Ramban to Shoftim, Week One
Life Is in Israel
Two comments of Ramban remind us of his view—which has halachic ramifications—that the Jewish people are meant to live in Israel, a life demonstrably richer there than elsewhere.
דברים טז:יח שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ
Devarim 16:18: Set up judges and officers in all your gates that Hashem your God is giving your tribes.
Ramban’s first understanding of the verse’s specifying “your gates” is that the obligation to appoint judges applied only to Israel. Everywhere else, when a Jew needed a court, those who were qualified would assemble ad hoc, or the litigants would go to Israel. Ramban argues that one could read Rambam’s Laws of the Sanhedrin 1:2 that way, that he in fact held that Jews outside of Israel are not obligated to set up courts.
Makkot 7a steps back from that radical differentiation, because Bamidbar 35:29 refers to cities of refuge as a law that applies to all our habitations, which implies a functioning legal system outside of Israel as well. The Gemara says our verse comes to say that within Israel, we must set up courts in every city, whereas outside Israel we only need them in every region.
Ramban adds that nowadays, with the loss of the original semicha, the certification of halachic experts as bearing the chain of tradition going back to Sinai, much of the court apparatus that the Torah set up does not function (since most of a court’s functions require semuchim, those who bear that certification). That means this mitzvah is not in effect as well.
This verse then serves as a reminder of a lost part of our national makeup, the semicha, as well as that the Torah set up our obligation to pursue justice differently within and without Israel. [Mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, offered a beautiful explanation for why the Torah would distinguish in this area, in an article that was republished in Minchat Aviv, which I summarized in a previous column on Torah Musings].
Prophecy to Jews, in Israel
Courts are a classic example of a human endeavor, but the distinction applies to the metaphysical issues as well.
דברים יח:טו נָבִ֨יא מִקִּרְבְּךָ֤ מֵאַחֶ֙יךָ֙ כָּמֹ֔נִי יָקִ֥ים לְךָ֖ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹקיךָ אֵלָ֖יו תִּשְׁמָעֽוּן:
Devarim 18:15: A prophet from amongst you, from your brethren, like me, will Hashem your God establish, hearken to him.
The verse qualifies the identity of the prophet [or prophetess, since the Hebrew male covers both genders] by saying “from amongst you, from your brethren.” The second clause tells Ramban that prophets will not be non-Jews (in Bamidbar 22:31, Ramban takes the position that Bilam was more of a sorcerer than a prophet; when he eventually rose to a level closer to prophecy, it was for the honor of the Jewish people). In the continuing conversation about how Torah does or does not set Jews apart from other nations, this Ramban offers one example of how Jews seem to have a lasting spiritual advantage.
What recommended this Ramban to me here, though, was its other qualifier, mi-kirbecha, from among you, which he takes to mean in Israel (there are discussions in the Gemara about how Yechezkel and Yonah could have prophecy outside Israel, but Ramban doesn’t go into it, so neither will we). Whatever else Israel means, for Ramban it’s the place where Jews establish the best form of justice they can, and where there is the possibility for certain special people to have direct communication from Hashem.
But Wait, There’s More
These advantages of the Land of Israel aren’t a function of geography, since Hashem predicts expanding its borders to encompass other lands.
דברים יט:ח: וְאִם־יַרְחִ֞יב יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹקיךָ֙ אֶת־גְּבֻ֣לְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ וְנָ֤תַן לְךָ֙ אֶת־כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֖ר לָתֵ֥ת לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ: (ט) כִּֽי־תִשְׁמֹר֩ אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֨ה הַזֹּא֜ת לַעֲשֹׂתָ֗הּ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוְּךָ֘ הַיּוֹם֒ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹקיךָ וְלָלֶ֥כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֖יו כָּל־הַיָּמִ֑ים וְיָסַפְתָּ֙ לְךָ֥ עוֹד֙ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ עָרִ֔ים עַ֖ל הַשָּׁלֹ֥שׁ הָאֵֽלֶּה:
Devarim 19:8: When Hashem your God expands your borders, as He swore to your forefathers, and shall give you the whole Land that He said he would give your forefathers; (9) When you observe this whole body of law that I am commanding you today, to keep it, to love Hashem your God, to walk in His ways all the days, then you shall add three cities to these three.
Hidden in the prosaic message that there will one day be nine cities of refuge rather than six, Ramban finds a reminder that the Jews being mostly observant is not the same as their being completely observant. He is struck by the Torah’s here referring to observing kol hamitzvah hazot, all of this set of laws.
