Shaping the World: The Aspect of Bereshit We Saw in Ramban This Time Around

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Part of my process of learning for the past few years has been to take snippets of a text and then, periodically, return to see what we’ve seen. Other times, I’ve worked hard to randomize the selections, to do my best not to impose my interests or preferences on the text. My hope was to let characteristic elements of that text reveal themselves through the process, not be molded by me into my own image.

That’s been less true of my selections for Ramban on Bereshit. In Devarim, we took two weeks for each parsha; the need to find more comments helped avoid me choosing only those that already resonated with me. Here, I found myself more than once running out of space after taking only comments that I’ve seen before, that have long struck me as particularly interesting.

With that significant caveat, I still believe the comments we’ve seen loosely revolve around a narrow set of questions of interest to Ramban (to me as well, but as long as it’s true of Ramban, I feel better about it). In Bereshit, Ramban repeatedly comes back to how the world around us is shaped into the form it takes, and who does that shaping.

He looks at Hashem’s role, both directly and mediated by angels, both open and obvious and hidden within the workings of nature; he looks at the way the Torah affects our understanding of the world by what it does and does not choose to mention or emphasize; at the significant role the Avot, the Patriarchs (and, to a lesser extent, all prophets), predicted, prescribed, and produced particular futures for their descendants; and then how people themselves shape the course of their lives and of history at large.

As we look at each in turn, I think we’ll get a sense of the larger picture Ramban to Bereshit showed us this time around.

Ramban’s picture of Hashem balances adamant insistence that Hashem runs the world with no competitive powers even as he also believes that Hashem leaves room for others to affect how the world unfolds. For the first side, Ramban read the word va-yar, that Hashem “saw” the goodness in the various aspects of Creation, to mean He (pardon the pronoun, but when I avoid it, my writing gets clunky or clunkier) gives all that’s in the world its ability to exist. Without Hashem’s constant “seeing,” the infusion of energy or whatever that is, it all would immediately reduce to nothingness.

Hashem as Active Ruler

Because of that, Hashem gets to decide who lives where, or at all. Ramban argues that the stories at the beginning of the Torah do not give us enough information for us to assume that they’re there to tell us how the world was created. Rather, the stories of Creation, the Flood, and the Tower of Bavel remind us that human beings’ residence in a particular land or that they live at all are only by Hashem’s sufferance.

People who go wrong can lose their right to live in Eden (as Adam and Chavah did), in their land (the people of the Tower of Bavel), or on the earth (the generation of the Flood).

For Ramban, the guiding principle of how Hashem decides how to arrange the world is called kol, and is the Attribute of ve-emet, truth. Hashem’s involvement in the world is heightened in Israel, as Ya’akov saw in his dream, that aside from the promise that he himself would have direct Providence (whereas most people’s lives are guided by angels, as we’ll discuss), the Land of Israel is where Hashem is most fully involved and invested, as it were.

Those two factors, that Hashem runs the world with kol, which is related to truth, and that Israel has more direct Providence than other places, was why Sodom got punished so quickly; other places might have been equally evil, but they were not in Israel. So, too, when Avraham discovered all the mitzvot—in Ramban’s explanation of Chazal’s view—he and his descendants only took it upon themselves to observe those mitzvot fully in Israel, where it’s mishpat elokei ha-aretz, the law of the Gd of the land.

Hashem Leaving Room for Others

The same dream that showed Ya’akov he had Hashem guarding him personally also showed angels going up and down from the earth. Ramban takes pains to stress that that is to make clear that angels do not act without checking with Hashem first.

He only needs to say that, though, because in fact—other than Israel, Ya’akov, and other special people—he himself holds that angels do govern much of what happens in the world. Again, they are are limited in what they can do; the angel with whom Ya’akov wrestled was, for example, the sar, the representative angel, for Esav, and has some control over what happens to them (none of it without Hashem’s consent, but the fact of intermediaries means they have some room for action; we’ll see more on that in Shemot).  

Ramban thinks that angel would have preferred to injure Ya’akov more seriously, but could not. He was allowed to hurt Ya’akov’s thigh because it prefigured future persecutions, but that’s it. Still, when the angels encounter Lot, even though they have a job to do, they seem to also have enough leeway to refuse to enter his house until he builds up merit by sincerely pressuring them to honor him with their presence.

The World Itself

Aside from the angels, Ramban seems to think the world itself (what we might call nature) also operates on its own terms. To explain Hashem’s use of the pluralna’aseh, let us, about creating humanity— which Rashi thought showed that Hashem consulted with the angels—Ramban instead says that there were other partners in the process.

Only the first moment of creation was yesh me-ayin, out of complete nothingness, the rest was a matter of shaping existing material into new forms. That’s why Hashem phrased the creation of fish, for example, as “let the waters sprout forth.” For people, Hashem said na’aseh adam, let us make humans, which meant “Me and the land,” since the earth was going to supply the materials.

Not only is there a natural world that follows an ordinary pattern, as if Hashem were not constantly intervening, Ramban thinks Hashem prefers that the world follow those patterns. That’s why even necessary miracles are limited to the extent possible. Noach’s ark had to miraculously expand to hold all the animals being saved, yet Hashem still had Noach build a very large structure, to make it less of a miracle when the animals fit.

The preference for limited Divine intervention means that we’ll sometimes be left to err even as we think we’re asking the right way to proceed. In his analysis of the story from the end of the book of Shofetim (which was similar to the Sodomo story), Ramban thought that the Jews asked Hashem the wrong question about their upcoming war with Binyamin. Hashem answered the question asked, without pointing out to them the more important questions they had failed to ask.

They thought they were consulting with Hashem, and Hashem did not correct them. As involved as Hashem is, Hashem also leaves room for angels, for natural forces, and for people, sometimes too much room for their own good.

Torah as an Avenue to Understanding the World

Consultation with Hashem was not the only way people could figure out the proper path. In his remarkable introduction to the commentary, Ramban explained Moshe’s use of the third person (va-yedabber Hashem el Moshe, Hashem spoke to Moshe) as meant to reflect the fact that the Torah predates the world, that Moshe was recording a pre-existing text, like a scribe.

In addition to chronological priority, Torah contains all wisdom. Many of Shlomo’s remarkable abilities—for example, to cultivate plants that grow only outside of Israel, because he knew that Israel has the roots of all places on earth, and knew which roots are where; to communicate with animals and plants; to read a person’s deeds on his/her face—as all based on his study of Torah, as did Yechezkel’s readiness for the vision of the Chariot.

The Torah conveys that information in multiple ways, such as the shapes of letters, the spelling of words, and even stringing letters together to make other words (Names of Hashem) than the ones we usually read. All of this must be a matter of tradition, Ramban says, cannot be inferred by human intellect.

With all that Torah includes, it leaves out much that it sees as not worth our while to learn. We know little of Avraham’s background, for example, because to tell us how Avraham rejected the idolatry around him in Ur Kasdim, the Torah would have to tell us more about those idolaters than it wishes. We know our forefather less well than might have been beneficial because we cannot let idolaters get their moments in the sun.

More frequently, Ramban stresses that the Torah does not bother to tell us about hidden miracles. He thought that Hashem miraculously helped Ya’akov become rich, even altering sheep’s looks when Lavan changed the rules, mid-pregnancy, of which kind of sheep would be Ya’akov’s, but only hinted at it.

He makes a principle of it when Ibn Ezra complains about Chazal’s view that Yocheved gave birth to Moshe when she was 130 years old, a miracle the Torah at most hints at. Ramban replies that the Torah is full of miracles glossed over—divinely administered reward and punishment is miraculous, because spiritual successes and failures do not naturally lead to physical outcomes, but the Torah says they will. It’s not what the Torah bothers to tell us.

The Patriarchs, Foreshadowing Our Future

The Avot, the Patriarchs, take the most advantage of the room Hashem leaves for others’ input. Ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, the Patriarchs’ actions were a “sign” for their descendants, told Ramban that what the Avot did, good and not, foreshadowed later generations’ experiences.

Avraham’s errors in leaving Cana’an during a famine and giving up Sarah too easily to Pharaoh led to parallel painful events for the Jewish people. On the other hand, his prayer at Shechem benefitted his great-grandchildren in their war to avenge the abduction of Dinah.

While Avraham’s actions affected the Egyptian exile, Ya’akov’s decision to confront Esav prefigured the Roman involvement in the end of the Second Temple, and his going down to Egypt in response to a famine paralleled the exile that came after the destruction of that Temple.  

A more positive example is Ya’akov’s view of his conquest, which he tells Yosef was with his sword and bow, just as the Jewish people will have to conquer the land through war (which Ramban saw as a favor to the people, since it eased their way to adhering to the Divine command to expel the seven nations as they took over the land).

