by R. Gidon Rothstein
Ramban to Noach: A Tzaddik and the Miracles That Happened to Him
The first verse of this parsha describes Noach as ish tzaddik tamim, tzaddik hayah be-dorotav, that he was a whole or pure man, righteous in his generation. Rashi records a Rabbinic debate about just how good he was, based especially on how one reads the word for “in his generation.” In Rashi’s phrasing, the view that saw Avraham as better than Noach read the word be-dorotav lignai, as a word that denigrates Noach (he was only good in his generation, but would not have been so in Avraham’s). Ramban finds a way to say Noach was a tzaddik in a meaningful sense, even as verses define Avraham’s greater righteousness.
His focal point is the root tzaddik, righteous. Devarim 25;1 speaks of a court judging a case, ve-hitzdiku et hatzaddik ve-hirshi’u et harasha, they will declare tzaddik the tzaddik and assert the evil of the rasha. One kind of tzaddik is a person a court would find innocent or blameless, as opposed to the guilty rasha. That’s Noach, whose righteousness is defined by what he does not do (steal, for example), but– to his great credit– in sharp contrast to the rest of his generation.
Avraham did tzedakah ve-mishpat (Bereshit 18;19), commonly translated as righteousness and justice. Ramban says mishpat means does what’s right, and tzedakah is acts of mercy, so he wasn’t just blameless, he went beyond the requirements of justice, to do what is merciful.
Walking with Hashem
That’s better than the genai of Rashi but still lukewarm, which doesn’t seem to fit the last phrase of the verse, that Noach hithalech, walked with, Hashem. Ramban tells us it is easier to be considered one who walks with Hashem than we might think. Since Noach rejected chamas and hashchatat derech, since he refused to engage in the forcible theft and other perversions of his generation (among which Ramban includes various forms of divination and avodah zarah, worship of powers other than Hashem), he counts as one who cleaves to Hashem always.
Or it means he went in the ways Hashem Himself taught Noach, since Noach was a prophet. We do see Hashem speak to Noach when He commands him to build the ark, but Ramban sees that as a general aspect of Noach’s life, not a this-one-time event. That means Ramban can imagine deserving prophecy even at the level of a Noach, whose merit was that he separated himself from the perversions of his generation, without any great acts of personal righteousness. In limiting his respect for Noach, Ramban sees prophecy as more easily achieved than we might think.
Ramban then tells us this view of “walking with” Hashem will come up again (Devarim 13;5 tells the Jews to walk with Hashem and fear only Him, in the context of rejecting prophets who tell us to commit avodah zara; he seems to mean our rejection of that prophet despite his/her convincing signs will count, in a very important way, as walking with Hashem. So, too, Bereshit, 17;1, Hashem tells Avraham to walk with Him and be perfect).
Saving One’s Family or Educating Them
Noach didn’t enter the ark alone, his sons and their wives went with him. For Ramban, that’s either because were they destroyed in the Flood, that would punish Noach (which Noach did not deserve, as we just saw–that’s an idea that has many ramifications for what happens to whom, for why evildoers do or don’t get what they deserve, but Ramban doesn’t address that at all).
The other option he offers is that the sons, too, were worthy of being saved, because their father had trained them in the right way to live. As support, he notes that the verse speaks of Avraham (18;19) as one who will teach his children and family members to follow his path.
Ramban assumes fathers successfully transmit their values to their family, an assumption no longer easy to make in our times. In addition, by applying a characteristic of Avraham to Noach, he seems to also assume the two of them were similar in some ways. Avraham did justice and mercy where Noach only avoided blame, but both inculcated their family with their worldview.
Miraculous and Not in the Flood
When Hashem tells Noach to take two of all the living species in the ark, 6;19, Ramban is aware of how impossible it would have been to fit all of them even into the generous dimensions of the structure. Chullin 63b tells us, for example, there are 120 types of nonkosher birds in the east, all subspecies of ayah (so there are many, many more types of birds). There are also huge animals, like elephants, and numerous varieties of vermin. It’s clear to Ramban that ten arks, even of that size, wouldn’t hold all these animals.
It was a miracle, that the ark expanded (internally; Ramban implies it was a sort of science fiction kind of space, where the ark looked a certain size from the outside, but had much more room inside).
But once Hashem’s going to make it miraculously big, why not let Noach build a smaller physical ark? Ramban offers two reasons: first, it was to draw others’ attention. The hope was that as they watched this long process, they’d be stimulated to repentance. In addition, it reduced the level of miracle in the events (since it was a huge ark), and that’s how miracles in Tanach work—people do what people can reasonably do, and Hashem takes care of the rest.
We have seen this in Devarim already, where I noted it as a central aspect of Ramban’s understanding of the Torah and how Hashem works in the world (it’s also a theme that keeps cropping up in my various series on writings by various authors at different times in Jewish intellectual history): People are to do as much as they can and, when necessary, Hashem fills in.
That’s neither rationalist, which avoids miracles to the extent possible, nor supernaturalist, which emphasizes how everything is a miracle (Ramban does think everything is a miracle, but in the sense that Hashem is always infusing the world with His support and energy, as it were; with that said, there’s an ordinary working to the world and then there’s the miraculous). It’s our world, to do our best with; when our best doesn’t get us quite to where Hashem wants, miracles happen.
Where the Flood Went
Verse 8;11 tells us that the dove came back with an olive branch. Simply read, it means the trees were not destroyed or uprooted, which Ramban attributes to the fact that there was no flowing river as part of the Flood (which is a bit odd, since flood waters usually gather and make such a running river; I think Ramban thinks such a river has less force than had Hashem sent a flooding river). Bereshit Rabbah 33;6 quotes R. Levi, who said the dove found the branch in Israel, which wasn’t soaked by the Flood. Ramban says that means no water originated in Israel—neither the rains nor the tehomot rabbah, the springs of the deep, which opened up.
But water certainly came, since there’s no fence or wall around Israel to keep the water out (note that he does not consider the possibility of a miracle). This in fact is how Pirkei R. Eliezer 23 expressed it, that the waters of the Flood did not fall on Israel. If there were no punishing rains or bubbling water, the trees would not have been destroyed, Ramban says.
The Origin of Kings
When we encounter Nimrod, 10;9, the verse describes him as a gibor tzayid, a mighty hunter. After quoting a Rabbinic tradition that he hunted fellow human beings, Ramban says he thinks this means Nimrod was the first king (he “hunted” humans into subjects, not to kill them), because there were no wars until his time.
That takes a nonobvious position on the human origins of government and monarchy. For Ramban, it’s war that led the Babylonians to accept a king, and through war that government expanded through Assyria. Fear of war, for Ramban, is what gets humans to organize into mutually beneficial groups.
From Noach to Nimrod, the Rambans we saw this time take us from a human who was good enough to avoid being wiped out in the Flood to one who was convincing enough to have people unite under him for protection from war.