Becoming Our Best Selves, with a Divine Background

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to the Book of Bamidbar: Becoming Our Best Selves, with a Divine Background

I built this project on an assumption: by taking comments of Ramban’s as they appealed to me, with no attempt to relate them to each other, I would over the course of time nonetheless find recurring motifs, which would reflect underlying concerns of Ramban’s. My goal was to let Ramban speak for himself instead of imposing my issues, interests, or ideas on him (I previously sampled Rashi in much the same way, and am in the midst of doing much the same in my A Responsum a Day project, audio shiurim at ou.org, a weekly essay here on TorahMusings).

It’s why I pause at the end of each book of the Torah, to see what our sample shows, is why after we look at the themes of Bamidbar this time, next time we’ll look at all five of those summary essays, to see what we found in Ramban’s Torah commentary as a whole. But it’s only as good as my having in fact been able to choose randomly, my not having subconsciously taken only comments which tapped into an agenda of my own. If I did that, I’d be cutting and pasting Ramban as I want him to be, not seeing him as he actually was.

My concern with getting out of the way leads me to worry a bit when I find the comments on Bamidbar once again organizing well around the balance between the human and the divine. The repeat framework raises the possibility I unawares chose comments to fit my preconceptions. Or, possibly, the teasing out of the balance between how people and Hashem affect the world in fact was so central to Ramban, we’d find it in almost any random sampling of his commentary.

I certainly hope it’s the latter. In the case of Bamidbar, I take some comfort in seeing the balance here tip more towards the human than in the other books of the Torah, and whatever divine shows up being more subsumed within the physical world than superimposed onto it.

Let’s start with the human.  

Pointers Towards Human Perfection—Nazir, Prophet, And Priest

We did not see any comment where Ramban took the time to define a perfect human life, but three of his comments gave us components. First, he surprisingly thinks the Torah prefers the physical abstemiousness of the nazir to ordinary human life. Rabbinic statements noticed the Torah’s requiring the nazir to bring a chatat, a sin offering, as part of the ceremony completing his/her time in that status, and said s/he had sinned by foregoing permissible pleasures.

Ramban instead saw the chatat as atonement for choosing to return to the lesser existence of the ordinary person. Since “ordinary” in this context meant only having the right to partake of grape products—not necessarily intoxicating ones and not necessarily to excess— of perhaps coming into contact with corpses, and being allowed to groom one’s hair, Ramban’s reading draws our attention to his objections to physical indulgence.

One proof the nazir’s elevated status he cited was Amos 2;11-12, which paired the nazir and prophet as people Hashem sends to enlighten the rest of us. The verse (and our intuition, I think) paints a prophet as Hashem’s messenger. Ramban sees more.  

In chapter twelve, Hashem spoke of Moshe as exceptional (to rebuke Miriam and Aharon for criticizing him), and Ramban paused to wonder how Yirmiyahu 15;1 could mention both Moshe and Shmuel as model prophets—how could Shmuel be mentioned in the same breath as the exceptional Moshe? Since the pair were cited to stress to Yirmiyahu the inevitability of the Jews’ coming punishment—no one could save them, not even Moshe or Shmuel–Ramban says the two were comparable in that way, their defenses of the Jewish people from Hashem’s wrath.

If we add Rambam’s view of prophets as the people who reach the highest level of human development, Ramban seems to see asking Hashem to spare the Jews punishment as part of human perfection.

Aharon gave us one more example of human excellence, during the Korach incident. The verse tells us how Moshe reacted—he heard and fell on his face—but nothing about Aharon. Ramban suggested Aharon did not respond because he was a party to the dispute. His silence was a way to signal his humble agreement with Korach’s group, he was not worthy of the High Priesthood.

The greatest people, Ramban implies, limit their use of the physical, defend the Jewish people, and have the humility to refrain from any self-promotion.

Moshe Wields His Freedom of Choice

Ramban never fully defines human perfection nor the way to get there, but points to broader human discretion than I would have expected. He thought Moshe agreed to send the spies (chapter thirteen) on his own accord, without asking Hashem. Hashem stepped in to adjust the plan, as we’ll discuss later, but Ramban sees nothing wrong in Moshe’s acting without consultation. Spies are a natural part of any conquest, and Moshe made a decision easily within the parameters of how people are allowed/supposed to act.  

Once the experience goes wrong, Hashem says the people deserve annihilation. Moshe prays for them (one of his prophetic functions, as we just saw), 14;18, and addresses Hashem with some but not all the Attributes Hashem taught him at Sinai. Ramban explains how Moshe chose which to invoke, but clearly thought the decision was Moshe’s, who structured his approach to Hashem in the way he thought most likely to succeed.

