Themes in Ramban to Shemot: Human Responsibility and the Supernatural

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

A Confession

My summaries of selections of Ramban’s comments on the Torah follows a similar series I did for Rashi. In those and other of my endeavors (such as my A Responsum a Day, both in writing at as well as in audio at, I have been seeking ways to randomize the Torah that comes my way.

I have been doing this in search of ways to stumble across underlying foci of the Torah; it starts with my realization that arukah me-eretz middah, Torah as a whole is so big and so great, any attempt to summarize it or identify its central concerns runs the risk of being about the person presenting it rather than Torah itself. I tried to do this in one way in my book We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It. This, repeated assays into randomized selections of Torah ideas, is another.

As I reviewed my studies of Ramban to Shemot, the running themes (which covered most of the comments, but not all) lined up well on two axes: the metaphysical/divine/supernatural, where Ramban comments on how Hashem runs the universe and/or directly impacts the world, and the human, where he sees people as capable of and responsible for their impact on the world.

That worries me a bit, because it feels familiar, like those were central issues in Ramban to Devarim and/or Bereshit, and Rashi as well. It’s possible, and I hope it’s true, that that’s because I’ve discovered a central dichotomy to how Ramban and other Torah giants read the Torah, that there is what we do and what Hashem does. But in case it’s me finding what I wanted, in case I’ve unconsciously chosen those comments that fit what I was looking for already, I wanted to alert you to that ahead of time.

For now, though, this is what I’ve got. To change it up a bit, I’m going to start with the human and then move to what he has to say about Hashem and the supernatural. In Shemot, we saw comments of Ramban’s that addressed the individual, familial, societal, and universal, which seemed to me to put forth a vision of human responsibility in all these arenas.

How We Become Ourselves—Getting Gd Right

For all that I have left the supernatural for later, Ramban individualizes the Jew’s relationship with Hashem in a way that seems to me an inescapable starting point. In his view, Hashem started the Aseret HaDibberot with a reference to the Exodus (and phrased all the Dibberot in the singular) to make clear that each Jew does, should, and is expected to have a personal relationship with Hashem, going back to Egypt.

The flip side, with roots in Ya’akov Avinu’s promise as he left for Lavan’s house, was that no Jew could “have” another god. The ruled out subscribing to, believing in, or accepting anything other than Hashem as an independent power in one’s life.

With Kiddushin 30b as guide, Ramban thought each Jew’s attitude towards his/her parents should closely parallel how to act towards Hashem. The Jew must acknowledge the parent and recognize that that brings an obligation of service with no ulterior motive. Parents are a fact of our lives, to whom we owe fealty and service, as is Hashem. For no other reason than that they brought us into the world we inhabit.

Uplifted Hearts

Aside from what we might call faith issues, Ramban made three points about our internal lives. First, when 35;21 spoke of those who made contributions to building the Mishkan, the verse spoke of people whose hearts lifted them up and others whose spirit moved them to generosity.

Ramban thinks the former were those who found themselves able to perform the various crafts needed to build a Mishkan. We’ll see below that he attributed that ability to Hashem, but the verse’s description makes it also a reflection of something going on inside these people. Their hearts lifted them to this work in some way he does not unpack further.

Others found their spirits moved them only to generosity, to give money or materials at a level that most people did not.  

Then, for a final example of Ramban’s interest in how our internal states affect who we become, 6;9 speaks of where the people do not or cannot listen to Moshe because of the shortness of their spirit and hard labor. Ramban read shortness of spirit as fear Par’oh would kill them and hard labor as the pressure the Egyptians placed upon them, which denied them the mental space to hear Moshe.

He does not say it, but his view seems to be that how we react to news depends partially on what’s going on inside of us, perhaps as much as the news itself. For the Jews of the Exodus, their internal business was too overwhelming to let them hear the good news that came their way. Since we’ll see that Ramban thought the people as a whole were at a low spiritual state, this point about our internal lives becomes more important; had the Jews been able to hear Moshe early on, the rest of the story might have gone differently as well.

