Ramban To Ekev, Week 1
On the first verse of Parshat Ekev (7:12)
דברים ז:יב וְהָיָ֣ה׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְקֹוָ֨ק אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ:
Devarim 7:12: And it will be, in return for your hearkening to these ordinances, keeping and doing them, the Lord, your God will keep the covenant and the mercy that He swore to your fathers.
Ramban says societal laws need such adamant and repeat warnings, first, because not everyone will keep the Torah as they should. It is these laws that will help the Jews continue to function with Hashem’s support and help. If so, it will be the community’s job to react to wrongdoers (presumably by punishing them) for the health of the society at large.
Ramban knows of people who will argue the futility of such punishment. They will say that it is wrong to put criminals to death after the sin has already occurred—it just adds more destruction. That’s why the Torah in verse 16 warns us not to have compassion [there, it’s about the idolatrous nations the Jews were going to conquer in Israel, but the point holds generally, that Jews are not supposed to have misplaced compassion; I also want to remind readers that Ramban knew of people making this claim in his time, the 13th century, a reminder not to see that which happens in our times as essentially new].
Aside from thinking they know better when to have mercy, some Jews might also fear the people who commit these crimes, especially if they are powerful or popularly persuasive. That’s why the Torah repeatedly warns against that, to courts, to those who encounter (and need to repudiate and punish) false prophets, or close friends or relatives who try to convince us to join them in worshipping (or believing in) powers other than Hashem.
For Ramban, the Torah puts this first because standing up to wrongdoers (especially those who worship other powers) is crucial to running a proper society, without misplaced mercy or fear of repercussions, financial or social. It rings true today as well, for the same reasons.
Living the Supernatural Life, Medicine
Twice in the parsha we see the Jews being told that the world is not purely natural. In 7:15-16,
דברים ז:טו וְהֵסִ֧יר יְקֹוָ֛ק מִמְּךָ֖ כָּל־חֹ֑לִי וְכָל־מַדְוֵי֩ מִצְרַ֨יִם הָרָעִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָדַ֗עְתָּ לֹ֤א יְשִׂימָם֙ בָּ֔ךְ וּנְתָנָ֖ם בְּכָל־שֹׂנְאֶֽיךָ: (טז) וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ אֶת־כָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹקיךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ לֹא־תָח֥וֹס עֵֽינְךָ֖ עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וְלֹ֤א תַעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מוֹקֵ֥שׁ ה֖וּא לָֽךְ:
Devarim 7:15: The Lord will remove from you all sickness; and He will not put on you any of the harmful diseases of Egypt that you have known, but He will lay them on all who hate you.
Part of the reward for properly following the Torah is that Hashem will remove all illness (Ramban adds, that are customary in the world) and all the ills that befell the Egyptians. He notes the implication that if the Jews don’t do as they are supposed to, these ills will befall them, an idea that is made explicit later, in Devarim, 28:60.
While Ramban explained this in Shemot, we have not discussed it before. He seems to me to be reminding us that the Torah did not see illness as only natural. There is that which is customary, such as colds, flus, rashes or whatever. Even there, the promise is that if the Jews act as they are supposed to, they will have less or none of these illnesses.
In reverse, should the Jews fail to live up to the minimal standards they are liable to be visited not only by the usual illnesses of the natural world, but also by the extraordinary ills that Hashem visited upon the Egyptians.
It’s a view that in no way denies the value of medicine as an endeavor, or the need for Jews to work with doctors. What it does is add the caveat that all that is only because we function at a level that does not merit the supernatural. It reminds us that, as part of our Ramban’s belief system, the natural order is not insensitive to our spiritual state, nor in any way impervious to Divine interventions, even on the scale of illnesses.
Living the Supernatural Life, Food
Verse 8:3 says
דברים ח:ג וַֽיְעַנְּךָ֘ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ֒ וַיַּֽאֲכִֽלְךָ֤ אֶת־הַמָּן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־יָדַ֔עְתָּ וְלֹ֥א יָדְע֖וּן אֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ ...
Devarim 8:3: He afflicted you and made you hunger, and He fed you the manna that you never knew nor did your fathers…
Ramban says that means that the Jews did not know it as a viable form of lasting sustenance, neither from personal experience nor from familial tradition. The manna was wholly unexpected, an aspect of the world they never would have thought possible (and might have rejected as impossible if someone suggested there could be such a food).
Then he adds the possibility that it’s saying that Hashem performed a kindness for them that their much more deserving ancestors (who did all Hashem asked, such as Avraham leaving home) never attained.
The message is that Hashem supports and sustains those who follow His will, by means that they themselves could not anticipate, so the Jews should be sure to do so. It is, again, a message I wonder whether many of us accept today, that the world is not only that which we see and understand, and that Hashem has, as it were, more tricks up His sleeve than we can know, “tricks” we can access simply by acting as Hashem told us.
Drawing Mistaken Conclusions About the Good Coming Their Way
Several comments of Ramban in Chapter 9 take on what seems to me still a contemporary problem: our quickness to see ourselves as good.
