by R. Gidon Rothstein
Nisan as the First Month
The first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people as a nation was to make the month in which we left Egypt the first month of our year. Ramban to 12;2 says that it’s supposed to be similar to Shabbat, in that we are always counting to that day—what we call Sunday is really Day One of the return to Shabbat (we make a point of this in the shir shel yom, the Psalm of the Day we say at the end of morning prayers, where we count the days by number; Ramban reminds us that it’s meant as the number on the way to the next Shabbat).
For months, we should do the similar, count Month One, Two, etc. to the month in which we exited Egypt. The verse tells us this month should be lachem roshei chodashim, for you the first month, in that we count years starting at Tishrei [the first Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah lists ways in which Nisan is the beginning of a year and other ways in which Tishrei is; Ramban here points to verses that refer to the month we call Tishrei as the end and beginning of the year]. Nisan is the first month for us, not the first month of the year.
A Calendar of Redemption
Then Ramban addresses a fact I’ve alluded to, that we no longer act this way, that we call the months by Babylonian names, which Yerushalmi Rosh HaShanah says we brought back from that exile. For Ramban, that’s because Yirmiyahu 16;14-15 says that after the redemption, Jews will no longer swear by the Name of Hashem Who took the Jewish people out of Egypt, but rather by the Name of Hashem Who brought the Jews back from the lands of the north.
The easiest reading of the verse in the Torah is that it establishes a simple rule, that the month of the redemption comes first in our calendar. Ramban thinks Yirmiyahu expanded our understanding of the mitzvah, that it wants our calendar to reflect all our redemptions. We have Nisan as the first month because of Egypt, and the name of it because of Bavel.
It suggests that when our next redemption occurs or is completed (however we decide that), we should do something to the calendar for it to reflect this latest (and we hope final) return as well.
Punishing the Egyptian gods
Verse 12 quotes Hashem’s assertion that He will bring judgment on the gods of Egypt, which Ramban takes to mean that wooden gods would rot and metal ones would melt. We never read about that in the Torah because there’s no point—since the whole belief in these gods is silliness, destroying them does little to educate us.
12;29 does tell us Hashem struck the first-born humans and animals, because those caused fear in the Egyptians. Since that happened at night, when no one frequented the idolatrous temples, they did not notice what happened to the idols. (He does not elaborate on why their morning reaction, once they did go to their temples, was not worth sharing. My guess is that by then it did not matter as much, since the Jews were already on their way out).
It’s only worth noting here–we’ve learned before that Ramban thought the Torah omitted that which it found unimportant—because he adds his view that the “gods” Hashem was going to judge were the sarei ma’alah, the heavenly bodies related to Egypt. He says that Hashem lowered those mazalot and the sarim, the officers in charge of those mazalot.
Recall that Ramban thinks Hashem oversees the entire world, but also in some sense leaves aspects to be run by subordinate powers. Although he is often at pains to remind us that those powers have no independence, he here seems to say Hashem lowered their profile, will punish them for what happened in Egypt.
The Nature of Hashem’s Running the World
If they are pure conduits of the Divine Will, there’s no sense in which they deserve to be punished. We might argue that they’re not really being punished, just that the actions of the Egyptians led to their lowered profile, but that doesn’t quite fit the language of shefatim, that Hashem will judge them.
I cautiously and tentatively suggest Ramban thinks these beings had a certain amount of leeway, especially outside of Israel. They could never act against Hashem’s Will, so there was no independence, but Hashem’s directions were not so specific that it left them pure automatons. It would fit Ramban’s comments better if they have some choices (it also then makes it more sensible that people would worship them, since they do have some power, as long as their actions do not contravene any already-established Divine Will), and then also bear responsibility if their choices lead to undesirable outcomes.
I won’t translate it into more modern terms, but Ramban seems to me to here grapple well with how we could believe that Hashem runs everything and yet also that other forces have an impact.
How Long Were the Jews in Egypt?
12;40 says the Jews resided in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years, where the promise to Avraham said they would be strangers in another land for four hundred years. Here, Ramban says only that Hashem did not bother to mention those extra years, since the promise to Avraham also said the fourth generation would return, which might stretch to include an extra thirty years.
Two verses later, he offers another theory, which he says is the clearest of all, that the nation’s sins extended the exile. That Hashem said four hundred years does not protect the Jews from the consequences of their sins; nor was Avraham promised it would be only four hundred years, he was promised only that the Jews would leave with great wealth (and that only if the host nation was found to have exceeded its mandate in oppressing the Jews).
Over and above all, sin can change matters, an idea Rashi mentioned as a worry of Ya’akov’s throughout his life, and which Ramban does not analyze fully here. But his point is that the difference between the two dates only bothers us if we saw four hundred as absolute, and there’s no reason to think it was.
The Spiritual State of the Jews in Egypt
Especially since the Jews were in fact so sinful. He notes that they ceased circumcising their sons, and that Yehoshua, at the end of his life (Yehoshu’a 24;14), has to plead with them to set aside the gods that their forefathers had worshipped in Egypt (and back before Avraham). [Once Ramban reminds us of it, let’s emphasize this shocking verse we often forget; at a minimum, it means the Jews held onto idols their fathers or grandfathers had worshipped in Egypt. Even if they did not worship them themselves—and it’s not clear they didn’t—they also did not leave them behind, even as they experienced the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, etc.].
As a final proof that sin can delay promised blessings, Ramban reminds us that these very Jews were punished with forty years in the desert, which means they did not arrive back in Israel at the fourth generation mentioned to Avraham. This also helps him explain Sanhedrin 92b’s reference to people of Ephraim who tried to go to Israel thirty years before Moshe came—they counted to when Hashem had told Avraham his descendants would leave, and decided the time had come
They were wrong only because they did not realize all that Ramban stresses here, that unless Hashem guarantees a certain good outcome, at a certain time, it’s not set in stone, and is vulnerable to many different factors. Including our sins.