Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

“The Tsimtsum” is the term used to refer to a mystical description of Creation that originates in the teachings of the great Kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria, better known as the Arizal. The Arizal described creation[1] as beginning with ‘א’s Infinite Light. Then, ‘א contracted (“Contraction” being a translation of “Tsimtsum”) His light, creating an empty space at the center. It was in this empty space that ‘א made His Creation. The Arizal’s depiction of Creation continues with the creation of a variety of mystical entities, but none of them come close to the greatness of the concept of the Tsimtsum. Before we can discuss that, however, we need to take a look at an essential split in the ways this idea has been understood historically.

Within a century, it began to be hotly debated whether the Arizal had meant this story literally or allegorically, as recorded in the book “Shomer Emunim” (שומר אמונים) by Rav Yosef Irgas (רב יוסף אירגס). This split gave birth to entirely opposite understandings of the meaning of the Tsimtsum. The allegorical approach understood the Tsimtsum as parable meant to teach a particular theological concept, or as a description of human perception rather than divine reality. The upshot of this approach is that the Tsimtsum didn’t literally happen; there is no space empty of ‘א. The literal approach understands the Arizal to have been teaching a historical truth. ‘א literally created a space where He wasn’t in order to enable the creation of things other than ‘א in that space. This approach has been less the less popular of the two, perhaps because of how incredibly bold it is. It talks about ‘א in very real, very human, terms, and makes very absolute statements of the nature of ‘א’s existence. But it is that sense of absolute reality that makes the depiction so compelling, because it flows from an understanding that the Tsimtsum had to be, that Creation could not have happened otherwise, rather than simply being a man-made parable. As this essay is on the theological value of the concept of the Tsimtsum, we will be taking an allegorical approach, but it’s important to keep the sense of existential need for the Tsimtsum in mind.

The basic idea underlying the Tsimtsum is the incompatibility of ‘א and his creation on an existential level. ‘א’s existence and the existence of that which is not ‘א cannot coexist. Therefore before there can be creation there must be a space that is empty of ‘א. This is most strongly felt in the literal understanding of the Tsimtsum, but the ideas and teachings of the allegorical approach flow from this incompatibility as well.

This sense of incompatibility also lies behind the early midrashic concept that the Torah speaks in the human language (דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם). This concept is a limiting force when it comes to interpreting the text of the Torah, stating that the words of the Torah convey meaning the same way that people do and that we should understand the Torah the same way we understand human speech. This idea is built on the sense that divine revelation in the abstract would convey so very much more than people are capable of understanding, that divine communication and human cognition are essentially incompatible. Thus, in order to enable people to understand the Torah ‘א had to limit his revelation therein to within the bounds of human language.

Taking this approach forward to our time, it becomes a valuable model for understanding many contemporary theological issues. Perhaps the most pressing issue for people living in the aftermath of the 20th century is the question of ‘א’s presence in history. The first point to bring up in that discussion is always that human initiative and free will cannot exist in the presence of divine preordination and determination. There is an inverse correlation between the degree to which a historical event can be attributed to man and the degree to which it can be attributed to ‘א. This has actually been used as a method of explaining ‘א’s apparent absence from some of the historical events of the last century, with thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz and, to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that human initiative is important enough to ‘א that contracts his historical presence instead of intervening in even the most tragic events. Even if we are unwilling to make such a morally and theologically bold statement, this tension is important for the questions we ask and the way we frame them.

This model is also valuable for discussing the nature of shabbat and the prohibition of melakhah, creative work. If we look at the original biblical shabbat, at the end of the first depiction of creation in Bereisht 2:1-3, it is clear that shabbat concludes ‘א’s “week” of Creation. However, if we look at it from the perspective of man, created on day 6, shabbat would function roughly as the beginning of the “week”. After the “first shabbat” of Bereishit 2:1-3, man is placed into the garden “to work it and to keep it,” thus beginning the creative work of man. Shabbat thus functions as a hinge joining the past week with that to come, marking both the end of ‘א’s work and the beginning of man’s. On shabbat we acknowledge that all the work of the past week should in truth be attributed to ‘א, that none of it should be chalked up to human initiative. As with the work of history, the work of the week can be that of man or that of ‘א, but not both simultaneously. Thus as we begin each week’s work we experience ‘א’s Tsimtsum as he makes room for man to create, and as we enter shabbat man performs a Tsimtsum where he recognizes than none of his work can really be attribute to the strength of his own hand. Tsimtsum is thus not only valuable in terms of the way it can frame the divine, but also in the way it helps us understand the human.

