The Supernatural Within the Natural

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Sefer Vayikra: The Supernatural Within the Natural

I stress, for myself as well as anyone who might be paying attention, the importance I attach to choosing comments of Ramban’s independent of my preferences or preconceived notions. Part of a larger project I am slowly building, the more I find only the Ramban I expected, the less confident I can be I am learning from Ramban rather than imposing myself on him.

It has certainly become a concern, because in Bereshit and Shemot, we’ve joined Ramban in bouncing between the natural world, realm of the human, and the supernatural, where Hashem and other metaphysical/supernatural forces make their mark. For Vayikra, we’ll still see much about the natural and supernatural with a small difference significant enough to let me continue to believe we are listening rather than dictating.

In Vayikra, I believe we’ve seen Ramban weave the supernatural into the natural more than before. Rather than separating areas where people contribute and ones where Hashem does, Vayikra showed us where the worlds commingle.

The Mishkan, Center of Supernaturality

There’s some intuitive appeal to the phrasing, since Vayikra is known as Torat Kohanim, the rules for the kohanim and the structure in which they served. Yet what we saw about the Mishkan did not focus on the supernatural, despite Ramban’s elsewhere saying the Mishkan was the central place for Hashem’s Presence in the world.

One lesson the Mishkan showed asserted a supernatural truth, but which applies outside the Mishkan as well. Many commentators read Moshe’s words “hu asher dibber Hashem,this is that which Hashem said,” as based on some prior announcement of Hashem’s, and sought where Hashem had said bikrovai ekadesh, I will be sanctified through those closest to me. Ramban instead understood Moshe to be saying the event was directly from Hashem. When we see Hashem act a certain way, we can retrospectively know Hashem was revealing His reaction to a situation. Through the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, we all learned Hashem sanctifies His Name through those closest to Him.

When 2;13 tells us to salt all offerings, Ramban paused to note how salt reflects the duality of how Hashem appears in our lives. Just as salt makes food tasty or palatable but also renders soil inimical to plant life, Hashem can play a merciful, welcoming, accepting role, or can be the strict judge Who holds us to proper full account for our failings.

Ramban noted more mundane issues of the Mishkan as well, such as how quiescent the Mishkan was at night. Verses 6;2-6 seem to allow us to offer an olah, an offering completely burnt to Hashem, all night, but tradition understood the permission to be limited to turning over parts of the olah already offered, to ensure they burn better. The same verses speak of the fire burning all night, which Ramban interprets to mean the priests would put enough wood on the altar during the daytime, again stressing the lack of nighttime activity. [He does not offer a reason; I think his comments elsewhere about night being the time of Hashem’s Heavenly Court could hinder the Mishkan, a place of mercy, from functioning, but I have no further evidence to support the idea.]

We also saw the pooling of benefits among the kohanim who serve in the Mishkan. Despite the verses’ reference to the gifts of a sacrifice going to the priest who offered it, tradition said all the priests serving their obligatory turn that week would share them. Ramban cited the arrangement of Jews who went to war, where those who guarded the camp shared equally in the booty.  

It’s a nontrivial point, the representatives of corporate entities develop benefits for the group rather than the individual, but not about the Mishkan any more than about war, for example.

Sin, the Business of the Mishkan

Ramban moves away from the natural in his discussions of sin and atonement through sacrifice. Torat Kohanim thought the olah atoned for the failure to fulfill obligations (or the violation of prohibitions which halachically are similar to obligations, lav ha-nittak le’aseh). Torat Kohanim ignored another option, the unwitting transgressions of sins whose willful violation incurs death or lashes. The omission taught Ramban that the unwitting transgression of those sins did not leave a mark on the soul, did not need anyritzui, restoration of one’s relationship with Hashem.

On the other hand, when the Torah set up sacrifices to atone for some unwitting sins (4;2; for sins whose willful violation would incur karet and some capital sins), Ramban did say all sin blemishes the soul, which will not merit greeting its Creator without purifying itself. He there also drew our attention to the verse’s omission “will be atoned and forgiven” regarding the High Priest who needs to offer such a sacrifice, as it does for other people’s unwitting sins. Exalted spiritually, the High Priest would need further prayer and supplication to completely cleanse.

Sin occurs in thought in addition to deed. Verses 12;6-8 tells us the kohen who offers the sacrifices a new mother brings is helping her achieve kapparah, atonement. To explain what sin needs kapparah, Ramban cites the Rabbinic idea that women in the throes of childbirth swear to separate permanently from their husbands. The oath does not takehalachic effect, since her pain tells us she did not mean it, but Ramban thought she needed to atone for the thought.

When tzara’at appears on the walls of a house, we learn another lesson about sin’s role in human lives. The homeowner must remove the tzara’at, dig out the affected stones, wood, and mortar, and replace them. 14;43 then refers to a recurrence anywhere in the house as a return of the tzara’at, which is not strictly true, since the first tzara’at was fully excised. Once a person has incurred house tzara’at, Ramban sees the verse as teaching, any later appearance counts as return. Once a Jew has experienced tzara’at, s/he must be always vigilant about this form of sin or trouble, and if s/he fails to do so, the tzara’at is a return, not a new event.

