Hashgacha Pratis (Part 7): Ramban Explains Miracles & Mitzvos

We have thus far established what the proper perspective on Hashgacha Pratis is, as related by the greatest of the medieval Jewish sages. We now begin our concluding exploration of related sources with the first part of a long, famous, fundamental, and often misconstrued essay by Ramban in commentary to the miracles that occurred during the Exodus from Egypt.

(While not precisely related to our topic, we shall examine the entirety of the piece in order to fully understand the more relevant material at the end of it.)

A Proof Of God

Ramban on Exodus 13:16:

ועתה אומר לך כלל בטעם מצות רבות הנה מעת היות ע''ג בעולם מימי אנוש החלו הדעות להשתבש באמונה, מהם כופרים בעיקר ואומרים כי העולם קדמון, כחשו בה' ויאמרו לא הוא, ומהם מכחישים בידיעתו הפרטית ואמרו איכה ידע אל ויש דעה בעליון (תהלים עג יא), ומהם שיודו בידיעה ומכחישים בהשגחה ויעשו אדם כדגי הים שלא ישגיח האל בהם ואין עמהם עונש או שכר, יאמרו עזב ה' את הארץ. וכאשר ירצה האלהים בעדה או ביחיד ויעשה עמהם מופת בשנוי מנהגו של עולם וטבעו, יתברר לכל בטול הדעות האלה כלם, כי המופת הנפלא מורה שיש לעולם אלוה מחדשו, ויודע ומשגיח ויכול. וכאשר יהיה המופת ההוא נגזר תחלה מפי נביא יתברר ממנו עוד אמתת הנבואה, כי ידבר האלהים את האדם ויגלה סודו אל עבדיו הנביאים, ותתקיים עם זה התורה כלה

Paraphrase: Now I will give you a principle for some understanding or reason for many of the mitzvos. From the beginning of paganism, from Enosh, there began a continuous erosion of the principles of faith and clarity of reason. Some totally denied Creation, and said that the world was forever (never really created), denied the existence of God, and said that He is not there. There were others that would agree that here is a Creator, but that He is not interested in creation. And they would say, “How would God know anything that happens here? Is there any knowledge up above?” And still others agree that God knows what happens here, but that He does not mix into reality — that he treats humans like fish — that God does not care about them, and there is certainly no reward or punishment because God left the world (to work by the rules of nature alone). But when God does get involved, and does do miracles by changing the laws of nature, this proves all of these opinions are incorrect. A miracle shows that laws of nature are not truly binding, and that there is someone that can change them, and that He knows about the world, cares about the world, and intervenes in nature. And if this miracle was pre-ordained by a prophet, then this also proves the veracity of prophecy and that there exists a dialogue between Man and God. Once you accept all of these principles, then all of Torah is established.

The fundamental idea expressed here is that the purpose of miracles is to establish the fact that there exists a Being that controls, and created, the very laws of nature. If the laws always existed, then what can change them? If, however, there exists a Being that can alter the laws of nature, this proves that there is something beyond nature that is not bound by it. In short, if God defines the laws, He can also twist them.

Note also that Ramban takes for granted that there is no Hashgacha by fish/animals.

ולכן יאמר הכתוב במופתים למען תדע כי אני ה' בקרב הארץ (לעיל ח יח), להורות על ההשגחה, כי לא עזב אותה למקרים כדעתם ואמר (שם ט כט) למען תדע כי לה' הארץ, להורות על החידוש, כי הם שלו שבראם מאין ואמר (שם ט יד) בעבור תדע כי אין כמוני בכל הארץ. להורות על היכולת, שהוא שליט בכל, אין מעכב בידו, כי בכל זה היו המצריים מכחישים או מסתפקים. אם כן האותות והמופתים הגדולים עדים נאמנים באמונת הבורא ובתורה כלה

Paraphrase: It is for all of these reasons that the verse will often say “I do this so that you will know that I am the God of the world”. This is to teach that God is involved and that He oversees things. He does not leave the world to haphazard reality and chance. You must know that the world is God’s. He made the world out of nothing. The world is His. He rules all; there is nothing that can constrict Him or stop Him; and all of these things were denied by the Egyptians, or were doubted by them. The great miracles are the true witnesses to the truth of God and the Torah.

Ramban is stating that via the miracles during the Exodus from Egypt, God reintroduced monotheism to the world.

The Purpose Of The Mitzvos

ובעבור כי הקב''ה לא יעשה אות ומופת בכל דור לעיני כל רשע או כופר, יצוה אותנו שנעשה תמיד זכרון ואות לאשר ראו עינינו, ונעתיק הדבר אל בנינו, ובניהם לבניהם, ובניהם לדור אחרון והחמיר מאד בענין הזה כמו שחייב כרת באכילת חמץ (לעיל יב טו) ובעזיבת הפסח (במדבר ט יג), והצריך שנכתוב כל מה שנראה אלינו באותות ובמופתים על ידינו ועל בין עינינו, ולכתוב אותו עוד על פתחי הבתים במזוזות, ושנזכיר זה בפינו בבקר ובערב, כמו שאמרו (ברכות כא.) אמת ויציב דאורייתא, ממה שכתוב (דברים טז ג) למען תזכור את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך, ושנעשה סכה בכל שנה

Paraphrase: And since God is not going to perform a miracle or wonder in each and every generation for every sinful person or heretic, therefore God commanded us to constantly remember the “signs that your eyes saw, to tell these things to your children, and your children’s children, until the last generation”. The Torah was very stringent about these remembrances, like proscribing a penalty of kareis for eating chameitz on Pesach.