As noted above, some Tannaim saw the text of the Torah as something highly restrained by the limits of human cognition. However, it has long been acknowledged that the content of the Torah, the mitsvot[2] and the narratives[3], should also be understood this way. As humans we are all historically situated. We live in a certain place at a certain time, and that affects the way we understand things. The same is true of the ancient Israelites. Thus the Torah that was given to Bnei Yisrael in the desert had to be fit to the understandings of their specific historical situation, or they would not have been able to grasp it. Therefore ‘א contracted his revelation into the forms relevant to Bnei Yisrael historical situation, resulting in a very human text conveying divine laws and ideas.

Beyond the Torah of Moshe there is a whole realm of prophecy, all of which is subject to this conception of the Tsimtsum. It will be instructive to look at three understandings of the nature of Prophecy. Rambam understood prophecy to be essentially a human faculty. Through the perfection of both their intellect and imagination, a person could connect to the active intellect and draw divine knowledge from there (depending on whether you give more weight to the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nevukhim[4] ‘א may or may not be involved in occasionally blocking this connection). In this understanding ‘א remains in His infinite state, and the human individual develops themselves away from their limited human state until they can grasp a much more divine truth. However even this truth is limited by virtue of the prophet’s humanity. At the opposite end of the extreme is the way some people understand the biblical phenomenon of Prophecy, where the prophet essentially becomes an empty vessel through which ‘א speaks. In this understanding the prophets personality and consciousness are entirely overridden in moments of revelation, though they return afterward. In this understanding, the human mind cannot exist in the presence of divine communication and so it disappears during the process of revelation. In the middle is what seems to be more or less the proper understanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet is a conscious partner in the revelation. The prophets receive revelation and communicate it to the people, a process that inevitably involves the personalization of the message. The same way that no two people explain the same topic in the same way, similarly no two prophets conveyed their prophecies in the same style[5]. In this understanding ‘א has to not only minimize his revelation to within the limits of human cognition in general, but also ‘א allows the prophet to express it within his own specific style. The common thread in all of these understandings is that Humanity and Divinity cannot share the same space, and the more of one involved in prophecy, the less of the other.

Taking a step back from the nature of prophecy to the very fact of its existence as a phenomenon, this too is a function of Tsimtsum. Prophecy involves the relationship between the Infinite (‘א) and the all too finite (the prophet), thus requiring the infinite to work on a finite level. Choosing a nation requires a similar focusing on the finite, as does stepping into history and working within a specific historical framework. That ‘א chose to work within human history means limiting Himself to the tools of human history and experience. All of Jewish history, from Yetsiat Mitsrayim to the Days of Mashiach, and all of the laws and prophecies that shape that history, constitute ‘א opting out of his infinitude in order to work in the finite sphere.


It’s also worth discussing this idea of the Tsimtsum in regards to the recently passed holiday of Purim[1]. The textual basis of the holiday of Purim is from Megillat Esther, a text that is unique in the canon of Tanakh in that it does not once mention ‘א, in any context. It represents the entire story as on of human intrigue and historical causation. The mitsvot of the holiday also markedly focused on the human instead of on the divine. Other than the commemorative reading of Megillat Esther, the mitsvot focus on feasting and building interpersonal relationships. The holiday would seem almost to be a celebration of humanness. However, a look at the Jewish tradition indicates that it is not generally seen this way. Instead, the story of Megillat Esther is seen as an indication of the way ‘א’s hand guides human history. In this respect it is particularly instructive to look at Mordechai’s “pep talk” to Esther in the 4th chapter of Megillat Esther.

Then Mordechai told them to return [with his] answer to Esther: “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows, it may be that for this very moment you came to royalty?”