A final example is also the least explicit in the Torah, the best proof the idea comes more from Ramban himself than what the text forced him to accept. In chapter 21, Moshe sent a peace message to Sichon, but left out the necessary conditions for any accord which lets non-Jews stay in Israel. Ramban therefore suggested Moshe did not need to make an halachic peace with Sichon, because he had decided to conquer and settle the land west of the Jordan first. For then, he could make an unconditional peace with Sichon.

Once Sichon forced war, Moshe still thought the entire people would cross the Jordan, conquer all of Israel, settle the land west of the Jordan, and then come back for Sichon and Og’s land.  Only Reuven and Gad’s request changed the plans.

Ramban thought Moshe could send spies without Hashem’s command, knew which Attributes were appropriate for which situation, had the right to choose when and what to conquer as the Jews took over the Land of Israel, and the two and a half tribes could submit a revised plan. Choices human beings make.

People Shape Their Religious Experience

Beyond Moshe, an exceptional figure, and tribes, collective actors, Ramban explored areas of significant freedom the Torah gave individual Jews on how to shape their relationship with or service of Hashem. For the nazir, itself a freely made choice, the Torah mentioned, 6;21, that the concluding sacrifices the Torah obligated as part of the conclusion of a person’s time as a nazir were aside from what the nazir was able and had vowed to bring.

Ramban explains the Torah’s implication. Each nazir would promise additional sacrifices as part of the original vow (as if the commitment itself were not enough!). Those sacrifices become part of the vow, which is then not released until those sacrifices are brought as well. Within an institution which is itself a choice, the Torah expected a further personal choice, what sacrifice or sacrifices to embed in one’s nezirut.

The whole concept of vows invites people to make their own decisions about the contours of their service of Hashem, sometimes even creating tension with the Jew’s overriding commitment to keep the Torah (since some nedarim can render a mitzvah item prohibited).

Donations are another area of personal choice, and Ramban thought the assumption by Korach’s people that Hashem would accept their incense-pans turned them into klei sharet, sanctified vessels. Despite being offered by non-kohanim in the wrong location and as part of a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon’s authority, their thinking they were doing what Hashem wanted was enough to turn an item into a kli sharet, Ramban thought.

Where Personal Choice Can Hurt Us

With freedom comes poor choices and failure, for which Ramban provides ample examples. Among those exempt from a bringing a Korban Pesach, a Paschal sacrifice, the Torah includes someone who was be-derech rechokah, a far distance. As Ramban understands the halachah, “far” includes any Jew unable to reach Jerusalem, on foot, starting out from the earliest time the sacrifice could be offered (afternoon on the fourteenth of Nisan). Such a person could choose not to make advance efforts to reach Jerusalem, and be fully exempt from all punishment.  

A world of personal choice means we have to worry even the greatest among us might not rise to his best. For Ramban, the daughters of Tzelofechad worried Moshe would refuse to help them if he thought their father had been part of Korach’s rebellion. The personal insults the group had lobbed his way would stop him from giving them his best self, they feared, which was why they assured him he died of his own sin.

The spies give us a more concrete example of the downsides of leaving people to their own devices. For Ramban, the spies doomed themselves only when they made up lies about the Land, and then politicked among the people to convince them of their view. They were motivated by fear, certainty the Canaanites were too strong.

Unfortunately, the fear itself was what Calev meant when begging the people not to rebel against Hashem, 14;9. The spies and people were supposed to understand Hashem’s invincibility.

The members of Korach’s group also fell into the reverse problem, misplaced certainty. At the same time as they challenged Moshe’s authority, they accepted his being the one to define how Hashem would identify who was truly chosen, yet Ramban thought they still sincerely believed they would win, Hashem would accept their incense-pans.

Moshe’s anger at the soldiers who brought captive women back from the war against Midian shows us where people of good will can come to very different conclusions, an aspect of choice which takes people down different paths. Ramban thinks Moshe insisted they should have known better than to spare the women, since halachah requires killing even an animal which became the vehicle of a sexual sin.

He also cited a Sifrei which envisions Pinchas (who had been there) replying on their behalf, “we did what you said.” Ramban thought that technically true—Moshe said take vengeance, and they had, wreaking much destruction. Moshe was sure they should have known nonetheless to kill the women. Because choice leads to differences and disputes, with the best intentions on both sides.

Rewards, Limitations, and Responsibilities of Personal Choice

One value of having choices is the reward we get for making them well. Ramban thought Hashem had Moshe announce the great reward Pinchas receives for killing Zimri, to make people aware of what is to be gained with good choices.