Certainly not the whole story, but our random sample of Ramban showed he thought we need to be concerned with unwitting sin, sometimes, although sometimes such sins do not bring any need for repair; thought certain exalted people (such as the Kohen Gadol) might need more even than the prescribed procedures to secure full restoration; understood the Torah to hold us accountable for certain thoughts, even if they do not lead to halachically meaningful outcomes; and saw some sins to always be part of our makeup, no matter how long we have stayed away from them.

Land of Israel

The metaphysical figures more prominently in Ramban’s view of the Land of Israel. In 13;47 and 14;14, he denies any physical element to clothing or house tzara’at; somewhat ironically, in his view such tzara’at happens only when the Jewish people act generally properly. Since Hashem’s Spirit will reside among them, ugliness created by sin will show up in a physical sign.

I mention the idea here rather than in the preceding section on sin because Ramban to 14;14 says both these will occur only in the Land of Israel. For clothing tzara’at, he has no source, it just seems clear to him, because only there is Hashem’s Present at the level for this reaction to occur.

Hashem’s more direct Presence is also why 18;25 tells us the Land spewed out the Canaanites who engaged in prohibited sexual relationships. Hashem affects everywhere else in the world less directly, so the reaction to their sins is less immediate and assured, but the Land, where Hashem is most fully Present, does not tolerate certain sins. Ramban brought in the story in II Melachim 17, where people imported to the Northern Kingdom after the exile of the Ten Tribes were plagued by lions. Once they learned “mishpat Elokei ha-aretz,” the ways of the Gd of the Land (which Ramban takes more literally than we might have, Hashem is the Gd of the Land more than of other places), they were fine.

He points us to Ketubbot 110b, anyone who lives outside Israel is as if s/he has no Gd, and Sifrei Eikev 43, which tells us the Torah obligated us to keep mitzvot outside of Israel, so they will not be new and unfamiliar when we return.

More than the Mishkan, Israel is a place of the natural suffused with the supernatural.

The Supernatural Becomes Natural, For People

Individuals’ spiritual state is also interwoven with their physical state. Ramban saw zivah, an illness which affects men and women differently, as a physical and contagious illness, yet was brought on by sin. Without atonement, the patient was susceptible to further bouts.

More consistently in our lives, Ramban implies the very shape of our bodies is affected by our religious level. In 21;17, the Torah introduces the list of mumin, physical differences which disqualify a kohen from service in the Temple, by telling Aharon one of his descendants might bear such a difference. For zivah and tzara’at, too, 22;4 mentions only his descendants.

There are many ways to explain the phrasing; Ramban believes Aharon’s spiritual excellence protected him from either of these distressing physical events. He says Aharon was an angel, who would never suffer such bodily indignities. Even when a passage in Torat Kohanim 3;5 seems to have meant Aharon could experience one of these, Ramban explains it away. Since the Torah does not allow us to rely on miracles, it had to allow for the possibility of Aharon’s developing a mum or zivah or tzara’at. In point of fact, his spiritual excellence exempted him from such physical problems.

The link between the physical and spiritual seems to me to come up again in his struggle with why the Torah forbade the arayot, the prohibited sexual relationships. I read his answer, these prohibitions stems from a sod mi-sodot hayetzirah davek ba-nefesh, the secrets of formation connected with the soul, a part of sod ha-ibbur (generally understood as reincarnation), as a groping reference to genetics, something about how babies are formed.

What I did not stress then but see now, in our context, is Ramban’s insistence on this as a matter of sod, esoteric in that it deals with the implantation of souls in babies, and how those souls are shaped and formed.  Our human sexual act makes babies, with souls, a prime example of the natural being mixed with the supernatural.

The Supernatural Becomes Natural, in the World at Large

Broadening our scale, Ramban saw shemittah as a type of Sabbath in more than just the desisting from labor on both. Observing the sabbatical year, the weekly Sabbath, and freeing slaves as their seventh year of servitude starts all recognized the seven-perioded nature of Creation.

The Torah’s telling us of Hashem’s creation of the world in six days, resting on the seventh, showed us a sod yemot olam, secret of the days of the world. Our observance of those “sevens” practices demonstrates our acceptance of supernatural truths of the course of history, culminating in the World to Come. Only such significance explains the flip side, exile as the punishment for failure to observe shemittah—neglect of no other agricultural commandments leads to exile, so as an agricultural practice, neither should this one.  

A world in which the supernatural suffuses the natural can cause us troubles, but also produces better outcomes than we would have thought possible. In his view, the rains at the right time the Torah promises for when Jews keep the Torah well do more than moisten the earth or foster bumper crops—they improve the air, let springs and rivers flow, enhance the overall health of the entire ecology, with benefits far beyond plentiful food.