What We Do

Turning from the internal to the external, who we are in the world, a first step is how we use our money. When 36;6 tells the people that no more contributions are needed for the Mishkan, it says not to do any more melachah, work. Since most people were not doing materials construction, it makes sense that he would readmelachah to include donations of money.  Buried in that reading, however, is the idea that the money we make, and how we spend/contribute it, is part of our life’s work, part of what we do.

Then there’s our physical actions. Ramban thought the artisans of the Mishkan contributed creatively in addition to technically, for example in that they figured out how to weave gold into the threads that would make up some of the garments and coverings of the Mishkan.

Ramban thought Moshe set up and took down the Mishkan throughout the week of its dedication, by himself. He could have read it as Moshe supervising the Levi’im who did the actual work (as we’ll see with Betzalel), especially since part of the point of this repeated taking down and putting up was preparing them to do it from then on. Instead, he read it simply, that Moshe did it all himself.

He thinks we can also earn credit even without direct action. The beginning of Parshat Pekudei says Betzalel did all that Hashem commanded, when we know that many others were involved. Ramban answered that Betzalel supervised so closely, checked everything before accepting it, he was rewarded as if he did it himself.

Ramban envisions the possibility of credit for that which we want to happen, without our doing anything. 25;10 uses a plural verb for the command that the Jews should make an Aron, an Ark, where the next verses make clear individuals will do the actual work. Ramban suggests several ways the people as a whole could be involved in what was ultimately an individual endeavor. They could designate money for this project in particular, help with some aspect of construction, or they could want the Aron to be built. That opens a whole horizon of who we are and who we become, since the bare fact of wanting or hoping for a certain outcome earns us some status of having contributed to that as well.

How We Treat and Mistreat Others

The last step of Ramban’s view of the individual on his/her own is the responsibility he assigns to how we treat others and/or how we allow ourselves to be mistreated. His starting point is 22;15, which speaks of a man who was mefateh, seduced, a young woman. Ramban thinks the seducer must have lied, or else he would not have any liability.

That assigns more responsibility to the young woman than we might have thought, if she agreed of her own free will and under no false pretenses.

At the same time, he thinks we all are supposed to learn to resist false seductions. He notes that the punishments in the second paragraph of Shema start with our hearts being seduced (pen yifteh levavchem) by false worships, a word with a common root as this seducer. Another place that root is used is in Mishlei 14;15, which terms a peti (commonly translated as simple) as someone unable to distinguish truth from falsehood.

Another actor with more rights than expected is the non-Jewish slave, whose killing brings the same death penalty for the master who beat him as it would for any ordinary human being. Ramban did think that slave was property, and allowed corporal punishment to educate/ discipline the slave, but if he got killed, that was murder.

Family, Nuclear and Generational

That’s the individual on his own (one of the emergent messages of the Torah and of Ramban’s commentary is how infrequently we are in fact all on our own). Most of us, however, live in a web of relationships. The closest are family, who Ramban saw as more a part of us than we might realize. First, when Shemot 21;3 refers to the freeing of an eved Ivri (a Jewish indentured servant)’s wife, Ramban thinks the Torah obligated the master to fulfill all his servant’s familial financial responsibilities, including financial support for his wife and children.

For as long as custom prescribed that for the father. However Jewish families evolved implicated a Jew who purchased another Jew’s labor. It’s more than money that links families. 29;15 says Aharon’s sons would place their hands on the chatat, the sin offering, given as part of the dedication of the Mishkan. Since Ramban thought that chatat came to atone for the Golden Calf, it’s not immediately clear why the sons had to be part of it. Ramban answered that Devarim 9;20 told us Aharon deserved to be destroyed for his role in the Calf, which means kilui banim, the killing of one’s children.

The destruction of his children would have been destruction of Aharon, not just a tragedy or sorrow-inducing event. That works in reverse, too– 20;5 limits Hashem’s visitation of the sins of the forefathers on those of their descendants who continue their ways to the fourth generation. Beyond that, the ancestor has no meaningful link to, connection with, or impact on descendants. Before that, though, he does, which is why the forefather’s sin is part of the descendant’s.