Mordechai’s speech is intended to motivate Esther to save the Jews. This requires a sense that human initiative is what drives historical events, and thus Esther can change the course of history through her actions. However the rest of the speech continues to say that if Esther doesn’t act, “then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place,” implying that human initiative doesn’t really have any historical impact. Similarly, the speech ends by Mordechai suggesting that the reason Esther came to her position of power was so that she could save the Jews, despite the fact that Mordechai knows that the reason Esther came to power was that the king was looking for a new queen and he took a liking to Esther (Esther 2:1-17). Mordechai is saying that there is a greater will guiding historical events, one that supersedes all human initiative, in the middle of a speech about the importance of the actions of one human, namely Esther. This paradoxical approach is how Jews have often understood the entirety of Megillat Esther. The text itself depicts an entirely human story, but as part of a religious scripture it’s been understood that the divine will guides all of the events of the text. Purim as a holiday is about rejecting the Tsimtsum paradigm. Instead of seeing the human and the divine as incompatible, they are seen to be seen as mutually reinforcing. Esther is supposed to act because the divine plan brought her to the palace in order to act, but if she doesn’t then the divine plan will function anyway. Similarly the mitsvot of purim reinforce human social bonds and worldly experience, but they remain divine commands and ways of fulfilling the divine will. Thus Purim is about looking at the human and seeing the divine, without ever forgetting the fact that you’re looking at something truly human.

[1] דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי’ אויר ריקני וחלל, אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א”ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי’ ראש ולא בחי’ סוף אלא הכל היה אור א’ פשוט שוה בהשוואה א’, והוא הנק’ אור אין סוף. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו (אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא’ בחקירה הראשונה) והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א”ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה.

~עץ חיים-שער א ענף ב

[2] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[3] See the Hertz Chumash, essays on Parashat Noah,

[4] This is borne out in both the Kapah and Ibn Tibbon translations.

[5] “אֵין שְׁנֵי נְבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים בְּסִגְנוֹן אֶחָד.” ~סנהדרין פ”ט

[6] This article was originally meant to be published before Purim.

Parashat Pekudei 5774 – Closing the Book on the Stories of Creation

וַתֵּכֶל כָּל עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן

Parashat Pekudei finishes the second half of Sefer Shemot, rounding out five parashot describing the Command and Construction of the Mishkan, with Chet Ha’Egel in the middle. The Mishkan is actually completed a few different times, all of which point in a very peculiar direction. First the construction of all the pieces of the Mishkan is completed in Shemot 39:32, where it says, “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting,”[1] then in 40:33 Moshe finishes setting up the Mishkan, “And he set up the enclosure around the Tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen for the gate of the enclosure. When Moses had finished the work,” and a few others besides. The sense of completion these verses evoke is almost as strong as those used in describing Creation. These verses in particular are paralleled to Bereishit 2:1, “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array,” and 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done,” respectively. The parallels however go far beyond that. Both Creation and the Mishkan have a strong connection to Shabbat: on the original Shabbat ‘א rested from his work of Creation, and now we celebrate shabbat specifically by resting from the work of the Mishkan. Creation happens in seven days and the commands for the Mishkan were given in seven distinct speeches, each introduced by “The LORD spoke to Moses” or “And the LORD said to Moses”(Shemot 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). There’s one connection, however, that is particularly fascinating.

As part of the continuing theme of 7’s, both the first chapter of Bereishit and the last chapter of Shemot each have their own unique key-phrase, each occurring seven times. In Bereishit 1 it is “And God saw that this was good[2],”[3] while in Shemot 40 it is “just as the LORD had commanded Moses.” These two lines aren’t just numerically parallel, they also have one very important idea in common, namely, the express fulfillment of ‘א’s Will. In this manner Sefer Shemot closes the same way Sefer Bereishit opened. This creates a sort of bookend set up to the first two books of the torah. The Ba’al HaTurim highlights this in a comment to Shemot 39:32, saying that the word “וַתֵּכֶל,” appearing nowhere else in the Torah, is an indication that this moment is really the completion of not just the Mishkan, but of all of Creation. But what is this story that is contained here, stretching ninety chapters and two out of five books? What is begun in the first chapter of Bereishit that isn’t finished until now?

The answer is of course found in the common thread between the bookends, that of a creation that goes exactly according to the Will of ‘א. The order of Creation goes exactly according to ‘א’s Will, but in Sefer Bereishit it is one of the last things that does. Creation is capped by the creation of Man and the commandment to man not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which Man promptly disobeys, and history ensues. The course of History, since that moment, has been a battle of wills between Man[4] and ‘א. The Tanakh depicts the great drama of humanity as a back-and-forth of being at some times more and other times less in line with the Will of ‘א, beginning with Adam HaRishon. This doesn’t stop at the end of Sefer Shemot. One could argue that throughout Tanakh it becomes more and more extreme. But Shemot ends with the creation of the Mishkan, and that is incredibly significant.

