by R. Gidon Rothstein
How Hashem Runs the World
There are themes to Ramban, ideas that crop up repeatedly. I try to keep my interests and preferences out of these selections, so that I not fit Ramban into the Procrustean sarcophagus (as R. Lichtenstein zt”l used to say) of my own worldview. But Ramban does apply his themes in unexpected places, and this week I am going to indulge myself a bit.
Ya’akov’s famous dream at the beginning of the parsha shows him a ladder with angels going up and down. On 28;12, Ramban understands the dream to be telling Ya’akov that all that happens in this world is a decree of Hashem’s [he does not address it, but I don’t think he means to the exclusion of human free will in any way. He sounds like he means that all that others would attribute to the action or initiative of angels, or whatever other non-Divine forces we might think are orchestrating events in this world, actually come from Hashem].
Hashem does send angels to traverse the earth, but they don’t act on what they find, positively or punishingly, until they report to Hashem for instructions. In terms that fit our modern language better, he accepts the idea of forces other than Hashem impact the world [while he speaks of angels, that’s just a word; I believe he’d be equally comfortable speaking about what we today call forces of nature, like gravity or electricity or thermodynamics]. The caveat is that those forces are always and completely under Hashem’s control, whether while they act as we are accustomed, or they do that which seems miraculous to us.
The Special Direct Providence of Ya’akov and of the Land of Israel
Hashem stands at the top of the ladder to show that Ya’akov is exempt from ordinary forces, that he would be under Hashem’s direct supervision always. That’s why Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (35) can say that this vision showed him both the angels of the four kingdoms of history, and that he, Ya’akov, would be governed by his relationship with Hashem instead.
Nine verses later, when Ya’akov awakens, he says that if he successfully returns from Lavan’s house, Hashem will be his Gd. We can leave his disagreement with Rashi about what that meant, but at the end of the comment, he says there is a “great secret” here, related to the statement in Ketubbot 110b that anyone who lives outside Israel is as if he has no Gd.
I again stress that I am going to resist the urge to share all Ramban’s Zionistic comments, but this is too good to pass up. He is implying that Ya’akov was already aware as he left Israel—after an unsolicited promise from Hashem that he, Ya’akov, would have direct Providence– that outside of Israel he would have less of a connection with Hashem than once he returned.
Hashem runs everything, Ramban holds, but runs some of it through obedient intermediaries. Certain special people (although not all the righteous, Ramban cited a verse to show) and the Land of Israel bypass that usual path, are under direct supervision of Hashem Himself, as it were.
Going Along to Get Along, the Good and the Bad
In 29;27, Lavan responds to Ya’akov’s complaint about the switch of wives. Lavan says fine, after this week of celebrating the first marriage, we’ll give you Rachel also. Who’s we? Ramban says Lavan used the plural to support his claim that the custom of the place required him to marry off his eldest first. He had had no choice, his fellow citizens wouldn’t let him breach their community standards and give Rachel, as promised [it’s a reminder of a time when communities remembered they could set and enforce standards of behavior]. In a week, everyone will agree to the second marriage.
Lavan hid behind the community standard, when he had actually freely chosen his actions. His daughter Leah was the opposite. Verse 31 says Hashem sees that she’s hated, and Ramban is mystified at why that bothers Hashem. She cooperated with her father to fool her sister and future husband, lured Ya’akov into a marriage he had not intended and cost him another seven years of his life. Why shouldn’t she be hated?
The excuse that she didn’t want to disobey her father works only through the wedding, but the verse tells us Ya’akov did not recognize her until morning. Once they were alone, she could have easily told Ya’akov that she was Leah, or hinted it.
Ramban’s answer opens a Pandora’s box of when and whether the end might sometimes justify the means. He says Hashem had compassion on her, because she did it out of her deep desire to be married to this righteous man. Bereshit Rabbah in fact thinks Ya’akov was going to divorce her, so Hashem gave her children quickly.
Lavan claimed he had yielded to the community, and Leah let Lavan put her in Ya’akov’s arms. For Ramban, a large factor in how we react to these deceptions is the motive that went into them; to me, experience suggests that is not as good a standard as we’d hope.
Ya’akov Wrests a Salary From Lavan
The story of Ya’akov’s building wealth during his time with Lavan is complicated, and we cannot review it to any reasonable degree here. Verses imply that Ya’akov did something to make the sheep birth in the way Lavan had agreed to give to Ya’akov. While I know many people who see that as underhanded, Ramban to 30;37 assumes that was part of the original agreement. Lavan would remove all of x kind of sheep from the flock, and Ya’akov could have any future ones born that way, and could try any means to engineer such births.
[We can easily imagine people so confident of the limits on another person’s options to say, “sure, do whatever you want.” Sometimes, the ethical path is to enlighten that person ahead of time. Sometimes, I think Ramban assumes, the other person has already been so unethical that we need not do so].
He offers other ways to absolve Ya’akov, such as that perhaps he did this only one of the two times a year the sheep mated, so as not to leave Lavan destitute. Radak suggested the first year’s haul of sheep was Hashem’s blessing to Ya’akov, and his stratagems were to ensure that his sheep would birth similar to themselves, to forestall any possible claim by Lavan that those sheep were actually his.
But the context matters. In 40;7, Ya’akov tells his wives their father had changed the terms of their deals repeatedly (in the next verse, Ramban thinks Lavan even did so once the sheep were pregnant, which would render Ya’akov’s breeding efforts useless. He says Hashem counteracted that by switching the sheep in the womb, which is what Ya’akov saw in the dream, where the angel of Gd makes the sheep all birth the kinds of offspring that would go to Ya’akov).
The ends don’t usually justify the means, Ramban seems to me to imply, but when others have wronged us, that opens the door to what would otherwise be ethically questionable, to restore the balance. That’s obviously a very slippery slope, but it’s how Ramban understands Ya’akov’s interaction with Lavan.
What the Torah Tells Us
Ya’akov’s claims about Lavan’s finagling the agreements, switching what kind of pay he was supposed to get, aren’t ratified by the Torah. We’re not told anywhere that Lavan actually acted as Ya’akov said he had. Ramban attributes that to the fact that the Torah does not always tell us what occurred (his other examples are off topic).
To me, that’s an important reminder of a limitation of how we interpret or conceptualize stories in Tanach—what the Torah tells us isn’t always meant to be the whole story, and we have to be careful how we extrapolate from silence. With the stories in Bereshit, many people find open spaces into which to fit their interpretations or reconstructions, when we cannot actually know what happened. Had the Torah chosen to omit or condense this conversation between Ya’akov and his wives, we would never have known the extent of Lavan’s chicanery, and might likely have read him (and therefore Ya’akov) differently and perhaps wrongly.
Parshat Vayetzei, in the comments of Ramban’s that we saw, reminds us of how complicated it can be to understand the world correctly. There’s where and how Hashem is involved, where and how we accept the rules of those around us—society and/or parents, good or evil—how we deal with difficult people, and how we know what’s going on around us when we are often not told the whole story.