Stepping Right, Stepping Wrong

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Vayishlach: Stepping Right, Stepping Wrong

Ramban opens his commentary on Vayishlach (32;4) by telling us it’s meant to inform us that Hashem saved his servant from a stronger foe (Esav), and to teach us that Ya’akov did not rely on his righteousness, but made all the attempts he could to save himself. His specific strategies are also a lasting lesson to us, that when (not if) we face similar troubles, we should use the same three paths, prayer, gifts, and war (although for war, he adds, “to run away and be saved;” that implies that he didn’t think Ya’akov intended to fight, he intended to flee).

Ramban is by far not the first to say we must balance belief that Hashem actively runs the world and saves the righteous with the recognition that each of us must do all we can to produce the outcomes we desire (I still have a computer file with the book that I wrote based on my study of five comments of Rashi’s on each parsha; there, too, among other interesting conclusions, I found that Rashi stressed both halves of that equation). Were that all, I might have refrained from reviewing this comment.

Except that in that same verse, he complicates the picture.

The Perils of Human Effort

The verse tells us that Ya’akov sent messengers to his brother Esav. Ramban explains that the south of Israel, where his father was, is close to Edom, so he was going to be passing through or near his brother’s land, and feared his brother might hear about his arrival. To avoid giving Esav cause to be annoyed, Ya’akov decided to face the problem head on and sent messengers.

Bereshit Rabbah 75;3 thinks that was an error. In the Midrash’s version, Hashem pointed to Mishlei 26;17, which speaks of grabbing a dog by its ears (a bad idea), to tell Ya’akov that he should have left Esav alone as long as he was minding his own business.

This offers Ramban an opportunity to apply his idea that ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, our forefathers’ actions model or foreshadow events in our lives. Similar to Ya’akov, it was Jewish kings who initiated contact with Rome (descendants of Esav in Rabbinic literature). Eventually, those Romans meddled in Israeli politics, culminating in the Destruction of the Second Temple.

This view of the incident tells us that we are obligated to make efforts to shape the world as we think it should go and that even the greatest among us can err while trying to do so. It makes the world a very narrow bridge, but perhaps the main thing is to take action and not to fear at all. Which is only possible if we are careful to hope/ trust that Hashem will help us make the right choices and clean up our messes after we’ve made them.

Overcoming Troubles and Persecutions

32;26 tells us that the angel with whom Ya’akov was wrestling realized he would not be able to defeat the Patriarch. For Ramban, that’s because of the angel’s limited freewill; Hashem’s messenger always, an angel can only do what is authorized, which in this case was limited to injuring Ya’akov’s thigh [Ramban doesn’t stress it, but part of his point is that strength and the ability to defeat others isn’t purely physical; on pure physical ability, the angel could have easily done what he wanted with Ya’akov. Hashem’s command was stronger].

Bereshit Rabbah 77;3 says that when the angel touched Ya’akov’s thigh, it impacted all the righteous slated to be born from Ya’akov, and says that was the generation of shemad, of religious persecutions. Ramban thinks that means the incident is reported in the Torah to show us that there would be eras in which Esav would grow powerful and cause us great pain. He notes a statement of R. Chiyya b. Abba, that there was a time of shemad during the Mishnaic period when non-Jews tortured Jews so horrifically that R. Chiyya b. Abba does not think he would have been able to withstand it.

We don’t need to review those tortures, which have sadly been superseded by later evildoers.  Ramban’s comfort comes from the Torah’s note at the end of the incident, that Ya’akov arrived at Shechem whole. So, too, we (as a people) have undergone all this and emerged. For Ramban, the wrestling match with the angel gives perspective on all our national sufferings—it only goes as far as Hashem allows it [to me, that implies that there might be ways we could act to avoid or minimize such suffering], and for all the pain, the people makes it to the other side.

We Don’t Do It or It Should Not Be Done

When Shechem, prince of the city of Shechem, abducts Dinah, 34;7 comments that the brothers were upset about his committing a nevalah be-Yisrael, something seen as wrong by the Ya’akov family, and “so was not done.” Ramban first says that last phrase builds on the previous one, that they were upset about an offense to their family’s morality. In that reading, Canaanites would not have had any problem with the rape or seduction of Dinah [the verse is clear that Shechem abducts Dinah, but it’s not clear to me that he forces himself on her sexually; Dinah is not given much voice here, for reasons that have to do with what the Torah chooses to share with us, so I don’t think we can be sure where along the spectrum of rape/seduction their intercourse fell].