Some Positive Contributions of Society

National societies count as actors as well in Ramban’s comments to Shemot. He thinks Moshe in his role as king of the Jews established a coin that became kadosh, sanctified, because it was put to kadosh purposes, to fund the Mishkan and then pay for the sacrifices of its service. (That was parallel, in Ramban’s mind, to how Hebrew is considered kadosh because it’s used for important purposes like creating the world and Divine communication with prophets).

The Jewish nation also establishes its own calendar to commemorate the Exodus. As Yirmiyahu 16;14-15 taught Ramban, all the redemptions that come thereafter were supposed to be woven into that calendar as well, such as by giving the months names that originated in Bavel.

Where Society Gets It Wrong—The Egyptians

Turning to the negative side, we can start with the Egyptians, whose failures distress us less than those of our ancestors. Ramban assumes the Egyptians had more power to stop Par’oh than we might think. That’s why Par’oh hid his attempt to kill the Jews behind a tax of labor, a secret program of midwives’ killing Jewish babies, and then killing the babies outright. For that last step, he still did not ask Egyptians to do it, he let word spread the government would not prosecute such killings.

That last faltered when his daughter adopted Moshe—she prevailed upon her father to stop—or when word got out, and the people again refused to tolerate their king’s involvement in genocide.

The belief that the Egyptians had the power to produce better outcomes does not mean they had the will to do so. For example, once Par’oh made clear there would be no prosecution for killing Jewish babies, all too many Egyptians were happy to commit that crime.

Nor was it a momentary lapse, he thinks. Eighty years later, when Moshe and Aharon start the redemption process, the officers of the Jewish people (5;21) think they have given the Egyptians a more legitimate reason to kill them. For Ramban, the Egyptians’ interest/desire to kill Jews was always just underneath the surface, ready to bubble up, given the right encouragement.

Nor did the plagues and release of the Jews materially change their view. Ramban thinks Hashem structured the Splitting of the Sea so the Egyptians would not be forced to see it as supernatural, because they did not want to see it that way. In his view, they still longed to hurt the Jews, so Hashem let them see their way to a course of action they wanted anyway.

For Ramban, the Egyptians show us a society with the power to do better, to rein in their king, to treat the Jews differently, to concede when Gd has stepped in, and repeatedly chose not to.

They also taught us the cosmic limits on human endeavor, in Ramban’s reading, when their magicians could not produce lice. Were this a supernatural intervention, it would teach us little about the ordinary workings of the world. Ramban seems more convinced by Midrashim that think lice presented an example of the hard limits on human interference with the world. Whether because that was pure creation or because the lice were so small, Ramban favors the view that there are areas where human creativity and effort cannot help.

Where Society Gets It Wrong—The Jews

Most glaringly, Ramban thinks the Jews limped to the Exodus. They got there thirty years later than they should have, and only because Hashem made significant efforts (2;24-5 use several verbs for how Hashem came to decide to redeem the Jews; Ramban thinks that’s because it took effort—and the Jews’ cries and prayers– to find reason to redeem them).

The delay was their own fault, in that they abandoned much of the tradition while there. They ceased circumcising their sons, worshipped powers other than Hashem, were unable to accept that Moshe was Hashem’s agent for the redemption (that’s why 14;10-11 speaks of people calling out to Hashem and others complaining about being taken out of Egypt. For Ramban, they denied Moshe more than Hashem, claimed that Moshe initiated the Exodus on his own, for his own reasons).

For all that the verse refers to the people believing in Hashem and Moshe his servant after the Splitting of the Sea, not too long later, Ramban has to explain why the Golden Calf is treated as a national sin, when “only” three thousand Jews were killed. He answered that the Jews as a whole returned to believing that powers other than Hashem also run the world. That was how they could donate golden rings for the Calf and watch silently (or approvingly?) as others worshipped the Calf.

It’s another example of where our agreement implicates us, in this case as a nation as a whole.

The Ounce of Prevention

The Jews differ from the Egyptians in that Hashem gives them the way to do better. 15;26 tells the Jews that keeping the Torah will help them avoid the ills that befell the Egyptians. Ramban reads that to mean the consequences of the Egyptians’ actions were natural, the way the world tends to work. Observance of Torah andmitzvot places people outside of the usual workings of the world; Hashem heals the Jews by prescribing the best preventive medicine out there.

The essence of that medicine is found in the Aseret HaDibberot, which he calls avot, organizing categories, of mitzvot as a whole. It segues well into our consideration of his more supernaturally focused comments, since these Dibberot, in their physical manifestation on the Tablets, were the centerpiece of theMishkan, to which we’ll now turn our attention.

Bringing the Divine Into the World, Continuingly

Ramban thought the Mishkan was a way for the Jewish people to continue the experience of the Divine Presence that had started at Sinai. He identified the Aron as the centerpiece of that aspect of the Mishkan (which is why it was the first part described in detail), because the Torah says Hashem would appear and speak to Moshe from on top of that Aron, where the keruvim sat.

Their location there was because that Aron contained the Tablets with the Aseret HaDibberot on them, is what made the Aron a proper chariot for the Divine Presence. In other words, the luchot, which had the avot of mitzvot written on them, the broad categories of Hashem’s service, were the vehicle for the continuing revelation of the Sinaitic Presence.

A Communicative Divine

The content of that continuing revelation was communicated clearly, as Ramban tells us with his distinctive reading of the word leimor. In his view, the Torah is at pains to stress that Hashem’s messages to Moshe were complete and clear, that he words Moshe Rabbenu reported to us were exactly those Hashem conveyed.

That’s not the only form of communication we were given. The Urim ve-Tumim meant that the loss of Moshe and/or all prophets did not cut off the Jewish people’s access to direct information from Hashem. The Kohen Gadol, aside from all his other services, wore the breastplate that contained them, which allowed him to receive answers to questions the nation posed of Hashem. After that was lost, there was still the bat kol, the Divine Voice that would be heard at various junctures of the Second Temple era.

A Minimally Invasive Divine

Ramban was adamant that Hashem is the only power that controls the world, but Hashem does not always disrupt the natural course of events, as happened at the Exodus. Another way to set the course of the world is to implant in people the ability to do that which Hashem wanted. In Ramban’s reading, that’s what happened with the building of the Mishkan, where former slaves with no experience or education contained a population of people who instinctively knew how to work the crafts needed. Ramban saw that as an example of Yeshayahu 41;4’s description of Hashem as korei hadorot me-rosh, sets up generations ahead of time.

Hashem also does not always dictate what will happen, even on the supernatural plane, which is why the sarei ma’alah, the angels that serve as some sort of intermediaries in running the world, could incur punishment for their actions.

Ramban also accepts the idea of a Heavenly Court that brings strict justice as a counterpart to Hashem’s complete compassion. That will change in the future, according to Ramban, but the world we inhabit does not run only as it would were Hashem to do it all on His own, as it were.

An Incomparable Divine

The words “as it were” matter crucially here, because none of what we just mentioned can be allowed to take away from Hashem’s absolute control of all that occurs. As Par’oh’s sorcerers found out, Hashem can stop the usual workings of the world at any time—such that they could not bring forth lice when they usually could, and/or because they came across the limits beyond which Hashem does not allow powers, human, demonic, or other to function.

The Jews noted and praised that inimitability after the Splitting of the Sea, when they said none among the elim, the putative powers that control parts of this world, in any way compared to or competed with Hashem. It’s when Hashem shows that element, when Hashem is nora, awe-inspiring, in ways that lead the Jews to praise Hashem, that that becomes most clear.

The Linchpin and Lodestar of Our Relating to Hashem

Ramban implies a balance between the existence of powers that in some way control events supernaturally, enough to be judged for their actions and for other people to serve or worship, and the absolute control Hashem exerts. That explains why he thinks that the intergenerational punishment mentioned in 20;5 came only for the sin of believing in or worshipping other powers, and why one can qualify for the kindnesses extended to ohavei Hashem, who love Hashem (20;6), with life-forfeiting dedication to declaring that Hashem is the only true power.

In fear of repeating myself, that’s Ramban to Shemot: a world where people have important contributions to make, as individuals, families, and societies, but has a supernatural component, one that interacts with the human world at some times and in some ways, and where Hashem leaves room for others to act while not ceding any meaningful control.

On to Vayikra!

About Gidon Rothstein

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