As Moshe stands at the end of his life, Ramban reads many of his statements in Va’etchanan as striving to help the new generation enter the land with the best chances for success. The first examples are what are often today confused with or rejected as “negative” reinforcement, the warning or reminder that going wrong can lead to consequences.
In 3:24, Ramban reads Moshe’s reminding the people that he himself will not be entering the land as closing his list of ways in which the previous generation had damaged themselves and him; through their iniquities and challenges, he too ended up being left back. They, the next generation, are able to do better, but only if they avoid their ancestors’ mistakes, giving up rebelliousness and disobedience. Which is why he then starts with mitzvot, seen in this context as guides to how to secure a desired life.
One example of that comes at 4:9, where the verse warns against forgetting what we saw at Sinai. I know of two sources in Chazal that read this as about forgetting Torah generally (Avot 3:8—with its similar form in Menachot 99b—and Kiddushin 30a), but Ramban takes it literally, as a prohibition—which he enumerates as the first of those Rambam wrongly omitted from Sefer HaMitzvot—against forgetting what happened at Sinai, and an adjuration to inform our children and grandchildren of the experience.
Another warning that is focused more on the positive than we might realize comes at 6:2, where Moshe says that he is teaching them the Torah and mitzvot in order that they fear Hashem (or, have awe of Hashem). Ramban reads that as his attempt to tell them that fear or awe is a goal of its own, since that will help them and their children merit staying in the Land of Israel, will make them known for their righteousness and success. As he says on 6:3, the commandment to observe the Torah (and to develop actual fear or awe of Hashem) is for our own good.
Trusting a Chain of Transmission
Part of what Moshe stresses as a prelude is how the Jews all saw the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. This had to precede any actual content of mitzvot, Ramban says, because were the mitzvot “just” the words of Moshe as a prophet, a later prophet might claim that he had heard a contradictory or overriding message from Hashem (as happened with other Western religions). Since that prophet, too, would have established his or her bonafides, we would be left unsure as to whether to stick with Moshe or go over to the other prophet’s version.
The personal witness of the events at Sinai, hearing Hashem Himself (pardon the pronoun) address us, was to stress that this Torah is unchangeable, that no later prophet, no matter how impressive the signs s/he gives, or the miracles s/he performs, can controvert what we received from Hashem through Moshe.
I find this a particularly interesting Ramban since we saw last time that Ramban thought Moshe’s remonstrations played an important role in confirming the new generation’s faith, since he was the last surviving eyewitness and participant in the events he was describing. That would seem to mean that hearing the story from a non-eyewitness makes it slightly less immediately believable or acceptable.
Here, though, Ramban says that our children will believe our representations of tradition (even if we haven’t seen it ourselves) without any doubt, since people would never lie like that to their children. It is a poignant statement to read in our time, since that which Ramban takes for granted, future generations’ acceptance of the truth of the traditions their forebears share with them is today very much in doubt, to our distress, and in a way that makes exactly this goal of sustaining our faith in the events at Sinai so difficult in many families and with many children.
Later in the parsha, 6:7, Ramban understands the commandment of ve-shinantam le-vanecha, you shall teach it to your children, as a necessary consequence of mitzvot being le-doroteichem, an eternal pact between us and Hashem. If our national covenant depends on mitzvot, how else will the next generation know them if we do not teach it to them (this Ramban impacts me particularly because of my previous life as an educator who failed to convince children, parents and other educators of how poorly we are doing at ensuring that the next generation knows even the most basic set of mitzvot, let alone acquires desirable levels of knowledge and involvement).
A Predicted Failure
His reading of 4:25 seems to be aware that there will come a time when parents’ traditions won’t be enough. While the next verse’s use of the word ha’idoti, I testify against you, sounds like a warning, Ramban reads it as a prediction that this is what’s going to happen. Of course, that’s not a guarantee (that would create problems of free will), but it’s enough of a certainty that Gittin 88a took ve-noshantem’s numerological value as a reference to how long the First Temple stood.
That’s a post-facto reading, Ramban says; Chazal knew these verses hinted at an impending exile (should they act as expected and become too comfortable in the land, letting themselves forget Hashem, Sinai and all that goes with that), but it was only once the Temple was in fact destroyed that they retrospectively saw the numerological correspondence.
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, NY, with his wife and three children.