Ramban to Devarim, Week One: Preparing a New Generation for Their Great Adventure

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Devarim, Week One: Preparing a New Generation for Their Great Adventure

I remember fellows in yeshiva pondering who was greater, Rashi or Rambam, since they seem to be the two most impactful scholars of the post-Talmudic Torah world. I don’t think I’m the first or only who would argue that Ramban belongs in that conversation, since his responses to each of those authors (and others, such as Ba’alei haTosafot in his Talmud commentary and Ba’al HaMaor in his Milchamot) rounded out those other legacies and added important alternative views as well.

His Torah commentary is one of the main avenues by which many of us have gotten to know his worldview, different again from Rashi’s and Rambam’s, with much to offer in understanding the Torah’s goals or values.  In this series, at R. Gil Student’s suggestion, I will spend two weeks on select comments of Ramban’s on each parsha in Devarim. That will give us a sprinkling of Ramban’s ideas on all of Devarim, an introduction to his thought, by next Simchat Torah, when we complete the reading.

For this week, let’s see some of his introduction to the book as a whole.

A New Generation’s Torah

He opens with the surprising statement that Mishneh Torah (meaning the book of Devarim, which is referred to that way because it recaps much of the previous Torah; it was from that use of the term that Rambam came up with the name of his legal code, Mishneh Torah) is there to explain to the generation entering the Land most of the mitzvot they would need when they got there. He did not offer such a review or reintroduction for the kohanim, the priests, because they are zerizim, so dedicated to their service that they did not need repeat adjurations (which is why, in his view, Devarim does not have much in the way of mitzvot related to the Temple, its service, or the laws that apply specifically to kohanim).

Ramban was trying to explain what was and wasn’t included in Devarim, since it doesn’t only or exactly repeat what we’ve seen before. (Heretics, of course, would say the lack of “priestly law” is a function of the P writer coming later —it pains me to even record it, but I have a reason, so bear with me—or some such. I point it out because it’s an example of the fact that most of the issues heretics raise to claim that this couldn’t be a Torah given by Hashem to Moshe have been noted for centuries if not millennia by faithful Jews. It is also a reminder, in an era where it’s often forgotten, that to hold such views is heresy, is to place oneself outside of the authoritative tradition of Torah and mitzvot. It is, on its own and by itself, an abandoning of the warp and weft of what Hashem wanted us to understand when giving us the Torah).

Ramban’s claim is that regular Jews needed this review (where kohanim did not), sometimes to add details that had not been laid out before, sometimes just to repeat the warnings already administered, mostly about avodah zarah, worship of any power other than Hashem. (I phrase it that way to remind us that while idol worship has mostly been stamped out, it’s equally problematic to see any power other than Hashem as having meaningful control of our lives, whatever name we give that power.) Whether or not it meets the technical halachic definitions of avodah zarah, seeing that, four thousand years later, we still struggle to be as absolute about Hashem’s rule as we were told to be, gives a sense of why so many reminders were necessary.

Ramban’s idea that the people needed this review also assumes that previous four books of the Torah couldn’t do it for some reason. Otherwise, why would Moshe have to teach them these lessons in new words, why not just teach them the previous four books really well, adding oral emphasis on areas that were problematic for them?

That’s a question, it seems to me, especially if we accept the Midrashic traditions that Moshe spent the time in the desert teaching Torah to Aharon, his sons, and the rest of the people.

Ramban does not answer it, he assumes that this is what happened which, to me, is a sign that there’s an underlying truth he so took for granted he did not feel the need to address it. From the way he expresses it here, he seems to be saying—and this past Friday, I shared with readers a Chatam Sofer that makes a similar assumption in a different context—that a new generation needed a “different” Torah, a Torah that addressed their particular lacks or concerns as they entered the Land and prepared to start building a Torah society.

Only Moshe Rabbenu, at Hashem’s command and dictation, could insert that “new” Torah into the Torah itself, but for Ramban it might be teaching us that each generation should get its own Torah, an idea that might be true and important even as it can be taken to improper extremes.

