by R. Gidon Rothstein
Ramban, Parshat Ekev, Week Two: The Mysteries of Cause and Effect
When Did Hashem Select the Levi’im?
דברים י:ח בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗וא הִבְדִּ֤יל יְקֹוָק֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣בֶט הַלֵּוִ֔י לָשֵׂ֖את אֶת־אֲר֣וֹן בְּרִית־יְקֹוָ֑ק …
Devarim 10;8: At that time, Hashem separated the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem…
The opening phrase of the verse times the selection of the Levi’im without any clarity. Ramban quotes Rashi, who times it to the sin of the Golden Calf, where the Levi’im knew well enough not to join (and helped Moshe react to the sin as needed). Ramban points out that that assumes they were selected then but designated only later, when the Mishkan had already been built. Or, possibly, when Moshe tells them, after they punish the worshippers of the Calf (Shemot 32;29), that they should “fill their hands this day.”
His own view is that the opening words of this verse echo those same words in the first verse of the chapter,
דברים י:א בָּעֵ֨ת הַהִ֜וא אָמַ֧ר יְקֹוָ֣ק אֵלַ֗י פְּסָל־לְךָ֞ שְׁנֵֽי־לוּחֹ֤ת אֲבָנִים֙ כָּרִ֣אשֹׁנִ֔ים וַעֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֖י הָהָ֑רָה…
Devarim 10;1: At that time, Hashem said to me, hew for yourself two tablets of stone, like the first ones, and ascend the mountain to Me…
That’s from after the second time Moshe was on the mountain, praying to save the Jews from the consequences of the sin of the Golden Calf. At that time, Ramban says, Hashem agreed to return to a state of good relations with the Jewish people and commanded Moshe to build the Mishkan.
(This comment struck my eye, because mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein, zt”l had a moving insight that built off Ramban’s view of the timing of the command to build the Mishkan to explain the repetitiveness of Parashiyot Terumah/Tetzaveh andVayakhel/Pekudei. Ramban’s opening comment to Parshat Terumah assumes that the building of the Mishkan was a value of its own, intended to retain some of the Sinaitic experience in the continuing life of the Jewish people.
That’s in contrast to Rashi, who seems to have seen the Mishkan as instituted to provide a place to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Our Ramban, here, takes for granted that the command to build the Mishkan happened after the second time Moshe was on Sinai, which accepts the idea that—whatever the original plan—the Jewish people were only informed of the building of the Mishkan after the Golden Calf.)
Why Did Hashem Select the Levi’im?
Ramban’s view of when Hashem chose them does not see their praiseworthy actions in the aftermath of the national tragedy that was the Golden Calf as the direct reason for their being chosen. Rather, as Hashem forgave that sin, and restored good relations with Aharon as well, he and his tribe were named to staff that institution.
Ramban doesn’t only disagree with Rashi about when they were chosen, then, he seems to disagree about why. For Rashi, it was their standing up for Hashem, their resisting the lure of idolatry and being willing to join Moshe in punishing those who succumbed to its temptations. (That fits with the view I mentioned above, that Rashi held that the Mishkan’s first role was to offer a place of atonement for the Calf; it makes sense that those who avoided entanglement in that sin, were the first to react to it appropriately, would staff the place where atonement would be secured).
Ramban (who, as we saw, limits the connection between the two events) sees the Levi’im as having been chosen more as extensions of Aharon, members of his tribe. Whatever the reason Aharon was picked to be Kohen Gadol (Ramban does not here comment on that), the Levi’im sort of got pulled along with him.
Did they earn their place in the Mishkan, or did their illustrious relative benefit his whole tribe? Rashi seems to say the first, Ramban the second.
Uplifting Hashem or Hashem Lifting Us?
דברים י:כא ה֥וּא תְהִלָּתְךָ֖ וְה֣וּא אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֣ה אִתְּךָ֗ אֶת־הַגְּדֹלֹ֤ת וְאֶת־הַנּֽוֹרָאֹת֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָא֖וּ עֵינֶֽיךָ:
Devarim 10;21: He is your praise and your God, Who did with you these great and wondrous deeds that your eyes have seen.
The first two words of that verse are ambiguous, as Ramban notes. One possibility is that it is a command, telling the Jews that whenever they praise a divinity, it must be Hashem (if life goes well with us, we have our health, wealth, or political or military success, we must praise Hashem and no other being).
Or, possibly, it’s the other way around, that Hashem is our praise, in that the only way we earn accolades from others is through our service of Hashem. Ramban does not elaborate so neither will I, other than to note that this matches well the comment he made about the Levi’im.
There, Rashi saw the Levi’im as having earned their place in the Temple service, while Ramban thought it was attributable to Aharon. Here, Ramban can imagine reading the verse as saying that we create praise for Hashem, but then notes it might be that Hashem does it for us, that we have less input into earning that praise than we might assume.
