Where Life Went Wrong

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban on Devarim, Week Two: Where Life Went Wrong

Parashat Devarim, and the beginning of Parashat Va-Etchanan reviews the Jews’ time in the desert, Moshe pointing out to them where they misstepped or willfully violated Hashem’s Will. Ramban’s comment to the first verse reads this as prelude to the review of mitzvot, starting from the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Sayings we heard at Sinai.

Re-Enacting the Giving of the Torah

Moshe Rabbenu wanted to repeat those Ten Sayings for this generation, says Ramban, because he wanted them to hear it from the person who received them from Hashem Himself. He doesn’t expand that explanation, but it seems to me aimed at the question that arises often today: how do we know that Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people?

Ramban’s answer kicks the can down the road one more generation, in that Moshe made sure that the generation entering the desert (who had been under the age of twenty at the original Giving of the Torah) heard it from him, as close to hearing it from Hashem as possible.

That’s also why 5;1 refers to Moshe gathering all the Jewish people, in Ramban’s view. Since this is a recap of the Torah, with additional details and even mitzvot, it needed to be in front of the entire Jewish people, like the original Giving of the Torah.

Perhaps most remarkably, Ramban read the words ho’il Moshe in 1;5, Moshe began, to tell us that this was Moshe’s initiative. Ramban doesn’t say it, but I feel very confident that he assumed that Hashem later told Moshe to include this in the Torah; still, he sees this idea of gathering the Jewish people to teach them an encapsulated Torah, with a repeat of the Ten Sayings, as having started with Moshe.

It speaks of a view of Moshe as having become so adept at seeing the world as Hashem wanted that even his own initiatives exactly matched the Will of the Creator.

The Sources of Our Advice

The first chapter of Devarim tells of Hashem informing the Jews that it was time to leave Chorev, where they had received the Torah, of Moshe deciding he could not be their sole leader any more (Ramban thinks Moshe leaves Yitro out of the story for several reasons, among them his own humility; I think he means that Moshe did not want to brag that it was his father in law who hit on the idea of hierarchies of leaders the Jews themselves would know and be able to be closer to than they could to the head of the nation).

After that, they leave Chorev, Moshe tells them it’s time to conquer the Emorite lands, and they suggest spies. Back in verse nine, Ramban says the appointment of judges was background to the incident of the spies, because when the Jews approached him, it was with their wise men and their heads of tribes.

That’s all he says, but to me it seems to see Moshe Rabbenu as pointing out to the Jews how they let their interest in leaders close to them lead them astray, to let them think they could question Moshe’s recommendation that they go conquer the Emorites. I think it cannot be said enough—Moshe Rabbenu, the man who Hashem sent to take them out of Egypt, who was the vehicle for the Ten Plagues, for the Splitting of the Sea, who was the conduit for the Ten Sayings at Sinai, who got them water in the desert, and man. He told them it was time to conquer the Emorites, and the Jews came back with a “better” plan, to send spies. What does that mean?

Again, Ramban doesn’t explicitly say this, but I think he implies it by linking Moshe’s prefacing the sin of the spies with recounting the appointing of the judges. While there were good reasons for those judges (such as those Yitro had given), a downside was that the Jewish people could come to think that their hesitationsmight be as wise or perceptive as Moshe’s call to go.

The Unavoidable Burden of Leading the Jewish People

When he introduced the appointment of those judges, 1;12, Moshe Rabbenu had said that he couldn’t do it on his own because of torchachem, masa’achem, ve-rivchem. In Shmot, Yitro had said it was too hard for any one man, and Rashi here gives negative readings of these words, portraying the Jews as quarrelsome and troublesome.

Ramban thinks only rivchem, your fights, means something negative about the Jews. Their torach, toil, he understands to be a reference to the inherent challenge to teach the Torah and all its nuances of meaning (including sod, esoteric or kabbalistic meanings) to an entire nation. That says nothing negative about the Jewish people, then: Moshe needed help because it’s hard to teach all that Torah to so many people.

So, too, masa’achem, for Ramban, means to pray for them (he cites II Melachim 19;4 and Yirmiyahu 7;16, which use the verb la-set, to “carry” for offering a prayer). Moshe was saying that praying for the people regularly was also too much for him (it’s relatively easy to pray for the people as one big conglomerate group, but proper prayer, I suspect Ramban means, addresses the needs of individuals, families, and tribes in addition to the people as a whole. That’s too much for one man, whereas a leader of ten, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand, can take up the more individualized elements of praying for his constituents).

In that reading, Moshe Rabbenu was not blaming the Jewish people for the need for judges, which leaves room for Rambam to have to explain why this came before the sin of the spies, as we saw above.

Making Life More Difficult

Rashi, as I mentioned, saw it differently. He cited Sifrei Devarim 12, that torchachem meant the Jews added to the burden of leading them. When a Jew saw he was about to lose a court case, he’d say I have more evidence, we have to add judges. Aside from not seeing this as the simple reading of the verse, Ramban points out that he doesn’t know that this is halachically viable, that one litigant can force the addition of more judges, especially after the first court has already heard the evidence (I could suggest that Sifrei meant that if the court had already heard the evidence and arrived at a conclusion, the bringing of new evidence required some kind of reconstituting of the court, with two new judges).

He suggests instead that they were referring to a litigant’s right to require more judges in the original case, such as by saying, “I’ll pick two judges, you pick two, and they’ll pick a fifth.” This isn’t a function of seeing new evidence, but it does make it harder to get the case going (if it’s hard finding three good judges, it’s that much harder to find five).

The litigant has the right to do it, because the justice produced by five judges is seen as better than that produced by three (that’s a topic I find interesting in the context of American courts, where one judge often has the full right to rule, and to make law. Halachah was clear that the more voices on a judicial panel, the better the decision reached, even if in both cases it’s a majority of only one. A corporate cases decided 12-11 is a better decision than that same case decided 2-1, because the more insight we bring to bear on the case, the more confidence we can have that the matter has been thoroughly adjudicated).

If that’s a better reading of Sifrei and Rashi, it means that the torach, the burden, the Jews created, made use of the system’s own values. It is better to use five judges than three; the torach comes from the fact that the litigant was interested in making the case drag on, to avoid losing, not the better result produced by more judges. And that’s being burdensome, even if he found a perfectly legal way to do it.

No Credit to the Spies

In verse 23, Moshe says that the idea of spies appealed to him (a topic of its own, but not one Ramban speaks about here), so he took twelve men. Ramban notes that Moshe refrains from mentioning that they were heads of the tribes, prominent men in the Jewish people, and explains that after they turned evil, he was not going to recount their praises.

I’m not sharing the ways Ramban thought they were evil (I’m running out of room), but I am struck by his certainty that once people become evildoers—whatever the standard for that—we should not long mention even their legitimately good qualities.

One might counter that that’s only true for evildoers of the level of the spies, who contributed greatly to the dooming of that generation to die in the desert. Even so, the basic idea seems to me one that many today would dismiss: that evil forfeits its right to praise even for that which was good about it. At least the spies did.

I don’t intend, in these essays, to address all, most, or even the most interesting comments of Ramban’s on aparsha, just those that caught my eye this time through. And, for Devarim, those were questions of human initiative and its impact, Moshe’s in re-enacting the Giving of the Torah with a new generation; the Jewish people’s in creating the need for leaders other than Moshe, then relying on those leaders to decide they needed spies;, and then on those spies to reject the Land and lead to their punishment of wandering and death in the desert.

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