Warnings, Clarifications, and Seemingly New Material

Moshe Rabbenu repeated mitzvot that had come before, and stressed the punishments that could and would come with failure to observe the Torah, and added details to mitzvot previously seen. In addition—heresy concern alert!— mitzvot that have not appeared previously are taught, such as yibum, where a man marries his brother’s widow if the brother passed away without children, or motzi shem ra, a husband who claims his wife was unfaithful before their first night together, or divorce, etc.

The simplistic response is to point to those “new” mitzvot as evidence of a different document or author, chas ve-shalom. As before, I mention it only to make clear that, since Ramban noticed it long ago and he wasn’t the first, choosing this path is the lazy way out, refusing to engage with the complexity of a faithful response.

Ramban’s view is that these were all in fact said at Sinai or in Ohel Moed before the sin of the spies. Later, in the plains of Moav (where Moshe says the book of Devarim), the only new material was the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people at the end. That’s why, he says, we don’t find the locution of Vaydaber Hashem el Moshe or Tzav et Benei Yisrael, “Hashem spoke to Moshe” or “Command the Jewish people.”

All From Sinai?

Ramban has casually inserted the idea that Moshe learned material after Sinai that was part of the Torah, and then some other new material on the plains of Moav. (He doesn’t say it, but I think he doesn’t imagine he learned any new material in between because of Chazal’s tradition that Hashem did not speak fully with Moshe from the sin of the spies until the death of whoever wasn’t making it into the Land of Israel. That, too, is a fascinating idea that we’ll have to leave for another time).

For all that there are statements in Chazal that seem to require us to believe that absolutely everything in the Torah was taught at Sinai, Ramban implies we don’t have to take that fully literally (although, as should be obvious from the Torah itself, it was completed before the Jews crossed the Jordan, for all opinions; I suspect Ramban would also say Moshe learned it all on Sinai to some extent, but not to the point that he could then teach it to the Jews in the final form it took in the Torah). How that worked, or how far it would go, is not an issue he addresses, so we’ll leave that for now.

These mitzvot weren’t written in the Torah before, he suggests, perhaps because they did not apply—despite being chovat haguf, obligations that apply to the person him or herself, not the land—until they arrived in Israel. That’s a daring suggestion, and seems to me connected to Ramban’s view in several places that the essential place to observe mitzvot is in Israel (another discussion not for here). Another option is that these mitzvot didn’t arise all that often, so he left it until he was addressing the generation that was actually going to take possession of the Land.

Before Content, Remonstration, Rebuke, and the Awareness of Hashem’s Kindness

All that doesn’t come until somewhat later in the book, however, because Moshe Rabbenu starts with a review of their history, a reminder of their sins, their repeat failure to accept Moshe’s guidance, and especially Hashem’s mercy in either ignoring their misdeeds, or punishing them relatively gently as compared to what they deserved.

This reminder would encourage them that they could make it in their new land. Were Hashem to always punish us as we deserve, we could become fatalistic, certain we’d misstep, be punished, and it would be all over. The experience of the desert should be evidence, to those who pay attention, that that’s not how Hashem operates.

Ramban is making a point that is in one sense not at all original and yet seems to me to be news to many, many Jews. Perhaps because the Christians often speak about the vengeful Gd of the Old Testament, I hear many Jews who accept this model as well, who see Hashem as terribly punishing, who are ready to complain about Hashem’s strictness. In fact, though, the story of Jewish history, from the Exodus on, has been one of Hashem giving the Jewish people less than they deserve. Remember that Tanach makes clear that the Jews were idol-worshippers in Egypt, and to some extent held on to that throughout the time in the desert and just about all of the first Temple period.

If so, the fact that it took 400 years before destruction and exile (with ups and downs along the way) is a testament to Hashem’s arichut apayim, length to anger, and a reminder that what we might see as terribly punishing might be, from a truer perspective, great forbearance.

We start the book of Devarim, for Ramban, addressing a new generation, with reminders of the past and of mitzvot that will put them in the right frame of mind for the future they are about to enter.

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