Ramban’s Great Chain of Shaping the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

A Non-Apology

I have been taking samples of Ramban’s comments on the parsha since the end of Pesach 5777 (2017; I took two weeks for each parsha of Devarim). At the end of each book of the Torah, I’ve paused to share the ideas of themes which popped up repeatedly. As I reviewed those five summary essays to see what flowed through the commentary as a whole, I realized I’ve each time worried aloud about whether I was subconsciously selecting for my preconceptions, was molding Ramban into my own image.

After reading and re-reading to write this essay, I feel comfortable saying that if I have done that, I’ve done it so well that, week after week, without reviewing earlier weeks’ pieces, I managed to pick comments which came together into a remarkably cohesive picture.

I don’t think that’s what happened, however, I think my random sample did what it was intended, showed us concerns of Ramban’s we might not have noticed had we studied the commentary straight through. I cannot say these were what was most important to him, since we were sampling—in theory, a sample can happen to have always missed his more central concerns, over and over. But I feel confident that the ideas we’ll see here would have to be part of any picture of the ideas which mattered to Ramban in his Torah commentary.

After you read, you may disagree, and I’d be happy to hear from you with your reactions, comments, or criticisms (my email is in the paragraph after next).

Ramban’s commentary as I’ve found it focused on the many participants in shaping the world. Hashem could have done it alone, could have completely determined what would happen, yet Ramban thought Hashem in fact allowed a large cast of characters, from Hashem down to each of us as individuals, with many stops in between. His view of the variety of actors who improve or diminish the world carries the assumption each of us is responsible for doing our best, individually and in the groups to which we belong, to bring the world to its best.

Since this is a summary essay—the originals appeared weekly on torahmusings.com, as did the summaries of each book of the Torah, or you can email me (grothst, a gmail account) for the file with the essays—I will not give all the examples which fueled the conclusion I present here. I will name actors Ramban thought affected the world, give some examples, and move on.

Hashem

Any consideration of the world starts with Hashem, Who (for Ramban) created yesh me-ayin, out of complete nothingness, continues to be invested in what happens in the world, and continues to wield the power to change the natural patterns of the world as valuable or necessary. Hashem’s role and powers mean Hashem decides who lives where (as shown by the generation of the Flood, whose lives were forfeit for their misdeeds, and of the Tower, whom Hashem scattered).

Especially since Ramban sees a role for physical and metaphysical powers other than Hashem, he repeatedly stresses Hashem’s sole hold on ultimate power. Hashem leaves room for angels and nature, even prefers the world follow its ordinary patterns, as we’ll see, but is always in full control. Hashem stopped Par’oh’s sorcerers’ usual powers during the plagues, for example, and showed His incomparable power at the Splitting of the Sea.

For reasons Ramban does not lay out quite explicitly, Hashem has an interest in people acknowledging these truths, which is why worship of other powers is so serious, the only sin for which Hashem visits the sins of earlier generations on later ones who continue sinning that way. For the flip side, Hashem sanctifies some items, such as the incense-pans of the Korach group, solely because they served to prove Hashem’s power.

Ramban also pointed several times to Hashem’s overall kindness in administering the world, such as when he said miracles only come to help people or to fully punish evildoers, thought Hashem told Moshe to send more spies to give the Jews the best chance of averting the disaster they were about to bring upon themselves.

Ramban’s world starts with an all-powerful Gd, kind and invested in the world.

Angels

Despite his insistence on Hashem’s sole power and control, Ramban believes in angels, who do have some ability to affect the world. He thinks angels do guide all lands other than Israel, have enough leeway to be punished for mis-stepping (such as the angels of Egypt, who were punished along with the Egyptians at the Exodus), and can choose to delay going into Lot’s house until he makes himself worthy. He also recognized a Heavenly Court, which seems to have more control over the night, and has some kind of leeway to enact strict justice rather than the merciful Providence of Hashem.

Angels’ leeway has strict limits, though. The angel of Esav wanted to hurt more than Ya’akov’s thigh while wrestling him, but was prohibited. The angels in Ya’akov’s dream ascended and descended a ladder to show their need to check with Hashem how to affect the world.

There are angels, which do have meaningful (and a bit independent) impact on the world, but never in any way to make us doubt or wonder about Hashem’s omnipotence.

Nature

The topic did not arise often, but often enough to show Ramban’s belief that Hashem prefers a world which runs naturally. He limited creation from nothing to the first moment, after which anything new was constructed from something which already existed.

When miracles are necessary, Ramban thinks Hashem brings them as minimally as possible. Noach’s ark, for example, was not big enough for the animals it needed to hold. Hashem made it expand, miraculously, yet also required Noach to build as large a structure as feasible, to sustain the natural pattern of the world to the extent possible.

Land of Israel

Nature matters less in Israel, where Hashem retains full and direct Providence. That can be positive, in that rain and other sustaining elements of life will come whenever the Jews act well enough to merit Hashem’s beneficence (or compassion). It’s why prophecy happened only in Israel, why the laws of the Torah are inherent to Israel (mishpat elokei ha-aretz, the laws of the Gd of the land, a Scriptural phrase Ramban repeats a few times), not just the particular legal system of one land’s inhabitants.

Ramban seems to have accepted the view of Sifrei that observance of mitzvot outside Israel was practice for when Jews got back to where the Torah obligated them to live, outside of which he thought they were as people who had no Gd.

The special Providence of Israel also leads to certain punishments, is why Sodom was destroyed more quickly than cities outside Israel of comparable evil. Clothing and house tzara’at could happen only in Israel, and the Land spewed out the Canaanites for their sexual perversions, as it would spew out the Jews if they took up those perversions.

Venue of Hashem’s most direct Providence, the Land itself has a role to play in our world.  

Metaphysical Within Physical

Mostly in Israel, Ramban thought Hashem showed the metaphysical within the physical. The central structure of Judaism, the Mishkan and then Mikdash (Temple), served to house the kind of Divine Presence the Jews had experienced at Sinai. Prophets, the Urim ve-Tumim, and bat kol, Heavenly Voice, were ways to have continuing access to communication from Hashem.  

We’ve already mentioned tzara’at, but Ramban thought zivah was another illness which would only appear in Israel (and only when the Jewish people were at a high enough spiritual state to deserve direct divine effects), a physical and contagious manifestation of a spiritual problem.   

Death showed Ramban two other ways the metaphysical interacted with the physical. He thought the sprinkling of parah adumah water created a reiach nichoach, a pleasing smell, to counteract the smell of death inserted by the sin in the Garden of Eden. The righteous are an exception, their lives of service meaning their corpses do not create the smell or ritual impurity of death.

People’s sins also affect their deaths, a second intrusion of the metaphysical into the physical. Ramban chose to quote R. Yehudah Ha-Levi’s assertion that death without sons is itself a sign of sin, when he does not quote him anywhere else, signaling his agreement with the idea.  

Hashem prefers the world to operate with largely regular patterns, but the metaphysical peeks out often enough to stop us from fooling ourselves to think it’s all natural.

Torah

The surest way to know how to engage a world which mixes the physical and metaphysical is the Torah. It predates the world, contains all wisdom, explicitly, implicitly, and in hidden allusions. Much of Shlomo HaMelech’s wisdom and Yechezkel’s readiness for his vision of Hashem’s Chariot came from their knowledge of Torah.

The Aron, the Ark, sat in the Holy of Holies and was the vehicle for the Divine Presence to reside among people. The Aron housed the Tablets, which had the Aseret Ha-Dibberot written on them. More than once, Ramban referred to the Dibberot as avot of mitzvot, broad categories which encompass all other mitzvot. It seems Torah and mitzvot bring the Presence to the world.

Torah and mitzvot will also let the Jews avoid other nations’ fates and punishments. Observing mitzvot serves a natural protective function, saving Jews from ordinary outcomes. Jewish observance helps nature itself, leads to rains which improve the air and enhance overall health.

Despite Torah’s broad wisdom, Ramban thinks it left out much, for various reasons. We know less about Avraham’s life because the Torah did not want to pay attention to the idolaters he defeated in Ur Kasdim, and are generally not told about hidden miracles (such as Yocheved giving birth at age 130). But what Hashem did tell Moshe was told leimor, clearly, no doubt as to what was said, Moshe Rabbenu conveying exactly the words Hashem meant and spoke.

People in Their Groups

I have been surprised, ever since working on As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience, by Ramban’s insistence on the political power the masses have. I would have expected the subject of a monarchy, writing about monarchic societies such as Egypt, to dismiss the hoi polloi as irrelevant to history.

Instead, he repeatedly speaks of kings’ need to secure the agreement of their subjects. Par’oh needed to convince his advisers before elevating Yosef to second in command, and could not decree the killing of Jewish babies, since the people would object.

With or without kings, societies need civil law to avoid people running amuck, which is also why punishment must be meted out. Ramban knows of people who protest capital punishment as adding unnecessary death to our world, but he sees it as a community’s responsibility, its way of declaring its opposition to various acts.

The need for punishment is supported by his view of how poorly some people will use their power. In his view, many Egyptians voluntarily killed Jewish babies once they knew there would be no legal consequences, and fooled themselves into denying Hashem’s role in the Exodus so fully they could chase after the Jews into the Sea without thinking they would end up drowned.  

Nations and groups operate together, ideally to articulate, support, and enforce moral conduct.

Jewish People

Among nations, the Jewish one obviously has a special role for Ramban. The Torah calls Jewish coins kadosh, sanctified, because they are used for sanctified purposes, and the Jewish calendar reflects all of Hashem’s redemptions. When the nation as a whole acts well, they need not be subject to the laws of Nature, would be within their rights to consult prophets about how to deal with illnesses and other troubles, not doctors or other experts—as was true of righteous people in our past. Just wanting to the building of the Mishkan was enough for the verse to include ordinary Jews among those who were building it.

So the nation’s possible upside was high, and took less than we might have thought.

Unfortunately, Ramban mostly pointed out where the nation did poorly rather than well. While reading the Sodom story, he digressed to the rape and murder of the concubine at Give’a, with three groups failing to reach their best selves. The tribe of Binyamin failed to stop or protest the crime, then stood by their fellow Benjaminites when the rest of the nation called for justice.

The other tribes were not much better, since they reacted to this crime but not the setting up or theft of the idol of Michah, a story told in the previous chapter of the book of Shofetim. Then, when they went to war against the tribe of Binyamin, they were overconfident, failed to ask Hashem whether they should go at all.

In another digression to a later story, Ramban’s discussion of censuses at the beginning of Bemidbar leads him to David’s census, which led to a plague. Ramban thinks the people should have insisted on being counted only by giving half-shekels, but were already in the wrong for their failure to seek to build a Temple.

Ramban thought the Exodus was delayed thirty years because of the Jews’ many sins. At the late date it did happen, Hashem had to work hard (as it were) to allow it, since the Jews still did not deserve to go out. Once the process started, the Jews continued to err, with some pockets of the Jewish people doubting Hashem sent Moshe all the way up to the Splitting of the Sea.

Just as wanting the good to happen redounded to their credit, watching or joining wrongful causes created liability. The whole nation was at risk because they came to believe Korach was acting on their behalf. Their attitude when leaving Sinai again put them in the wrong, the fact of their relief at not having been given more commandments enough to deserve punishment, and maybe an indirect cause of their being doomed to thirty eight more years in the desert.

Nations, especially the Jewish nation, make the world what it is.

Tribes

Ramban does not spend a lot of time delineating the tribes’ individual characters, but he makes clear he assumed it. The gifts the heads of the tribes brought to mark the dedication of the Mishkan reflected aspects of their unique character, history, or future, Ramban thought.

He also inserted the tribe of Shim’on into the story of their head, Zimri’s, decision to publicly assert his right to marry Kazbi. While the Torah does not mention any action on their part, Ramban thought they accosted their leader over his silence as they were being tried and punished for their own dalliances with Moabite women. They also stood by him as he dared Moshe to react, were a reason Pinchas might have thought twice before responding.

The tribe he looked at most often was the one the Torah did as well, the Levi’im. Ramban thought they missed out explosive population growth in Egypt because they were not enslaved. After the Exodus, the reverse was true, Levi became the tribe most closely connected to and representative of Hashem, so they received no share in the Land or the booty of the war to conquer the Land.

The nation was not conceived as a shapeless whole, it had subgroups with their own ways of contributing, starting with tribes.  

Families

Ramban also points to the family as a corporate entity, which plays a role in the world as a unit.  Had Hashem killed all of Aharon’s sons as punishment for his role in the sin of the Golden Calf, it would have been a destruction of Aharon himself, because children are so fully a part of who parents are.

He noted commandments which legislated the ways members related to each other. Children have to treat parents akin to how they treat Hashem (acknowledging the parent’s role in the child’s creation, with the concomitant obligations of fear and honor), and siblings are to care for and protect each other (avenging Dinah’s honor or marrying a childless brother’s widow).

Moving farther out, Hashem punishes up to four generations for continuing an ancestor’s worship of powers other than Hashem (if the descendants continue the sin), because their sins have some roots in the great-grandfather’s impact on the family.

Families worked together and for each other, so they shared in their failures and successes.

Great Individuals

The smallest unit is the individual, some more impactful than others. The Patriarchs offer many examples, but Ramban’s principle says it best, ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, their actions foreshadowed and shaped their descendants’ experiences. Acts such as Avraham’s leaving Canaan during a famine or Ya’akov’s conquest of Shechem built the Jewish future in certain directions, positive or punitive.

Other remarkable individuals include Moshe, who learned how to invoke specific Divine Attributes as relevant to a current national crisis, could decide to send spies of his own accord, and had the right to plan the order in which the people would conquer and settle the Land.

Aharon was so spiritually excellent, expressed for example in his staying silent when Korach’s group denied he was worthy of being Kohen Gadol, Ramban was sure he could never have had a mum, a physical blemish, or contract the bodily impurity of zivah or tzara’at. His successor High Priests would also be exalted, with the downside of being unable to secure full atonement with sacrifice. A High Priest who sinned would need continuing repentance and prayer.

Noach, a significant step below the greats discussed until now, earned his special status by rejecting wrong, by avoiding the perversions of those around him. Just avoiding evil earned him his place in history.  

nazir lived a better life than regular people, and was—similarly to a prophet—sent by Hashem to show us a model of a better life. Prophets defended the people to Hashem, a function on par with their more commonly recognized role, communicating Hashem’s word.

The nazir chose his status of his own free will, and was expected to promise sacrifices in addition to those the Torah required. Like ordinary people who volunteer to bring certain sacrifices, the nazir is given the room to define his/her nezirut.

Ordinary People

The list of groups and people who shape the world might seem to leave little room for more ordinary people to make a contribution of any moment. Ramban reads the Torah to disagree, in numerous places. The count which opened the book of Bamidbar chose a verb, pkd, to tell Moshe to take note of each individual. The Aseret Ha-Dibberot, the Decalogue told the whole people at Sinai, was expressed in the singular to make sure each Jew knew Hashem was setting up a personal, not just national, relationship.

As was true at the group level, people are responsible for attitudes and choices in addition to actions. The problem with sin starts at leaving one’s heart open to seduction, the Torah warns each Jew. People also can make mistakes about what is right. When the soldiers bring captive women with them from the war with Midian, Ramban thinks they honestly thought they had done what Moshe wanted.

Reading a few comments a week, the world I suggest we found in Ramban’s commentary on the Torah is populated by a multitude of actors, each of whom change the world to varying degrees and in varying ways. To choose our best way, individually or in our various groupings, we need to understand the whole picture, who does what in what contexts. It’s only in putting them all together, each to their proper extent, that we see how we have gotten here, and can know what we need to do to be doing our best to bring out the world’s best.

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