Character Counts

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Ki Tetzei, Week Two: Character Counts

Ramban interprets a few of the halachot in this parsha as a matter of shaping our character, a timely reminder that Jews are supposed to care about character in ourselves and in others, are supposed to value good character and react negatively to those who have not yet developed themselves to a minimal level of goodness.

What Did the Rebellious Son Do Wrong?

דברים פרק כא:יח כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֣ה לְאִ֗ישׁ בֵּ֚ן סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמוֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֣נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֔עַ בְּק֥וֹל אָבִ֖יו וּבְק֣וֹל אִמּ֑וֹ וְיִסְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶֽם:   (יט) וְתָ֥פְשׂוּ ב֖וֹ אָבִ֣יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ …ֹ:  (כ) וְאָמְר֞וּ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא:  (כא) וּ֠רְגָמֻהוּ כָּל־אַנְשֵׁ֨י עִיר֤וֹ…ּ

Devarim 21;18: If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not listen to his father and mother, and they discipline him and he does not obey. (19) His mother and father shall take him… (20) And…say to the elders of that city, ‘this our son is rebellious and stubborn, does not listen to us, a glutton and a drunkard. (21) All the people of that city shall stone him…

The Torah prescribes the death penalty for this young man (remember that Rabbinic tradition had it that no such case occurred in practice), but does not say what it was that incurred that extreme sanction. Ramban identifies two wrongs, that he mistreated his parents and refused to obey them, and, second, that he was a glutton and drunkard.

Those latter flaws violate Vayikra 19;2’s call to be kedoshim, sanctified, as well as Devarim 13;5’s call to serve Hashem and cleave to Him. Ramban notes that he explained in Devarim 6;13 (another place the Torah tells us to serve Hashem) that the obligation means to “know” Him in all our ways, to direct our activities, as much as we can, towards Hashem’s service.

The glutton and drunkard will never know the way of Hashem [Ramban does not elaborate, but my understanding is that he means—similar to what he said in Vayikra on Kedoshim tihyu, be sanctified– that indulging one’s appetites to excess necessarily contradicts the attempt to serve Hashem, which involves disciplining our instincts to channel them in directions that foster and support our service of Hashem].

People as Means to Ends

Of course, there’s no general rule that we kill people who do not try to know the way of Hashem, or even those who develop their character in ways that make it difficult to know the ways of Hashem. Rather, as Sanhedrin 71b tells us, this son is “judged because of his end,” is put to death at a relatively sin-free point rather than allowed to continue down the road to perdition. Ramban says that’s why the verse stresses that the whole people should see and hear, because his death is also meant as a lesson for the public at large.

Ramban points out other examples where overtones or connotations of an act led to the Torah prescribing the death penalty. OnDevarim 17;11, Ramban said that a zaken mamre, a Torah scholar who rules differently than the Sanhedrin even after their hearing his arguments, is put to death because his conduct foments strife within the Jewish people (if the Sanhedrin’s rulings are not accepted as the law of the land, right or wrong, the consequences are worse than whatever error this elder thinks they made. Ruling against the Sanhedrin isn’t a death penalty crime, but being the cause of a national loss of submission to the Sanhedrin’s rulings is).

Other examples he mentions but does not elaborate here are edim zomemin, witnesses proven to be false, who are punished for the intent to damage the defendant, and the mesit, the person who tries to lure a fellow Jew to worship a power other than Hashem. In both these cases, the intent did not come to fruition, but the wrongdoer is still punished.

The rebellious son is similar, Ramban says, although he fleetingly suggests that perhaps the obligation to honor and revere/fear one’s parents justifies this punishment. He doesn’t seem to see that as a serious possibility, I think because we would generally need more explicit verses to say that the failure to properly fulfill kibbud and mora of our parents is a capital crime if ignored.

Ramban has pointed out here that there can be acts that themselves do not rise to the level of a certain punishment (such as mistreating one’s parents and/or eating meat and drinking wine to excess), but that carry other implications that bring it to that level. The rebellious son is one such case, because his character defects are pronounced enough (and, I assume the Torah means, intractable enough) that he has opened himself to being used as a lesson for others.

The Sanctity of Armies

In Parshat Shofetim, I sidestepped a possible conversation about the Torah’s view of the ethics of war (whom we kill and why). I intend to continue that, but verses in this parsha bring up our conduct in war in a different way.

דברים פרק כג:י כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א מַחֲנֶ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וְנִ֨שְׁמַרְתָּ֔ מִכֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֥ר רָֽע:

Devarim 23;10: When you go out in a camp against your enemy, take care from any evil matter.

Ramban sees this as a warning against allowing Jewish military camps to become like ordinary ones, where soldiers eat all sorts of abominations, steal, extort, and even rape shamelessly and with impunity. The most honest and straightforward of men can become cruel and insensitive in such situations, which is why the Torah warns us to be careful.

Sifrei expands the category of “ra” to sexual wrongs, emblematic of those acts that led to the Canaanites’ loss of the land of Israel and the Divine Presence to leave a place. The Torah’s speaking of davar ra, an evil matter (or, more hyperliterally, word), told Sifrei that it includes evil speech (slander), bad words.

That ratifies Ramban’s understanding that the goal of this verse is to prohibit the Jewish people from acting in a way that will “force” the Divine Presence from among them, bringing loss in wars they should have won. That’s why Sifrei speaks of those sins that cost the Canaanites the Land and that expelled the Divine Presence.

As for lashon hara, slanderous speech? That will lead to strife, which can cause them to hurt each other more than the enemy did (self-inflicted wounds abound in the Jewish people, and are more frustrating, too, since they’re our own fault).

For Ramban, then, the Torah is warning the Jewish people that their personal conduct in their military camps will affect the outcome of their campaigns. What is acceptable in other armies will not be such in theirs, and they need to work to maintain the highest possible standards of personal conduct.

Cruelty and Birds’ Nests

Towards the end of the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides famously took the position that the Torah’s commandments have reasons for them. The commandment to send away the mother bird offered an opportunity for Ramban to take on the issue a bit.

דברים פרק כב:ו כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר לְפָנֶ֡יךָ…אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙…לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים: (ז) שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים: ס

Devarim 22;6: When you come upon a birds’ nest…with chicks or eggs, and the mother hovering… do not take the mother with the children. (7) Send the mother away and take the children for yourself, so that it be good for you and you have length of days.

Maimonides had explained that this was an accommodation of the animals’ sensitivities, the pain of the mother seeing her chicks taken from her. Similarly, the Torah prohibited slaughtering a mother animal and its child on the same day; Maimonides thought that was primarily to avoid the cruelty of forcing the mother to see its child slaughtered, since animals have motherly instincts akin to those of humans.

Ramban agreed that mitzvot have reasons (they mean reasons we can infer or discover, as my late teacher Prof. Twersky, zt”l, pointed out), a view that underlies Sanhedrin 21b’s wondering why the Torah didn’t reveal those. Ramban says those reasons are always about how to help human beings develop (despite his well-known kabbalistic views, he is taking the position that mitzvot, by and large, are there to teach us to be better people).

Given that, he thinks these two animal-sensitivity mitzvot are about ensuring we don’t become cold-hearted. Whatever emotions animals do or don’t experience, to kill a mother and its child (or take it into captivity, as with the birds) on the same day is a smaller-scale version of wiping out the species (were we to kill all mothers and their offspring on one day, the species would end). As we use the animal world for our purposes in permissible ways, we also must maintain our sensitivity and compassion, and these mitzvot are ways the Torah teaches us to do so.

Lasting Memory, For the Good and the Bad

The parsha has more examples of mitzvot specifically speaking to character than we have space to discuss. One last one that jumped out at me was how the Torah speaks of Ammon and Moab.

דברים פרק כג:ד לֹֽא־יָבֹ֧א עַמּוֹנִ֛י וּמוֹאָבִ֖י בִּקְהַ֣ל יְקֹוָ֑ק גַּ֚ם דּ֣וֹר עֲשִׂירִ֔י לֹא־יָבֹ֥א…עַד־עוֹלָֽם: (ה) עַל־דְּבַ֞ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹא־קִדְּמ֤וּ אֶתְכֶם֙ בַּלֶּ֣חֶם וּבַמַּ֔יִם בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֣ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם וַאֲשֶׁר֩ שָׂכַ֨ר עָלֶ֜יךָ אֶת־בִּלְעָ֣ם …לְקַֽלְלֶֽךָּ:…(ז) לֹא־תִדְרֹ֥שׁ שְׁלֹמָ֖ם וְטֹבָתָ֑ם כָּל־יָמֶ֖יךָ לְעוֹלָֽם: ס

Devarim 23;4: No Ammonite or Moabite may marry into Hashem’s congregation, even the tenth generation…forever. (5) For the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on your way out of Egypt, and for hiring Bilam… to curse you. … (7) You shall not seek their peace or welfare all your days, forever.

Ramban relates this punishment to the ingratitude these descendants of Lot showed us, the descendants of Avraham, who went to war to save their ancestor from captivity. Further, it was in Avraham’s merit that Lot was extracted from Sodom before it was destroyed. That obligated them to act well towards the Jewish people, and they did the opposite, hiring Bilam and refraining from offering their hospitality.

Our reaction to this flaw of theirs extends to not seeking their peace and welfare. Ramban points out the other hand, however, thatDevarim 2;19 prohibited warring against them—which he took to be a lasting mitzvah, not limited to that generation.

That’s because Lot was given that land and it’s not for us to take it. Should they conquer some other land, Ramban reads the verse as permitting us to then wage all-out war (and conquer those lands) even without the usual prior call for peace, as the stories of Yiftach (Shofetim 11;33) and of David attacking Ammonite cities (II Shmuel 12;31) show.

A similar balance explains the three-generation exclusion of Egyptian and Edomite converts from marrying into the regular Jewish community. In each case, their wrongs are balanced out by merits (the Egyptians hosted us as a people for generations, even if they also oppressed us; the Edomites are our brethren, even if they forgot that on many occasions).

Actions stimulate a response, reward or punishment depending on the nature of the action. In the case of the Ammonites and Moabites, the actions that incurred a lasting punishment were about the character flaw those actions showed, their failure to understand the gratitude they owed these descendants of Avraham.

Once we know that Ramban thinks mitzvot are about improving us as people, almost every parsha in the Torah can be about character. But the comments that jumped out at me in this week’s selection were particularly so, reminders of how vitally important character is to building a better person and a better nation, Jewish or not.

About Gidon Rothstein

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