by R. Gidon Rothstein
Ramban to Re’eh, Week One: Using Our Wisdom in Serving Hashem
After the Torah tells the Jews to destroy the multitude of places where idolaters worshiped alien powers, it warns against treating Hashem that way. Rather,
דברים יב:ה : כִּ֠י אִֽם־אֶל־הַמָּק֞וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֨ר יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ מִכָּל־שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֔ם לָשׂ֥וּם אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שָׁ֑ם לְשִׁכְנ֥וֹ תִדְרְשׁ֖וּ וּבָ֥אתָ שָֽׁמָּה:
Devarim 12;5: Only to the place that Hashem your God shall select from all your tribes to place His Name there, to His Presence shall you inquire and come there.
Seeking, and Making a Point of the Seeking
Ramban is bothered by the words “le-shichno tidreshu, to His Presence shall you inquire.” Once the Temple was built, how much inquiry was needed to find it? He doesn’t make that question explicit, but he explains that this verse commands Jews to go there from afar and ask what is the way to the House of Hashem.
That might be a matter of asking directions because the person doesn’t know where the Temple is, but to me it doesn’t seem so– if it’s for the practical purpose of finding out how to get there, would we really need a verse to tell us to ask?
The continuation of the comment supports my point, since Ramban adds that you should say to each other (as Yeshayahu 2;3 says), “come let us go up to the mountain of Hashem.” That isn’t about finding the way, it’s about encouraging each other, making it a common national value to respect this place, and to see going there as an experience of encountering Hashem.
I think Ramban means that in his first comment as well, was reading the verse as valuing not only the going, but the inquiring, Jews’ articulating to each other, when they’re coming from close and far (in all senses of those words), that they are headed to where they can have a direct experience of Hashem.
Seeking on Our Own, Confirming from Hashem
Then he offers Sifrei’s reading, to seek it from a prophet, but also not to wait for the prophet to come tell you, but to inquire, find it, and then the prophet will tell you. Ramban only references Sifrei’s example, David, who says in Tehillim that he himself looked for where to build the Beit HaMikdash, but then also makes clear that he only finally selected it once the prophet (Gad) told him this was the right place.
This echoes a theme I notice in more than one place (I am in the process of seeking a publisher for a book on Rashi’s comments on the Torah; one of the themes my random sampling of Rashi found was this one, that the belief in prophecy and in Hashem’s involvement in the world doesn’t negate or discourage human efforts).
Here, the verse tells us to be doresh, to inquire, and Ramban and Sifrei take it in two ways, in our own human way as well as by accessing our avenues of hearing from Hashem directly. Ramban doesn’t elaborate on why both would be valuable, so neither will I, but it is a good example of this duality, that the place of the Mikdash must be affirmed by a navi, yet first chosen by a human. A remarkable (and frequent) idea in Jewish sources.
A Growing Connection to the Place
Two comments later, Ramban portrays Torah observance as shifting in different eras of the Jewish people’s existence. First, after the Torah tells us that once we have the Mikdash, we may not offer sacrifices anywhere else, it says,
דברים יב:ח לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּן כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֲנַ֧חְנוּ עֹשִׂ֛ים פֹּ֖ה הַיּ֑וֹם אִ֖ישׁ כָּל־הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָֽיו:
Devarim 12;8: You shall not do as all we do here today, each one of you what’s right in his eyes.
Ibn Ezra read this as admonishment, referring to how the Jews had been acting wrongly in the desert. Ramban disagrees, because this section isn’t rebuke or admonishment, it’s Moshe telling the Jews how to fulfill the commandments. He instead says Moshe is reminding them of how their attitude to sacrifices will change once the Mikdash is built.
In the desert, the only permissible way to eat meat was by bringing a sacrifice. But those who did not wish to eat meat did not have to bring any sacrifices (not first-born, not ma’aser behemah, the tenth of all new-born animals brought each year). Nor was there any obligation to show up at the Mishkan on holidays.
Furthermore, those who did offer a sacrifice could eat their share of the meat wherever they wanted (in the Mikdash, even kodashim kalim, sacrifices from which ordinary Jews took much of the meat, had to be eaten in Jerusalem).
