Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of Rocks, Water and Miracles.

This week’s Parsha does not lack interesting stories and one could spend a whole year just analyzing Kryat Yam Suf, Mann, Amalek, the “sweet wood” and the “Water Rock”. I would like to focus in on the latter.

The people were about to enter the desert and were quite restless and concerned first regarding the availability of food and then about the lack of water. They were still uncomfortable with Moshe and as I quoted Rashba in my earlier post
they remained skeptical of his abilities until Sinai. Responding to the quasi uprising, God told Moshe to go find a rock at Chorev and hit it with the staff he used in Egypt and water will flow. That is the plain reading of the story. As with every story in Chumash, there is much more than meets the eye. I would like to focus on this verse: (Shemot 17:6)

ו הִנְנִי עֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ שָּׁם עַל-הַצּוּר, בְּחֹרֵב, וְהִכִּיתָ בַצּוּר וְיָצְאוּ מִמֶּנּוּ מַיִם, וְשָׁתָה הָעָם; וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן מֹשֶׁה, לְעֵינֵי זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
6 Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Chorev; and thou shall smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it that the people may drink.' And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

Since when does God stand on a rock? What does this mean? It behooves us to try to understand what standing means when referred to God. The usage of the word Tzur translated as Rock is also intriguing. Rambam addresses the latter in MN 1:16:

THE word Tzur (rock) is a homonym. First, it denotes "rock," as "And thou shall smite the rock" (Tzur) (Exod. xvii. 6).”

Clearly the word is understood literally as a physical rock. However a rock takes on a central role in a different context: (Shemot 33:21)

כא וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, הִנֵּה מָקוֹם אִתִּי; וְנִצַּבְתָּ, עַל-הַצּוּר.
21 And the LORD said: 'Behold, there is a place by Me, and thou shall stand upon the rock.

In Moshe’s quest for an understanding of God he is told to stand on a rock (See Ramban ad locum[1]). In this context how does Moshe’s standing on a rock promote his understanding of God? Rambam addresses this in MN1:16:

It is next employed to signify the quarry from which the stones are hewn; comp. "Look unto the rock (Tzur) whence ye are hewn" (Yeshayahu 51:1). From this latter meaning of the term another figurative notion was subsequently derived, meaning “the root and origin" of all things… It is in the latter sense that the Almighty is called "rock," He being the origin and the efficient cause of all things besides Himself… Again, "And thou shall stand upon the Rock" (Exod. xxxiii. 21), i.e., be firm and steadfast in the conviction that God is the source of all things, for this will lead you towards the knowledge of the Divine Being. We have shown (chap. viii.) that the words "Behold, a place is with me" (Exod. xxxiii. 21) contain the same idea.”

In his quest for an understanding of God, Moshe is told to contemplate Him as the source of everything. The way I understand it is that El Shaday is the apprehension of God as First Cause. By analyzing cause and effect in nature one arrives at an Entity, referred to as El Shaday, that only causes but is not the effect of a cause. Tzur, on the other hand, is the contemplation of the effects caused by this Entity, in other words God’s creation. It is through that contemplation that one can learn of God’s ways and emulate them. At that same event Moshe was asking for guidance on how to lead the people[2] and also asked to know God’s essence. He was told that this type of contemplation is productive in understanding how to lead. In addition it is also a contemplation of what God is not which is the closest one can come to God. All we observe about our existence and surroundings are God’s creations, not His essence. When God said to Moshe “Behold there is a place by Me” must therefore not be understood literally. God has no place and in the context a physical place seems quite irrelevant at least at first blush. In MN 1:8 Rambam explains:

But you must understand that the word makom has the same signification in the passage "Behold, a place (makom) is with me" (Exod. xxxiii. 26). It signifies a rank in theoretical speculation and in the contemplation of the intellect – not that of the eye; this being in addition to its literal meaning alluding to a local place that was to be found on that mountain on which the separation and the achievement of perfection came to pass.”

Rambam understands the verse to mean that Moshe was directed into the type of speculation and contemplation that I described earlier. Rambam does not negate the literal meaning of place. On the contrary in this context there is a need for isolation when one speculates about these issues. The words thus have a double meaning. Moshe was told to go to a place, a rock, and in his isolation, contemplate whence everything came from and who caused it to be. That is the meaning of speculating about “rank”, the First or highest in the system of cause and effect.

