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.

The Right Side of History

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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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

12 comments

  1. 1) how exactly did the Eygptians know what they were or were not obligated to do( and by a god that they did not recognize or feel obligated to obey)?

    The issue of prophecy is complex. Rabbi Sacks I think claims that they are more consequences than predictions. They do not HAVE to come true- they merely will come true if certain behavior patterns persist. That is why Yonah’s prophecy for Ninveh did not come true and why the negative prophecies of a true prophet may not come true if the people do teshuva. Under this construct, Yosef was under absolutely no obligation to make sure his dreams came to fruition. We should be careful to follow God’s commandments and the LESSONS of the prophecies. Doing something because you think you are fulfilling a Divine mandate outside of those guidelines leads, I think, to sometimes dangerous consequences. For example, my guess is that bar kochba thought he was fulfilling some prophetic mandate etc.

  2. how exactly did the Eygptians know what they were or were not obligated to do( and by a god that they did not recognize or feel obligated to obey)?

    That would be the Ramban’s second answer, regarding their intent. Although it is certainly possible that Ya’akov or Yosef told Pharaoh about the prophecy.

    They do not HAVE to come true- they merely will come true if certain behavior patterns persist

    It is complex but the Ramban (Gen. 12:6) states that if there is a poel dimyon then the prophecy has to come true. The bris bein ha-besarim was a poel dimyon. You make a good point about Yosef, though. Perhaps he still thought, based on his dreams, that this is retzon Hashem. The point in this post is that it is irrelevant whether he was obligated to make the dreams come true. He wanted to do what Hashem wanted.

  3. The Rambam’s interpretation of “dinim” is that the bnei Noach are obligated to set up a court system to try Noahides in matters of their seven mitzvohs. He does not allude at all to legislating new laws. Also, the Ramban’s view is that “dinim” obligates them to set up courts, plus it obligates them to observe all civil laws, just as Jews must observe the laws of Choshen Mishpat. This is contrary to what you wrote explaining their views.

  4. I prefer the perspective of pirkei avot:

    אף הוא [הלל] ראה גולגלת אחת שצפה על פני המים. אמר לה: על דאטפת, אטפוך. וסוף מטיפיך יטופון.

    In other words: From the perspective of an injured person, whatever happens to him is the Divinely ordained consequence. From the perspective of the injurer, he has chosen to injure, which implies that he too will suffer consequences in the future. The perspectives of the injurer and injured are morally independent. They share a physical action, but that is only due to accident of God having brought them together in space and time.

    This approach raises the question of omniscience vs free will, but we would have had to answer that anyway, so we might as well use our answer here as well.

  5. this reads like theological pilpul to me.

  6. I mean the post, not shlomo’s comment

  7. Moshe: I agree that sections 3 & 4 are pilpulish, intentionally so because of the Meshekh Chokhmah. But section 2, which I think is the important part of the post (connecting 3 comments of the Ramban), is simply an understanding of Ramban’s approach.

  8. Kovner: There is a debate regarding the extent of Rambam’s view. See the chapter in R. Daniel Feldman’s Binah Ba-Sefarim vol. 1.

    Your explanation of the Ramban is the same as mine.

  9. Gil fair enough, but I suspect that there is a more straight forward explanation for the Meshech Chochama.

  10. Such as?

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