Since this is the last parsha in Bereishit, it seems fitting that Ramban takes one more opportunity to say that what happens to our forefathers prefigures our national history. On 47:28, he relates Yaakov’s actions in going down to Egypt to the exile we currently endure (and which in turn had been set in motion by Avraham’s going down to Egypt when he had a famine, as we saw back in Lech Lecha).
A Self-Inflicted Wound
A first element that Ramban stresses is that Yaakov’s sons initiated the process. They sold Yosef, which is why Yaakov ended up in Egypt when the famine hit; that was where Yosef was, and he was the one able to take care of them. Second, they intended to return when the famine ended (as they tell Pharaoh in 47:4, they had come to sojourn there because there was no food or grazing in Canaan).
Their plans did not work out [Ramban does not address why; Rashi thought Hashem told Yaakov he would have to stay in Egypt until Hashem took them out. Ramban does not say that, and his emphasis that they did not go back seems to imply he thought there was choice to it, that they got comfortable in Egypt and saw no reason to go back]. They ended up staying there for a lengthy exile, Yaakov passed away there, and his bones were sent back to be buried in Canaan.
That’s our encounter with Rome as well, he says [like other Jews of his time, Ramban saw Christian Europe as the continuation of Rome]. We invited them into our politics toward the end of the Second Temple, when Agrippas sought their help to shore up his hold on power. Then, when we had rebelled and they lay siege to Jerusalem, famine led to the loss of the city and a very long exile with no defined end (whereas Egypt and Bavel had defined terms to them).
[Ramban does not comment further, but this broadens our understanding of his view of ma’aseh avot siman le-banim. He seems to imply that had the brothers not sold Yosef—which would have “forced” Hashem to get them to Egypt some other way, true, but that crime would not be on their ledger—the rest of Jewish history might have gone better. Similarly, even after the brothers did that, had Agrippas foregone Roman assistance, perhaps at the cost of his throne, the nation might have been better off. Actions of the forefathers are a sign for the children, not a fate].
What Makes Blessings Effective
In 48:17, Yosef is bothered by his father’s placing his stronger hand on Ephraim, but it’s not clear to Ramban why Yosef cared (if Yaakov meant the blessing for Menashe, why should where he placed his hand change that?). He first suggests Yosef loved Menashe more, since he was the first-born, so it upset him to see his favorite displaced [that would mean Yosef had learned little from his own ordeal as a favorite].
He prefers the answer that Yosef worried that Yaakov was making a mistake. Blessings made in error lack full ruach hakodesh, Yaakov’s full abilities to tap into the realm from which blessings come, and might not work. Ramban had thought that was why Yitzchak asked Esav to bring him food before blessing him, to stimulate himself to a fuller and more successful blessing.
It’s a topic that would take too long to consider fully, but this is a good start: for Ramban, when prophets tap into truths the rest of us cannot, they need some physical support for what they’re doing (such as placing hands on head) and need to be cognizant of exactly what’s going on. To stand in a room and wish two absent grandsons well might express good wishes, but it’s their standing in front of Yaakov, with his hand on each one’s head (and knowing which was which) that could produce the fullest bracha.
Symbolic Actions to Predict and Shape the Future
48:22 leads Ramban to employ both ideas we have just reviewed, that Yaakov’s actions predict our own, and that a prophet’s use of physical items strengthens his predictions or blessings. He tells Yosef he’s giving him an extra gift, Shechem, which he says he conquered be-charbi u-ve-kashti, with my sword and bow.
That foreshadows the Jewish conquest of Canaan (after the Exodus), where Yehoshua 11:19-20 tells us only one city sued for peace. In every other case, the Jews had to go to war (Ramban thinks that was Hashem’s way of helping the Jews remember they were supposed to expel all the Canaanites, to avoid adopting their perverted ways).
Yaakov speaks of his sword and bow to signal that it will be his merits that will help the Jews win these wars. A second option is that Yaakov performed symbolic actions in front of Yosef—he pointed his sword at the Emorites, and shot/threw arrows in their direction, so his descendants would more easily conquer the land when the time came.
He could have learned that from II Melachim 13:16, which tells us Elisha had Yoash, the king of Israel, shoot arrows and bang others on the ground, to symbolize military victories over Aram (Elisha became upset when he hit the ground only three times, because Yoash had limited the blessing to three victories).
People, especially prophets, shape the physical world and the course of history with their actions, Ramban held. But those actions take intent, and a good match between intent and event.
Yehuda’s Irrevocable Kingship
In 49:10, Yaakov says the scepter shall never depart from Yehuda. Ramban says that clearly Yaakov did not mean to guarantee uninterrupted eternal rule to Yehuda, since the Torah itself (Devarim 28:36) predicts that sins can lead to exile for the nation and its kings.
The prescription here was only that no other tribe was allowed to take the throne. That also did not come true, as Ramban well knows, but for different reasons. Shaul became king only because the people asked too early and improperly. His was a monarchy conceived in the sin of their decision to reject Shmuel’s very successful service as Hashem’s representative. [It’s part of Shaul’s tragedy of Shaul that he was sort of set up to fail; he could have pulled out a victory had he done what he was told, but for Ramban there were never particularly high hopes for his kingship].
True, Shmuel seems to promise Shaul eternal monarchy if he listens to Hashem (see I Shmuel 13:13), but Ramban thinks he would have been king over only the descendants of Rachel, or it would have been a kingship subordinate to the one from Yehuda.
The Sin of All Non-Davidic Kings
The kings of the Northern Kingdom—other than Yeravam, who was told by Achiya HaShiloni to take control of much of the people—violated the prescription of their forefather (Ramban thinks Yaakov established this as a family rule).
The Northern kings don’t listen to Hashem, either, so their disobedience does not surprise. But Ramban sees the Chashmonaim, the heroes of the Chanukah story (as it happens, I am writing the first draft of this on the first day of Chanukah) as having made that same error.
They were thoroughly pious people, played a central role in ensuring the Jewish people did not forget the Torah, and yet they failed to restore the kingship to the Davidic line (Ramban seems to think that had just one Hasmonean ruled and then given it to a Davidic descendant, that would not have violated Yaakov’s terms. Taking it over as hereditary was the problem). That failure led to their being wiped out, as Baba Batra 3b tell us that anyone who claims to be from the Hasmonean line is actually a slave.
A Forefather’s Commandments
Ramban does not quite explain what they transgressed. Even if we accept his reading, that Yaakov meant to lay down a rule about kings of the Jewish people, what is the nature of the sin of later kings (including the otherwise heroically pious Hasmoneans)?
Whatever he meant, let’s remember, it had consequences Hashem chose to enforce, since Ramban thinks the extirpation of the Hasmonean line was in reaction to this sin. I hope you’ll pardon the speculation, but particularly in light of his idea that ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, forefathers set their descendants’ history in motion, I wonder whether he thought they thus have the right to legislate how later history should look as well.
When Yaakov determines what he sees as the best shape of the Jewish people, his parental command obligates all who come after, because he was materially shaping our history anyway. Hashem agreed, and made the world such that it reacted to violations of Yaakov’s rules almost as if they were violations of Hashem’s rules.
As I send this out, I’m working on collating recurring themes for comments we saw in Bereishit as a whole, so any summary of this essay would reflect that as well. Let’s just leave it for then.
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.