Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why humility? An Indispensable Trait.

The death of Nadav and Avihu is a theme repeated several times in the Torah suggesting that it has great significance. I want to follow Rambam’s comments in the Moreh on this episode and I believe it will be enlightening.

The story of these two sons of Aharon starts at Har Sinai where they are singled out among the people “who ascended to God”. Rambam warns us in Moreh 1:10 not to interpret literally the word Aleh or Oloh in this context for

When, on the other hand, it says," And Moses went up unto God" (Exod. xix. 3), it must be taken in the third signification of these verbs, (“when our attention is raised to a subject above us we are said to rise.” – earlier in the same chapter) in addition to the fact that Moses also ascended to the top of the mount, upon which the created light had descended; but it does not mean that God occupies a place to which we can ascend, or from which we can descend. He is far from what the ignorant imagine”.

Thus when God said to Moshe in Shemos 24:1 “go up to God you, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu and seventy among the elders of Israel “He was telling them to enter a state of meditation rather than a physical repositioning.

After entering into this state of meditation the Torah describes the following experience:

י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.
10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.
יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ. {ס}
11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink. {S}

Rambam addresses almost every word in these two verses.
Moreh 1:4:
"And they saw (va-yiru) the God of Israel" (Exodus. xxiv. 10). All these instances refer to intellectual perception, and by no means to perception with the eye as in its literal meaning: for, on the one hand, the eye can only perceive a corporeal object, and in connection with it certain accidents, as color, shape, etc.” Quite self-evident.

Now to the more complicated words. What is God’s feet? What does it mean that under His feet there was something? God does not take up space for the word “under” to apply?
Moreh 1:28

According to our opinion" under his feet" (raglav) intends to signify: He being the cause and because of Him, as we have already explained. (Rambam explained earlier that “Regel” could also mean something that is the cause for something else). They (Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the nobles of the children of Israel) therefore comprehended the real nature of the first matter, which derives from Him, and of whose existence He is the only cause.”

Thus Regel does not mean feet but the cause of something. God is the cause of “livnas hasapir” which we will see later refers to the first matter. In their meditation they reached the limits between non – physicality and physicality. They were trying to understand how a transcendent Being could create a physical universe and be the cause of it. In other words they entered the realm of metaphysics.

Rambam’s explanation of the word כְּמַעֲשֵׂה is complicated. To simplify - Rambam understands that without it, the next few words would not necessarily mean physicality. The word denotes physicality which is usually associated with an action.

The expression" the whiteness of the sapphire" refers to the transparency, not to the white color: for" the whiteness" of the sapphire is not a white color, but the property of being transparent. Transparency is however not a color.... In this respect it resembles the first matter, which as such is entirely formless, and thus receives all the forms one after the other”.

This is an Aristotelian concept translated into contemporary language it would mean the least physical of all physical materials.

Accordingly their apprehension had as its object the first matter and the relation of the latter to God inasmuch as it is the first among the things that He created that necessitates generation and corruption; and God is its Creator ex-nihilo.”

So far Rambam explained that in the process of “ascending to God” man studies the physical world and as he explores the origins of his reality he comes to the crossroads of “the Beginning”, how nothing came to be something. The transition from “Nihilo” to being. That is where the search for God leads.

The problem is that when one speculates in this way there is an inherent risk of trying to understand more than man can, not accepting our limitations. Rambam contrasts the next verse which describes where their speculation lead them with Moshe’s first steps in meditation. At the burning bush Moshe “hid his face”

Moreh 1:5:"He (a person who speculates in metaphysics) must, however, not decide any question by the first idea that suggests itself to his mind, or at once direct his thoughts and force them to obtain knowledge of the Creator, but he must wait modestly and patiently, and advance step by step. In this sense “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God" (Exodus. iii. 6), though retaining also the literal meaning of the passage, that Moses was afraid to gaze at the light which appeared to his eye; but it must on no account be assumed that the Being which is exalted far above every imperfection can be perceived by the eye. This act of Moses was highly commended by God, who bestowed on him a well deserved portion of His goodness, as it is said:" And the similitude of the Lord shall he behold" (Num. xii. 8). This, say our Sages, was the reward for having previously hidden his face, lest he should gaze at the Eternal. (Talm. B. Berakot 7a.)".

Because Moshe understood his human limitations he was able to advance in metaphysical speculation while the nobles of the children of Israel which included Nadav and Avihu were punished for their haste.

But" the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. …They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal -- a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared.”

When one ventures too far before being prepared like Moshe to know the limitations, one anthropomorphizes.

The nobles of the Children of Israel, besides erring in their perception, were, through this cause, also misled in their actions: for in consequence of their confused perception, they inclined towards things of the body. This is meant by the words," Also they saw God and did eat and drink" (Exodus. xxiv. 11)”.