For all his awareness of choice, he also knew of restrictions. Ramban—more forcefully than other commentators and halachic decisors– thought the Torah absolutely obligated each Jew to live in Israel, 33;52-53, regardless of how well-settled the land is, regardless of how secure Jewish control of it.

Choice brings responsibilities as well as limitations. For example, the Torah (30;16) holds a husband liable if he misleads his wife into thinking he had uprooted an oath of hers. Ramban says that’s only where the woman does not know the truth. In such cases, indeed, he bears all the blame; she does not incur even the lower level liability of one who transgresses the Torah be-shogeg, without full knowledge.

Were she to realize what had happened, her husband’s role does not absolve her. With knowledge, the responsibility to choose wisely reverts to her. He was wrong to lie or mislead, but he did not fool her. His only continuing obligation is to try to convince her not to sin.

Attitude Alone Can Count

Ramban also holds people responsible for their attitudes, especially in groups. As the incident with Korach comes to a crescendo, 16;21, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from the entire congregation. Ramban wondered why the whole nation was at risk.

Among his answers, he suggested the people had come to agree with Korach, swayed since he had told them he was trying to restore the first-born to their original role as priests. For Ramban, the people were at risk of death for agreeing, whether or not they took action to support him..

He also thought Hashem blamed the people for their attitude when leaving Sinai. One of the incidents which led the Torah to insert a section bracketed by inverted nuns, for Ramban, was the Jews’ fleeing Sinai, to make sure Hashem did not command them anything else.   

The rabbinic explanation he was working with called these incidents pur’anuyot, which most simply means a time of punishment. The Jews did not get punished for fleeing Sinai, but they deserved to, Ramban says. He also thinks their haste made Hashem delay their route to Israel a bit, leaving room for the sin of the spies to trap them in the desert for forty years.

The people’s attitude shaped the content of the Torah itself. In Devarim 9;18, Moshe speaks of times he prayed to save the people, but omits his prayer to save them from destruction for their sins during the incident of the spies. Ramban said Moshe left it out because the people would have said he failed with that prayer, since he did not secure them full forgiveness.

To close on a happier version of how a group’s attitude counts, let’s remember his comment on the Torah’s occasional description of some event as involving kol ha-‘edah, the whole nation. When 20;22 says kol ha-‘edah arrived at Midbar Tzin, Ramban says the phrase usually appears in advance of some sin, to implicate the whole nation for condoning a sin, not just committing it. No sin ensues after verse 22, so he instead says the Torah was highlighting the people’s unity in mourning for Aharon, which Bamidbar Rabbah singled out as a rare time of national unity for a good purpose. 

Counting and Its Complications

The many ramifications of personal choices perhaps shed some light on Ramban’s interest in the ways we count the people. In the first count in Bamidbar, Hashem told Moshe and Aharon tifkedu otam, count them. Ramban picks up on the use of the root pkd, a root the Torah used to describe Hashem’s decision to let Sarah become pregnant at eighty-nine.

Pkd means memory and attention, Ramban says. Moshe and Aharon were being told to go beyond just finding the number of Jews, they were to pay attention to (bepoked) each Jew. The half-shekel made Moshe and Aharon aware of each Jew and his place among the people.

For the Levi’im, the rules got more complicated, and Ramban’s explanation again looks at how individuals combine into groups. He thinks Levi’im were counted between ages twenty-five and fifty because only within that range could members of the family of Kehat perform their central service, carrying the Aron.

Levi’im served beyond age fifty in other ways, even members of the Kehat family, yet because one component of the larger whole stopped their central service then, the enumeration of the tribe, and in some sense its identity, reflected their needs.

Ramban also saw more individuality in people’s portions of the land of Israel then the simplest reading of the Torah might lead us to assume. The Torah says to give more land to the more, often understood (such as by Rashi) as giving a larger part of Israel to more populous tribes and families, so each individual ended up with about the same.

Ramban thinks the split was equal among tribes and clans (only within clans did the division account for larger or smaller subsets), so members of smaller tribes ended up with more land.

Unity with diversity does not lend itself to one-size-fits-all rules, Ramban shows us in his view of counting issues.

David HaMelech and the Census

Counting was one of the occasions where Ramban turned to a similar incident in David’s life, the census for which David was punished (II Shemuel 24). Ramban thinks David put himself in the wrong by counting the people when he had no need. Absent a reason, a census can only be to flatter oneself, to take pride in ruling over such a glorious (and numerous) nation. As Yoav tries to tell David, better to leave Hashem’s blessing uncounted.

Along the same lines, Ramban thinks David was wrong to count from age thirteen, which shows a desire to quantify the nation exactly, where the Torah allowed only quantifying for a specific need, such as how many soldiers were going into battle (to plan strategy and such).

Hashem promised Avraham the Jewish nation would be as stars of the sky, which Ramban takes to mean essentially uncountable. David’s goal—which Yoav subverted by counting only sholef cherev, those who wielded a sword—was to define the demographic contours of the nation. Which Hashem opposes.

David HaMelech and the Mikdash

David’s count came up again in Ramban’s discussion of the Korach story, to much different effect. When Moshe prayed to spare the people the consequences of their actions, Ramban praised David for doing the same with the plague his census brought, asking Hashem to assign all the blame to him.

Ramban thinks David was not the only one at fault, since the people could have insisted on conducting the census as the Torah said, by giving half-shekels, which turns it into a count of the coins rather than the people (and is another example of bystander responsibility—they’re liable for their failure to correct David).

More, though, Ramban thinks (without direct textual evidence) the people were being punished for their longstanding failure to try to build a Beit HaMikdash. David asked and was told not to, but the nation had had centuries beforehand to undertake their responsibility.

For Ramban, David’s census makes us aware of issues in counting Jews, the preference for inexactness and the insistence on a purpose to justify any count, as well as a centuries’-long sin of the people’s, a prime example of where the nation can incur liability for attitudes and omissions, without any active sin.

A Multi-Textured Life

Ramban’s experience of groups and individuals shows us a sense of the multiplicity of life, how there might be more than one answer to a question, such as in the balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the one. We saw two cases where Ramban gives multiple explanations of an event, without preferring any one of them. This, too, seems a function of his awareness of the textures of life.

Right after the first census in Bamidbar, the Torah tells us how the tribes camped and the order in which they traveled. Ramban offers several Midrashic reasons for their placement and order.  The specific ideas are not our concern here; in the aggregate, they remind us Ramban could accept many answers to the same question.

There, one might argue Ramban thought there was one true explanation but presented a few because he did not know which was the one. He’s more fully aware of multiple valid answers when the heads of the tribes present their gifts to celebrate the dedication of the Mishkan. He cites Midrashim which think each brought the same objects with different symbolisms in mind, reminding us one act or item can have many meanings.

A world of personal choice, which brings responsibility for attitudes and affiliations as well as actions, makes how we count people all the more important, and means our actions can be individualized in meaning and intent, no matter how externally similar they appear.

Metaphysical Limits of Human Experience

Pay attention to how far we’ve come in our discussion without much talk of Hashem’s impact or involvement. We know Ramban to have been acutely aware of Hashem’s role in the world—and we are about to see examples—but much of the action in Bamidbar involves people acting on their own, rightly or wrongly.

But Hashem and the metaphysical are there as well. Ramban thought there was no way Bil’am’s donkey saw the angel, for example, since an animal cannot perceive the metaphysical. Nor can most of us.

Bil’am could access the metaphysical, and in doing so gave Ramban room to remind us of a linchpin and lodestar of his worldview. Ki lo nachash be-Ya’akov, 23;23, told Ramban the Jewish people are always governed solely by Hashem, not any metaphysical forces/angels to whom Hashem delegated the rest of the world.  

The Metaphysical Appears Within Ordinary Life

Ramban did not take up an overall discussion of how the metaphysical operates, but did a few times tell us life evinces its impact. The parah adumah ceremony, for example, allows a person who had contact with a corpse to return to ritual purity, to the right to visit the Mishkan/Mikdash. There are many ways to explain the effect of the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer; Ramban says the water creates a reiach nichoach, a pleasing smell, to counteract the smell of death.

Lest we think he means the physically odious stench of corpses, he tells us he means ‘etyo shel nachash, the lingering effects of the encounter with the serpent in Eden. Since the smell of death started with sin, he assumes the corollary, the fully righteous do not emit such smell nor create ritual impurity in their death. Remember he was making an halachic statement, taking his metaphysics seriously enough to impinge on the human ritual world. Death contaminates because of a long-ago sin.

Ramban quotes R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, who said Tzelofechad’s daughters mentioned their father’s lack of sons because death without male issue was itself evidence of sin. They were proving to Moshe he must have died for a sin other than joining Korach. There’s a more obvious and perfectly serviceable reason to mention the lack of sons, since they would have been the heirs, not the daughters.

Ramban’s choice to cite R. Yehudah Ha-Levi’s metaphysical view (death without sons proves a man had sinned) when he did not need to (and does not do so elsewhere in the commentary) suggests he agreed, another example of the metaphysical peeking out of his largely natural presentation in Bamidbar.

Levi’im as the Representatives of Hashem 

The Levi’im (and their subset, the kohanim) twice also reminded us of the metaphysical. To explain the Levi’im’s conspicuously smaller numbers, Ramban reminded us of Tanchuma’s claim about the explosive growth of the other tribes. For Tanchuma, Hashem was showing the Egyptians the futility of their attempt to depress Jewish numbers by enslaving them. Instead of letting it stop their growth, Hashem accelerated it.

The Levi’im, never enslaved, also never exploded in numbers.  

Once the Jews left Egypt, they became more direct representatives of Hashem than the rest. Ordinary Jews would take a share in the land, a share of spoils of war. Levi’im and kohanim did not; Hashem was their share and portion (as 18;20 and 24 tell us), they lived only from Hashem’s bounty, a living reminder of the underlying forces which guide the seemingly natural.

Making the Metaphysical Known

For all that it mostly stayed in the background in Bamidbar, Ramban’s explanation for what sanctified the incense-pans of Korach’s co-conspirators assumes Hashem wants (as it were) to be known. He thinks Hashem Himself, as it were, sanctified the pans as a sign and reminder to the Jewish people of their error. The pans became kadosh because they were a vehicle of proving Hashem’s involvement in the world.  

Bil’am also incidentally gives us a sense of Hashem’s interest (as it were) in being known. Bil’am said, 24;14, he was going to give Balak advice, but then shared a vision of the distant Messianic future (about which Balak could do little). Ramban says it’s advice in the sense that Bil’am was going to reveal Hashem’s ‘etzah, the counsel and conclusions Hashem has reached. Being told of Hashem’s plans makes Balak a no’atz, a recipient of sage advice.

The Kindness of the Divine

Besides wanting to be known, as it were, Ramban saw several examples of Hashem’s kindness. He thinks Moshe doubted Hashem’s ability to provide food to the entire people, 11;23, because he knew it could not be miraculous. Miracles always come either out of kindness or to fully punish evildoers. Since neither was going to be true of the meat incident, Moshe did not understand how Hashem could naturally provide meat for the entire people.

In the case of the spies, Ramban thought Hashem stepped in, uninvited and unconsulted, to tell Moshe to send twelve rather than two, in the hopes more of them would stand up for the right attitude upon returning from Israel.

A third kindness led to the Pesach Sheini, the second Pesach sacrifice, which Ramban thought was open to anyone who did not offer the first, whatever the reason. The rule the husband had to supply a sotah’s barley-offering stemmed from a similarly kind approach. For all she brought the test upon herself by letting herself be secluded with a man about whom she had been warned, Hashem did not want to also require her to supply an offering as part of the ceremony which might lead to her being outed as an adulteress (and then poisoned).

The Pinchas Story Brings Our Strands to the Fore

I am always tempted to wrangle all the comments I discussed into whatever framework I find (and you may think I’ve already done a bit of wrangling), but I am leaving out many other comments we saw. For all their inherent interest, they neither fit in this framework nor suggest a different one, so we’ll leave them for another time. Let me close with Ramban’s view of the Pinchas story, since it captures much of what I think we found in Ramban to Bamidbar.

Ramban thought Hashem told Moshe to have the judges kill all Jews who succumbed to sexual temptation and then worshipped Pe’or. Human action would stop the raging plague which, left unchecked, would kill many Jews besides those directly involved in the sin.

I suggested the plague would kill only those who bore some guilt for watching fellow Jews fall prey to sin without protesting or resisting, an example of our responsibility beyond acting well. Regardless of whether I was right, Ramban does point to certain groups who failed to understand the events in their fullest terms, who failed to see Hashem’s role.

He thinks the Jews crying around the Ohel Mo’ed were upset about the trials, not realizing human action would avert the broader disaster of plague. More, he thinks the members of the tribe of Shim’on accosted Zimri, blaming him for not taking action to stop the trials.

Zimri did not take on Moshe alone, in Ramban’s view, he was backed by members of his tribe. Pinchas did not take on Zimri one on one, then, he attacked Zimri in full view of the latter’s supporters. Instead of their taking him on, he became the cause for the cessation of the plague.

To me, the story shows Ramban’s view of Bamidbar in a nutshell: human action, with largely hidden divine underpinnings, occasionally yielding to more obvious impingements of the metaphysical. With guilt and reward for those who act well or poorly, as well as for those who watch and support others who act well or poorly.

It’s ultimately Hashem’s world, I think Ramban to Bamidbar taught us, but we have more of a say than we realize, in action and just when we support others. And we’re better off for knowing and realizing the implications, ramifications, and consequences of what we do, say, or approve.

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