Last time, I pointed out that many of Ramban’s comments early in the book of Shemot challenge us to think about the Exodus from Egypt differently than we did until now. I reviewed some of those in my book “As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience”; here, I’ll pick a few to highlight, to remind us that the story we heard isn’t the only way to remember it, and that the world might work differently—then and now—than we let ourselves think it does.
What We Are Able to Hear
Shemot 6:9 tells us the Jewish people did not listen to Moshe mi-kotzer ruach u-me-avoda kasha, because of shortness of spirit and hard labor. Ramban points out that the verse says nothing about whether they believed what Moshe was telling them, only their decision or ability to pay attention. Current troubles can become so upsetting that a person does not wish to live through them even if s/he knows better times are coming after.
Here, the “shortness of spirit” was their fear Paroh would kill them. [Ramban does not say, but I think he means that the Jews believed Moshe’s predictions, but were unconvinced that they individually would live to see it. If so, there’s a certain logic to their disregard of Moshe’s words, and yet the verse still looks down on them for their reaction. I think Ramban implies that when we hear of more fortunate times coming to our people, it should make us happy and excited, regardless of our personal fates].
The reference to hard work was focused more on the pressure the Egyptians placed on the Jews, which denied them the time or mental space to hear and accept what Moshe was saying.
Ramban’s reading of those two factors carries an implicit reminder/warning for us, that we have to be sure not to let our own worries and pressures—however real and/or valid—deafen us to that which we should be hearing.
An undercurrent of all these comments, I think, is that if various actors in the story had done better, the outcome would have been even better than it was. How would Jewish history have looked if the Jews here had been able to hear Moshe, had fought through their shortness of spirit and harshness of work to be more actively enthusiastic about the news? We’ll never know.
The Clarity of Moshe’s Messages
Shemot 6:10 is the first instance (as far as I can ascertain) of a phrase that will appear dozens more times, that Hashem spoke to Moshe leimor. Ramban rejects the usual translation of leimor, “saying.” In his view, it indicates making a matter completely clear and understood. The Torah stresses that Hashem spoke to Moshe in a manner full enough and clear enough that it left no doubt as to what was said, did not traffic in hints or allusions Moshe might have missed.
That’s the reason it appears so often, to assure us that Moshe’s prophecies did not require interpretation or inference, that what we have in the Torah is the direct and accurate recording of what Hashem said. The message was important enough in Ramban’s time for him to assume that was why the Torah used that word, and remains important in ours, when people still struggle with accepting this one central claim of traditional Judaism, that Hashem dictated the Torah directly, clearly and without any uncertainty as to what it meant, to Moshe Rabbeinu.
As we move toward a post-modern world, with its confident rejection of any possibility of objective truth, Ramban reads this well-known phrase as the antidote to the too-extreme version of that claim. With all the complications in sifting partial truths from each other, Orthodox Jews are clear that we have at least one document of objective truth, the Torah Hashem told to Moshe leimor.
Hashem Stops the Usual Workings of the World
In verse 8”15, Paroh’s magicians concede they are stymied by the plague of lice, that it must therefore be the “etzba Elokim, the finger of God.” The simple reading is that this was beyond their usual powers. Rationalists would have to explain that idea away, since they do not accept that sorcerers had any real powers, but Ramban believed enough in what we would call witchcraft or sorcery that that itself was not an issue for him.
Still, his explanation of what happened teaches lessons to those of us who do not buy into witchcraft. For Ramban, the sorcerers’ inability to produce lice calls for explanation (if they were legitimate sorcerers, why would this be impossible?). He first answers that this was a sibah me-et Hashem, a reason from God, to step in and prevent them from doing that which they ordinarily could (later in the comment, Ramban points out that the verse says the sorcerers acted in the way that would produce lice and were unable. If they never could produce lice, what kinds of actions were they doing? For Ramban, they often could bring out lice. Hashem stopped them here).
Ramban is about to offer a second idea, but I want to make sure we not glide over his claim, that even when the world generally works a certain way, it’s not guaranteed. Hashem can always choose to change a pattern, no matter how long we’ve known that to be the way the world works. So when we draw conclusions about how the world operates—regardless of whether by sorcery or science—we must remember that those conclusions are only valid when Hashem continues to acquiesce, that none of them are absolute truths about the physical universe.
They always come with the caveat “unless Hashem decides otherwise.”
Limits on People’s Ability to Shape the World
Ramban continues, however, with an explanation that puts a naturalistic spin on it. The plagues of blood and frogs did not create anything new—water was converted to blood (that might be alchemy, but not creation), and the frogs were gathered from all over, as indicated by Shemot 8:2, “Va-ta’al hatzefarde’a, the frogs rose up [out of the river].”
For lice, Hashem tells Moshe to strike the earth and it will become lice, which Ramban takes to mean that lice will be created by Moshe’s action (he does not explain why the earth changing into lice is creation but water becoming blood was not. I think it’s because blood is already mostly water, or because he didn’t think the earth became lice, it’s that the earth brought forth lice. But Ramban does not explain).
Creation is solely a power of Hashem’s, so that when the sorcerers used their powers, which involved asking demons to produce the desired results, they asked for that which demons could not do. Shemot Rabbah 10:7 offers a similar idea, that demons have no powers over that which is smaller than a lentil, so they could not gather lice (note that this midrash thinks they were gathering, rather than creating, but gets to the same conclusion).
When they could not, they realized Moshe was operating under higher auspices, as it were.
Ramban’s phrasing might seem distant from a 21st-century view, but his idea works equally for those who insist the world operates scientifically. Ramban’s point was that there are limits to what we can do when manipulating those laws—limits either on how greatly we can change that world (we cannot create anything completely new), or on the scale at which we operate (we today do operate at levels smaller than a lentil, but we can imagine scientists discovering that they cannot go smaller than a quantum, for example). He’s giving the sorcerers greater powers than we might have thought and also asserting hard limits to those powers. That balance applies to whatever it is that we think shows the ability to manipulate and/or control the world.
The Warning to Us
Ramban frequently points to the Exodus as the premier example of Hashem’s powerful involvement with the world. Here, we’ve seen that even as that’s true, it could be possible if not dangerously easy for people to miss those messages (and all the more so in our times, when the messages might not be quite as clear).
We might be in too unfortunate a work or life situation to find the psychological room to pay attention, we might deny that messages that came very clearly from Hashem in fact do so, or we might let the impressive abilities of those who operate within the world’s usual workings mislead us into thinking that’s all there is.
Then what we need to do is hear Moshe fully, recognize that sorcerers of all sorts operate within the limits Hashem set for them (and tolerates from them), not in any independent way, and let that turn our thoughts and attention toward the true Master of the Universe.
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.