Paying Attention to Life

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Part of accepting the existence of Gd is accepting that reality doesn’t all happen in ways we can witness or identify (the best example being Gd Himself, as it were, Whom we cannot see or touch). The comments of Ramban’s we’ll see this time point at places where the Torah is telling us to see the world more fully than what happens in open and obvious ways.

Underlying Truths of Our Liaisons

The ceremony on Mounts Gerizim and Eval involved the Levi’im announcing blessings and curses for certain kinds of behavior, many of them in terms of the kinds of intimate relationships we may not conduct. One example is marrying one’s father’s wife, as the verse says:

דברים כז:כ אָר֗וּר שֹׁכֵב֙ עִם־אֵ֣שֶׁת אָבִ֔יו כִּ֥י גִלָּ֖ה כְּנַ֣ף אָבִ֑יו…

Devarim 27;20: Accursed is the one who lies with his father’s wife, for he has uncovered his father’s garment [I note that this translation is a matter of debate, so read on for Ramban’s take.]

Vayikra 20;11 already prohibited this because it was ervat aviv gilah, uncovering his father’s nakedness (was also prohibited regarding a brother’s or uncle’s wife). There, the phrasing was so that we could understand why this act incurs such a terrible punishment as death or karet. Here, where the issue is the public condemnation of certain acts, the Torah could focus on the “lesser” crime of mistreating one’s father; Ramban says any dishonoring of one’s father deserves the arur curse the Torah has the Jews announce.

The dishonor is attributed to uncovering the garment the father placed over this woman (Ramban relates this to Rut 3;9, where Ruth asks Boaz to spread his kanaf, his garment over her). Ramban doesn’t make it explicit, but since halachah counts a woman as a father’s wife even if she only had erusin, the first stage of marriage, even if she was later divorced, and/or the father passed away, the “placing of the garment over this woman” seems to be the father’s initiating a marital relationship with this woman, regardless of what happened after.

His having ever “placed a garment over the woman” makes her off-limits to his sons forever. Engaging in sexual intercourse with such a woman would constitute an act of disrespect towards the father, since the son allows himself to step in to where his father once was. Maritally, that’s not allowed.

Upholding the Torah

דברים פרק כז:כו אָר֗וּר אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹא־יָקִ֛ים אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֑ם…

Devarim 27;26: Accursed is the one who does not uphold the words of this Torah, to do them.

The verse might seem to require keeping the entire Torah, and to curse anyone who does not succeed at keeping all of it. None of Ramban’s three readings go that far, although they do make clear that Jews are obligated more broadly than we might sometimes realize.

The first “upholding” is that that Hashem obligated Jews to follow the commandments, which includes the belief in reward and punishment.  Denying either of those propositions, deciding that the mitzvot are no longer obligatory or do not result in any consequences, brings this curse.

Ramban then digresses to refute the possibility that the Torah means to include failures of temptation or laziness in those covered by this imprecation. The Torah says yakim, uphold, not ya’aseh, perform or do. For all that it says la’asot otam, to do them, that means to accept and assert the truth that Hashem commanded these acts, with reward for keeping them, punishment for not. But it’s the overall acceptance or rejection that’s the topic of the verse, not specific curses or failures.  

Yerushalmi Sotah 7;4 adds another element. R. Shimon b. Yakim says the Torah is addressing the chazzan, the one who lifts the Torah to show it to the people, and telling him that he must make sure the whole community can see it. Ramban calls that a derech aggadah, a loose reading of the text.

R. Shimon b. Chalafta in that same passage of Yerushalmi said that it referred to the local court, who are responsible for upholding the Torah. To explain, the Gemara quotes Mar R. Yehuda and R. Huna in the name of Shmuel, that this idea led Yoshiyahu to tear his clothing, saying “it’s on me to uphold it.” (The tearing of clothing shows his concern he did not fulfill this responsibility as he should have).

R. Asi in the name of R. Tanchum b. Hiyya expands that to one who has studied, taught, and observed the Torah, but could have done more to strengthen others’ observance and awareness [this presents a thorny question, ripe for creating guilt feelings, because we may never realize the ways we could/should have spread Torah further. I acknowledge the concern, but leave it for another time].

