Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How could it say "lest" the nation repent?

Summary: Touching on Bechira vs. Omniscience, what is meant by the opening of Beshalach, that pen the nation see war and return to Egypt? Ibn Ezra vs. Ibn Caspi.

Post: The first pasuk of Beshalach:

יז  וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא:  כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה--וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה.
17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: 'Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.'

What in the world does it mean to say פֶּן? This means "lest". This would suggest a fear, rather than a certain knowledge. But surely Hashem is all-knowing!

Ibn Ezra:
כי טעמו: למה לא נחם אלוהים דרך ארץ פלשתים, בעבור שהוא קרוב. והנה נחם דרך רחוקה שלא יראו מלחמה ויאמרו: נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה.
וידענו כי השם יודע העתידות בלי ספק וידע שינחמו אם יוליכם דרך ארץ פלשתים. ואמר: פן ינחם העם. כי דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם שיבינו הלומדים.

"And we know that Hashem knows all futures, without doubt, and knew that they would indeed repent if He took them by way of the land of the Philistines. And it said 'lest the nation repent' for the Torah speaks in the language of people, such that the learners would understand."

In contrast, Ibn Caspi thinks
that it was not determined:

"Its import is that it is possible they will repent. And Hashem does not remove the nature of the possible, for He created all of Existence, and therefore created three materials. And they are that which must be, that which cannot be, and the possible. And if you want, say two materials -- the compulsory and the possible. And once He has created the possible, what is upon us to cry out and to make noise about it. If so, there is no need to say in this that the Torah speaks in the language of mankind. Rather, it is a precise language, which means just what it means, for the import of pen in all of Scriptures in such as "possible" in thought."

I wonder -- if in this instance, and every instance, Hashem knows the outcome of each eventuality, and it is predetermined, what shall we make of free will? Yes, this is a big question with deep answers, and I am not going to even be able to ask it appropriately in this blogpost. But if Hashem wished to prevent this situation, because He knew the result, what should we make about all the other trials Hashem gave the Israelites in the wilderness, all of which they failed. By the manna, how could He say that he wants to see if they follow His command or not? And just what is the model of nisayon? Is it test? Demonstration to others? A way in which sturdy material is improved? We can consider different paradigms.

But what made this test different than the others? If we say that the outcome was already known in either case, what should distinguish this one? Perhaps that despite their actions and complaints in these other instances, they didn't actually return to Egypt. But here, there would have been no preventing them. Or is it that this would somehow be an unfair test to put them to, despite the fact that they would fail others? On the other hand, if this was all in the realm of the possible, then it is could be a matter of likelihood or lack thereof.

In this matter, I would side with Ibn Ezra over Ibn Caspi. Despite the general meaning of pen as efshar, I am unconvinced that it must encompass the meaning of doubt over the possible. It could even mean "lest" as in "so that it would not be so that", in which case we wouldn't even need to resort to dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam.

Rashi on this:

when they see war: For instance, the war of “And the Amalekites and the Canaanites descended, etc.” (Num. 14:45). If they had gone on a direct route, they would have returned. Now, if when He led them around in a circuitous route, they said, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4), how much more [would they have planned to do this] if He had led them on a direct route?

בראתם מלחמה: כגון מלחמת (במדבר יד מה) וירד העמלקי והכנעני וגו'. אם הלכו דרך ישר היו חוזרים, ומה אם כשהקיפם דרך מעוקם אמרו (במדבר יד ד) נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה, אם הוליכם בפשוטה על אחת כמה וכמה:

How exactly would this work out, if in each instance, Hashem knew the outcome? I leave it as a צריך עיון, for now.

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