The Patriarchs, Shaping Our Future

Ramban’s alternate explanation for the phrase his sword and bow was that Ya’akov performed actions right meant to make that future more likely. That’s because the physical actions of prophets put a particular future in force, which is also why Yosef worried about where Ya’akov placed his hands when blessing his sons.

I suggested that that might be why the commands of these Avot, particularly Ya’akov, were enforced by Hashem, such as in that the Chashmonaim were wiped out for violating Ya’akov’s order that only Yehudah be kings of the Jewish people.  

Ramban may also have thought the Avot had this power because they understood the world so well. After he presented Chazal’s view that Avraham kept the Torah, Ramban’s own more literal reading was that Avraham intuited basic principles of the world. When Yitzchak goes to pray, he picks a place where an angel had appeared before. Ramban does not make the connection, but the Avot’s expert awareness of the balance between the physical and metaphysical, their sense of the future and how they can help make it go well, would all be reasons to cede to them the rights to command us as to how we should act as we face that future.

Although he is not generally thought of as one of the Avot, Ramban sees Yosef as also feeling obligated to bring about a future he’s been told that Hashem wants. That’s why he works to make his dreams come true.

Noach and a Model of Ordinary Humanity

A significant step below the Avot was Noach, a prophet, but one whose personal qualities, as understood by Ramban, make him a more accessible version of service of Hashem than the perhaps daunting Patriarchs.

Noach’s righteousness, what earned him the right to have the verse refer to him as a tzaddik, was that he avoided wrongdoing. So, too, Ramban’s view of how he walked with Hashem was only in the sense that he rejected the financial and other perversions of his generation.

Neither of these were small achievements in the time in which he lived, sufficient for him to be a prophet, and to save him and all the animals from the Flood. It is the animals’ debt to Noach—and us as his descendants—that created the new right to use those animals as food.

These merits may also have been the reason his sons and their wives were saved. The other option Ramban proposes, if the sons deserved to survive on their own merits, is that that’s because Noach in this instance rose to the same level as Avraham, in successfully passing on his sense of right and wrong to those sons.

In a time when all around us are evil, Noach shows Ramban that even avoiding getting caught up in their depredations can be enough to count as righteous, as one who walks with Hashem, as one who can achieve prophecy. 

Society Shapes the World

Then there’s the rest of us, ordinary people, who also contribute to the world’s development. Starting from the top rank of society, Ramban thinks people only began to select kings when they had to go to war, which explains why he thinks those kings were more limited in power than we might have assumed. In his view, Par’oh needed to convince his assembled advisors to accept Yosef as second in command, and Yosef finally revealed himself to his brothers because of pressure from the rest of the court, who were moved by Yehudah’s story.

Nor was this limited to rulers, in that Lavan could claim it was such pressure that forced him to switch Leah for Rachel.

The ability to wield such pressure also creates a responsibility on ordinary people to do so when appropriate. The tribe of Binyamin suffers for the fact that they were not offended by the rape of the concubine in Give’a, and the rest of the people suffer in part for having been offended by that but not by the incident of the idol of Michah (where people set up an idol to be worshipped as a business venture, and then the tribe of Dan stole that idol). Taking offense at sexual wrongs but not at insults to Hashem’s honor was a significant misuse of society’s enforcement of values.

Inter and Intra Group Morality

Multiple societies means multiple moralities. Dinah’s brothers were bothered by the offense to their family morality when Shechem abducted her, although Ramban thinks the Canaanites might already have become aware of how wrong that was.

But not necessarily, as Ramban is clear that morality isn’t immediately obvious. In his view, Reuven taught the brothers (who had not known it until then) that passive murder was less egregious than active, and Yehudah taught them that it still qualified as murder.

The smallest society, a family, has challenges Ramban sometimes noted as well. He thought Esav’s rejection of the birthright was typical of kesilim, who care only about the moment, do not realize the value of being the leader within their family.

A similar error seems to characterize Onan and others who refuse to perform yibum. Especially since Ramban sees it as providing a great benefit to the deceased, it’s a rejection of family solidarity, a refusal to help a relative in need.

It’s a small world but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it, the comedian Steven Wright once said. Ramban to Bereshit show us some of the difficulties of shaping it, of moving the world from Creation to the kind of future Hashem wants. Hashem helps, greatly, but also leaves much of it to regular patterns, and expects and insists that people, great and small, contribute in the various ways we’ve seen.

About Gidon Rothstein

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