He then quotes Onkelos, who read that last phrase as more generally stated, that such was not done by anyone, which is why it was considered a nevalah, a moral wrong, in Ya’akov’s family.

The two readings capture a continuing question: when we are offended by the world’s behavior, which times is it because they have violated our personal, familial, or communal standards and which times is it because they have acted against universal standards?

Proper and Improper Reactions to Wrongs

34;13 tells us that Ya’akov’s sons intended to trick Shechem and Chamor when they proposed that the men of the city circumcise. Ramban points out that this part of the story is at odds with the end. Here, Ya’akov is silent, which seems like he agreed with his sons’ idea, but that makes it unclear why he upbraids Shim’on and Levi at the end. Ramban also doesn’t understand the brothers’ suggestion, since they seem to contemplate a scenario in which Dinah stayed married to the Canaanite who had defiled her.

He therefore says they always meant the suggestion insincerely, but not the way Shim’on and Levi took it. The brothers and Ya’akov expected the people of Shechem to refuse, and they could take Dinah and go. In the unlikely event they agreed, they could still take Dinah (when the people of Shechem were weakened). That’s what they all agreed to, and which Ya’akov could have lived with.

Shim’on and Levi decided avenge the wrong to Dinah by wiping out the city. Ramban thinks Ya’akov would have accepted killing Shechem (the prince) himself, since he perpetrated a  wrong, but could not accept the broad killing. True, here he only mentions the danger into which the brothers had put the family, but when he curses their anger at the end of his life, he is referring to this incident.

The Evil of the People of Shechem

In Mishneh Torah, Rambam justified Shim’on and Levi’s actions as proper punishment of the people of Shechem’s violation of the Noahide obligation of dinin. For Rambam, that obligates non-Jews to set up a judicial system to identify and punish wrongs committed. To witness a wrong without reaction is to transgress a capital crime [others disagree with Rambam, including Ramban, but his view reminds us that bystanders have much more of an obligation to protest and/or interfere when they see others, including powerful others, committing crimes].

Ramban disagreed, first because that means Ya’akov was wrong to reprimand them. Even if he thought it was dangerous, he should have been proud of Shim’on and Levi’s courage to do what was right. He thinks instead that dinin obligates non-Jews to set up a civil law system, but that there is no human-administered punishment for not doing so.

Besides, there’s no need to reach for reasons the people of Shechem were liable for death, since they were all idolaters who engaged in sexual perversions [much more agreed-upon violations of the Noahide code]. What bothered Ya’akov was that it was not their role to mix in; he and his sons had no sense that they were supposed to enforce the Noahide laws.

Shim’on and Levi understood that, in Ramban’s view, but thought the people of Shechem had actively cooperated in their leader’s misdeed. For that reason, they became included in whatever fate befell that leader (this is an item on a list I’m compiling, where cooperating with a wrong puts that person almost equally in the wrong).

Working and Reworking

35;16 tells us that Ya’akov buried Rachel be-od kivrat eretz lavo Efrata, which translations renders as “while they were still some distance from Efrat.” Ramban originally accepted Radak’s view, that it means the distance one could travel in the time from morning until one eats one’s first meal, a common way to calculate distance at the time.

He notes that he wrote that originally. Now that he had merited reaching Jerusalem, he had seen that the distance between Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb, and Beit Lechem wasn’t even a mil, somewhere under eight-tenths of a mile (Ramban seems to be assuming Efrata is Beit Lechem; I think the verse could also read as saying that Rachel passed away in Beit Lechem, and that Beit Lechem was this distance from Efrata. If that were how to read it, the closeness of her tomb to Beit Lechem would not be cause for surprise).

He therefore suggests that the verse was stressing that he buried her immediately upon her death, and did not even take her to the very nearby Beit Lechem. The reason he gives for that—that she was left there to be a comfort to her descendants on their way to exile after the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash—would take us too far afield here, but this is a good example of the work Ramban put into this commentary, editing and altering it even after he arrived in Israel.

For Vayishlach, we have some of the messiness of human life—when to get involved with Esav, how to react to wrongs that other people commit, and how to figure out distances the Torah discusses with words whose meaning we no longer know.

About Gidon Rothstein

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