I. Enslaving the Jews
Should we ask why bad things happen to bad people? Pharaoh and the Egyptians fulfilled God’s prophecy to Avraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land (Gen. 15:13). Why, then, were the Egyptians punished? Ramban’s answer to this question reflects a broader opinion of his that is much-criticized but under-appreciated.
Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:5) answers that while God’s plan includes people enslaving Jews, it does not specify who will serve this evil role. Every individual has the choice of doing good or bad and receiving appropriate recompense. The Egyptians chose to enslave the Jews rather than allowing another nation to do so. Therefore, they deserved punishment.
Ramban (Gen. 15:14) rejects this approach. The Egyptians fulfilled God’s prophecy, accomplishing His express will. Doing so is a mitzvah, not a sin. Rather, the Egyptians were punished for going beyond the prophecy, for overly oppressing the enslaved nation. Had they merely fulfilled the prophecy, they would presumably have been rewarded. However, because they went too far, they sinned and were punished. The Ramban, at the end of his words, adds another explanation: The Egyptians had the wrong intention. They wanted to hurt the Jewish people, not to fulfill God’s will. Therefore, their actions were considered a sin rather than a mitzvah (see also Ra’avad’s gloss to Mishneh Torah, ad loc.).
II. Fulfilling God’s Will
Ramban’s approach is surprising but intuitive and consistent. You can ask why people should feel obligated to instantiate a prophecy. Isn’t that God’s business? Indeed, many commentators ask this question on another passage where the Ramban adopts this approach. The answer to that question explains the Ramban’s view here, as well.
Why did Joseph refrain from immediately revealing his identity when his brothers appeared before him in Egypt? Ramban (Gen. 42:9) explains that Yosef wished to fulfill his dreams that his brothers and father would bow down to him. He deceived his brothers so they would bring Binyamin, and eventually their father, to bow down to him in Egypt. Why, many commentators ask, should Yosef feel obligated to ensure the dreams come true (e.g. Akeidas Yitzchak 29; Toras Moshe, ad loc.)?
The Vilna Gaon (Aderes Eliyahu, ad loc.) says simply that Yosef did not want to contradict God’s will. His concern was not specifically with serving as the defender of God’s words. Rather, he just wanted to be sure that he was on God’s side, doing what the Boss wanted. Fulfilling God’s will is not merely praiseworthy; it is a life goal to which all people must strive. Yosef refused to violate God’s will by attempting (presumably futilely) to circumvent the prophecies.
With this idea, we can better understand Ramban’s position (Gen. 49:10) that the Hasmoneans were punished for taking the kingship, which is reserved for the tribe of Yehudah and not priests like them. Why should they be punished when only a prophecy declares this, and not a command forbidding members of other tribes from taking the monarchy? As above, God’s will was revealed in a prophecy. Regardless of whether it was commanded, we must certainly strive to guide our will toward God’s. As the Mishnah (Avos 2:4) states, “Make your will like God’s will.”
Similarly, the Egyptians should have desired to fulfill God’s will, which the Torah tells us included enslaving the Jews. Had they not been overly zealous, their doing so would have been a mitzvah, an accomplishment that moved the divine plan forward.
III. Commandments and Divine Will
This position is so compelling that, to defend the Rambam, the Meshekh Chokhmah (Gen. 15:14) had to add another component. Granted, we must strive to fulfill God’s will. But we cannot make any such calculations when facing an explicit command to the contrary. The Meshekh Chokhmah posits that the Egyptians were forbidden to enslave the Jews. Therefore, their doing so, even in fulfillment of God’s will, was a punishable sin.
While the Meshekh Chokhmah does not cite his source, I believe his approach is consistent with that of R. Chaim Volozhiner in Nefesh Ha-Chaim (3:21, recently translated as The Soul of Life). R. Chaim asked why, if according to the Talmud the Patriarchs fulfilled all the commandments, they occasionally violated them. For example, Ya’akov married two sisters, which the Torah forbids. Many answers have been given to this question but R. Chaim Volozhiner’s bears relevance to our discussion. He suggested that without explicit commands, the Patriarchs were free to do whatever they, with their deep insight, thought was spiritually best. In my simplistic, non-kabbalistic terms: they could violate commandments to fulfill God’s will precisely because they were not commanded in them. Lacking that explicit imperative, they were permitted to look at God’s will more broadly defined. However, had they been commanded, they would have had to fulfill those obligations even at the expense of other indications of God’s will.
What law did the Egyptians violate by enslaving the Jews? The Meshekh Chokhmah suggests that the Egyptians violated one of the seven Noahide commandments, that of dinim (laws). He adds that they exhibited ingratitude because Yosef had saved the Egyptians from starvation. This is puzzling because it is entirely unclear how enslaving Jews violates the command of dinim and how ingratitude fits into that commandment. R. Yehudah Cooperman, in his notes to the Meshekh Chokhmah, quotes the Ramban’s own words (Deut. 23:5) that Noahides are obligated to show gratitude.
However, this connection is still difficult within the Nefesh Ha-Chaim‘s framework. If the Egyptians faced an explicit command, they could not violate it in order to fulfill a prophecy. However, if they faced a vague command based on an intuitive sense of God’s will, then they should certainly incorporate a broader understanding of God’s will, including an explicit prophecy. Is the obligation to show gratitude really an explicit command such that we may not instead choose God’s will as expressed in a prophecy?
IV. Laws and Gratitude
Perhaps the Meshekh Chokhmah intended to tie this issue into another debate between the Rambam and Ramban. According to the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 9:14), Noahides are commanded to institute laws and judges (dinim). He is sufficiently vague to allow for an interpretation that Noahides are obligated to establish justice, which perhaps also includes legislating gratitude. However, Ramban (Gen. 34:13) disagrees with the Rambam. Ramban states that the commandment of dinim requires that Noahides establish courts that enforce the Torah’s civil laws (see Responsa Rema, no. 10).
Perhaps the Meshekh Chokhmah means that, according to the Rambam, Noahides are explicitly commanded within the framework of dinim to enforce gratitude. Therefore, the Egyptians were obligated to respect the Jewish economic salvation of Egypt, even in the face of a prophecy to the contrary. God’s apparent prophetic will cannot set aside His explicit legal will. However, the Ramban disagrees that gratitude is included within dinim. Therefore, broader concerns of God’s will can be weighed and fulfilling the prophecy of enslaving the Jews becomes a mitzvah.
We all want to be on the right side of history. Presumably, siding with God’s prophecies guarantees this. However, before we start calculating what God wants in a broader sense, we have to fulfill our local duties, obeying His will in that sense and, if need be, allowing others to accomplish His will. God will do what He wants but we may not always be able to play a role in that.