Adam was given ‘א’s Will in an instant and failed just as fast. After that ‘א revealed his Will at various times and places to various individuals. It was not until Bnei Yisrael ratified the Covenant in Shemot 24, that any significant portion of Mankind affirmed the command of ‘א’s Will. In building the Mishkan a further step was taken. The Mishkan houses the Aron, which allows for continuous revelation. Bnei Yisrael do not just receive ‘א’s Will once, they receive it over and over again. But moreover, Man was created to work[5], to perform “עבודה,” specifically to “tend the Garden of Eden.”[6]After his failure, Adam is cursed that now he will have to toil for his own sake (Bereishit 3:17-19). It’s not until the creation of the Mishkan that Man is able to perform “עבודה,” that for which he was created, as an expression of the Will of ‘א. History can be divided into two sections: Adam to the Aron,  and everything from then on. It is a story that starts on a high note, but plunges rapidly. But that’s okay, because that downfall is what gives birth to the story. It’s not a story of the perfect fulfillment of ‘א’s Will. It’s a story about the struggle of Man, of the tension between Man’s Will and ‘א’s, and the wondrous mystery of their wills being in line with each other. The perfect beginning is shattered in an instant. The Aron means that every day Bnei Yisrael get to hear ‘א’s will anew. And the Avodah of the Mishkan means that every day Bnei Yisrael get a fresh chance to use their will express the Will of ‘א inherent in Creation.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The version in 1:31 is slightly different, but close enough.

[3] This actually has huge theological implications, especially in comparison to other cosmological and cosmogonical beliefs popular three thousand years ago.

[4] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, the chapter entitled “History”, the subsection called “The Pantheism of History”.

[5] Bereishit 2:5, 15.

[6] Ibid.

Parashat Vayak’hel 5774 – The Golden Calf, Disobedience, and Taamei HaMitsvot

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם

While its ultimate purpose is something of a debate, it is inarguable that the Mishkan served as a Tikkun (Repair) for the Chet HaEgel. The Torah goes out of its way to highlight the parallels between the Mishkan and the Chet. The word “ויקהל” shows up exactly three times in the Torah: by Chet HaEgel, by the Rebellion of Korach[1], and by the donation of materials to the Mishkan, in the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel. The gathering of gold for the Egel is paralleled by the gathering of gold for the Mishkan, which is specifically depicted in the text as a holy act[2]. Aharon conceived of ‘א descending on the Egel in much the same manner that ‘א descended on the Keruvim in the Kodesh HaKodeshim[3]. But beyond these obvious points, there’s one very simple way in which the Mishkan atones for the Egel, so obvious most people skip right over it. There’s one phrase that shows up more often by the Mishkan, its rituals, and its sancta, than anywhere in the Torah: “אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה,” “that the LORD has commanded you.”[4] With the Mishkan, there is a specific emphasis on following the command of ‘א. The Egel, in contrast, was a direct violation of a command. In fact, it was the first violation of a specific commandment, the prohibition of Idolatry, and thus not only was it the first instance of post-sinaitic Idolatry in Israel, it is also the first post-Revelation disobedience.

Chet HaEgel occupies a huge place in the history of Jewish Thought. This significance is not surprising in light of this being the first sin after Sinai. One midrash relates that it caused a cessation of Revelation stretching from Chet HaEgel until the time of Nechemia after the return to Israel from the Babylonian Exile[5]. This is based on the parallel verses of Shemot 32:8, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and Nechemia 9:18, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Chet HaEgel is referred to as “a great sin[6],” a phrase that in Ancient Near Eastern legal texts specifically refers to Adultery[7]. The idea of Idolatry as Adultery in the relationship between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael is perhaps the main theme of Sefer Hoshea[8]. Idolatry is considered to be the basic idea underwriting all of Torah and Mitzvot[9]. All of these ideas are manifestations of the unity of Idolatry and the Rejection of ‘א’s Torah, an idea that started with Chet HaEgel and spread forward throughout the Jewish Tradition.

Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin was one of the deepest and most prolific writers of the Hasidic movement. The number of books written about him is only slightly larger than the number of books he himself wrote, perhaps the most famous of which is an amazing book called Tsidkat HaTsadik. In the second chapter of that work, as well as in many places throughout his thought, he says that the entirety of the Torah can be found in the first two commandments of the Decalogue, the Command to Believe in ‘א and the Prohibition against Worshiping other gods. This builds on the common midrashic idea that all 613 commandments are included in the 10 Commandments[10], adding that the final eight of these can be broken down into the first two. Thus he says that all positive commandments are included in Belief in ‘א and all negative commandments are found in the Rejection of Idolatry. While at first confounding, a little bit of thought reveals the brilliant simplicity in this idea. Any time a person fulfills an action that ‘א  has commanded, that is an obvious affirmation of ‘א, His Existence, and His Kingship. Any rejection of ‘א’s command demonstrates the opposite. If one truly believed in ‘א, how could they violate His Command? Thus Rav Tzadok’s approach to mitzvot is an obvious development of the unity of Idolatry and Disobedience, categorizing all positive commandments as affirmations of Belief in ‘א and all negative commandments as Rejections of Idolatry.

Perhaps the most extreme development of this idea is in the thought of the late Israeli thinker Professor Yeshayahu Leibovich, who was famous for his approach to Taamei HaMitzvot (Reasons for the Mitzvot)[11]. Leibovich thought that it would be better for a person not to perform a mitzvah than to do a mitzvah for any reason other than that it was commanded by ‘א. This is obviously a radical departure from classical Rabbinic thought, though he didn’t necessarily think so. He believed that the Rambam, perhaps the first big proponent of Taamei HaMitzvot, didn’t actually believe in Taamei HaMitzvot, stating that the Rambam only wrote them for the common masses who would be unable to perform the mitzvot for purer reasons. He explains that the greatness of Akedat Yitzchak was that Avraham’s great reward that he had been promised up until that point was that his children would become a great nation, and now that this had been taken away from him, now that he essentially had to take it away from himself, he still followed the command. This approach flows directly from the Chet HaEgel, from the unity of Idolatry and Disobedience, but it takes it even father. Lebovich was known for saying that anyone who did a mitzvah for any sake other than ‘א’s, it was “as if they were worshiping a strange god”. Thus, not only is Disobedience equated to Idolatry, but so to is Obeying for the wrong reason.

While Leibovich’s approach may seem a little extreme, it makes a little more sense when seen through the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, zt”l, who takes a similar, if slightly more balanced, approach to Taamei HaMitzvot.[12]

It has become a truism that religion is largely an affair of symbols. Translated into simpler terms this view regards religion as a fiction, useful to society or to man’s personal well-being. Religion is, then, no longer a relationship of man to God but a relationship of man to the symbol of his highest ideals: there is no God, but we must go on worshiping his symbol. (MQFG p.128)


He suggests that when a person performs a mitzvah for a specific reason, they have essentially made the reason for the command more important that the fact that it was a command. Doing a mitzvah is an act that puts a person in a relationship with ‘א, but if they do it for a separate reason then they’re just in a relationship with that reason, or perhaps more accurately with the originator of that reason, themselves. Reasons for mitzvot are generally determined according to what are thought of as the values ‘א would base the mitzvot on, and thus they really say  more about the values of the person who thought them up than anything else. Taamei HaMitzvot make a ritual all about the values of the person performing it.


To religion the immediate certainty of faith is more important that all metaphysical reflection, and the pious man must regard religious symbolism as a form of solipsism, and just as he who loves a person does not love a symbol or his own idea of the person but the person himself, so he who loves and fears God is not satisfied with worshiping a symbol or worshiping symbolically. (MQFG p.129)


Mitzvot performed with this mindset affirm not ‘א, but a person’s highest values, which they have thus put in place of ‘א. “Ritual Acts are moments which man shares with God, moments in which man identifies himself with the will of God” (MQFG p.139). When man performs mitzvot for the sake of ‘א, for his relationship with ‘א, he lives in relation to ‘א. When man performs mitzvot for the sake of his values, he lives in relationship to himself. While not going so far as to say this should preclude the performance of a mitzvah, Heschel echoes Leibovich’s main idea, that not only is Disobedience of a form of Idolatry, but even Obedience can take a Disobedient, and thus idolatrous, form.

