Monday, May 30, 2016

What Will The World Be Like? The Ramban on Moshiach

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Bechukotai contains within it the Torah's first account of the Berachot and Kelalot, the blessings that will take place if the children of Israel do good and the curses that will overtake Israel if they do bad. Within the Berachot is a fascinating account of a land at complete peace.

 ויקרא כ״ו:ו׳וְנָתַתִּ֤י שָׁלוֹם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּ֖ם וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֞י חַיָּ֤ה רָעָה֙ מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְחֶ֖רֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹ֥ר בְּאַרְצְכֶֽם׃And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. - Source: Sefaria
This verse describes the Land of Israel in complete peace, not only from foreign enemies but even from wild beasts.

The Ramban brings down two approaches to explain this phenomenon. In the first approach which he describes as the more simple pshat, he says that since the land will be completely populated with well built up cities and inhabitants, there will be no wild animals since wild animals tend to live at the edges of civilization rarely going to well populated places.

The Ramban rejects this approach for a more mystical interpretation which dovetails into his overall outlook on the messianic age. The Ramban describes that the Land of Israel in this time of complete fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvot will revert back the idealized lifestyle of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, G-d commanded not only humans but all animals to live a vegetarian lifestyle.

See the following:
בראשית א: כט-לוַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food;
וּֽלְכָל־חַיַּ֣ת הָ֠אָרֶץ וּלְכָל־ע֨וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּלְכֹ֣ל ׀ רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־יֶ֥רֶק עֵ֖שֶׂב לְאָכְלָ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so. Source: Sefaria
According to Ramban, it was only after the flood that humans and carnivorous animals became meat-eaters.  Once the messianic era begins, Israel will once again return to the state of humanity in the Garden of Eden so therefore not only will humanity no longer eat animals but "evil beasts" i.e. carnivorous animals will no longer be in the land.

The Ramban proves this based on the messianic visions in Isaiah Chapter 11.

ישעיהו פרק יא פסוקים ו-טוְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.
וּפָרָ֤ה וָדֹב֙ תִּרְעֶ֔ינָה יַחְדָּ֖ו יִרְבְּצ֣וּ יַלְדֵיהֶ֑ן וְאַרְיֵ֖ה כַּבָּקָ֥ר יֹֽאכַל־תֶּֽבֶן׃And the cow and the bear feed; Their young ones shall lie down together; And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק עַל־חֻ֣ר פָּ֑תֶן וְעַל֙ מְאוּרַ֣ת צִפְעוֹנִ֔י גָּמ֖וּל יָד֥וֹ הָדָֽה׃And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, And the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk’s den.
לֹֽא־יָרֵ֥עוּ וְלֹֽא־יַשְׁחִ֖יתוּ בְּכָל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֑י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ דֵּעָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כַּמַּ֖יִם לַיָּ֥ם מְכַסִּֽים׃ (פ)They shall not hurt nor destroy In all My holy mountain; For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea. Source: Sefaria

The famous vision which begins with "the wolf shall lie with the lamb" is figuratively interpreted by many commentaries to mean that the carnivorous nations, the "wolves", will no longer victimize the weaker countries, the "lambs". For example, see Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed Part 3 11:1. It's interesting to note that many artists utilized this figurative interpretation of Isaiah's messianic prophecy for their depictions. For example, the painting below by the early American folk artist, Edward Hicks, juxtaposes the visions from Isaiah of carnivorous and herbivorous animals dwelling together side by side with a depiction of the early American settlers dwelling in peace with the Native Americans.


Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom
Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the Ramban unlike the Rambam interprets this vision literally. The Ramban interprets that the wolf shall lie with the lamb because all animals and people will return to their original vegetarian state which they had in the days of Adam of Eve in the Garden of Eden. This idea is further elaborated on by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. He writes that in the future ideal state of the messianic era, people and animals will once again return to the vegetarian ideal practiced at the time of the Garden of Eden. For further details see the following link: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/ravkook_veg.html.

The Ramban ends with a fascinating analysis of King Hezekiah, the king at the time of Isaiah, which touches upon another big idea, this one about the role of prophecy.

First, some background.

Isaiah Chapters 6-10 describes Isaiah's career as a prophet during the kings of Judah from Uzziah to Jotham to wicked King Ahaz and climaxing with King Hezekiah. During this time, the Assyrian empire is on the rise representing an existential threat to the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel eventually falls to the Assyrians. The Israelites are scattered throughout the diaspora and ultimately become known as the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. Judah almost falls as well but after much of its cities are decimated and Jerusalem is besieged, the Assyrian army led by Sennacherib miraculously dies overnight and Sennacherib is forced to flee back to Assyria. This account is mentioned in both Jewish sources in the Books of Kings and Isaiah and in Assyrian sources as well. For example, see Sennacherib's Annals.

The end of Isaiah Chapter 10 poetically describes the armies of Sennacherib threatening Jerusalem and then being cut down by G-d.

