Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who is Satan?

I have worked very hard on this post and I publish it with much trepidation. It is very easy to be philosophical about human suffering especially when it is about someone else's pain. It is also easy to pontificate when it is impersonal. However I believe it is a subject that needs to be addressed. The whole book of Iyov was written with that issue in mind. I believe the Rabbis who put Iyov's existence into doubt were telling us that it can only be discussed in an impersonal way. It is however a suggested personal contemplation for the sufferer in the hope that it will mitigate his pain. Please take it in that vein and not as a sermon Chas Vechalila.

Satan, Mal’ach Hamavet - angel of death and Yetzer Hara are synonyms. Rambam is very enraptured with this insight.

“…listen to the following useful instruction given by our Sages, who in truth deserve the title of "wise men"; it makes clear that which appears doubtful, and reveals that which has been hidden, and discloses most of the mysteries of the Law. They said in the Talmud as follows: R. Simeon, son of Lakish, says: "The adversary (Satan), evil inclination (Yetzer Hara), and the angel of death, are one and the same being." Here we find all that has been mentioned by us in such a clear manner that no intelligent person will be in doubt about it. It has thus been shown to you that one and the same thing is designated by these three different terms, and that actions ascribed to these three are in reality the actions of one and the same agent.”(MN3:22)

What is the great insight and what makes it so praiseworthy?

There is a concept that is common to all medieval thinkers that is very difficult to translate into our contemporary way of thinking. It is the idea of Matter and Form. Already in antiquity the idea of Form meant different things to different philosophers. While Plato saw it as a mental construct of “the permanent reality that makes a thing what it is, in contrast to the particulars that are finite and subject to change. Each form is the pattern of a particular category of thing in the world; thus, there are forms of human, stone, shape, color, beauty, and justice. Whereas the physical world, perceived with the senses, is in constant flux and knowledge derived from it restricted and variable, the realm of forms, apprehensible only by the mind, is eternal and changeless.” Aristotle saw it as “the arrangement or organization through which such elements (matter) have become the thing in question”. (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)

I believe Plato’s understanding is easier to translate into our language though Aristotle’s approach can also be interpreted similarly. I can visualize the “idea” of a tree, for example, as always being out there even when the tree itself no longer exists. All the science that goes into a tree growing is there before and after the tree. It is eternal and changeless. It exists even without a human being around who apprehends it with his mind. In fact it was there before a human understood it just like Relativity existed before Einstein described it. Every physical entity from the simplest to the most complex has its “idea”, its underlying science. In other words everything we know and we will ever know and experience in the physical world we live in, is potentially out there in the form of a scientific concept. This is what Rambam refers to as Form.

Form as described starts of as a potential and is actualized in matter. Matter is the actualization of Form, which is the idea behind it. Of course it is difficult to visualize a concept without a mind that conceptualizes it. This issue is a discussion that falls in the philosophical realm of the mind–body connection and problem. Let us, for this discussion sake, simplify and say it is God’s mind that conceptualizes the science underlying existence. I will return to it in my discussions of Hashgacha and Yediah.

In terms of eternity therefore, while Form is eternal and unchanging, matter is temporal and always changing. Matter comes into existence, not having been extant before nor is it after it no longer exists. Destruction and death is a necessary quality of matter.

When discussing the story of Adam and Chava, Rambam differentiates between truth and falseness and good and bad. “Through the intellect man distinguishes between truth and falsehood. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. Fine and bad belong to the things generally accepted as known, not to those cognized by the intellect.” (MN 1:2) Good and bad are terms that are subjective categorizations that we use in describing our relationship with physical existence. Existence is good while destruction is bad. It is a relative and subjective assessment. On the other hand our intellectual quest in understanding our physical existence is an objective analysis which can be either true or false. The human intellect is thus the potential that is actualized in physical reality in the same manner Form is actualized in matter.

In the story of Iyov, which is the subject of the chapter of MN I quoted; Satan is contrasted with Bnei Ha’elohim. Rambam understands the story as a description of reality. The Bnei Ha’elohim represent the Form of existence, the concept, while Satan is matter. The word Lehityatzev, to stand firmly, is always used with the Bnei Ha’elohim while only the second time with Satan. Form is eternal while Satan, matter, is temporal.

