Friday, November 16, 2007

Yaakov's Ladder - Practical Implications - Divine Providence.

After writing the last two posts about Yaakov’s dream, I came away with a feeling of not having brought out the most important practical aspect of what this interpretation of the dream teaches us. It is thought by many that to Rambam, who understands Olam Haba to be a natural result of knowledge acquired while a person is alive, the contemplative life is the ultimate goal. Nothing could be further from the truth and his interpretation of the dream alludes to it. Notice how he describes prophecy. The prophet seeks out God “climbing” up the ladder. He finds Him atop it. He is however not satisfied with the knowledge he acquired and now must come down to earth and acts according to his new insight. We humans generally do not have a long-term outlook. If we predict what effect our actions will have the next day, we are considered smart, a week, brilliant and a month, geniuses. The shortsightedness we are afflicted with makes it difficult for us to figure out what is good, which actions are correct and which are wrong. It is this helplessness that compels many of us to soothe their anxiety by resorting to faith. Some will say that as long as the goal was good, God will make sure it works out. Others will see the hand of fate, to a religious man, God, in everything. We are brought up to say IYH (God willing) all the time without even thinking, assuming it means that God willed this action so things are out of our hands. In popular parlance, we call this Hashgacha Pratit - individual providence. It is soothing because it takes away the anxiety. It also takes away responsibility.

I remember in the 80’s my partner and I used to seek advise from a very smart individual, a big Talmid Chacham who was also very worldly and savvy, Rabbi Schneider ZL, who lived simply in the projects on the Eastside. R. Simcha Wasserman ZL sent us to him when we had a serious business problem claiming that he was the smartest Jew in America and that R. Yaakov Kaminetsky ZL consulted with him regularly. During the conversation, my partner said something to the effect that “what could we do? It was min Hashamayim”. R. Schneider immediately jumped up and vehemently protested, “You act stupidly and blame God? Why is it His fault?”

Yaakov’s dream teaches a completely different Providence than the popular one. The prophet who is in a quandary how to act in a way that will have an effect long term, possibly over many generations, does not rely on fate or God in a passive way. He actively seeks out God and tries to understand His perspective which is timeless. It is from this perspective that he can now decide how to act. Of course there is no absolute certainty, the prophet is constantly racked with doubts and questions his actions whether they are really totally devoid of ego and thus compromised. Many tyrants have acted in the name of God. That is why the prophet has to be a perfected person in complete control of his human urges and needs. The paradigm of such a person was Moshe whose physical needs and urges were under the complete control of his mind. Besides acting in a temporal manner leading the people into Eretz Yisrael, he also acted in a way that affected eternity; he gave the world the Torah and its underlying ideology. (See MN 2:36 here: for a depiction of a prophetic personality).

In Rambam’s worldview, there are two types of Providence. One is the providence we notice in our environment where HKBH put into nature the ability for long-term viability and survival. That providence covers everything including biological species like humans. Individuals within each specie exist for the group and what happens to them is part of the overall good of the whole. That includes humans. There is no providence geared specifically to each person other than the natural ability to survive as part of a group. After all a group is only as good as the sum total of its components. BTW, this is the misunderstood “Providence (Hashgacha) on species” popularly ascribed to Rambam. (The proper term would be Hanehagah rather than Hashgacha. Professor Avraham Nuriel shows how Rambam uses different terms in Arabic for each of these two types of providence.)

Humans however as part of their makeup, also have the ability to grasp abstract concepts and ponder their existence. That ability allows them to search for their Creator, the original entity that is the First Cause, the unique and only non-contingent Being that we call God. That ability is the Tzelem Elohim referred to in Breishit. It is when a person is attached and close to God, when he starts to understand God’s will and how He runs the universe, that man can try to act synergistically with HKBH’s ways. That is what Rambam calls Hashgacha – Divine Providence. This is not a passive Providence – Bashert – but very proactive and dependent on the person and the choices he makes. We have to climb the ladder and then turn around and descend it to earth to act in accordance with the understanding and insights we learned. The ultimate goal of all this philosophizing is to act emulating God. According to Rambam, that is not just a theological theory but also a Mitzvah in the Torah, the eighth positive commandment in his Sefer Hamitzvot.
המצווה השמינית
הציווי שנצטווינו להדמות לו ית' כפי יכלתנו, והוא אמרו: "והלכת בדרכיו" (דברים כח, ט). וכבר כפל ציווי זה ואמר: "ללכת בכל-דרכיו" (שם יא, כב), ובא בפירוש עניין זה:
"מה הקב"ה נקרא רחום - אף אתה היה רחום; הקב"ה נקרא חנון - אף אתה היה חנון; הקב"ה נקרא צדיק - אף אתה היה צדיק; הקב"ה נקרא חסיד - אף אתה היה חסיד" - זהו לשון ספרי.
וכבר כפל צווי זה בלשון אחר ואמר: "אחרי ה' אלקיכם תלכו" (שם יג, ה), וגם בפירושו בא, שעניינו להתדמות למעשים הטובים ולמידות הנכבדות שבהם מתואר יתעלה על דרך המשל - יתעלה על הכל עילוי רב.

(I will leave it in its original Hebrew translation (R. Kafih’s). Should any one want it translated ask for it in the comments and I will do so in a separate post).

Rambam ends the Moreh with this thought. At the end of chapter 3:54 which is a summary and at the same time a manifesto of the goals of Avodat Hashem he writes –

The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise” (MN3:54)

I have only scratched the surface on this issue. More to come.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Question David --

    Why should anyone imitate God? Why should the prophet try to establish Divine will in the world?

    Your thoughts....

  2. I am not sure what your question is. I have a hard time setting a criteria how to act responsibly with a long term outlook. I believe that trying to see the world as a blueprint of how God, its Creator acts, is a logical and sensible approach.

    Of course you can take the nihlistic approach that there is no purpose other than just being born live and die and act in any way, or the humanistic approach which is better but is very flexible - what to one is humanistic to the other is destructive and dangerous (i.e. peacefull coexistence by sticking our heads in the sand with N. korea or Iran).

  3. My understanding of what you're saying re: ladder is that it's a step by step gradual and logical approach. While it does fit in, can you explain why Rambam does not dtate it explicitly. Secondly, you have to develop descent on the ladder. Perhaps with each step that one's knowledge increases so to the action should match it.

  4. >can you explain why Rambam does not dtate it explicitly.

    Although not in his discussion here he spends 1:31,32,33,34 and dispersed in his writings including touching on it 1:5.

    The second question about the descent is a good one. I assume that having seen the need for a ladder (step by step) on the way up it is no longer necessary to explain why the descent is on the ladder. it is after all there already.But if I come up with a better idea I will suggest it.

  5. Dear David and Anonymous,

    You can interpreter “descent on the ladder” in few ways; the one I like is the thunder / lightning story of Rambam. I believe it have more congruity with the nature of the ascending. In other words you are only transcending “the top of the ladder”, is equal to the duration of the time you are doing a mitzvah. When the mitzvah is complete or accomplish, you are back at the bottom of the ladder. You could also give the allegory like this: when you are swimming in deep water, under the water, you come up for air for short time and immediately you are back under the water.
    Let me know what you think?