by R. Gidon Rothstein
The Nation Being Called
דברים פרק כט:ט אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: (י) טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ:
Devarim 29;9: All of you are standing this day before Hashem your Gd, your heads of tribes, elders, officers, every Israelite man. Verse 10: Your children, women, the stranger (or convert) within your camp, from the wood-chopper to the water-drawer.
Before the Torah gets around to telling us what it is the nation is doing, it describes the people, and Ramban’s understanding of that description tells us about his view of the nation at that point.
He takes the phrase I translated as heads of tribes more literally as “your heads, your tribes,” which he says is a general term leading in to the more specific “elders and officers.” Elders are synonymous with heads, he says, because the older and wiser people were given the positions of leadership. [To me, that’s a continuing reminder of where contemporary society has made a different choice as to whom to trust to lead us into the future].
He also takes time to explain that rosh, head, means leader, with examples of verses that use that metaphor. Meaning that Ramban did not think “leader” was simply another definition of “head,” even though that metaphor is so ubiquitous today that we might think so. He instead explains and supports that reading, which reminds us that we sometimes take for granted that which Ramban did not yet think was intuitive or obvious.
The children were included because this covenant includes all future generations, or to reward the adults who brought them, as the Gemara said regarding Hakhel (the obligation to gather in Jerusalem on the Sukkot after ashemittah year).
Canaanites Joining the Jewish People
The last group are the wood-choppers and water-drawers, who in other contexts are assumed to be non-Jews who joined the Jewish people (in Yehoshu’a, when the Giv’onim trick Yehoshu’a into forging an alliance with them, he makes them serve as the nation’s wood-choppers and water-carriers). Here, Ramban cites Yevamot 79a, that some Canaanites came to join the Jewish people in Moshe’s time, and he assigned them this job as well. Tanchuma to this parsha makes clear that they didn’t fool Moshe into this, that was where he assigned them.
That bears on a dispute between Rambam and Ra’avad in Laws of Kings 6;4, where Rambam suggests that a Canaanite or Amalekite who wanted to avoid being killed could agree to observe the Noahide laws as well as accept both financial and physical subservience (pay a tax and offer physical service). Ra’avad held such people would have to convert to be allowed to stay in Israel.
Ramban’s understanding of these wood-choppers brings up the question here—when they stood before Hashem to enter a covenant, did it mean the entire covenant of the Torah (Ra’avad) or even just the Noahide laws (Rambam)?
What is clear is that Ramban is comfortable with the idea of a legislated underclass (as was Rambam), a group of people whose role in the nation is defined and fixed, in a position that is intentionally subservient. I thinkthat’s because they are not prepared to join the people fully (at least for Rambam—could Ra’avad have meant Canaanites who converted were still restricted to being wood choppers?), so they must demonstrate their acquiescence to the Torah and Jewish people’s value system.
For Ramban, the whole people constitutes well-established leaders, men, women, and children, and then add-ons to the nation who were not yet or not quite fully integrated.
Renewing or Remaking the Covenant
What were they there to do? The Torah describes it as
דברים כט:יא לְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:
Devarim 29;11: To enter the covenant with Hashem your God and His oath that Hashem is making with you as a covenant and oath.
Ramban thinks they gathered to hear and accept the Torah with its explanation, perhaps in front of the Ark where the Tablets and Torah were housed. He is comfortable with the possibility that this was an actual re-assertion of the covenant at Sinai, the Jews recommitting to fulfilling the Torah, with a curse (for failure to perform) and an oath. He goes so far as to suggest that they had a similar sacrificial ceremony as the one described in Shemot 24;5-8.
Part of the reason for such a ceremony is given a few verses later, where the Torah worries that some of the people already have evil roots in their hearts. Ramban offers entry points for such roots, places or incidents that might have lured people to see idolatry as positive— Egypt, the Golden Calf, the abominations of Ammon or Moav the people have seen on the way.
Didn’t the covenant at Sinai cover it? Not as effectively, says Ramban, since it did not include an oath and a curse.
Which is one of those comments that blows my mind, because it takes for granted that the Giving of the Torah at Sinai was not enough for Jews to reject all other worships, and that adding curses to the equation would tip the balance for at least some people.
