Four Strategies to Serve Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to VaEtchanan, Week Two: Four Strategies to Serve Hashem

What does it mean to serve Hashem? Moshe is described in the Torah as an eved Hashem, one who served Gd, which is seen as the highest compliment possible. Ramban to VaEtchanan gives examples of ways we can get closer to being such servants of our Creator.

Laws and Statutes

The first method, discussed early in the parsha, 4;5, is to follow the specific laws Hashem taught us, notably the chukkim and mishpatim. Ramban reads chukkim as many of us do, decrees whose reasons are not immediately obvious, and mishpatim as dinim, which I think means civil law for him. That then means that these categories decidedly do not cover all of mitzvot (as opposed, for example, to Rashi, who saw mishpatim as laws whose reasons we do immediately understand; that would cover all mitzvot, since they either are or aren’t intuitive). He therefore needs to explain why the Torah spoke about these types of mitzvot as opposed to others.

He thinks the continuation of the text tells us, when it speaks of the benefits we reap from following these laws. Among those benefits are that others will be impressed by us and that it will foster a closeness with Hashem, Who will respond to us whenever we call out to Him.

Ramban doesn’t explain what will impress those others; the verse itself says they will see how wise our laws are. That might mean they will simply see the Torah’s wisdom (as Rambam had it in the Guide), or it might be that our obeying without understanding will be what impresses them (Ran, a third generation student of Ramban’s, argued that the closeness fostered by our keeping mitzvot that seem to have no reason will convince others that we know something they don’t, since we clearly have access to workings of the world beyond human wisdom).

A first step in Hashem’s service, obeying the laws.

Taking Oaths

Devarim 6;13 tells us to fear and serve Hashem, and to swear in His Name. Ramban rejects the idea that that last phrase is an obligation, and reads it instead as an implicit prohibition against swearing using any other standard of truth (such as another god, which is why the next verse warns against following other gods; it means that none of the attitudes expressed in this verse, 6;13, can be expressed towards other gods, neither fear, service, nor swearing in their name).

(Oaths fit in there, I think, because we invoke some standard that guarantees others that we are telling the truth. To swear with the Name of Hashem means that Hashem is so compelling a force that the person swearing would never lie.)

My suggestion fits with Temurah’s reading of this verse (which Ramban now mentions), that it comes to tell us that we’reallowed to invoke Hashem’s Name even when the Torah did not obligate the oath. There are some occasions when we become liable for a shevu’at hadayyanim, an oath that a court imposes on us. It’s obvious that we would swear in Hashem’s Name in those situations, since the Torah told us that a shevu’at Hashem, an oath of the Lord, would be taken in that situation. In addition, 13;5 speaks of the requirement to cleave to Hashem, which Ramban assumes means that an obligatory oath would have to use Hashem’s Name.

This verse must then be discussing a shevu’at chol, an oath we take of our own volition, or even that we manufacture.  

The Necessary Qualifications for Oath-Taking

Ramban then quotes a Tanchuma that complicates that story a bit. The Midrash reads the verse as implying that what Hashem meant was that we shouldn’t think we have the free right to swear in that Name, even truthfully, unless we have the qualities enumerated earlier in the verse. Before we could choose to swear in Hashem’s Name, we’d have to be sure that we were truly Gd-fearing, like Avraham, Yosef, and Iyyov (all described that way in Scripture); that we were truly servants of Hashem, which he defines as that we clear our schedule to ensure it includes Torah and mitzvot, and that there are no other allegiances in our lives (he says avodah acheret, which might mean another religious service, but I think he might mean it more broadly, that there’s nothing else that commands our devotion as much as Hashem, regardless of whether it involves belief in a power); and, finally, that we cleave to Hashem. Given the impossibility of doing so literally, this Midrash understands that as marrying one’s daughter to a Torah scholar, helping Torah scholars find a way to support themselves, or sharing one’s wealth with a Torah scholar. That kind of person should feel free to take voluntary oaths using Hashem’s Name.

Oaths as Evidence of an Attitude

Another option in that Midrash is that our fear of Hashem should be so encompassing that the Name will inherently become an oath, will guarantee that a Jew who swears in that Name will stick to whatever commitment made, even at cost to him/herself.

