Nature and the Miraculous in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha HaKohen

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of
our beloved father Harry Meisles (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l

whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar – the Meisles family.

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Shiur #18:

Nature and the Miraculous in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha HaKohen

 

 

Posterity associates R. Meir Simcha HaKohen (1843-1926) with Dvinsk, the city of which he was rabbi for close to forty years.  When the community of Yerushalayim invited R. Meir Simcha to become Rav of their city in 1906, the people of Dvinsk wrote a letter to Jerusalem pleading with them not to take R. Meir Simcha away.  At one point, Dvinsk was blessed with the simultaneous presence of two rabbinic giants, when both R. Meir Simcha and the Rogochover, R. Yosef Rosen, lived there.

 

R. Meir Simcha HaKohen’s two major works are Ohr Same’ach on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and Meshekh Chokhma on Chumash.  In addition, we have his chiddushim on parts of the Talmud.  Even though he completed his commentary on Chumash early in life, it was not published until after his death.  R. Meir Simcha’s father was concerned that his brilliant son would not be taken seriously as a lamdan if he published a work on Tanakh before coming out with something in the realm of Gemara or Halakha.  Toward the end of R. Meir Simcha’s life, my grandfather, R. Pinchas Teitz, arranged for a member of the Slobodka kollel to edit the Meshekh Chokhma, and it came out within the year of its author’s passing.  There is some irony in his father’s concern, since the Meshkeh Chokhma could only have been written by a lamdan and it is arguably a more innovative work than the Ohr Same’ach.  Apparently, R. Meir Simcha himself saw his commentary on Chumash as more significant.[1]

 

Scholars have not yet given R. Meir Simcha due attention.  Yona Ben Sasson analyzes themes in R. Meir Simcha’s worldview in his Hagut Yehudit be-Mivchan ha-Dorot.[2]  R. Yehuda Cooperman probes issues in R. Meir Simcha’s Torah commentary in the introduction to his fine edition of Meshekh Chokhma.  R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin includes a relevant chapter in his Ishim ve-Shitot.  However, R. Meir Simcha deserves far more study.  I hope that these shiurim will encourage others to turn their attention to his wisdom and insight.

 

Nature

 

R. Meir Simcha emphasizes the significance of the natural order, arguing that this order represents the authentic purpose of creation.  Miracles are a temporary necessity to establish that God lies behind nature, but God truly wants the world to function in a natural way.   In fact, God’s ability to make a stable order that provides sustenance for a myriad of creatures is a greater feat than His performing of miracles. [3] 

 

The generation of the desert, which experienced the pillars of glory and the sustenance of the manna, was a brief period of miraculous existence; but entry into the Land of Israel brought about a normal existence working within natural limitations.  Our nation needed a miraculous beginning so that belief in God could take root amongst our people, but that type of lifestyle was never the true goal.  Once its purpose had been fulfilled, the miraculous living ceased. Perhaps this theory explains why Jewish life seems to incorporate fewer miracles as history progresses.    

 

Moshe explicitly tells the people this message in Devarim 29.  He first refers to the many miracles the Jewish people witnessed in Egypt and in the desert.  “And God has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see until this day” (Devarim 29:4).  R. Meir Simcha argues that Moshe outlines here the ideal context of Jewish existence.  Religious striving is meant to happen within a natural order and not within a miraculous existence.  Only on “this day,” when the Jews will soon enter the Land of Israel and switch to the naturalistic mode, will the people acquire a truly sensitive heart and discerning eyes. [4]        

 

R. Meir Simcha adamantly rejects the generation of the desert’s lifestyle as a model.  “Could this be called the goal?” he incredulously asks.  That would mean jumping ahead to the existence of the World to Come or emulating the existence of angels.   Authentic religious life demands struggling and striving within the limitations of nature.  For this reason, one opinion in the gemara (Sanhedrin 20a) applies the verse, “Favor is false and beauty is vanity” (Mishlei 31:30), to the generations of Moshe and Chizkiyahu.  These generations saw the revealed miracles of the splitting of the Red Sea and the wiping out of Sancheriv’s army.  Such miracles look impressive, but religious life is not about such things.  “A woman that fears God should be praised” refers to the generation of R. Yehuda bar Ilai, when six people shared one cloak to study Torah.  No miracle warmed them up or provided extra clothing, but they still studied with diligence. [5]                 

 

This approach explains the following Talmudic discrepancy.  One gemara (Shabbat 118b) identifies daily recital of hallel with blasphemy, whereas another gemara (Berakhot 4b) says that a person who says Tehilla Le-David each day merits the World to Come.  R. Meir Simcha explains that hallel, which we say on festivals, thanks God for miraculously changing the natural order.  Tehilla Le-David (which we commonly refer to as Ashrei) offers gratitude for the natural order itself.  Someone who recites hallel daily indicates that only miracles deserve thanks, but nature does not.  This indifference or rejection of God’s masterful creation borders on the blasphemous.

 

Tehilla Le-David thanks God for the everyday world; therefore, it is appropriate to say it daily.  Berakhot 4b states that this prayer has great value for two reasons: the opening letter of each verse forms an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, and the verse “You open Your hand and satisfy every living creature” (Tehillim 145:16) is especially meaningful.  According to R. Meir Simcha, these are not disparate positive qualities but rather jointly form an integrated message.  The predictable regularity of an acrostic symbolizes the consistency of nature.   For the same reason, the first berakha of keri’at shema, a blessing about God’s creation, includes an acrostic every Shabbat morning.  The verse about “opening Your hand” conveys the fact that this natural order enables so many creatures to survive.  Someone who says this prayer each day and internalizes the wonders of the divine handiwork will find a place in the World to Come.