ישעיהו פרק י פסוקים לב-לדע֥וֹד הַיּ֖וֹם בְּנֹ֣ב לַֽעֲמֹ֑ד יְנֹפֵ֤ף יָדוֹ֙ הַ֣ר בית־[בַּת־] צִיּ֔וֹן גִּבְעַ֖ת יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ס)This very day shall he halt at Nob, Shaking his hand at the mount of the daughter of Zion, The hill of Jerusalem.
הִנֵּ֤ה הָאָדוֹן֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת מְסָעֵ֥ף פֻּארָ֖ה בְּמַעֲרָצָ֑ה וְרָמֵ֤י הַקּוֹמָה֙ גְּדוּעִ֔ים וְהַגְּבֹהִ֖ים יִשְׁפָּֽלוּ׃Behold, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, Shall lop the boughs with terror; And the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, And the lofty shall be laid low.
וְנִקַּ֛ף סִֽבְכֵ֥י הַיַּ֖עַר בַּבַּרְזֶ֑ל וְהַלְּבָנ֖וֹן בְּאַדִּ֥יר יִפּֽוֹל׃ (ס)And He shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, And Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one. Source: Sefaria
This is a poetic account of the miraculous victory of King Hezekiah over Sennacherib.

The very next verse in the beginning of Chapter 11 shifts gears to an account of the messianic era.

ישעיהו פרק יא פסוק אוְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה׃And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, And a twig shall grow forth out of his roots. Source: Sefaria
This account contains many famous visions including the one mentioned previously of the wolf lying with the lamb ushering in world peace and a perfected era. The question one must ask on this account is who is Isaiah describing as the Messiah. The only logical answer is King Hezekiah. He led the people in both a spiritual and military defense against Sennacherib's hordes which ultimately resulted in miraculous victory. However, this account in Chapter 11 cannot possibly be describing Hezekiah since he did none of the things Isaiah predicts. The wolf did not lie with the lamb during the time of King Hezekiah neither figuratively, there was no world peace, nor literally. So why didn't Hezekiah become the Messiah?

The Ramban references the Talmud in Sanhedrin 94a which addresses this question.

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין דף צד עמוד א(ישעיהו ט, ו) למרבה המשרה ולשלום אין קץ וגו' א"ר תנחום דרש בר קפרא בציפורי“To him who increases the authority, and for peace without end…” (Isaiah 9:6) R’ Tanchum said: Bar Kappar expounded in Tzippori
מפני מה כל מ"ם שבאמצע תיבה פתוח וזה סתום‘why is every letter mem which is located in the middle of a word open at the bottom, and the one in this verse is closed?
ביקש הקב"ה לעשות חזקיהו משיח וסנחריב גוג ומגוגThe Holy One wanted to make Hezekiah the Messiah and Sancheriv Gog and Magog.
אמרה מדת הדין לפני הקב"הBut the aspect of judgment said before the Holy One:
רבש"עMaster of the World!
ומה דוד מלך ישראל שאמר כמה שירות ותשבחות לפניך לא עשיתו משיח חזקיה שעשית לו כל הנסים הללו ולא אמר שירה לפניך תעשהו משיחYou did not make David, who said before You many songs and praises, the Messiah. Will you then make Hezekiah, for whom You did all these miracles and who did not sing before, into the Messiah?!
לכך נסתתםTherefore it was sealed. Source: Sefaria
The Ramban explains that the intent of Isaiah was that the messianic predictions in Chapter 11 including the prediction of peace and tranquility, the wolf shall lie with the lamb, should apply to King Hezekiah. He was supposed to be the Messiah and his time was supposed to the the perfected time of redemption. However, since Hezekiah did not sing Shira, he did not compose songs of G-d's praises giving proper recognition for the great miracle that he and the nation had just experienced, the prophecy's original intent was changed. It would no longer describe King Hezekiah but a far off future messianic age.

If one properly examines this idea of the Ramban, one realizes something revolutionary about the role of the prophet. The role of the prophet is not to predict what will happen but to paint a picture of what could happen if we deserve it. Prophecies, even positive ones, are in fact conditional. According to the Ramban and others, they will ultimately come true, but can be shifted to an earlier or later time based on our actions. This concept is further explicated by the Malbim on Isaiah Chapter 11 and elsewhere. See Hayyim Angel's article, Prophecy as Potential for a complete treatment of this.

This Ramban then has much to say both about the times of Moshiach and our role in bringing this messianic age to being. According to Ramban, the messianic age will feature a fundamental shift in the nature of all living things. We will be perfected and live perfected lives. Even our diets and those of the animal kingdom will be transformed by this great moral clarity. But these prophecies although predicted will only come true through human actions. Prophets do not guarantee what will happen but rather open up a window into what could happen. It is up to us through our actions to make it so.

Below is a sourcesheet containing the primary sources discussed in this post.

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