The word Omed as in our verse הִנְנִי עֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ שָּׁם עַל-הַצּוּר, בְּחֹרֵבwhich literally means stand has several additional meanings and we need to figure out which fits in the context. In MN 1:12, Rambam suggests it means getting up in contrast to sitting down. This is a literal variant of standing. When used in reference to god in this context, it implies what we perceive as action – changing from apparent inactivity to activity. In MN1:13 he suggests that when it is used in the context of God, it should be seen as permanence. When someone moves one changes constantly while standing in contrast can be seen as permanence, no longer changing. In MN 1:15 he compares Omed to Nitzav as in וְנִצַּבְתָּ, עַל-הַצּוּר which we saw earlier, means that Moshe is entreated to be firm and steadfast.

The phrase "stood upon it" indicates the permanence and constancy of God, and does not imply the idea of physical position. This is also the sense of the phrase "Thou shall stand upon the rock" (Exod. xxxiii. 21). It is therefore clear that Nitzav and ‘amad are identical in this figurative signification. Comp. "Behold, I will stand (‘Omed) before thee there upon the rock in Chorev" (Exod. xvii. 6).”

Both Omed and Nitzav in the context of these verses cannot refer to a physical position. The interesting point here is the comparison. Although ostensibly one verse refers to Moshe and the other to God, they both mean the same thing. In both cases it is Moshe who apprehends God as permanent and constant.

Coming back to our story, where Moshe is confronted with the dilemma of a whole people going into the desert without water, he realizes that the solution is in finding an anomaly in nature to solve the problem. The Mishna in Avot 5:5 enumerates the ten things that were created Friday afternoon, the last day of Creation. All are unusual natural events, each being unique occurring once in History. Among those listed is the “Well” which the Rabbis connect with this event. This was when Moshe discovered the unique anomaly that kept them watered during their sojourn in the desert[3]. Another one listed in the Mishna is the Mann, another unique anomaly that kept them fed during the same sojourn. The Mishna is telling us that these anomalies were embedded in nature at Creation, discovered and taken advantage of by Moshe at the appropriate time, an outlook on miracles that I have discussed many times. As Moshe made these discoveries, he internalized not only the physical but also just as importantly, the ontological aspects of this anomaly. He apprehended a greater understanding of God, how He has structured the natural world and His relation to it.

Interestingly, although coming from a completely different perspective regarding the essence of nature, Ramban makes a comment that is quite similar. (This was brought to my attention by R. Koppel Schwartz in his Yekev Ephraim; in fact his comment got me thinking resulting in this post).
רמב"ן שמות פרק יז פסוק ו

(ו) הנני עומד לפניך שם על הצור בחורב - בעבור כי הפלא במים במקום הזה עתה היה קבוע, שיהיה הבאר עמהם כל ימי המדבר כדברי רבותינו (במדב"ר יט כה), בעבור זה נגלית עליו השכינה במקום ההוא, כמו שאמר במן (לעיל טז ז) ובקר וראיתם את כבוד ה', בעבור היותו פלא קיים:

Just as the Mann, an anomaly that existed for 40 years, made people realize that God is the creator, so too the continuity of the other anomaly, the supply of water, did the same. Ramban also understands the appearance of God on the rock as something that people apprehend and not an actual placement. The interesting thing though is that Ramban sees the word Omed as referring to the longevity of the anomaly, which to him is identical with God’s presence. Constantly seeing the wondrous keeps God in front of one’s eyes. He has a different take than Rambam but in a similar thought process.

[1] רמב"ן שמות פרק לג פסוק כא

(כא) הנה מקום אתי - בהר הזה אשר שכינתי שם:
ונצבת על הצור - שהוא בהר, כמו שנאמר (לעיל יז ו) הנני עומד לפניך שם על הצור בחורב:
Ramban notices the word Hatzur which indicates a specific rock and also connotes familiarity with it. There is no evidence that Rambam agrees with that. The choice of this homonym is intriguing.

יג וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה.
13 Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people.'

[3] It goes against my grain to conjecture what the anomaly could be. My first thought was an underground aquifer, but that would not be an anomaly. Maybe the access to it could be. I prefer however to leave both the Be’er and the Mann as mysteries.

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