How Good Nature Can Be

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Bechukkotai: How Good Nature Can Be

The opening chapter of Bechukkotai has the first of the two tochachot, where Hashem lays out what will happen should the Jewish people violate the Torah fully enough to earn a dose of Hashem’s wrath. Before the warning, the Torah tells us all the good we can attract should we succeed at obeying Hashem’s commands.

To be sure we not get caught up in the painful messages of possible punishment, I will focus on three ways the Torah sees the world as potentially much better than we might imagine possible.

A More Unified World

26;4 tells us Hashem will give rains at their right time, and the land will give its produce. Ramban thinks the Torah starts with rain because rain at the right time balances the atmosphere, clears and improves the air, and leads springs and rivers to flow properly. The improved environment enhances the health of all bodies—fruits proliferate, people find themselves staying healthy, neither women nor animals will have fertility issues nor miscarry, all life will prosper.

He is so sure of the interconnection of all life, he reads the verse’s reference to produce as referring to all of these ways of bringing forth. We might limit a land’s “produce” to crops, but Ramban thinks it means plants, animals, birds, fish, all the earth produces. Just as the verse said Hashem created heaven and aretz, land, when it meant earth, the promise here is that the earth will give forth all its produce in the best possible way.

People Set the Tone

Two verses later, Ramban goes further in his claims about the earth’s interconnection for the good. The Torah says Hashem will remove evil animals from the land (if the Jews serve Hashem properly); Ramban quotes R. Shim’on from Torat Kohanim, who thought Hashem would remove the evil from the animals. He thinks the Land of Israel benefits from Jews’ observance, can be returned to the state just after Creation, when no animals hurt humans—that’s why Berachot 33a says serpents do not kill, sin does.

Ramban cites verses from Yeshayahu which predict completely peaceful behavior from animals as proof of his claim, that animals only cause damage because humans sin. He also thought all animals were created herbivorous, learned to eat other animals only once humans sinned.

A forthright statement of a world in which we all affect each other’s lives. When we as a whole are good, Ramban understands tradition to hold the world functions better, in obvious ways, than we might imagine possible [to me, such a view gives the group the right to limit individuals more than we currently assume—if we affect each other, for the positive or the opposite, we lose some of our right to claim our behavior is our own business].

The Missed Mashiach Opportunity

Almost as a throwaway, Ramban says the verses in Yeshayahu were originally said regarding Chizkiyahu HaMelech, whom Sanhedrin 94a says was supposed to be Mashiach [My teacher, Joel Wolowelsky, quoted this Gemara every year on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, since it says Chizkiyahu lost his chance to be Mashiach for his failure to say Hallel, to thank Hashem properly for his salvation]. Once they did not merit it then, it got pushed off until the actual Mashiach will arrive.

Ramban does not note how plastic he assumes history to be, how people can and do mess up Hashem’s intended course of history, and Hashem moves on to another version. Certain elements are guaranteed, like Mashiach’s eventual arrival, but many of the details are vulnerable to our failings or hastened by our successes.

Persistent Exceptions Also Show a Miracle

In the course of his comment to verse eleven, Ramban pauses to note the list of blessings the people earn when they are righteous as a whole  (rain, produce, Hashem’s Presence actively in the Jews’ midst). The Torah speaks here always of the land, which emphasizes the land’s dependence on the nation’s actions to be allowed to give forth this bounty.

These blessings also are all miraculous; there’s nothing natural in such plenty nor in the immunity to problems with enemies. Over time, as the nation finds its way to consistent goodness and these miracles persist, they will no longer be considered hidden miracles.

A particular righteous person might live without any cares, financial, familial, physical, or otherwise by coincidence; indeed, some evil people live those kinds of lives.  As the national prosperity continues, everyone will concede the direct source of their blessings, Hashem (the reverse extraordinary experience will do so as well, but we’re staying positive in this essay).

Is Nature Necessary?

He pushes this point a step further, outside of many of ours’ comfort zones. When the people as a whole act well, he thinks Nature does not apply, not to Jews’ bodies, land, neither as a nation nor as individuals. All Jews will have abundant food and drink, avoid illness, and so on.

[I stress this view because of how out of step it is with modern sensibilities. In Ramban’s view, what we call Nature is a common, regular pattern, how life currently works. Nothing about Nature is necessary, however– when the Jewish people as whole improve, Nature will yield to a world where Jewish lives will proceed in ways so good as to be unimaginable today].

Nor is this a purely eschatological dream. Back when there was prophecy (giving people direct access to what Hashem was “currently thinking,” as it were), the righteous turned to prophets rather than doctors, since obeying Hashem is the best way to healing and success.

He mentions Chizkiyahuwho turned to Yeshayahu for information about his terminal illness, and healed it with prayer. Ramban does not say we can do that now, I think because we cannot be sure we know what aspects of ourselves need correcting.

As a matter of worldview, though, the comments on Bechukkotai revolve around his sense of a world whose current functioning is far from the only option. When we do well, we can improve the earth, not just our harvests, and not just aspects which affect humans directly.

It’s our Earth, Ramban implicitly reminds us, and we help it along more than we imagine by serving Hashem well, as individuals, (even better) as a nation, and (best) as all of humanity.

About Gidon Rothstein

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