Finding Our Way to Hashem, Or Not

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Seeking Hashem’s Truth

In the beginning of the parsha, Yitzchak and Rivkah struggle with infertility. When she finally becomes pregnant, the fetuses move around inside her, causing her enough trouble that in 25;22, va-telech lidrosh et Hashem, she went to inquire of Hashem. Rashi thought she went to the Beit Midrash of Shem [for Rashi, the place to learn about Hashem at that time—Yitzchak went there after the Akedah, Ya’akov will go there before fleeing to Lavan’s house].

Ramban thinks that when used regarding Hashem in Tanach, derishah, inquiring, always means prayer. His examples are Tehillim 34;5, darashti et Hashem va-anani, I darash of Hashem and He answered me, Amos 5;4, Dirshuni vi-chyu, inquire of me and live [this example bothers me a bit, because Makkot 24a quotes this same verse and suggests that dirshuni might be by observing mitzvot], and Yechezkel 20;3, where Hashem takes an oath, as it were, that He will not idaresh for the Jewish people, which Ramban takes to mean will not respond to their prayers.

I specified the prooftexts he adduces because two of them are easily read as something other than prayer. Since Ramban could read as well as I can, it leads me to wonder whether something else was going on for Ramban, although I cannot speculate on what.

Regardless, his view affects our understanding of Rivkah. Rashi thought she went to a sage or prophet for enlightenment, while Ramban thinks she prayed to Hashem for that.

I also note that in 27;4, when Yitzchak plans on giving Esav the first-born’s blessing, Ramban comments that Rivkah apparently never told him of the prediction she received before the boys were born. At first, that was because she didn’t want to tell him she had gone lidrosh et Hashem without asking Yitzchak, Ramban says.

That comment makes more sense if lidrosh means to ask a question (what reason is there to ask Yitzchak before praying?). I mention it especially because a reader of these columns suggested to me that Ramban does not insist on consistency (one of my father a”h’s favorite quotes was Emerson’s “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”), that he might entertain multiple options without resolving them. If that were true, it might mean that he was willing to work with lidrosh both as Rashi read it as well as how he read it here.

Rejecting the Birthright

Ramban blames Esav for rejecting the rights of the first-born, even though he recognizes other reasonable options. When 25;30 says people called him Edom for referring to the soup he bought from Ya’akov as ha-adom ha-adom hazeh, this red, red, Ramban writes that they mocked him for selling that great honor for a bit of cooked food. He sees it as an example of Mishlei 23;21, that a zolel ve-sovei, someone focused on eat and drink [which is, not coincidentally, how the Torah characterizes a ben sorer u-moreh, a rebellious son], will become impoverished.

Ramban assumes that those around Esav knew what a foolish choice he had made, when the verse does not indicate it—the verse says he used an odd phraseology, so people called him that. Without obvious textual evidence that I can see, Rambam takes it to denigrate his misplaced values [Ramban’s view should make us think about what it means that that became the name of the nation that descended from him, and provides another reason both Yirmiyah and Ovadyah refer to Edom as an am bazui, a derided nation].

In verse 34, we are told explicitly that Esav looked down on the birthright. Ramban thinks that was because Esav assumed that his violent profession would kill him before his father passed away, so there was little value in the birthright.  The verse says Esav ate, drank, and went—once he was back in his element and sated, it confirmed to him that he had made the right choice.

Ramban then editorializes, “for kesilim [usually translated as fools, but he means it as those who refuse to understand wisdom, not those who are unable to] care only about eating, drinking and doing whatever they want right in that moment, with no care for the future.” It is an important aspect of the distinction between wisdom and foolishness in Jewish tradition (I’ve seen it in many authors; the one that jumps to mind is R. Sa’adya Gaon in his remarkable and important commentary to Mishlei): focus on the now is foolishness, awareness of the long term is wisdom.

Esav was just that kind of fool. To make it worse, Ramban is adamant that Yitzchak was wealthy (Ibn Ezra claimed otherwise, but I want to get to other comments of Ramban’s), so that Esav’s treatment of the birthright shows his insensitivity to issues that would have mattered to him.

What Avraham Kept

When Yitzchak faces a famine at the beginning of chapter 26, Hashem appears to tell him not to go down to Egypt. In verse 5, Hashem tells Yitzchak that he and his descendants will receive great blessings because Avraham obeyed Hashem, and the rest of the verse then lists aspects of Hashem’s commandments Avraham observed. Rashi follows the Talmudic tradition that Avraham literally kept the Torah, so he interprets each term as a subset of mitzvot.