The spiritual state of the Jewish people affects whether or not animals act destructively, since in 26;6, Ramban cites Berachot 33a, the serpent does not kill, sin does. He also cites Torat Kohanim’s linking proper observance to animals’ returning to their original state, where they caused no harm. Their natural character and behavior depends on Jews’ religious/spiritual/ supernatural conduct.

A step more surprising, in the same comment Ramban thinks the Jewish people need not be subject to what we erroneously call the laws of Nature. When the Jewish people as a whole acts well, each individual Jew will be allowed to respond to treat the physical world non-physically. We’ve seen this in our past, when particularly righteous people consulted prophets about their illnesses (such as Chizkiyahu), rather than doctors.

When the Jewish people again reach the state where we have prophecy in our midst, we will as a nation also live on a different plane than the natural, says Ramban. And when we do, just our persistent enjoyment of benefits unexplainable in purely natural ways will serve to send a message to the world at large, of Hashem’s supernatural involvement in our lives.

Where People Shape the Supernatural

The just-mentioned Chizkiyahu starts us on considering human input into hastening the time when the supernatural will be more obvious than today. Ramban cited verses in Yeshayahu to support his view about how different the world could look when we all act well. He says those verses were originally said regarding Chizkiyahu, who then failed to fulfill his original potential.

More extreme than saying he could have been Mashiach, Ramban seems to say Yeshayahu expected him to be Mashiach. When he was not, the advent of the Messianic era was delayed, until some other person or people manage to achieve what he was on the verge of doing.

People play many roles in bringing the supernatural into our lives. After the dedication of the Mishkan, Aharon blesses the people. Although Torat Kohanim seems to think he administered the ordinary priestly blessing, Ramban looks for a way to claim he gave them a blessing of his own phrasing. If not then, certainly Aharon and his sons affect the interplay of the natural and supernatural in cases of tzara’at, where Ramban saw them as so in charge, they did not even need to teach the rules to the people. All the people had to know was to go to a kohen in any of these cases, and then the kohen judged the issues as they seemed to him (the kohen could judge spread, for example, visually rather than by measurement).

Ordinary people also affect how and when the supernatural is allowed in, as it were. Ramban thought people primarily made nedarim, undertakings to make certain donations of sacrifices, under the force of crisis, while they nedavot, donations of particular items for their financial value, were more ordinary ways to contribute to the upkeep of the Temple.

Not to belabor a point close to my heart, but whenever people are given such choices, the choices they in fact make shape the world they create—in this case, in terms of the health of the Mikdash, and its role in fostering the presence of the supernatural in the world at large.

Cleanliness as a Value

In line with my understanding of his linking the natural and supernatural, he several times brings up ordinary physical cleanliness as a matter of how, when, and where humans relate to Hashem. To explain why a new mother must wait to go to the Mikdash although she is not teme’ah, is not considered ritually impure, Ramban says the time allows all the after-birth material to come out.

We might miss the significance if we do not repeat that these materials do not affect her ritual purity. He seems to have thought the Torah was unwilling to have a woman come to the Temple while having such effusions, even though there were no other halachic effects.  

Ramban does not make the connection, but a concern with cleanliness also explains Torat Kohanim’s inference from 14;2, ve-huva el hakohen, that a metzora or zav, male or female, must perform the ceremonies to return to ritual purity as soon as possible. There is no such rule for non-bodily forms of ritual impurity.

The ur-example which put me on track to notice Ramban’s interest in cleanliness came from his view of kedushah, sanctity, as prescribed by 19;2, kedoshim tihy. Along with moderation or abstemiousness, Ramban thinks kedushah, sanctity, involves avoiding tum’ah, which he then defines to include more than whatever creates ritual impurity.

Kedushah requires us to avoid tum’ah, in which he includes defiling one’s mouth by speaking of disgusting matters or in disgusting ways. Torah scholars avoid contact with the clothes of less punctilious Jews because (in Ramban’s view) those others are not careful about cleanliness. Berachot 53b infers from words rooted in kedushah in 20;7 that Jews should wash their hands before and after meals.

It’s Up to People

Ramban gives us a crowning example of his sense that people contribute to making the world more supernaturally inflected at the end of that comment about kedushah. He tells us the Torah adopts a general strategy regarding conduct it wishes to promote: it gives specific rules and appends a broad adjuration. Examples of kedushah-producing conduct are prescribed, and then we are told to achieve that goal even in areas not specifically legislated. Other verses perform the same function for Shabbat and monetary conduct, telling us not to think the list exhausts the Torah’s goals.

It’s up to human beings to perfect the world, a perfection which shows itself in loosing the bonds of the natural, bringing the supernatural ever closer and more effective in our lives.

I close with the reminder that I do not pretend this captures all we found even in our few examples from each week’s parshah—Ramban is way too rich a thinker to be as pigeonholed as my tidy narrative suggests. But after looking at what we found, the ideas I have shared here seem those which most closely capture the general tenor of what we saw for Ramban on Vayikra.

On to Bamidbar!

About Gidon Rothstein

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