Mixing the Metaphysical with the Physical

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mixing the Metaphysical with the Physical: Towards an Accurate Summary of Ramban’s Views in Devarim

We have been studying Ramban on the book of Devarim since just after Pesach, two columns on each parsha. Going forward, I hope to start with Bereshit (so that next Monday, Gd willing, we’ll study some pieces of Ramban’s Introduction to the Torah, and for theMonday of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, we’ll start with Bereshit); since we’re now caught up with the weekly Torah reading, we’ll spend only one week on each parsha.

It has been my recent practice to set aside time to summarize at the end of a unit, to see what overall themes came out of our week by week study of a text (we did this when studying R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s published volumes, Aruch HaShulchan’s derashot for Shabbat Shuva and Shabbat HaGadol, and I’ve done it in my study of Rashi, five Rashi’s a week). I had hoped to do that here as well, to convey a sense of the themes that cropped up when we took Ramban week by week.

I have struggled this time, however, which is also why I haven’t re-read and repolished this column as much as usual [years ago, my father a”h told me that the only way he could write at all effectively was if he wrote it, put it away for a week, and came back. I don’t always have a week to give it, but I, too, find that I need that kind of distance to notice my mistakes. Today’s column will not have that; for this and the ensuing stylistic or clarity issues, I apologize].

Physics and Metaphysics

Ramban was simply too rich, too full of ideas, for me to lasso or horn them into an essay short enough for this space. Instead, I want to take one theme (that divides into three sub-themes, as mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein zt”l might have said) I did find, and share a couple of examples (without pretending to be comprehensive even within the excerpts we studied together; these are just examples of what struck me as a broader phenomenon).

I found Ramban coming back, repeatedly, to the balance between metaphysical and physical. That is, he commented sometimes on aspects of Hashem Himself and how Hashem impacts this world, sometimes on how the metaphysical appears within what seems the purely natural world, and then sometimes also comments on ordinary life, where there’s no hint of the metaphysical.

As we start, I want to emphasize that by metaphysical, I do not mean kabbalistic. Ramban also speaks of esoteric secrets, usually in hints. It’s easy (and not wholly inaccurate) to say that unless one has decided to delve into that view of the world, one can live without knowing any of that.

When I speak here of metaphysical ideas, I mean truths of the world that Ramban thought the Torah was telling us in its plain, exoteric sense, part of how all Jews should see and understand the world. This is not a chochmat hanistar, a hidden knowledge, it’s how he understands the Torah’s perspective of how we should experience the world.

What It Means to be the Creator

Ramban often commented on truths about Hashem that came out of verses in Devarim. In 5;15, when the Torah links our observance of Shabbat to remembering that we were slaves in Egypt, Ramban did not like Rambam’s claim that our desisting from creative labor on Shabbat is an expression of the freedom to do so that came with no longer being slaves.

Instead, he said that the Exodus reminds us of basic propositions about Hashem—that Hashem existed before the world, created it from nothing, is continuingly interested in what happens in the world (particularly to the Jewish people), and has the ability to affect or change it. Those truths, too, were revealed in the Exodus, when Hashem actively and supernaturally took us out.

As I noted when we studied Parashat VaEtchanan, this quartet of ideas appears more than once in Ramban’s commentary, is for him crucial to our understanding of Hashem and the nature of Creation; since those same ideas arose during the Exodus, they too will help us experience Shabbat properly.

Hashem’s Role in the Land of Israel

Two other comments speak of Hashem’s specific connection to the Land of Israel. In 11;12, the Torah speaks of Israel as a land that Hashem “doresh otah tamid einei Hashem Elokecha ba, inquires after it always are the eyes of Hashem your Gd on it.” Ramban connected that to the prior verses, which contrasted Israel to Egypt in how the two lands get water. Egypt has the Nile, so that farmers always had water for their crops. Israel needs rain (and Ramban spoke of Israel as a thirsty land, needing rain all year).

That’s a boon to Israel in that it keeps its inhabitants more easily in touch with and aware of Divine Providence. Hashem is more involved in Israel in some sense than with the rest of the world (Ramban included a sod amok, an esoteric secret, that said that Providence for the rest of the world actually extended from that Israel; while I’m not including esoteric ideas here, this one fits well with the plain idea he had stated).

Towards the end of Devarim (31;16), the idea crops up again. When Hashem warns Moshe that after his passing, the Jews will worship powers other than Hashem, they are referred to as elohei nechar ha-aretz, the foreign gods of the land. Ramban read that phrase to mean the gods themselves are foreign to the land, since Israel is the land that Hashem looks after Himself, as it were. We don’t have space to repeat his examples from II Melachim 17;21 or Hoshea 9;3 (but you can look them up), but he seems to have held as a literal truth that Hashem oversees Israel more directly and/or more intimately than other parts of the world.

The Metaphysical in Human Lives

Nor was metaphysics left to comments about Hashem which, theoretically, could matter to us only sort of academically, that those of us who like to think deeply about the world would have to consider. Metaphysics affected ordinary human life as well for Ramban.

For a first example, let’s remember a couple of Ramban’s ideas about prophets. First, the fact that Hashem would send prophets (and, in 18;15, Ramban thought that might be restricted to Israel, another example of the land’s special qualities) to help us find our way in the world.

