by R. Gidon Rothstein
A Future Full of Compassion
The Jewish people left Egypt visibly accompanied by Hashem, a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When 13;21 describes that, it says “and Hashem (the Hebrew adds a vav on to the four-letter Name of Hashem).” Bereshit Rabbah 51;2 says that a vav added to the Name indicates the Heavenly Court.
To Ramban, that means Hashem was with the people during the day (symbolized by the cloud) and the Court at night (the pillar of fire). Another Midrash, Shemot Rabbah19;6, contrasts the Exodus, when Hashem and His Court led the Jews out, with the future redemption, when it will be Hashem alone (as Yeshayahu 52;12 says, Hashem will go before the returning Jews).
Ramban says that’s because in the future, even Hashem’s Court will function by mercy and compassion, as in Tehillim 139;12, “Layla ka-yom ya’ir, night will light up like day,” even the night—until now the time for the Heavenly Court—will conduct itself with the Attributes of the day, compassion (or mercy).
I think he’s saying that in this world, Hashem acts with mercy on His own account, as it were, but incorporates His stricter court as well (he gives no hint as to why that would be at night; I think night was traditionally a more fearful time, probably because of the dark, which was much more enveloping than most of us have experienced, given electric light. It’s also true that most of life occurs during the day, when Hashem acts with mercy; behind the scenes, as most of us sleep, some strict justice comes into play as well).
In the future, it will turn to all mercy (although we should not confuse that with ignoring wrong or evil when it occurs. It’s that there’s a strict, by rights, way of dealing with wrong, and there’s a compassionate way to do it. In the future, it will be that compassionate way).
A People Divided
In 14;10-11, the verse seems to say the people who called out to Hashem to be saved from the approaching Par’oh at the same time as they complained they had been taken out of Egypt. It’s an odd strategy, Ramban points out, to repudiate Hashem’s past kindness while asking Hashem for more help. He instead believes these verses were the words of different groups of Jews.
Some called out to Hashem, others denied Moshe was Hashem’s Prophet or that the Exodus was a salvation. Those last ones said it would have been better to have been left in Egypt.
That’s why—after the Splitting of the Sea—the verse tells us they feared Hashem and believed in Hashem and Moshe. Because until then some of them still did not believe in Moshe! I always find it interesting that Ramban (and others) assume that the experience of the plagues and Exodus was not yet enough to clinch the case for Moshe’s standing as Hashem’s representative.
Or a Disbelieving People United
This Ramban does not discuss what was different about the Splitting of the Sea. It does remind us that even remarkable miracles will not convince those determined not to believe (which calls into question the claims of people today who say they could believe more if only they witnessed miracles). Ramban returns to that idea at the end of the comment, where he suggests that maybe his original doubt was incorrect, that these verses are in fact said by the same people, that they turned to Hashem for help even as they upbraided Moshe for taking them out.
That’s because they believed in Hashem, they just didn’t believe in Moshe. They assumed he performed the wonders through some form of trickery or technological knowledge, or that the plagues were indeed sent by Hashem, but to punish the Egyptians, not take the Jews out.
The Jews were able to convince themselves of that which they wanted to believe, including that there could be no way Par’oh would be chasing them were Hashem to have been the One Who planned this Exodus. Because we can become (wrongly but supremely) confident that we know what Hashem would or would not do.
Leading the Egyptians Down the Path They Wanted to Take
Moshe starts the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea by waving his hand over it. Ramban says Hashem structured the miracle in a way that the Egyptians could fool themselves into believing it was natural. They would see the wind blowing (and Moshe waving his hand) and assume that was what caused the sea to split, not Hashem.
[I have heard important rabbis point to examples today where water periodically recedes and leaves a land bridge as if that makes it more plausible that this Sea split; for Ramban, that’s the exact opposite of the point. It wasn’t a natural occurrence, it was fooling the Egyptians into thinking that was happening.]
Ramban also thought this wasn’t usual, which is why Hashem had to strengthen the Egyptians’ hearts– it would take that kind of strengthening for them to not notice that this is out of the ordinary. But it wasn’t that Hashem forced them not to notice the miracle, it was that Hashem helped them do that which they wanted, Ramban says, out of their great desire to hurt the Jews.
Hashem helped them see what they wanted to see.
Once the Jews are saved and singing praises, they say “Who is like you among the elim, Hashem?” The word el means power, says Ramban, and here comes to deny the possible misimpression that other beings rival Hashem’s power. For Ramban, those powers are the angels (who, in his view, functioned in such a way that people could see them as independent powers even though they in fact are not). It’s that contrast that leads Scripture to sometimes refer to Hashem as E-l or E-l Elyon, the Supreme Power, to make clear there is no true other Power.
The end of the verse speaks of Hashem as nora tehillot, awesome (or terrifying) in praise, which Ramban thinks means that we praise Hashem for His most terrifying acts. When Hashem punishes those who contravene His Will, and through that punishment saves His servants, that’s what makes Him most recognized and praised. Whereas human kings terrify through acts of injustice, mostly the expropriation of money they do not deserve, Hashem is nora, terrifying, when He acts in ways so justified they lead Jews to praise Him.
Hashem Who Heals Us
In 15;26, Hashem apparently promises us that if Jews keep the Torah, all the ills that befell the Egyptians will not happen to us, because Hashem is our healer. Ramban objects that masters do not generally promise their obedient and faithful servants that they will not strike them with horrible sufferings, nor do they pat themselves on the back as great healers for that.
Hashem is warning us that what happened to the Egyptians was not unusual, it is the appropriate (almost natural, I think he means) result of their failure to obey Hashem. Hashem is prescribing these observances to us as a healer, as the One Who shows us the way to avoid those outcomes. That’s why Devarim 28;60 includes the warning that if we fail to keep the Torah, Hashem will return to us all the ills of the Egyptians that we feared. It’s not a punishment, it’s letting Nature take its course, although a Nature that includes a physical response to spiritual misdeeds.
Healer, for Ramban, is where Hashem helps us see how to put ourselves on a path that protects us from ordinary travails built into the world’s usual workings.
The simple reading was that Hashem’s protection would be some kind of great reward; for Ramban, it’s that we will not deserve those punishments, so we will not get them. We will also sidestep troubles that are part of how the natural world works. Observance earns the involvement of Hashem the Healer, Who will shield us even from the mundane illnesses of this world, let alone the horrors the Egyptians experienced.
Daily, at the Sea, and in how Jews’ lives go even after their time in the desert, Ramban was clear that they (and we) would and could experience Hashem in a supernatural mode, setting aside the ordinary workings of the world for a better outcome. As long as we manage to deserve it.