Iyov had suffered great losses and was despondent. His suffering was related to his physical existence and not to his intellect. Rambam notes that Iyov is described as a just man –“It is remarkable in this account that wisdom is not ascribed to Job. The text does not say he was an intelligent, wise, or clever man; but virtues and uprightness, especially in actions, are ascribed to him.” Virtue and uprightness deal with Good and Bad, relative and subjective matters that focus on our day-to-day physical well-being. It does not address Truth and Falseness which are the realm of wisdom. Human suffering is always related to the physical part of existence, to life and death, good and bad. It is only when Satan, the symbol of matter and the physical reigns that bad things happen. Understanding this does not mitigate the pain but puts it in a proper perspective. The perceived injustice and unfair suffering, is related to the temporal, our physical existence, while our intellectual self remains intact eternally and can only be affected by truth and falseness.

I believe that there is an even deeper message here. As I discussed in my earlier posts on Hashgacha, it is only when man takes the long-term view that Providence comes into play. The examples we use are the Avot who had a long-term goal of building a nation of seekers. If the long-term goal is reached, the tribulations and pain suffered along the way are retrospectively much easier to understand and deal with. The individual while he is acting, doing and living can only do his best, use his intellect in trying to understand the meaning of life and what is his role in the history of humankind and existence and act accordingly. That way of thinking in itself helps in mitigating the inevitable pain and suffering of our physical existence.

“This lesson is the principal object of the whole Book of Job; it establishes the foundation for the belief and the drawing attention to the inference to be drawn from natural matters, so that we should not fall into the error of imagining His knowledge to be similar to ours, or His intention, providence, and rule similar to ours. When we know this we shall find everything that may befall us easy to bear; mishap will create no doubts in our hearts concerning God, whether He knows our affairs or not, whether He provides for us or abandons us.”(MN3:23)

When we contemplate another person’s misfortune it is crass to minimize it by being philosophical. It is wrong and shows a lack of empathy and caring. However for the person that goes through the trauma, the sufferer, this is a way of dealing with the misfortune. By energizing himself, being introspective and acting on it, there is the possibility of growth and better long-term outcome.

יב וַיהוָה, בֵּרַךְ אֶת אַחֲרִית אִיּוֹב--מֵרֵאשִׁתוֹ; וַיְהִי לוֹ אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף צֹאן, וְשֵׁשֶׁת אֲלָפִים גְּמַלִּים, וְאֶלֶף צֶמֶד בָּקָר, וְאֶלֶף אֲתוֹנוֹת.
12 So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses.
יג וַיְהִי לוֹ שִׁבְעָנָה בָנִים, וְשָׁלוֹשׁ בָּנוֹת.
13 He had also seven sons and three daughters.
יד וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הָאַחַת יְמִימָה, וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית קְצִיעָה; וְשֵׁם הַשְּׁלִישִׁית, קֶרֶן הַפּוּךְ.
14 And he called the name of the first, Jemimah; and the name of the second, Keziah; and the name of the third, Keren-happuch.
טו וְלֹא נִמְצָא נָשִׁים יָפוֹת, כִּבְנוֹת אִיּוֹב--בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם נַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵיהֶם.
15 And in all the land were no women found as fair as the daughters of Job were; and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren.
טז וַיְחִי אִיּוֹב אַחֲרֵי זֹאת, מֵאָה וְאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה; וירא (וַיִּרְאֶה), אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בְּנֵי בָנָיו--אַרְבָּעָה, דֹּרוֹת.
16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons' sons, even four generations.
יז וַיָּמָת אִיּוֹב, זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים. {ש}
17 So Job died, being old and full of days. {P}


  1. I believe that there is an even deeper message here. As I discussed in my earlier posts on Hashgacha, it is only when man takes the long-term view that Providence comes into play. The examples we use are the Avot who had a long-term goal of building a nation of seekers.

    The gemorah in megillah page 13b says that R'Elazar said:When the holy one ,blessed is he ,assigns greatness to a person he assigns it to his descendants for all generations, as it says (in Job 36:7):"He establishes them forever,and they are exalted".This refers to the person who looks long term (building a nation).See inside the way the gemarah finishes this thought.