The Nation of Israel was formed by the God of Israel taking us out of Egypt. The essential fact of both our existence and our purpose is that ‘א is our god who took us out of Egypt (Shemot 20:2). Upon this fact is based the whole structure of our commandments and prohibitions. This is what we rejected in Chet HaEgel, which we have been paying for ever since[13]. We have long since moved on from worshiping idols, but we have yet to obliterate Idolatry from our lives. The Idolatry of today is not the worship of gods of wood and stone(Devarim 28:64), gods that our hands have made(Yirmiyahu 25:6), but the external values of our everyday lives. The values are fine in their place, but they cannot reign above all else. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” (A.J. Heschel, MQFG, xiii). This is our modern Egel, the Idolatry of our times. Not disobedience, but the corruption of Obedience. Every time we put some other value higher[14] than the Word of ‘א, every time we follow the Word of ‘א for corrupt reasons, we stand an Egel in place of the Keruvim[15] and we dance and play (Shemot 32:6) when we ought to stand in relation to ‘א and His Word.

[1] This may be why the famous film, the Ten Commandments, combined the Korach and Egel narratives.

[2] Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Vayakhel, regarding the donation of gold being called “תנופה.”

[3] Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Ki Tisa; Rashbam on the Egel.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] Quoted in Revelation Restored, Prof. David HaLivni.

[6] Shemot 32:30 and other verses.

[7] Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna

[8] A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 1.

[9] Mechilta D’Rebbe Yishmael, Pisha 5; Sifre Shalah 111, Re’eh 54; Rashi to Shemot 23:13.

[10] Rashi, Shemos 24:12; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16.

[11] Unless otherwise sourced, all information in this paragraph is from shiurim by, and conversations with, Rav Noam Himmelstein of Yeshivat Orayta.

[12] The information in this paragraph is from his book on prayer, Man’s Quest For God, from the section on Symbolism.

[13] Fascinatingly, the Kabbalah parallels Chet HaEgel with Chet Adam HaRishon, meaning that this Idolatrous disobedience is the root of not just the episode of the golden Calf, but also that of the first recorded rebellion against the Word of ‘א. In terms of this parallel, note the prevalence of Keruvim in the Mishkan. The only other place Keruvim are found in the Chumash is Bereishit 3:24.

[14] Note that this does not include godly values. The difference between Noah and Avraham, and Moshe at Chet HaEgel for that matter, is that when hearing the Word of Destruction Noah acceded to it, while Avraham stood against it in the name of the Judge of All Earth (Bereishit 18:25). ‘א’s Word is often in tension with His Values, and that is where we are meant to struggle and come to the right conclusion as people, without the help of Revelation (Mishne Torah, Hikhot Yesodei HaTorah, 9:1).

[15] See above.

Maimonide’s View on Divine Providence, Acc. to Moshe Halbertal

From Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal (Princeton, 2014) pp. 338-341


“Maimonides’ position departs in no uncertain terms from the traditional view of providence, which believes that God punishes the wicked and rewards the ordinary (that is, those who are neither wicked nor virtuous). According to Maimonides, the wicked and the ordinary, constituting most of humanity, are relegated to happenstance. But despite this dramatic divide, the concept he presents has an internal religious logic: providence is not a basic given and does not apply to all people; it is, rather, something achieved only by a few. Throughout existence, God attends only to species as a whole, but perfected human beings merit individual providence. How that individual providence operates, however, is subject to widely differing interpretations.


The conservative reading of the Guide offers one such interpretation. The causal structure is what controls all existence and the fate of most men, but perfected men are subject to God’s special attention, and He exercises His will to protect them from the harms and misfortunes that befall other creatures. On this reading, nature and wisdom are maintained with respect to reality as a whole, but when necessary, divine will bursts through and acts within it. If that is so, Maimonides rejected the [Islamic] Ash’arite position, according to which God’s willful providence governs every individual and event to the point of negating the entire causal order. But he also rejects the Aristotelian position, which sees the causal order as the exclusive principle governing all existence, wicked and perfected alike. According to the conservative reading, Maimonides’ view of providence parallels his views of creation and prophecy. With respect to creation, he preserved a necessary, fundamental element of creation in time-the creation of existence ex nihilo – and allows for the action of divine will when necessary. With respect to prophecy, he interpreted the phenomenon as a natural one but left room for a supernatural exercise of will in the case of Moses’ prophecy. The same structure can be seen in connection with providence. The causal order applies everywhere except with regard to perfected people, who are protected by God’s will. Accordingly, the principle of causal wisdom is not the exclusive explanation for what happens in the universe, and it is limited in areas related to the principles of religion-creation, prophecy, and  providence.