In that reading, the call to serve Hashem means that we address all our actions to that service, including when we are caring for our bodily needs, as R. Yose tells us to do in Avot 2;12. When we eat, drink, sleep, we should be doing so to strengthen our bodies to serve Hashem. Bereshit Rabbah 9;6 says something similar about the verse’s saying that Hashem saw the world as tov me’od, very good. The Midrash says that means sleep, and then wonders how sleep is good.

It answers that from a little sleep, the person is more prepared to study Torah and serve Hashem.

Ramban has several options, then, for the role that oaths play in our service of Hashem: as excluding other standards of truth, as a culmination of personal development that makes us worthy of using Hashem’s Name voluntarily, or as expression of our commitment to fulfilling anything to which we attach Hashem’s Name.

For Ramban, it’s of a piece with developing our fear of Hashem, our service of Hashem, and our connection to Hashem.

Not Testing Hashem

6;16 warns against testing Hashem, as the Jews did at Masah. Ramban says the problem was that the Jews saw it as a test; if Hashem gave water miraculously, they’d follow Him, and if not, not.

That’s a terrible sin, because Moshe Rabbenu had already performed signs and wonders (which Ramban will define in Re’eh as predictions of the future and acts that violate the laws of nature) to prove that he was Hashem’s prophet, and that the words he spoke came from Hashem.

Once that’s established, for Moshe or any later prophet, further testing is not allowed, and the person doing so is showing how little s/he believes in Hashem’s power (oh, Hashem can do that, but can He do this?). That’s not the right way to serve Hashem, because Hashem is not interested in having to perform miracles for people at all times (nor will Hashem do so). That’s especially because Hashem does not want a fidelity vulnerable to being shaken when troubles come; our lot is sometimes of some troubles, and that cannot be a threat to our faith.

The Sufficient Evidence We Have

To shore up our understanding of that, the next verse (verse 17) refers to observing Hashem’s mitzvot and edot, which Ramban reads as referring to the mitzvot that remind us of miracles Hashem already did for us, such as Pesach, matzah, and sukkah. Those mitzvot should be enough to keep us aware that we have to serve Hashem even in areas we don’t understand.

The same calculus applies to a prophet. Once s/he has established his/her qualifications, our job is to listen, not to test or probe the accuracy of their prophecy, or the ability of the One Who sent this prophet to fulfill what s/he says.

That’s also why the child’s question in verse 20 (the next section of text, which we know as the wise child’s question) asks first about the edot that Hashem commanded. Rambam again expects that the source of compelling truth, which will lead our children to continue to adhere to our tradition, is their asking us about that tradition, and their accepting our answers.

It’s all part of not testing Hashem.

The Extra Yard

Before the Torah gets to the children’s question, it tells us to do hayashar vehatov, that which is straight (or right) and good in Hashem’s eyes. The simple reading is that we should perform mitzvot out of a desire to do that which Hashem’s sees as right and good (because otherwise, I have long asked myself, how do we know? Some of us might assume it’s intuitive, but I am deeply skeptical of our collective or individual intuition).

Then he quotes what he calls a midrash yafeh, a nice Midrash of our rabbis, that this refers to lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, to going beyond the letter of the law, to do that which Hashem sees as right and good, not just what is obligatory. Ramban sees that as very important, since the Torah can never fully define all a person’s actions, or all a society’s ways of running. Instead, the Torah mentioned many of them, like not talebearing, taking revenge or holding a grudge, not standing by while a fellow Jew is murdered (or bears financial loss), and so on.

From there, the Torah gives a general principle, to do what’s right and good, which Chazal explicitly saw as including compromise, going beyond the letter of the law, the dina de-bar metzra, offering a piece of property to one’s neighbors before selling it on the open market, and (as Yoma 86a says) being a person of good reputation, who speaks pleasantly with others.

The sum total of all these unlegislated activities is that this person be a tam ve-yashar, whole, innocent, and good person.

(Ramban here doesn’t address the question I raised earlier, how we know in which ways to do all this. To me, his implication is that the system the Torah does give tells us enough that we can extrapolate appropriately. But that’s a different discussion, not found in this Ramban.)

Hukkim and mishpatim, oaths, making sure we don’t test Hashem and yet stay faithful, and going beyond the letter of the law, all ways that Ramban saw us moving successfully on the path to being servants of Hashem’s.

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