 

The ability to recognize God in nature manifests religious depth.  Adam knew God from direct experience and passed that tradition down to Metushelach.  After knowledge of God gave way to idolatrous beliefs, Avraham was the first to discern God’s existence from nature.  Since Avraham initiated that aspect of religious consciousness, the gemara (Berakhot 7b) says that Avraham was the first person to refer to God as “Adon,” a new form of address recognizing this aspect of God.[6]

 

R. Meir Simcha adopts a form of the argument from design.  If happenstance led to the emergence of the animal kingdom, then the same historical contingencies should cause many more species to become extinct.  The basic stability of the animal kingdom points to the existence of a Creator.[7]

 

An excessive interest in the miraculous also reveals a lack of refined discernment.  R. Meir Simcha says that noble people revere a great man for his wisdom and character. The masses, on the other hand, stand in awe of wild deeds that seem to break natural boundaries.  In Egypt, everyone revered Moshe, but for different reasons.  “The man Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people” (Shemot 11:3).  This verse refers to the two groups impressed by Moshe.  “Servants of Pharaoh” refers to the wise men of Egypt, who were astounded by Moshe’s humility and intelligence; “the people” means the common Egyptians, who were impressed by his signs and wonders.

 

Showing keen psychological insight, R. Meir Simcha argues that each group invariably influences the other.  If all the wise men honor an individual, the masses see this and want to honor him as well.  Conversely, if the masses admire someone, this influences the intellectuals also.  Interestingly, the elite are not immune to influence from the popular voice.  The above verse, which refers to Moshe as a “man,” focuses on Moshe’s ability within nature.  In that case, he first impacts on the “servants of Pharaoh” and it then trickles down to “the people.”[8]

 

R. Meir Simcha finds an analogous theme within Tehilla Le-David.  “All Your works shall praise You and Your pious ones shall bless You…To make known to the sons of men His might and the glorious majesty of His kingdom” (Tehillim 145: 10, 12).  The “pious” need not witness miracles to discern the greatness of God – God’s “works” suffice.  However, “the sons of men” lack this appreciation for nature.  They only want to talk about divine “might” and “glorious majesty” as manifest in His miracles.[9]

 

At the same time, we should not identify R. Meir Simcha with the philosophic position of R. Levi ben Gershom, who emphasizes general Providence more than individual Providence.  R. Meir Simcha strongly believes in individual Providence for humanity, but he believes that individual Providence becomes manifest within the natural order.   Those who fulfill the divine will receive help in a naturalistic manner.[10]  Despite the absence of an open miracle, Avraham attributes his military victory over the four kings to God.  “I lifted up my hand to God” (Bereishit 14:22).  That explains why Avraham refuses to take from the spoils of war.  He views them as belonging to God more than to himself.  One midrash (Bereishit Rabba 43:9) compares Avraham’s praise of God after the victory to the Jews rapturously singing to God after the splitting of the Red Sea.  Just as Am Yisrael saw the divine hand in the open miracle, Avraham detected divine influence in a naturalistic battle.[11]

 

R. Meir Simcha rejects the notion that God is too exalted to care about particular human beings.  He roots the prohibition against praying to any being other than God in the assumption that God cares about individual people.  Those who think that God handed over managing the world to intermediaries might want to pray to these lower governors.  Since we deny such a notion, God remains the sole address of our supplications.[12]

 

Nor should we think that individual Providence is restricted to those already intensely cleaving to the way of God.   God provides the manna before He gives the Jewish people the Torah in order to establish this point.  Anyone who makes a basic commitment to follow God can count on some material support.[13]  Nonetheless, not everyone receives the same intensity of Providence.  Degrees of Providence depend upon the quality of the person[14] and that person’s ability to stay connected to God.[15]      

 

Individual Providence does not apply to the animal kingdom.   God insures that species survive but does not watch particular animals.  This distinction helps R. Meir Simcha explain a verse in Shema.  What does it mean that one must love God “be-khol me’odekha?”  One interpretation cited by Rashi (Devarim 6:5) says that we should love God with regard to every midda or attribute with which He deals with us.  We love Him in response to bounty and reward and in response to hardship and punishment.   R. Meir Simcha argues that the animal kingdom could never view the punishment of a particular animal as an act of God, but people can think in those terms.

 

He adds another insightful explanation of this verse.  Animals want to achieve immediate gratification. They will not endure hardships and danger for the sake of a long term plan.  A human being can overcome his natural inclination to avoid difficulty and take on something difficult that leads to a better end.  Thus, only humans can understand how a punishment might prove helpful, either to achieve atonement or to purify character.[16]   

 



[1] An account of this story appears in Rivkah Blau, Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah: haRav Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, The Quintessential Rabbi (Ktav: Hoboken, 2001), p. 35.

[2] Yona Ben Sasson, Hagut Yehudit be-Mivchan ha-Dorot (Jerusalem, 5754), pp. 373-527.

[3] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 26:4.

[4] Meshkeh Chokhma Devarim 29:3.

[5] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 32:3.

[6] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 26:4.

[7] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 19:18.

[8] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 11:3.

[9] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 5:1.

[10] Meshkeh Chokhma Devarim 29:3.

[11] Meshekh Chokhma Bereishit 11:22.

[12] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 32:19.

[13] Meshekh Chokhma Shemot 16:32.

[14] Meshkeh Chokhma Shemot 13:9.

[15] Meshekh Chokhma Vayikra 26:6.

[16] Meshekh Chokhma Devarim 6:5.