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The Marvellous Mandrake and the Mashgiach of Mir
The mandrake is an odd plant that, in the ancient world, was thought to have all kinds of marvelous properties, from being a fertility aid to having magical powers. The mandrake, which appears in this week's parashah, also had a wondrous effect on me: it had a pivotal role in transforming me into a rationalist.
My formative yeshivah years were spent in a decidedly anti-rationalist environment. I was taught that the system of natural law is an unfortunate entity that exists solely in order to enable free will - we have to have the possibility of blinding ourselves to God's stewardship of the universe. To the extent that a person rises in their spiritual level, they will be above the natural order.
Then I came across a discussion in Daas Chochmah U'Mussar 1:14 by Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1874-1936), mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshivah. He focuses upon the episode of Rachel and the mandrakes that appears in this week's parashah:
In the days of the wheat-harvest, Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field. He brought them to Leah, his mother. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes!” (Genesis 30:14)
Why was Rachel so eager for these flowers? The fifteenth-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno states that "these are a type of sweet-smelling herb which enable fertility." Rachel had not yet been able to bear children to Jacob, and hoped that the mandrakes would help.
But, for an anti-rationalist yeshivah bochur, far from explaining matters, this only served to complicate them further. After all, this isn’t just an ordinary person that we are talking about, but Rachel, wife of Jacob, one of the matriarchs and a righteous person of the highest stature. Surely she was fully aware that it was God Who was withholding children from her rather than any physical problem! And it was surely just as clear that her salvation would be through prayer, not through fertility drugs!
But Rav Yerucham Levovitz explained the Seforno in a way that transformed my attitude. He explains that natural law is not to be seen as conflicting with God’s authority. Just the opposite — it is a manifestation of His wisdom. God doesn't just make things happen arbitrarily; there is a system of cause-and-effect. It is important to recognize, says Rav Yerucham, that this is also true of spirituality - one's deeds, words and even thoughts have an effect. If a person does not see the system of cause-and-effect in nature, he will not see it in his spiritual life. If there is no derech eretz, no acknowledgment of a system to the world, then there is no Torah.
It took a while for me to fully absorb this message. Initially, when I recorded it in my youthful and primitive book Second Focus, I still wrote that Rachel's usage of a fertility drugs was in no way a cause of her having children, just a merit. But Rav Yerucham had set me on the path to Maimonidean rationalism. I had begun to see that natural law is not a negative phenomenon that just exists to give us free will, but rather it is the proper way for God to run the world. And when I eventually applied that line of thinking to the development of the universe and of life, I realized that it would be appropriate for God to have done this via an orderly system of natural law, rather than zapping things into existence.
So, that's how I came to a rationalist view of nature - from a marvelous mandrake and a mashgiach of Mir!