Prophets means there might be false prophets. In 13;2, Ramban defined the first steps of a prophet’s proving him/herself (giving an ot or a mofet) in ways that showed how complicated it can be to experience the metaphysical. He said that an ot is a prediction, whereas a mofet is a change of tiv’o shel olam, which we might at first take as Nature.

In elaborating, he points to Shemot 8;19 as an ot, where Moshe predicts the plague of wild animals; that’s even though he thought there was a non-natural aspect to that plague, in that the animals did not rove into Goshen, where the Jews were. For a mofet, he includes an example from Yeshayahu 20;3, where the prophets walks barefoot and in torn clothing for three years; Ramban says that was unnatural, in that prophets did not usually conduct themselves that way.

So that the line between physical and metaphysical can be tenuous, clear to us only if we look with great care. (There’s much more to Ramban’s view of prophets, especially the challenges of false prophets, but we have to leave it there).

Hashem’s interactions with Israel and prophets are perhaps still too academic in our times (Ramban would not have meant them to be—we are supposed to experience those directly and ordinarily, and it’s only because we live in an unredeemed world that we do not), so let me offer one last quick example of where the metaphysical was meant to impact our lived experience.

Devarim 6;13 tells us (among other adjurations) to swear in Hashem’s Name. Ramban offers several readings of the verse; his first is that it means to tell us that we cannot use any other standard of truth (when we take an oath to assert a certain truth, as people do, Hashem must be the way we assure everyone that we are speaking the truth to the best of our ability).

He also cites Midrash Tanchuma, which sees the earlier parts of that verse (“you shall fear Hashem your Gd, Him shall you serve”) as prerequisites before we may feel comfortable voluntarily swearing in Hashem’s Name. For those of us who won’t reach such a lofty level, the Midrash offers the substitute of marrying one’s daughter to a Torah scholar, enabling Torah scholars to support themselves and/or sharing one’s wealth with a Torah scholar. That kind of person is free to take voluntary oaths in Hashem’s Name, according to the Midrash.

In our context, that’s another example of where Ramban saw an ordinary human life as necessarily including metaphysical awareness.

Ordinary Human Life

But much of Devarim took on how the Jews should build a human society, where there was no hint of the metaphysical, where people were just being people. When Moshe speaks of the torach, the toil, involved in leading the people (Ramban’s view of Moshe as a remarkable person and leader is a repeat idea that we will not have space to review here), Ramban read that as the inherent challenge in teaching Torah and all its nuances to an entire nation (of different levels of ability to comprehend and absorb).

He then struggled with a Sifrei Rashi had quoted, which tells us something about his view of human justice. Sifrei said a litigant would try to add more judges; Rashi thought that was if he saw he was losing a case. Ramban did not know of that as an halachic option for a litigant, and instead suggested the litigant would insist on more judges at the outset of the case.

That is his/her right, since cases heard by more judges come to a verdict that is more just (I think because more views will have been brought to bear). The torach is that the litigant didn’t do it for that reason, he did it to delay or to make it harder for the other litigant to get the case going.

Two ordinary human ideas in one comment, one about how we secure justice, the other about how people try to misuse systems for their own purposes.

A second example that jumped out at me because of its contemporary overtones is his reading of 7;12, where the Torah warns us to observe the mishpatim, which Ramban understands to refer to civil law, the system of laws that keeps society going. He says that these kinds of laws need to be emphasized repeatedly, because it is the obligation of each community to react to wrongdoers, those who don’t keep these laws, for the health of society at large.

Some might say, he says (I stress that Ramban himself says this, because it is so easy to hear people today saying the same thing), that it’s wasteful to punish criminals one the sin has occurred; it only adds more destruction to whatever happened (if society kills a murderer, that’s just two people dying instead of one, these people would say; or if we put away a criminal for years, they might argue, that doesn’t help erase the damage that criminal created).

Verse sixteen warns against that kind of misplaced compassion (its’s society’s job to respond to evil, to make clear that it’s evil. There’s what to say about what kinds of punishments we may/must use and when, but that’s not for here). Verse eighteen then warns against fearing these evildoers, another reason societies fail to respond or eradicate the wrongs in their midst.

More Than What I Have Included Here

As this column comes out during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, a Mishnah in Yoma 7;1 seems appropriate. After the Kohen Gadol read the Torah on Yom Kippur, he would say to the assemblage, “yoter mi-mah she-kara’ti lifneichem katuv kan, more than I have read before you is written here.”

As I close our study of Ramban’s comments to Devarim, I want to emphasize that as well. Even within the theme I chose to highlight, Ramban’s awareness of Hashem, how Hashem impacts the world [and how Jewish lives are supposed to be necessarily aware of that impact—one more quick example is that Ramban thought that Ha’azinu, the reminder of the course of Jewish history, of how life goes better for Jews when they serve Hashem well and poorly when they do not, focused solely on the problem of avodah zarah, of worshipping powers other than Hashem], and also of ordinary life, where the Divine is so in the background Hashem does not obviously play a role, we left much that we could have reviewed.

It is also a set of themes I find useful as a shaping mechanism for life in general (which perhaps calls into question how randomly I chose these comments to begin with). The life of the Jew, Ramban seems to be saying, mixes all of these, and it is in being aware of each in their proper time and place that we build our way to serving Hashem as Hashem asks and demands of us.

About Gidon Rothstein

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