It’s in these senses that the verse says ish kol hayashar be-einav, that each Jew could choose how much time to spend at the Mishkan, experiencing Hashem’s Presence there. In Israel, some of that choice will be taken away, since there Jews will be obligated in aliyah le-regel, going to the Temple on holidays, bringing certain sacrifices, etc.
The desert was a kind of spiritual childhood, where Jews could develop their connection to the Mishkan as they wished. Once in Israel, there would still be much choice, but a certain floor was established, which applied to all. [To me, the idea of a floor with much room for choice in how to build from there is a model for Torah and mitzvot generally, but that’s a different discussion].
Not Learning from the Other Nations
I don’t think it surprises any of us to know that the Torah doesn’t want Jews to emulate non-Jews’ worship or acceptance of other powers than Hashem. At the end of this chapter, though, the Torah goes a step further.
דברים יב:ל הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֗ פֶּן־תִּנָּקֵשׁ֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ם אַחֲרֵ֖י הִשָּׁמְדָ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ וּפֶן־תִּדְרֹ֨שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶ֜ם לֵאמֹ֨ר אֵיכָ֨ה יַעַבְד֜וּ הַגּוֹיִ֤ם הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ אֶת־אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה־כֵּ֖ן גַּם־אָֽנִי:
Devarim 12;30: Care for yourselves, lest you be ensnared after them, after they were destroyed before you, and lest you inquire after their gods, saying, ‘how do these nations worship their gods, and let me do as well?’
Ramban reads this as a warning not to worship Hashem in the ways non-Jews did towards that which they saw as the power that ruled their lives. After Hashem helps the Jews destroy these other nations, and eradicate their idolatries from the Land, the Jews might be tempted to emulate conquering kings of old, taking their most beautiful parts and bringing it into the host culture.
For example, kings would take the crown of others they had vanquished and place it on their own heads [as Divrei HaYamim I;20;2 says that David did with the crown of the king of Ammon, although Ramban does not reference that]. We might think, then, that it would honor Hashem for us to use others’ beautiful items and/or ways of worship as a part of how we serve Hashem (meaning: if they have a house of idolatry that’s stunning architecturally, we might tell ourselves, wouldn’t it be great to use this for our own purposes, for service of Hashem, wouldn’t that show Hashem’s victory over them?).
The Pandora’s Box
Until this point, Ramban has made an interesting but not all that surprising point, that we should not take their forms of worship and repurpose them. If he’d left it there, I’d have assumed that the issue is that they did this for something bad, so we have to refuse and refrain from using it.
But he doesn’t leave it there. Instead, he says we have to realize that they commit abominations, such as putting their children in the fire. He goes no further, but it raises two important topics that come up often in all times.
First, did he mean all their acts are abominations, although only some of them are so obviously so, such as that they burn their children? If that’s how he was reading it, it would mean we have to see the worshipful acts of idolaters as all or mostly abominations, even if they are not immediately or intuitively so.
A less extreme reading, that the Torah is telling us not to adopt or adapt their ways of worship both because they used it for idolatry and because some or many of their acts are abominations, still leads to difficult questions. For example, many years ago, I wrote a graduate school paper about R. Avraham b. HaRambam’s writings, in which he seems to adopt Sufi practices for how to conduct our own prayers.
At the time (and I have not at all kept up with any literature on his thought, nor have I read the now-published edition of his book), I suggested he saw those practices as so obviously valuable, that of course Jews should use it in their prayer as well.
Islam isn’t idolatry, but Ramban’s comment reminds us of exactly these issues: what and when can we adopt and adapt from those around us? For the Canaanite nations, Ramban read the verse as saying they were so corrupted by their worship that almost nothing could be taken, however beautiful and reasonable it might look to us.
Our first foray into Ramban’s readings of Re’eh focuses us on the need to centralize our worship of Hashem at the Beit HaMikdash, to use both our human powers and our access to prophecy to be sure we find the right place and the right ways of worshipping there. And to resist what will be a strong temptation, to use the wisdom of the idolaters around us to enhance that worship, because what we think will be a positive will actually be the opposite.