That seems to contradict what the Torah says many times elsewhere, that baseline Israel is only given to the Jews as long as they observe the Torah (as Ramban cites many verses to show). For one example, one Jew’s malfeasance, Achan, led the whole people to suffer a military defeat. If they only get the land (and keep it) while they’re keeping Hashem’s law, what can it mean that Hashem will expand the borders (enough to necessitate three more cities of refuge) when they observe all of the Torah?
Keeping All the Mitzvot Forever
His answer is that to fulfill the promises to the Patriarchs, the Jews had to reach a certain level of observance. To merit the significant expansion of the borders that necessitates three more cities of refuge—which implies a doubling of size of what we today think of as Israel, which was covered by three such cities—all Jews must observe all the Torah.
More, the verse refers to kol hayamim, all the days. Ramban says that cannot be literal, because if the standard is they have to already keep all the mitzvot for that long, they’ll never get the cities. Rather, Hashem will know that their observance is so internalized, so much a part of who they are, that Hashem can be confident that it will be for all time. [The idea of Hashem knowing our characters well comes up in the second chapter of Rambam’s Laws of Repentance, too, where Rambam speaks of Hashem being able to testify that a sinner will never return to his/her sin].
Room for Growth
I guess I was struck by this Ramban because I find the question of what percentage of Jews are observant, and how Hashem reacts to that, continually edifying. I have for some years now (and in my book, “As If We Were There”) been struck by Rashi’s comment on the plague of darkness, that all it took to merit leaving Egypt was wanting to leave (and, yet, four-fifths of Jews did not get out). Yehoshua 24:23 makes clear that all throughout the desert, the Jews had held onto the other gods they had taken with them from Egypt, and yet they got the land.
Here, Ramban is telling us that the Jews entering Israel were observant enough, which is not the same as saying they were all fully observant. Only when we as a nation reach that standard will we see the fulfillment of this verse. It is a continuing reminder that as we celebrate the flowering of Torah and observance in some circles, the Jewish people as a whole has a ways to go.
What We Get for That
The other noteworthy idea in this Ramban is that the only mitzvah that is impacted by this future reality is this one, the additional three cities of refuge. Once Jewish history works out so successfully that the entire Jewish people is working to serve Hashem as Hashem wants and as best as they can—which brings the physical reward of geographical expansion—the only change that will make in our observance, in what it means to be a servant of Hashem, is that we will need to add three cities of refuge.
I read it as a stark reminder that the Torah we have is enough to guide us, to show us all we need to know about how to serve Hashem. Technically, when the Land of Israel gets bigger, we’ll need more cities of refuge. But in terms of how or whether that will alter our service of Hashem in fundamental ways? Not so much.
Not Messing It Up
The end of the parsha gives rules for war, which we’ll have to look at next time. Here we have space for one element of that, which also relates to the themes we’ve seen so far.
דברים כ:יח לְמַ֗עַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־יְלַמְּד֤וּ אֶתְכֶם֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכֹל֙ תּֽוֹעֲבֹתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשׂ֖וּ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם וַחֲטָאתֶ֖ם לַיקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹקיכֶֽם:
Devarim 20:18: So that they not teach you to act as in all their abominations that they did to their gods, [leading you to] sin to Hashem, your God.
We’ll talk a bit about the warning to eradicate conquered nations next time. Here, I wanted to point out Ramban’s understanding that if we leave over these nations, they will convince us to serve Hashem in their ways, such as by burning our children to Hashem, and from there will lure us to worship other gods [I don’t know if I point it out often enough, but this “luring” isn’t some nefarious plot; that’s how they see the world, so that as they develop good relations with others, including Jews, they’ll want to include us in that. And we’ll let ourselves be included.].
A piece added here is that the Torah requires complete eradication. Ramban says that even one non-Jew will be enough to mention ways he used to worship idols. Those ways will be attractive, tempting Jews to try it as a way of worshipping Hashem. The only solution is to make sure there are no such non-Jews left (either because they are killed, run away, or convert in some way).
The Land of Israel, the original or supersized version, is a place for Jewish justice, for prophecy and for cities of refuge. More so than other places, since it’s where the Jewish people, as a people, build their national lives and relationship with Hashem. For that reason, they must be doubly sure to remove all possible distractions or temptations to go another path, since only this path brings an expanded, successful and thriving Israel.
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.