Where Wrongly Placed Confidence Leads
דברים פרק כט:יח וְהָיָ֡ה בְּשָׁמְעוֹ֩ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֨י הָֽאָלָ֜ה הַזֹּ֗את וְהִתְבָּרֵ֨ךְ בִּלְבָב֤וֹ לֵאמֹר֙ שָׁל֣וֹם יִֽהְיֶה־לִּ֔י כִּ֛י בִּשְׁרִר֥וּת לִבִּ֖י אֵלֵ֑ךְ לְמַ֛עַן סְפ֥וֹת הָרָוָ֖ה אֶת־הַצְּמֵאָֽה:
Devarim 29;18: When he hears these matters, he will reassure himself in his heart, saying, ‘it will be fine for me, for I will follow the stubbornness of my heart,” leading to the destruction of the watered as well as the thirsty.
Ramban explains the Hebrew words, which more literally mean “he will bless himself in heart, saying ‘it will be peace with me as I follow my heart,” closer to the way I did here, that the evildoer will not only violate the Torah but convince himself there will be no repercussions as he follows will and desires opposed to Hashem’s.
This certainty hurts the sinner in at least two ways. First, s/he is wrong, in that it will not be well with him/her, as Hashem’s ire or wrath (af, which I believe differs from ka’as, anger) will burn against that sinner for a generation or generations. Since Judaism does not believe descendants are punished for the sins of the ancestor unless they continue that evil path, Ramban seems to me to be implying that choices we make can set our descendants to go astray in those ways as well.
Slaking or Stimulating Thirst
Ramban takes the verse’s use of the word sherirut, which is translated as stubbornness, to refer to desire’s growing more powerful, strengthening its hold on the sinner’s heart (he points out that Baba Bathra 160b says to close a document with the words sharir ve-kayyam, effective and in force). The growth of attachment to a sin (the modern model of addiction fits Chazal and Ramban’s comments on how sin takes hold of a person) explains why the Torah says that it will lead to the ravah, the watered parts of the land (a metaphor for those parts of ourselves that were satisfied, weren’t longing for anything) will be destroyed along with the thirsty.
As sinners, we start out with some elements of ourselves that aren’t looking for anything, that are perfectly happy without partaking of the prohibited. But when other parts of ourselves want the prohibited—foods, speech, sex, etc.—giving in to that desire will only yield more desire, and will expand to that which we did not desire before.
The example Ramban gives (it’s so contemporary readers might think I am imposing my reactions on Ramban’s words, but Ramban says this himself) is that someone who yields to the temptation to engage in promiscuity with beautiful women will, once he allows his sexual side to overtake him, find himself desiring men, animals, and all the prohibited sexual relationships.
(Obviously, homosexuals today would take offense, would claim that theirs is a completely other sexuality, and that one does not bleed into the other. That may be true for some, but the phenomenon of bisexuality (and of people who once functioned as heterosexuals and then “discovered” they were homosexual) suggests otherwise. In addition, even if it weren’t true of homosexuality, it seems clear that experimentation leads to a general branching out, not just trying one particular new kind of sexuality. As experimentation becomes a value, prohibitions and taboos fall by the wayside.)
Sukkah 52b says that if people try to fully satisfy their sexual instincts, they only get hungrier, but if one leaves it hungry (I’m fairly certain the Gemara means indulges it in moderation, since abstinence within marriage is not a Talmudic value; translated to food, it would be the difference between trying to eat until stuffed, or eating until no longer hungry—the former, I understand Ramban to be saying, would find food becoming a value of its own, such that what used to be satisfying will no longer be enough, the person will always look for more, better, newer, and that’s when listening to Hashem’s commands starts to take a back seat).
If we allow ourselves to fill any prohibited desires for which a part of ourselves thirsts, we’ll find those parts of ourselves that were ravah, watered and satisfied, also turning thirsty, longing for more and other prohibited experiences.
To try to help the people avoid that, Hashem renewed the covenant, with all of them, in a way that sought to be maximally effective, even if earlier covenants should already have done the job.