The Jewish people are living testimonies to the stories of Egypt. What God did during the Exodus was create a nation. Once the nation saw the acts of God, they were commanded to repeat these stories to their children for all time, and to do various actions to constantly remember the stories. Do these things, and one will be religious.

Now, why is it that during the Friday night kiddush we say that it is zecher l’tzias Mitzraim? What does kiddush have to do with the Exodus from Egypt? After all, is not kiddush about the creation of the universe?

Egypt, however, is when all of the ideas mentioned in kiddush were reintroduced into the world, and to the Jewish people. The Exodus was when God reintroduced monotheism into the world. Recall, of course, that the Jewish people in Egypt were quite pagan. According to the Midrash, 80% of the Jewish people did not even merit to leave Egypt, and instead died there. The simple fact of the matter is that we do not know the truths of God from Avraham or Yaakov. Rather, we possess these truths from the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai.

Thus, God commanded that we write these miracles on our hands and eyes and doorposts — tefillin and mezuzah — and recall these stories day and night — shema — and once a year recall the sojourn through the desert — Succos — and many other such actions.

The reason why the prohibition of chameitz on Pesach is so stringent is not because of the mere fact that it commemorates the fact that we left Egypt, but that it really commemorates the fact that we left paganism. The prescriptions for the holiday of Pesach, chameitz most certainly included, is a part of the way of recalling the reintroduction of monotheism into the world. If one walks away from that, and neglects to fulfill the obligations, or violates the prohibitions, indeed, kareis is a fittingly severe punishment.

God doesn’t simply want people to nail boxes onto their doorposts — He desires an acute awareness of what they contain. The ultimate goal and purpose of things like tefillin or mezuzah is for people to meditate on what is contained inside of the them.

וכן כל כיוצא בהן מצות רבות זכר ליציאת מצרים והכל להיות לנו בכל הדורות עדות במופתים שלא ישתכחו, ולא יהיה פתחון פה לכופר להכחיש אמונת האלהים. כי הקונה מזוזה בזוז אחד וקבעה בפתחו ונתכוון בענינה כבר הודה בחדוש העולם ובידיעת הבורא והשגחתו, וגם בנבואה, והאמין בכל פנות התורה, מלבד שהודה שחסד הבורא גדול מאד על עושי רצונו, שהוציאנו מאותו עבדות לחירות וכבוד גדול לזכות אבותיהם החפצים ביראת שמו

Paraphrase: And just like these, there are many mitzvos to remember the Exodus. And they are all for us and all generations as testimony to the miracles so that we do not forget them so that there will not be the capability of a heretic to deny these things because we are constantly being reminded. And this is also the idea behind the mezuzah, and all of these things are to remember that God created the world, and that He is aware of all that occurs, and intervenes, and that prophecy exists. These things affirm the fundamentals of Torah, and the great kindness that God did in taking us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom.

ולפיכך אמרו (אבות פ''ב מ''א) הוי זהיר במצוה קלה כבחמורה שכולן חמודות וחביבות מאד, שבכל שעה אדם מודה בהן לאלהיו וכוונת כל המצות שנאמין באלהינו ונודה אליו שהוא בראנו, והיא כוונת היצירה, שאין לנו טעם אחר ביצירה הראשונה, ואין אל עליון חפץ בתחתונים מלבד שידע האדם ויודה לאלהיו שבראו, וכוונת רוממות הקול בתפלות וכוונת בתי הכנסיות וזכות תפלת הרבים

Paraphrase: Therefore, Chazal wrote in Pirkei Avos “Be careful about simple mitzvos just as with strict mitzvos because they are all beautiful and beloved”. Because all mitzvos that you do you are admitting that God is the commander. What is the purpose of all commandments? To believe in our Lord, to admit to Him that He created us. This is the ultimate intent of all of Creation. I see no other purpose of Creation other than this. The celestial God only wants the lower beings to know that God created them. What is the intent of praying loudly during prayers or going to shul? The unique merit of public prayer is that people should have a place to join together and to admit and thank God that He created them, and brought them into existence, and to publicize this truth that we are simply God’s creations. This is the idea to talk loudly and with force during prayer.

Ramban understands that the purposes of Creation is the giving of the Torah at Sinai — an idea that is also seen throughout Chazal — and the purpose of Sinai is the revelation of, and belief in, God. (This is also the approach of Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim.) All commandments exist in order to bring us to a recognition of God. Indeed, they are also there to refine us, as it is only a refined person that is capable of being honest enough to release his or her inner desires and achieve the intellectual honesty to embrace the truth of God.

When we pray, we are simply stating that God is the Creator and that we are the created. When we pray in public we are making a public statement. Private prayer, according to Ramban, is thus missing a certain component of kiddush HaShem.

Author’s Note:

So as not to make this single essay unreasonably long we shall continue with the last part of this Ramban — the piece most relevant to our discussion — in the next installment of our series.

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