Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Rabbi Ben Ezra

This past motzei Shabbos Rabbi Yisroel Reisman's navi shiur focused on the Ibn Ezra, the biblical commentator who is well-known for his rationalist, p'shat-based perspective. 

Rabbi Avrohom ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) did not have an easy life. His wife died young, as did his three daughters. His son converted to Islam, but he eventually returned to Judaism. Because of his controversial viewpoints, the Ibn Ezra was not well liked by many of the rabbinate.
He was poor to such an extent that he said in a poem, "if I were to sell candles, the sun would never set; if I should deal in shrouds, no one would ever die." He would not accept monetary assistance from his students, stating it was by divine decree that he be in poverty. His students would try elaborate ruses to maneuver some money into his possession, but they would not succeed; circumstances, not even the Ibn Ezra, dictated otherwise.

He spent a restless existence, wandering from Spain to Italy to Israel to France to Britain.

Googling him on Sunday from idle curiosity, Wikipedia informed me that Robert Browning wrote a poem about him, "Rabbi Ben Ezra." It is not really about him, but rather his philosophy. I was struck by the somewhat mussar-dik passages (I didn't insert the entirety of the work since it is quite long):
Rejoice we are allied
To That which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive!
A spark disturbs our clod;
Nearer we hold of God
Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.

Then, welcome each rebuff 
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!

For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale . . .

Not once beat "Praise be Thine!
I see the whole design,
I, who saw power, see now love perfect too:
Perfect I call Thy plan:
Thanks that I was a man!
Maker, remake, complete,—I trust what Thou shalt do! . . .

Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me: we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe? . . .

But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I,—to the wheel of life
With shapes and colours rife,
Bound dizzily,—mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:

So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o' the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

Browning manages to capture the very essence of belief. Ibn Ezra certainly had more detractors in his lifetime than supporters, and while he was no stranger to heartbreak, to hardship, to hostility, he calmly accepted the Will of Above, and remained steadfast in his own conclusions.   

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