Sometimes a chariot is just a chariot while other times …

At one point in his comments to Petach 7 Ramchal says that the whole array of God’s governance, as exemplified by the traits of Divine tolerance (Chessed), strictness (Gevurah), and judiciousness (Rachamim), constitutes The Merkava (“Chariot”) that the prophets were able to envision. We’ll lay out the details of all this later on in this work but for now it’s important to explore the concept of The Merkava itself, since it has all sorts of associations in Kabbalistic and Rabbinic literature [1].

The term Merkava is mentioned quite a lot of times in Tanach, but the term is specifically taken to refer to Ezekiel’s vision as recorded in the first chapter of his work [2]. But chariots themselves do play significant roles in Tanach.

Pharaoh had Joseph ride in a chariot that would signal his coming to be second-in-command (Genesis 41:43, 46:29, and 50:9); King David’s heir-apparent Absalom was acquired a chariot along with horses and 50 runners to signify his stature (II Samuel 15:1, I Kings 1:5), and the prophet Elijah was said to have “ascended up to heaven in a whirlwind” upon “a chariot of fire (II Kings 2:11). So a chariot was clearly an important indicator of prestige and ascendance.

So, what’s the significance of the Merkava in the tradition, and why were we told that “The Account of the Merkava should only be taught to the wise and to those able to deduce through wisdom on their own” (Chagiga 2:1)?

Notes:

[1]       For one thing, Ramchal refers there to the combination of Chessed, Gevurah, and Rachamim as a “herkava” (a blend), which is obviously entomologically related to merkava. As such, the word merkava itself could merely be a different construct of “blend”. But Ramchal purposefully and unequivocally equates it with the Merkava that the prophets envisioned.

[2]       In Mishna Chagiga 2:1 the chapter is said to refer to Ma’aseh Merkava — an accounting of the Merkava (experience). In fact, the term Merkava isn’t cited in that chapter at all (or in chapters 8 and 10 there which refer to vision). But see I Chronicles 28:18.

(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org

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