It seems that when one anthropomorphizes there is the tendency to worship in a physical manner. Rambam then ties in the death of Nadav, Avihu and the Nobles to this episode.

They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except Nadav and Avihu, who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition. (Midr. Rabba ad locum.)”

Rambam understands that the story of these two sons of Aharon is recounted to teach us a very important idea that there are limits to human knowledge. Metaphysical speculation, which is a requirement for any serious religious person, requires humility to be successful. Self-esteem should not lead one to arrogance where one cannot appreciate the limits of human knowledge. When Miriam and Aharon criticized Moshe, the Torah comments:

ג וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד--מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. {ס}
3 Now the man Moses was very humble, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.-- {S}

Moshe’s humility which allowed him to understand his limitations made him into the great man he was. He was therefore able to understand God to the limits a human can. Rambam sees this as the cornerstone of Jewish theology and developed his Negative Theology from here. It also explains why humility is such an important trait that the Mishna in Avos 4:4 warns" Me'od Me'od haveh shefal ruach", be very very humble, it is a key to attaining real knowledge.

Moreh is the Friedlander translation with many changes based on Pines. Chumash courtesy of Mechon-Mamre


  1. Why do people deserve to die because they misundersand difficult metaphysics?

  2. Intersting point. I am never sure what these deaths mean as they are missa byedei Shamayim. Everybody will die sometime but how one dies is important. What I mean is that if one has acquired knowledge and understands God to the limit of his ability that death is not as painful as when one realizes at that moment that life was wasted because one went down the wrong path. I will be posting about that when I get around to misas Neshika.

    Think about the sons of Korach who did not die in this context.

  3. very well thought out-with great depth.

  4. DG: I'm not sure you understand my question. I am asking: How is it just that a person is killed by G-d for a misunderstanding of metaphysics? Remember that these people also have families. Why are they punished? Anyway, it is ridiculous to assert that G-d kills the people who (supposedly) misunderstand reality.

  5. david guttmann5/08/2006 5:16 AM

    JF you are too hung up on the historical aspect. Let us say they died in what we see as a freak accident. When trying to understand it the Torah tells us to think about the state they were in at the time of death. It tells us to do that with every case. in their situations Rabbis tell us that it was a death of Tzaddikim because they were engaged in a very important search for God. They say that as a comment to the negative aspect of the Torah description. In other words although they were going down an erroneous path, they were still engaged in looking for the Creator which should not be discouraged in spite of the risks. That is how I see this story. Could be different insights too.

  6. DG: That is a very interesting and creative approach. I really like it. However, it does not jive with the apparent meaning of the text. Also what about all the times when it actually says that G-d kills someone? Your explanation does not have the "ring of truth" to it. Be more honest with yourself (lest you get burned).

  7. >However, it does not jive with the apparent meaning of the text

    Why should that bother you/ The text was written two and half thousand years ago. Do you know what the language, syntax and story telling mores of the time were?

    >Also what about all the times when it actually says that G-d kills someone?

    So you thought it meant this physical giant came with his sword out of its scabbard in his hand and stretched it out to kill? Come on ! God kills when death is untimely. It is perceived as such. I wrote an article for hakirah which will publish sometime in june addressing miracles according to Ramabm. i deal in this area if not directly. You'll see it therer and we can revisit.

  8. >Why should that bother you/ The text was written two and half thousand years ago. Do you know what the language, syntax and story telling mores of the time were?

    If so, then how do we understand any of it? Maybe its just a giant alien phone book?

  9. JF That is exactly my point. If the story was meant to convey historical facts, don't you think the language would have been more precise? Don't you think the poetic presentation would have been dispensed with? In fact the whole concept of history for history sake did not exist in those days. It was always message oriented usually written by the protagonist, contemporary of his or next generation who could garner some benefit from the story. The Rabbis clearly understood that and that is why you have such a corpus of Midrashim. "nevuah shenohaga ledoros nichteva" (probably misquoted from memory but you get the gist.)

    If you are stuck with the literal you do have a giant telephone book. That is why the textual critics who dont see the message and are just trying to see the context of the historical either the author's or compiler's, lose sight of the real message. They help if the big picture is there They are irrelevant without it.

  10. I completely agree that the book is not meant to be history (as we understand it). But it *is* meant to be something, and it does not seem to be the something that you propose.

  11. >it does not seem to be the something that you propose

    What makes you say that?

  12. Because you have to stretch and interpret the text too much to make it fit your view.

  13. Their death is depicted in very few words without detail, Vatetzeh esh milfnei hashem. Why is it difficult to say that something freaky happened? Or does the passuk expect us to see a fire coming out of nowhere, entering their nostrils, and burning their soul?

    Everything else will fit whichever way you interpret the actual form of death.