What We Do and Don’t Tell

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Missing Background of Avraham’s Life

Parshat Lech Lecha opens with Hashem promising Avram all sorts of bounty (including vehyeh berachah, and be a blessing, the words that open the comment I am summarizing here). Ramban wonders what happened before this conversation—why did Hashem want Avram to leave where he was, why would his obedience merit these great rewards, and why didn’t the Torah tell us the answers to these questions?

The Torah should have told us Avram was a great servant of Gd, a perfectly righteous man, or give a reason why Hashem valued his leaving Charan, such that these promises make sense. For David and Shlomo, for example, Hashem conditions the promise of lasting monarchy and great success on their continued adherence to the covenant, as is true of the Jewish people, who are told that good comes from acting well and vice versa. With Avram, we get no such information.

Avoiding Air Time for Idolaters

Ramban’s answer is that to tell the story, the Torah would have had to tell us the views of the idolaters of his time, so that his responses to them could make sense to us. In Ur Kasdim, the idolaters persecuted him for his claim that there was only one Gd; he fled there to go to Canaan (because it’s a chosen land, Ramban implies later in this comment), but ended up spending time in Charan. Hashem’s order is not a new idea, it’s telling Avram to complete what he had started.

When he gets there, he’ll be able to call out to people in the Name of Hashem in that special land, bringing blessing and bounty to him and the nations around him. That’s as opposed to Ur Kasdim, where they denigrated him, cursed him, and threw him in the pit or furnace [Ramban is not committed, apparently, to the literal truth of the tradition that Avram was saved from a burning furnace].

Ramban assumes, in other words, that the people of Canaan, depraved as they were in other ways, were better able to appreciate or tolerate Avram than the people of Ur Kasdim.

To tell us that story would give too much attention to the idolaters of Ur Kasdim, Ramban thinks, so the Torah instead gave only oblique references to the incidents—for example, he reads the prediction of the reaction of the Canaanites (that they will see and appreciate that Avram is a source of blessing) as a hint that this differs from what Avram previously experienced. This was true of the generation of Enosh as well, Ramban says, that the Torah doesn’t tell us much about what happened, because it would involve telling us too much about the views of idolaters.

The Actions of the Fathers

In verse 6, when the Torah tells us Avram traveled Israel until the place of Shechem, Ramban offers what he declares an important principle of the Torah (this idea comes up many times in his commentary on Bereshit, although we’ll likely note it only this time). Tanchuma 9 says that all that happened to our forefathers happened to their descendants as well, and that’s the reason to tell us so many stories about their lives that seem to have little educative or illuminative value.

Ramban’s understanding of that Midrash is that all these actions have predictive (or prescriptive) value for their descendants, who will live out a version of those events. That’s because when a prophet links a prediction to an action, it strengthens the prediction (the Divine decree, Ramban says, becomes more embedded in the reality of this world when it comes with a corresponding action—this is a point about prophecy in general, that when a prophet performs some act along with the prophecy, it makes it more certain that the prediction will come to fruition). Ramban supports this claim with examples from later in Tanach, where prophets see accompanying actions as vital to the prediction itself.

The Future of the Jewish People, Shechem and Egypt

Shechem is a good first example. Rashi said that Avram stopped there to pray for the children of Ya’akov who would attack the city (during the incident with the abduction of Dinah). Ramban adds that it also symbolized that Avram’s descendants would capture Shechem before the rest of the country, before it was even the time of conquest (so Shim’on and Levi’s conquest of the city was a fulfillment of this aspect of Avram’s journey, where Shechem is singled out ahead of time as a place that would come under Avramic family control long before the rest of the land).

Verse 10, which tells of a famine and Avram’s descent to Egypt, similarly reads to Ramban as foreshadowing. Just as with Avram, famine would send his descendants to Egypt, the Egyptians would mistreat them and take their women (in Shemot 1;22, Par’oh decrees that the boy babies be killed and the girls left alive; Ramban is reading that as the Egyptians taking Jewish females), Hashem would avenge them with great plagues, and they would leave with great wealth.

The Workings of History

While I’ve heard this idea of Ramban’s before (often enough that I think it’s well-known), I haven’t heard many people address why this should be true. It’s possible he saw it as some unexplainable metaphysical rule, that if special people perform certain acts, they imprint a certain reality on history. Why should that be so?

Allow me to tender a suggestion (with apologies, since this space is for studying Ramban, not broaching my own ideas; my defense is that I think I might be capturing what Ramban meant).

The phrasing of this principle is ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, that the actions of the forefathers are a sign for the children. Let’s remember that children are in many ways seen as continuations of their fathers (a proposition I don’t have space to prove here, but remember that the verse says that Hashem chooses to give Avram advance warning about Sodom because Avram will teach his children to act justly and righteously; also, when the Torah speaks of visiting the sins of fathers on their descendants, Rabbinic tradition had it that that was when they continued the path of the fathers—children and grandchildren can be our continuity).

With that assumption, I suggest that much of life is a repeat encounter with certain challenges, giving us opportunities to handle them better. If so, ma’aseh avot show us what the Jewish people’s continuing challenges will and should be, in many areas. As we watch the Patriarchs and their descendants succeed and fail, we know that one set of goals of the Jewish people will be to repeat those actions, in the hopes we will find the way to do them better.

Setting Up Sarah

Ramban in fact sees Avram as partially failing here, because he gives up Sarai so easily, putting her in a position where she might be forced to sin. Ramban thinks Avram should instead have trusted that Hashem would save him and his wife and all his possessions.  Once he goes there, he also says that Avram’s leaving Israel because of the famine betrayed a lack of trust—if Hashem commanded him to go to Canaan, Ramban thinks, he should have stayed in Canaan until told otherwise, should have trusted that Hashem would provide. For his poor choise, his descendants were doomed to exile to Egypt as well.

Here again, I feel compelled to break my usual silence. Ramban is known to be willing to attribute failings to figures in Tanach (a tendency that gives cover to later authors who approach those characters with less reverence than Ramban; Prof. David Berger discussed some of this in a chapter of Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah. As with all he writes, it’s worth reading). In many of those cases (one case I remember now is Ya’akov’s reaction to Rachel’s plea for children), he finds Midrashim that ratify his claim.

Here, he does not offer such Midrashic support, which leads me to suspect that there’s room to question his assumption—was Avram required to trust Hashem to that extent? That gets into how much Avram was allowed/supposed to rely on miraculous Divine intervention in his life. It seems possible that the reverse of Ramban’s view is true, that unless otherwise informed, Avram was supposed to live as if he did not have special protection, and to do all in his power to make life work out. Only once he had done that that he could trust Hashem to work out the rest.

If so—and I’m especially drawn to this view because there is no indication, in the Torah or Chazal, that Avram was to blame for anything that happened here—Avram handled this correctly. Hashem then stepped in to protect Sarai, but Avram and Sarai had to act, until Hashem chose when and how to intervene, as if they were on their own.

For Lech Lecha, Ramban gave us food for thought as to what the Torah chooses to tell us: the background to Avram’s being chosen to head to Canaan, the role fathers’ actions play in their descendants’ lives, and how Avram and Sarai were or weren’t supposed to expect to be saved from difficult or threatening circumstances that arose.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply