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 on TorahMusings).
It’s why I pause at the end of each book of the Torah to see what our sample shows, it’s 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 that 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, which 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 toward 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 Toward 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 12, 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 13) 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 that 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.
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.