The Guide’s philosophical readers, for their part – that is, those who understood it as affirming eternal preexistence-took a very different view of the idea that perfected people were subject to divine providence on an individual basis. On their reading, which seems to have better internal, textual logic, perfected individuals are not providentially overseen by means of divine intervention volitionally bestowed only on them. Providential oversight is afforded them, rather, by reason of causal reality itself, and it can be accounted for in terms of wisdom, not will. The perfection of the individuals who enjoy providence is commensurate with their apprehension of God and the world, as Maimonides emphasized, and that apprehension affords them two advantages that distinguish them from other men and beasts. Those advantages are theirs without any intervention of the divine will.


The first advantage is that of a place in the world to come; their souls do not perish and they are not eliminated from the world. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believed that providence implies the possibility of eternity and stability inherent in the causal order. That capacity for eternity is granted to those who attain knowledge and become bound to the active intellect; accordingly, providence – bestowed, in Aristotle’s view, only on sorts whose eternity is ensured – pertains to perfected individuals.


Samuel Ibn Tibbon read Maimonides this way, understanding him to hold the view that individual providence did not involve willful divine intervention in an individual’s life. In a letter on providence that he sent to Maimonides (and that Maimonides never answered), he afforded a philosophical interpretation to the concept of prophecy as it appeared in the Guide. In his view, misfortunes befell perfected people in the same way as others, and God did not intervene to free them from poverty, illness, or travail. But because they adhere to the proper goal of apprehending the intelligibles, which assures them eternal life, they do not regard these events as troubles. They do not consider such things as loss of wealth, illness, or handicap to be losses, for they are bound to what truly matters and what assures a person eternal life. Accordingly, in addition to the eternal life these individuals are assured of, they experience providence in their day-to-day lives, expressed not in the form of events that happen to them but as a profound change in consciousness.


The second advantage that apprehension affords to individuals overseen by providence was formulated by Moses Ibn Tibbon, Samuel’s son. Unlike his father, Moses held that those perfected in thought were protected from troubles in a practical way, but not because God willfully directed reality to their benefit, as the conservative reading would have it. Rather, the knowledge of the world that these people acquired allowed them to live better-protected lives, and that is their second natural advantage: they know how to foresee risks and properly assess situations. Moreover, their focus on the higher goal of knowing God frees them from the mental and physical woes that ensue when a person’s life is controlled by his desires. Perfected individuals are distinguished, then, by being providentially protected from the afflictions of the world to a greater extent than other people, bur in the understanding associated with a preexisting universe, that distinctiveness does not entail a miraculous departure from the causal order. The protection and endurance simply reflect the fact that the causal order itself does well for the good.


Conservative and philosophical readers agree that Maimonides’ great innovation here was the idea that providence was something afforded only to individuals and that other people were given over to chance. He thereby rejected the position of the [Islamic] Kalam, which saw divine intervention in every event that transpired in the world, and dissented from the traditional Jewish view that individual providence governed all people. According to Maimonides, God’s presence and providence, for most people, are mediated via the causal order that He created, an order to which people are subject. The dispute between the conservative and philosophical readings pertains to how the providence extended to perfected individuals should be understood: is it effected through willful divine intervention, as the [Islamic]  Kalam understood it to be, or is it built into the causal order itself, to be understood in terms of eternity and immortality, as Aristotle understood providence with respect to other species? The philosophical reading affords Maimonides’ acceptance of reality, emphatically declared in the discussion of theodicy, a more profound meaning. Existence itself, structured through divine wisdom, corresponds to the varying degrees of human virtue, responding to differences among people without any need for willful divine intervention.”

Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת


Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.


[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University:

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here:


[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here:

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.

Parashat Tazria 5774 – “And the Kohen Sees..”

