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Parashat VaYigash 5773 — 12/19/2012

Parashat VaYigash 5773 — 12/19/2012

I shall descend with you to Egypt and I shall also surely bring you up.  (46:4)

This innocent verse prompts a long discussion between Ramban and Rambam (Maimonides) on the nature of Gd and how Gd is perceived in the world.  I will try to summarize the discussion.  The translations of Ramban are from the marvelous Artscroll edition of Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah, pp488ff, while the interpolations in brackets are mine.

Ramban begins by summarizing Rambam’s position:

The Rabbi (Rambam) notes in the book Moreh haNevuchim (I:27) [Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam’s great philosophical treatise, in which he attempts to reconcile Aristote’s understanding of the universe with Torah knowledge] that Onkelos’ translation [this is the standard Aramaic translation of the Torah] of our verse is I will descend with you … and I will bring you up [i.e. he translates the verse literally from Hebrew into Aramaic – Aramaic is very closely cognate to Hebrew].  The Rabbi finds Onkelos’ understanding in this matter remarkable, and says that Onkelos dedicates all his efforts to dispel notions of corporeality in every account in the Torah.  For the same reason, wherever [Onkelos] finds these expressions that indicate any kind of motion used in the Torah with reference to Gd, [Onkelos] assigns the idea of motion as applying either to a created glory or that the expression is a metaphor for Divine Providence.

Now I am certainly not a scholar of Rambam, but from what I have read, it appears that a major focus of Rambam’s work is to establish Gd’s existence as transcendental to the entire creation.  If we look at Rambam’s 13 principles of the faith we find:

  1. … the Creator, may He be blessed, created and guides everything in creation…
  2. … the Creator, may He be blessed, is unique, and there is no uniqueness like His in any way…
  3. … the Creator, may He be blessed, is not physical, nor is He affected by anything physical in any way, and there is nothing comparable to Him.

Even though Rambam refers to Gd here as “the Creator,” which of course indicates that Gd stands in some relationship to creation, he still emphasizes Gd’s uniqueness and radical separation from His Creation.

We understand from modern Physics that time is a part of creation, and from this we derive that motion is also a part of creation.  In fact, motion implies that an object, which is bounded in space, is at one position at one time, and at another position at a different time.  But such language is obviously inappropriate when discussing the infinite Gd Who transcends both space and time, and is certainly not bounded by either.  What does it mean then when Torah says, I will descend with you and I will also surely bring you up?  And why did Onkelos not translate these expressions of motion using some other language to avoid the appearance of corporeality?

The second question is easier to answer: Rambam points out that Gd spoke with Ya’akov in a night vision (v. 2); in such a case we can chalk up the perception of motion to the seer’s imaginative faculty.  Gd is promising Ya’akov that his experience will be that he has the same closeness to Gd in Egypt as he had in Eretz Yisrael (I shall descend with you to Egypt) and that Ya’akov’s would be returned to be interred in Eretz Yisrael after his death, and that after some time in Egypt Ya’akov’s descendants will return to Eretz Yisrael and establish a society and a nation there (I shall also surely bring you up).  In other words, the expressions of motion pertain to Ya’akov’s perception, not to Gd’s essence.

There are other instances in Torah however, where the concept of motion appears to pertain to Gd Himself, independent of anybody’s perception or interpretation.  For example Gd tells Abraham that He was going to go down to Sodom and see whether it is as wicked as its reputation, and Gd comes down on Mt. Sinai to give Moshe the Torah.  In these cases Onkelos generally translates Hashem as Gd’s Glory or the Word of Gd.  In other words, it seems that Onkelos is indicating that there is an aspect of Gd that exists within Creation and therefore has the capability of change and motion.  I think it is this aspect that Ramban, in his summary of Rambam’s thesis, called a “created glory.”  It is infinite – that is the “glory” part, but it is also “created,” and therefore able to function in the created, changing world.  The image that comes to my mind is some kind of “colossus of Rhodes” with one foot in the infinite and the other foot in the creation, albeit on the most subtle level of creation, right “next to” the infinite, whatever “next to” might mean in this context.

Further on in his comment Ramban takes exception to this entire distinction, and especially to the idea that the Shechinah, or Gd’s presence, is created and therefore in some way separate from Gd’s essence.  Now if there is no “created glory” or any other aspect of Gd that is “outside” Gd’s infinite essence, Ramban must explain how the infinite, which by definition has no boundaries and knows no change, can be described as “moving.”  Unfortunately Ramban just hints that both Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uzziel, who translated the Torah and the rest of Scripture respectively, were privy to Kabbalistic understanding, and did their translations of the various verses accordingly.

Let me attempt an explanation based on my meager knowledge and understanding of our traditional understanding of the mechanism by which Gd creates.  The problem that Rambam and Ramban faced is basically how the unchanging infinite appears to create a changing manifest creation.  The infinite, after all, is eternal, and the objects with which creation is filled are not – they change and move about, are created and destroyed.  In order to explain this transition, our tradition posits an act of “contraction” (tzimtzum), whereby Gd somehow “contracts” His infinite essence within itself to “leave room” for the finite.  Into the void left by this contraction, Gd radiates supernal light which refracts into all the different forms and phenomena that we see.  Generally the tradition deals with the evolution of creation, but if we consider this picture of the mechanics of creation, we see that the entire process takes place within Gd.  If we consider it for a bit of course, there is no other possibility, since nothing at all can exist outside of Gd.  The entire creation, from this perspective, is nothing other than Gd’s internal dynamics, and, since Gd is an indivisible Unity, we would have to say the creation is actually Gd’s virtual internal dynamics.

Perhaps we can consider the dispute between Rambam and Ramban a matter of perspective.  From Rambam’s perspective, it appears that there is a distinct separation between Gd and His creation.  Gd is transcendental, infinite and unmoving, which creation is finite and ever-changing.  Consequently Rambam must posit some kind of intermediary between the two by which Gd can interact with the world.  We might compare this intermediary to the human body, which is the intermediary between the soul and the physical world.  In fact, we find Gd described in anthropomorphic terms throughout Tanach – Gd’s finger engraved the tablets, Gd’s outstretched arm brought us out of Egypt.  If we focus on the difference between Gd and creation, we need something that will connect the two back together.

The other perspective sees creation as a process taking place within Gd.  Since the infinite does not move or change, we have to acknowledge that it may be impossible fully to grasp what this means.  We can come up with analogies (e.g. from quantum field theory in physics), but ultimately we probably cannot get our head around that which encompasses our entire being and everything around us as well.

The Mishnah (Chagigah 2:1) tells us “Whoever speculates on four things would be better off had he never been born: What is Above, what is Below, what is Before and what is After.”  Perhaps we’re better off leaving this discussion to Rambam and Ramban…