Constant Involvement as a Benefit and Boon
דברים יא:י כִּ֣י הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ לֹ֣א כְאֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִ֔וא אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצָאתֶ֖ם מִשָּׁ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּזְרַע֙ אֶת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ וְהִשְׁקִ֥יתָ בְרַגְלְךָ֖ כְּגַ֥ן הַיָּרָֽק: (יא) וְהָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ אֶ֥רֶץ הָרִ֖ים וּבְקָעֹ֑ת לִמְטַ֥ר הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם תִּשְׁתֶּה־מָּֽיִם: (יב) אֶ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ דֹּרֵ֣שׁ אֹתָ֑הּ תָּמִ֗יד עֵינֵ֨י יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ בָּ֔הּ מֵֽרֵשִׁית֙ הַשָּׁנָ֔ה וְעַ֖ד אַחֲרִ֥ית שָׁנָֽה:
Devarim 11;10: For the Land that you are coming there to inherit is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you plant your seeds and water them with your legs like a vegetable garden. (11) The Land that you are crossing over there to inherit is land of hills and valleys, where you will drink water by the rain of the sky. (12) A Land that Hashem your God inquires after it always are the eyes of Hashem your God on it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.
The prior verses reminded the Jews to keep the mitzvot as a condition of inheriting the Land; Ramban sees these verses as warning us of how our failure could redound to our detriment. In Egypt, fields were watered by bringing the water from the rivers by foot, but Israel’s topography does not lend itself to that. Israel needs rain, and Hashem is always looking out to bring that rain (Ramban says it’s a thirsty land, needing rain all year, which seems to contradict the idea of yoreh u-malkosh, that Israel has a first rain and last rain, and the late spring and summer months are almost devoid of rain).
He expands this to a point about Providence generally. The fact that Egypt gets its water from rivers (rather than rain) can lead to an erroneously excessive sense of security, of imperviousness to punishment [verses we read as haftaroth, such asYechezkel 29, suggest that Egypt made exactly that error throughout its history]. But it is true that Canaan is more prone to feeling the effects of Providence, since it is more immediately and directly reliant on Hashem for its rain.
A sick person is more aware of health as a life factor, and a poor person more clear on how much we need money for basic necessities; both are more aware of how much we need Hashem’s support. On that example, Ramban throws in the words me’ir eienei sheneihem, Hashem enlightens both (a rich and a poor man) their eyes—for all that the rich person is more apparently secure, he is saying, Hashem can reach him, too. But the poor person, like Canaan, gets the message earlier and more regularly.
Ramban doesn’t explain why Hashem should say that about Canaan. He understands Hashem’s eyes are on it always to mean that Hashem is always checking its needs, to decree its future in the way appropriate to that moment (sometimes for the good, sometimes the other way). (He doesn’t explain why that’s good, but I think I’m not nearly the first to say that that’s because it means we’re always in a relationship with Hashem, Hashem is always involved with us in a way that’s not true of other Lands. What’s a bit difficult about that is that we don’t generally assume it’s better to be poor or ill than wealthy or well, so why would it be better in terms of lands? But Ramban doesn’t explain any further, so we’ll leave it there.)
The Ripple Effect of Divine Providence
At the end of that comment, Ramban adds a sod amok, a deep esoteric idea. He says that this Land is the one that’s nidreshet, whose needs Hashem provides, and that this Land is everything, that the other lands are all sustained, in truth, by this one. That’s a claim that’s both astounding and yet fits with other comments we’ve been seeing.
Ramban’s reading would have it that the Land of Israel is the center of the world in a practical way (on the divine plane), that Hashem’s beneficent impact starts at Israel and spreads out from there.
Considering how tiny Israel is, what would it mean that it is the vehicle and source for the care of the world as a whole? Ramban does not say (he lived in a time when esoteric traditions were still held as esoteric enough that he only hinted at them, or gave us just enough to get the basic idea), but it seems to me to assume there’s something about Israel which makes it central to the world and its purpose.
Especially since we’ve just seen that it’s a Land with more consistent needs for Providence than other lands, there’s room to say that that’s the element of it that makes it the point of entry for that Providence.
If one of the central functions of humanity is to recognize Hashem and build the world as Hashem would want, then the Jews’ job in Israel is to live a life in which that’s true. When they/we do, the world as a whole takes note, will be more focused on that as well, and merit the more positive and beneficent expressions of Hashem’s Providence. When not, not.
That seems to me one plausible way to understand this deep secret.
There are more Rambans about Providence in Ekev, but we’ll have to stop here, having seen Ramban remind us that it’s not always easy to see cause and effect, to know what led to the Levi’im being selected to serve in the Mishkan, to know who is the source of praise for whom, or the workings of how Hashem cares for the Land of Israel, for the Jewish people, and for the world at large.