Ramban is bothered by the idea, since later Jewish figures violate the Torah. Ya’akov marries sisters, Amram marries his aunt, and Moshe builds matzevot, forms of altars the Torah prohibits. He suggests that Chazal would have said that Avraham figured out the Torah with his ruach ha-kodesh (I think he means that Avraham was so in touch with how Hashem wants the world to work he was able to infer all of Torah without being told. That assumes that mitzvot as we have them are in some way essential to the workings of the world, that a full understanding of the world would necessarily lead to knowing all of halachah. Which is a remarkable claim).

Since it wasn’t commanded to him, it was a set of practices he took on because of their value, he could and did choose to observe that (and pass on to his descendants that they should observe it) only in Israel. That’s a reasonable choice because (Ramban Zionism alert) Torah is, essentially, mishpat Elokei ha-aretz, the law of the Gd of that land, so that, pre-Giving of the Torah, they did not need to adopt them outside of Israel.

What Avraham Definitely Kept

He then offers a more literal reading, that mishmarti, My charge (or, what Hashem required of him) means that Avraham asserted the reality of monotheism, which forced him to disagree with and dispute all the pagans around him, and led him to call out in the Name of Hashem, and bring many to Hashem’s service [this is an aspect of Avraham’s career that is often backpedaled in favor of noting his kindnesses. I don’t need to minimize the latter to be sure that tradition focused on Avraham for the former. What made him Avraham was his finding and declaring Hashem, bringing monotheism into the public sphere].

Ramban explains each of the rest of the terms in a way that could have been true without Avraham having inferred the future content of Torah. Mitzvotai¸ My commandments, meant he obeyed the commands to leave Charan, to sacrifice Yitzchak, and to expel Hagar and Yishmael.

Chukkotai, My statutes, meant to walk in Hashem’s ways (Ramban seems to equate chok with derech, because his examples are chanun ve-rachum, compassion and mercy, which are the most well-known of the Attributes Hashem teaches Moshe; they are referred to there as Hashem’s derech. Here, Ramban also includes charity and justice, tzedakah u-mishpat, and that Avraham will command his descendants to do so as well, which refers to Bereshit 18;19, where Hashem speaks of Avraham doing just that as “keeping the derech of Hashem.”)

The last term, Torotai, My Torahs, means circumcision and the Noahide laws (for Ramban, mitzvot in this verse means specific commands, and torot is the word for that which will continue throughout Avraham’s generations).

If we had space to elaborate, just this list generates a sort of minimal Judaism, a baseline of what it means to serve Hashem. The call to be certain enough of the fact that Hashem is the sole power that runs the world, to insist on that to and in the face of those who deny it, to work to encourage others to see that truth; to follow specific (and non-intuitive) commands from Hashem at no little personal cost; to emulate Hashem’s ways of interacting with the world to the best of our abilities while also instilling the drive to do so in our descendants; as well as to keep whatever commands Hashem made permanent would challenge many or most of us.

Ramban’s peshat reading—which has the advantage of freeing us from having to believe that Torah is so obvious to the right-minded that Avraham could figure it all out on his own– shows us what might be a harder message to absorb, that even without recourse to Chazal, Avraham’s example imposes more of an obligation on Jews than we might imagine, that even were one (for whatever misguided reason) to reject the rest of halachic history, the example of this forebear should be enough to put us on a more specific path of Hashem’s service than many realize today.

Sacrificing for What Should Be

When Rivkah takes Esav’s clothing to give to Ya’akov, 27;15 refers to him as “her older son,” and to Ya’akov as her younger son. For Ramban, that’s to show how righteous she was. Mothers naturally want to give their first-born more rights and privileges (it’s an emotional instinct, he says). Rivkah acts as she does solely because she sees that Esav is wicked and Ya’akov righteous (it was her realization of that fact that led her to overcome her emotions in the name of what’s right; Ramban has to assume that when the verse earlier said that Rivkah loved Ya’akov, in contrast to Yitzchak’s love of Esav, it was again because of right and wrong, not some innate draw to Ya’akov).

It’s a comment that struck me because R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, once made a similar suggestion in a seudah shelishit talk. He was discussing 28;5, which mentions that Rivkah was the mother of Ya’akov and Esav for no obvious reason. Rashi says he does not know why the verse does that, and R. Lichtenstein’s talk was along the lines of this Ramban (through the fog of the years and my memory, I do not recall his mentioning it, although he was enough of a fan of Ramban’s commentary that I would think he would have), that Rivkah’s actions weren’t about an emotional preference for Ya’akov, they were based on a clear-eyed read of the strengths and weaknesses of two sons, each of whom she loved fully. Sometimes, we need to do what’s painful, that may even hurt those we love, because it’s what’s right.

Ramban to Toledot shows us ways in which our forebears sought and found Hashem, or didn’t. We see Rivkah praying, Esav turning away for immediate and ephemeral pleasures, Avraham finding his way either to all of Torah or to the service of Hashem even without all of Torah, and Rivkah taking action for what’s right, despite it going against what she felt.

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