thus Esav’s knowing how to hunt should more likely be seen as a symbol for his deceitful nature, something that is absolutely opposed to being “wholesome.” As the first part of each description is then paired, this can help us understand why Rivkah loved Yaakov, as opposed to Esav. Verse 25:28 records that Yitzhak loved Esav because he gave Yitzhak meat that he had hunted[10], and that Rivkah loved Yaakov. This last phrase is conspicuously missing a reason like the one provided in the first half of the verse. However, as Yitzhak loved Esav because of the first half of his description, that he hunted, so too Rivkah loved Yaakov because of the first half of his description, because he was wholesome[11]. Thus Rivkah did not cause Yaakov to steal the birthright because the Word of ‘א told her that was proper, but because she understood that one of her sons was worthy and the other was not.

Rivkah was confronted with ‘א’s Word in the form of a prophecy regarding the destiny of her children. It comes to us in the form of the Torah. In terms of understanding the text itself, the Torah is not entirely clear. There are often many possible interpretations for a word, or a verse, or a passage. When we try and understand the relevance that the Torah possesses for us today, these difficulties are multiplied a hundredfold. Interpreting the prophecy she received was a dangerous game for Rivkah; it is perhaps more so for us. As both followers and interpreters of the Torah, how we interpret it bears great meaning for our lives and our practice. Moreover, we often share our interpretations, and to do so with a mistaken interpretation can be catastrophic. Possessing ‘א’s Word is an incredible gift; Interpreting it demands of us incredible responsibility. Rivkah did not simply interpret the prophecy as she saw fit, and we cannot bend the Torah to our needs. If Rivkah had thought the prophecy meant that Esav was meant to dominate Yaakov, she still could not have just acted upon that, as it would have been an immoral interpretation. So too, we cannot interpret the Torah in an immoral manner. We have a responsibility to read it with an eye towards the values of ‘א, Life, and Holiness.

[1] Ibn Ezra, ad loc.

[2] In his comment on verse 23.

[3] However, see Rashbam’s comment on verse 28.

[4] This reading also makes certain assumptions about the meaning of the phrase “will serve.” If we take it as referring to who will receive the blessing of their father, certainly not the literal meaning of the phrase, then it would obviously refer to Esav. If it refers to being submissive, then it might very well refer to Yaakov, who spends his last encounter with Esav referring to Esav as his master and to himself as Esav’s servant (Bereishit 33). If it refers to rulership and dominance, then one has to look beyond the scope of the Torah itself, out into the rest of Tanakh and beyond, and it could be referring to either brother (For more see the end of Radak’s comment on Bereishit 25:23).

[5] Radak 25:23.

[6] Hizkuni 25:23. This interpretation is perhaps odd in light of both the way that the word has been interpreted historically and the fact that the immediate context is speaking about both sons, not just one.However, it is worth pointing out that this explanation might actually make the most sense of all, in light of the lack of the hebrew vowel indicating the demonstrative adjective “the” (as in “the elder”) is suspiciously lacking in the phrase in question.

[7] One could argue against this by pointing out that Yitzhak, as their father, ought to be assumed to have the same amount of insight into their character as Rivkah, and yet he loved Esav. However, the Torah itself indicates that Yitzhak did not understand the morality, or lack thereof, his sons were exhibiting, in saying that Yitzhak had become blind (Bereishit 27:1). A similar expression is found in Sefer Shemuel 3:2, wherein the Kohen HaGadol, Eli, was unaware of the immoral actions that his sons had forced upon the populace. Blindness as a metaphor for a lack of understanding in terms of another action is also found in Shemot 23:8, where it is said that taking a bribe “blinds those who can see.” The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:5-7 specifically points to the food that Yitzhak took from Esav as if it were a bribe that he took, that blinded him to Esav’s shortcomings.

[8] For this understanding of the phrase “איש שדה,” see Ibn Ezra and Seforno’s comments ad loc.

[9] For this explanation of the phrase “ישב אהלים,” see Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Hizkuni, and Rashbam ad loc. Also see Bereishit 4:20.

[10] Latching on to the essentially deceitful nature of this characteristic, the midrash understands “כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו” not as “because that which Esav hunted was in Yitzhak’s mouth,” but as “for Esav hunted Yitzhak with his mouth,” meaning that Esav would speak before Yitzhak with respect, and thus deceived Yitzhak about his character (Tanhuma Toledot, 8).

[11] Rashbam 25:28.