Ramban points out that this means one can be personally properly and fully observant and yet still be subject to this verse’s curse. Because we are required to uphold the Torah, not just keep or observe it.

How Bad is the Exile?

Chapter 28 contains the second version of the tochacha, the detailed list of punishments the Jewish people are warned will come for their failure to observe the Torah. In 28;42, after explaining the verse itself, Ramban makes the claim that all the threats of actual suffering will occur only in Israel. Once exiled, Hashem will no longer curse the Jews other than in that they will have to serve other gods, made of wood and stone (verse 36; this isn’t literal, but Ramban doesn’t go into that. Whatever that means, it will clearly happen while the Jews are in exile).

But Jews in exile will not suffer the failures that were part of what weakened us in Israel (that our crops wouldn’t produce, etc.). We’ll be like any other nation, or perhaps better off (as part of Hashem’s compassion on us), part of the promise of Vayikra 26;44 that Hashem will not abandon us in exile.

This idea that the sting of exile consists mostly of the distance it keeps Jews from Israel made sense in those exiles where Jews largely prospered (such as Christian Spain in the 13th century). I suspect Jews in other times and places of exile would have disagreed.

Seeing It in History

Ramban also relates these verses to the events that led to the destruction of the second Temple and the ensuing exile, reading some of the verses as referring to Agrippas or Aristobulus first being taken captive by the Romans (which Ramban says was a shock, since Jews were known to be fierce warriors), and then Agrippas came back with a Roman representative, to conquer Judea.

The Romans were the “nation from afar” that verse 49 predicts Hashem will send to punish the Jews, and they fulfilled the rest of the predictions, conquering the land, destroying the Temple, exiling the people, scattering them over the face of the earth, including especially Egypt, which Midrash Tanchuma reads as a particularly distressing result, for a slave to have been freed and then not only re-enslaved but to be put under the thumb of that original master. Of course, it would take an historically sensitive eye to see that, to realize that the economic, political, and military decline of the second Temple era were the punishment from Hashem laid out in the Torah, and to see the exile, difficult as it is, as still imbued with Hashem’s sheltering Presence.

Eating Naturally and Supernaturally

The parsha closes with some reminders of how Jews’ experiences should have prepared them to accept the version of reality the Torah promotes, with a visible reality and the broader one that includes all that Hashem does behind the scenes.

דברים פרק כט:ה לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אֲכַלְתֶּ֔ם וְיַ֥יִן וְשֵׁכָ֖ר לֹ֣א שְׁתִיתֶ֑ם לְמַ֙עַן֙ תֵּֽדְע֔וּ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:

Devarim 29;5: You did not eat bread, and did not drink wine or beer, so that you will know that I am Hashem your Gd.

Ramban is not sure the Jews ate only man throughout their time in the desert, since in Devarim 2;28 they offered to buy food and drink from the people of Edom, and Yoma 75b spoke of food local non-Jewish merchants brought to the camp (the Gemara is explaining why the Torah refers to setting up a place to excrete waste, when man was so light a food, it left nothing to eliminate).

He suggests that the Torah here means that ordinary food was not their source of sustenance. Or, he offers, perhaps they did not eat any food for the years until they arrived at Se’ir. In the fortieth year of their time after leaving Egypt, as they approached civilization, they began eating food as well [although he doesn’t make a point of it, that explains why the command about bodily wastes comes in Devarim 23;14; it wasn’t necessary until then, because the Jews ate man exclusively].

Even once they started eating food, however, it was only for pleasure, as a delicacy, since man was their staple until they crossed the Jordan and celebrated Pesach (Yehoshu’a 5;12).

In our sexual partners, our attitude to Torah and its observance, our experience of troubles and exile, and in the food we ate in the desert, this week’s parsha shows us how often there’s more happening than most people might notice, and the responsibility we bear (part of upholding the Torah) to experience the world and our lives in that fuller version, where we see, account for, and react to, the panoply of what’s going on, not just the simplest version of events.

About Gidon Rothstein

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