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע

Parashat Tazria contains the procedural instructions for dealing with occurrences of Tsara’at[1]. The Torah’s description of Tsara’at is a malady that affects the skin with scaly lesions, but that’s about all that is made clear from the text. The symptoms don’t seem to match up with any known dermatological conditions in existence today[2]. This fact, far from being inconvenient, makes perfect sense in terms of the context in which Tsara’at appears in the Torah. Tsara’at in the Torah doesn’t show up in a section about the curing of ailments, rather in the context of Tumah and Taharah. The Torah is not concerned with the medical issue of Tsara’at, rather with the religious implications. The focus in the discussion of Tsara’at is not on the healing of the disease, but on the responsibilities of the Kohen.

The Kohen’s responsibility in a case of Tsara’at essentially amounts to confirming whether or not it is indeed Tsara’at. The blemish is shown to the Kohen and then the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at or not, or isolates the person for a week or two until a determination can be made. When the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at, the person becomes Taamei until their purification can be completed. If the Kohen determines that it is not Tsara’at then the person is Tahor. This seemingly simple process actually depicts one of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish religion.

In most ancient cultures, the priesthood was greatly involved in the medical issues of the community, much like the Kohanim and Tsara’at. However, in other religions the priests were involved in the actual healing process, as opposed to the Kohanim. The Kohanim simply examine the diseased area to determine if the blemish actually is Tsara’at. In other ancient religions the priests would recite incantations and perform rituals to cleanse and cure the affected area, something not found in Judaism. The Kohanim are, in fact, never involved in healing. In Tanakh, that job falls to the “man of god”, the prophet.

Prophets throughout Tanakh heal people from a variety of illnesses. Tsara’at itself is a disease often healed by a prophet[3]. In Bamidbar 12 Miriam is struck with Tsara’at as punishment for speaking ill of Moshe, and is only healed after Moshe prays for her. In Shemot 4:6-7, Moshe causes his hand to become afflicted with, and then healed of, Tsara’at. In II Kings 5, Na’aman is healed of Tsara’at by a procedure he is instructed to perform by the prophet Elisha. These are only some  of the biblical examples of prophets healing people. While both the prophet and the priest are men of God, only the “Man of God” is a healer.

While both serve the religious needs of the people, the Prophet and the Priest have very different roles. The priest is responsible for the continuing routines of the Jewish Religion, for the things that do not change in the service of ‘א. The prophet is a vehicle for change, a fiery response to an untenable norm. The prophet receives prophecy suddenly, while the priest is part of a chain of service starting before him and continuing after. The priest carries out and conveys the timeless will of ‘א that stretches through eternity. The prophet receives and relays the timely will of ‘א that is needed in that second.

This distinction is critical for understanding the assignment of the role of healer to the prophet rather than the priest. The occurrence and curing of Tsara’at is a function of the will of ‘א. While priests fulfill the will of ‘א in a general sense, they cannot compare to the prophets. The unique feature of Israelite prophecy is the status of the prophet as a “messenger  of ‘א”. Thus it is not really the prophet who does the healing, it is ‘א. The prophet merely conveys and out carries out His will.

Judaism today is much more a religion of priests than of prophets. We cannot hear ‘א’s timely will, what He thinks needs to be fixed on a day to day basis. Instead, we cling to the Will of ‘א as given in the Torah, we grab on to the Eternal Word. Instead of ‘א telling us what to do and when, we keep his Halakha and let it guide our lives. The Metsora, the person afflicted with tsara’at, does not go to the Prophet to ask why they have been afflicted; they go to the Kohen to ask what this means for their ability to approach ‘א. So too in the struggles of modern life. There are no prophets today to explain why things happen, and we ought not look for them. Instead, we should take time to examine who we have been, and see who we can be from this point forward.

 [1] This Devar Torah has been Influenced throughout by The Religion of Israel, Y. Kaufmann, and the Anchor Bible Commentary to Vayikra, J. Milgrom.

[2] The problem of identification is  two-fold: Firstly, the symptoms. Psoriasis is close, but it still doesn’t fit perfectly. Secondly, and more importantly, the treatment. There’s no such skin condition that would get noticeably better in just a week or two. (J. Milgrom, Chapter 13, Comment A)

[3] While these cases have been used to explain that Tsara’at is received for sins against Man or sins against God, most of them can really be read either way. (J. Milgrom, Ibid.)