דברים ט:ד אַל־תֹּאמַ֣ר בִּלְבָבְךָ֗ בַּהֲדֹ֣ף יְקֹוָק֩ אֱלֹקיךָ אֹתָ֥ם׀ מִלְּפָנֶיךָ֘ לֵאמֹר֒ בְּצִדְקָתִי֙ הֱבִיאַ֣נִי יְקֹוָ֔ק לָרֶ֖שֶׁת אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וּבְרִשְׁעַת֙ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֔לֶּה יְקֹוָ֖ק מוֹרִישָׁ֥ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ: (ה) לֹ֣א בְצִדְקָתְךָ֗ וּבְיֹ֙שֶׁר֙ לְבָ֣בְךָ֔ אַתָּ֥ה בָ֖א לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֶת־אַרְצָ֑ם כִּ֞י בְּרִשְׁעַ֣ת׀ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֗לֶּה יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹקיךָ֙ מוֹרִישָׁ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ וּלְמַ֜עַן הָקִ֣ים אֶת־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֤ע יְקֹוָק֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב:
Deuteronomy 9:4: After the Lord has expelled them before you, you are not to say to yourselves, “The Lord caused me to enter and possess this land because of my righteousness.” On the contrary, it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you to confirm what the Lord promised by an oath to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Ramban notes that Moshe had previously warned the Jews against thinking their own power achieved their military victories, that they had to recognize that they came from Hashem.
[That’s true even if we see that Jews acquire some technology that tipped the battle, or find a strategy that proved successful. It’s vital, that verse told us, to remember that that’s the form Hashem’s assistance took at that time, but that we mustn’t make the error of thinking we did it.]
A second-level way of congratulating ourselves for our success is what Moshe is denying here, where we say that of course Hashem did it, but we deserved it.
It’s why the verse mentions the wrongdoings of the other nations and the oath to the Patriarchs. Ramban does note that 7:8 seems to contradict this claim, since it said that Hashem deals well with the Jewish people out of His love for them, and (obviously, to Ramban) Hashem only loves that which is good. He answers that the Jewish people as a historical entity are good (and loved by Hashem), the theoretical klal Yisrael of all the generations. These verses are directed at the actual Jews in front of him.
The Jewish people across time are a good Hashem loves; that generation standing in front of him would be fooling themselves if they decided they merited what they were about to receive.
Breaking the Tablets Unthinkingly and at Personal Risk
In Chapter 9, Moshe mentions the Golden Calf in a list of sins the Jews had committed; Ramban’s understanding of what Moshe chooses to review about that incident show that in his understanding the Golden Calf had more importance, and more lasting effect, than we may stop to realize.
דברים ט:יז וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ֙ בִּשְׁנֵ֣י הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וָֽאַשְׁלִכֵ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י יָדָ֑י וָאֲשַׁבְּרֵ֖ם לְעֵינֵיכֶֽם:
So I grabbed the two tablets and then threw them out of my hands, breaking them before your eyes.
Ramban says that Moshe speaks of his own breaking of the tablets as part of his admonishments of the Jewish people. He was saying that the Jews’ sin was so terrible that he could not control himself and broke the tablets [that’s an interesting contrast to today, when many people would try to say that Moshe’s self-control is his own responsibility. Ramban is saying that their sinning that way in fact could properly lead Moshe to lose control in that way].
That was either to lay the groundwork for the story of the second tablets, or to point out to them that he had risked himself on their behalf. He could not know how Hashem would react to his doing this (Hashem might have punished him for destroying such sanctified objects), and yet he had undertaken that as a way of diverting punishment from them (Ramban cites a supporting midrash, which says that Moshe’s breaking the tablets sundered the marital relationship, so that the Jews’ “affair” with another god wasn’t as wrong, since they were “single”).
A Sin of Looming Threat
For all that that helped, it wasn’t nearly enough. Moshe then speaks of his 40 days and nights praying on their behalf. In verse 19,
דברים ז:יט כִּ֣י יָגֹ֗רְתִּי מִפְּנֵ֤י הָאַף֙ וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָצַ֧ף יְקֹוָ֛ק עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְהַשְׁמִ֣יד אֶתְכֶ֑ם וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְקֹוָק֙ אֵלַ֔י גַּ֖ם בַּפַּ֥עַם הַהִֽוא:
Devarim 7:19: I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord against you, because he was irate enough to destroy you. But the Lord also listened to me at that time.
Ramban points out that Moshe’s fear is despite the fact that verses in Shemot tell us his prayers right after the incident worked well enough that vayinachem Hashem, Hashem repented or changed His mind (as it were) of the evil He had spoken of doing to them.
So Moshe went back and prayed for 40 days and nights.
[To me, that deserves a pause for two points of emphasis. First, having little to do with this Ramban, I wonder whether we stop to think about blank spaces in the Torah such as these 40 days. What did Moshe do and say? Did he say the same words over and over? Did he wake each morning with a new plan for how to ask/beg/convince Hashem not to destroy the nation? Did he work to improve himself so that he would be a better agent of the Jews’ pardon?]
The second point is to emphasize what Ramban just said. I wonder how many of us can accept what Ramban takes for granted, that the sin of the Golden Calf was so serious that it deserved destruction, which Moshe averted with his original prayers, and still left enough culpability that destruction was a live option.
That in no way reduces or takes away from the great kindnesses Hashem performs for the undeserving individuals and nations. But it adds another element I’m not sure we always let ourselves notice, that our national history includes an event where the Jewish people was so wrong they deserved destruction, both in the moment and even after a pause to think about what should happen next.
It’s not easy to see Hashem’s influence on the world for the good, such as in military victories, our livelihoods and our physical health, and it’s distressing to accept that it’s Hashem’s influence when it’s punitive, no matter how much we deserve it. But one sample of Ramban’s comments to this parsha suggest that seeing those influences, and following Hashem’s laws, are crucial pieces in reaching the life circumstances we fervently want.
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein