We Stand Apart

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Dogmatism, when applied to religion, is a term that does not sit well with most people. The word carries the implication of preeminence and exclusivity at the expense of other beliefs. In Judaism, we are faced with this very principle, as we see throughout the Torah how we are to function as the “light unto other nations.” By virtue of this role, it is evident that we are of a qualitatively different religious standard; at the same time, it is imperative we do not transform this into a feeling of superiority, as this is not the commandment’s intent. In this week’s parsha, within a debate between Rashi and the Ramban, we see from two perspectives how we are “different” from every other religion, as well as how the world ultimately should view us. 

The Torah offers a warning to us (Devarim 4:9):

“But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children.”

Rashi clarifies what we are to beware of, tying it to the previous verses. The Torah explains (ibid 6) that through our observance of the commandments, we will be wise before the peoples. Rashi explains this to mean our observance leads to the view by the world that we are wise men. In the verse referenced above, Rashi explains:

“Only then, when you do not forget them, and will [therefore] do them in their proper manner, will you be considered wise and understanding, but if you distort them because of forgetfulness, you will be considered fools.”

A later commentator on Rashi (Sefer Zikaron) explains that Rashi is adding an element here – rather than the people of the world looking at us, in our failure to “remember” the commandments, as being unwise, they will in fact see us as fools. 

Rashi is presenting a fascinating idea, one that reveals an important fundamental concept. We are not merely talking about our forgetting of a specific commandment, as this does not necessarily lead to distortion. The forgetfulness involves the basis for the commandments, the fact they are all based on chachma, knowledge, and the crucial concept that we must understand the rational basis for all the commandments. Each mitzvah is tied to chachma and functions to help perfect us. This idea must be present not just for our own personal benefit, but on display to the world. When approached by the other religions, they must see us being guided by these principles. When they ask why we celebrate Shabbos, we cannot answer that we need a day off. When someone sees us picking up a lulav, and inquires why anyone would pick up a palm branch and shake it around, we cannot simply respond with a blank stare. This is the difference noted above between being unwise and being a fool. The world at large will, by definition, see our actions as those of fools if we simply apply blind faith without any semblance of rationality. Our role as being mekadesh Hashem, sanctifying God, is inherently impaired when we fail to recall, internalize and present the chachma of the derech Hashem.

The Ramban takes umbrage with Rashi’s approach, offering a completely different, but no less important, approach to understanding the context of this verse. He posits that the Torah is in fact teaching us about a specific commandment, structured as a mitzvah lo saaseh, or negative commandment:

“For, as he stated that we should be careful concerning all the commandments and be heedful to perform the statutes and ordinances, he again stated: ‘Only I warn you exceedingly to take heed and guard yourselves very, very much to remember whence the commandments came to you, that you should not forget the Revelation on Mount Sinai, nor all the things which your eyes saw there – the thunderings, and the lightnings, His glory and His greatness and His words that you have heard there out of the midst of the fire’.”

He continues, explaining that it is not enough to remember Sinai; the specifics of the event must be passed down to one’s children, from generation to generation. Why is this so important? 

“He explained the reason [for this prohibition]: God made that Revelation so that you might learn to fear Him all the days and teach your children during all generations.”

The Ramban also explains the benefit of this commandment. Had the Torah been delivered to us by Moshe, without the communication from God, nobody would have challenged Moshe, as his “credentials” were nothing less than persuasive. The problem would be in the future, if another prophet would arise and challenge a tenet of the Torah – “a doubt would enter the people’s hearts”. However, since the Torah was delivered from God straight to us, no such doubt will emerge, leading us to declare the false prophet’s statements as fallacy. (The Ramban adds one more point concerning the nature of the communication to our children, but due to lack of space, we will not be taking this up).

The Ramban is presenting a powerful case for the importance of the event at Sinai. What is difficult to understand is how he formulates this into an actual commandment. What does he mean when he states we cannot forget the event of Sinai? Does this mean we should have the book of Shemos open in front of us at all times, turned to the section detailing the Revelation at Sinai? How do we pass this along to our children – simply by reading to them the verses apropos to the subject? 

The Ramban is keying in on another essential idea of the Jewish religion, one that indeed makes us stand apart from all others. Obviously, he cannot be referring to a constant reading and re-reading from the verses surrounding the revelation at Sinai. His presentation of the practical benefit to this commandment could be the starting point. We accepted the veracity of the prophecy of Moshe due to his overwhelming resume of actions and wonders, among other reasons. As such, there would be no reason for us to doubt the authenticity of the Torah had Moshe told us it came from God. We would say that the most reasonable rational explanation is that the Torah is true. And when another prophet comes along, offering a rational argument against a specific commandment, or offers to add something to the system that rings of truth, accepting such a position does not seem so far off. We are a nation dictated by rational thought, and the “doubt” would emerge due to the conflicting possibilities. The Ramban is telling us that the reality of Sinai, where God directly communicated with the Jewish people, must be internalized within all of us. He focuses on the miraculous wonders, as well as God speaking to us, to emphasize one critical point. At Sinai, there was no question, no doubt at all, as to the Divine source of all of it. It was not the most likely rational conclusion – it was the only rational conclusion. Therefore, even when the false prophet presents a coherent position, we turn to our knowledge of the Torah, through the Revelation at Sinai, as being one of a greater quality, and feel “at ease” rejecting the new position. Within this idea, or the reason for the commandment as the Ramban puts it, we see a different way to relate to God. There are individuals who are able to reach the rational conclusion that there is a Divine being, one that is non-physical and the Creator, etc. Yet for the nation, a rational conclusion did not seem to be sufficient. An event where there was a conclusion made that could not be challenged would have a different impact on how the Jewish nation was to view God. The source of the Torah must be Divine, and God’s communication with the Jewish people demonstrated without a doubt the existence of God. 

While there is much more that can be discussed regarding the words of the Ramban, we are able to extract an idea of immense importance. Rational thought plays a central, if not defining role in the Jewish religion. We are to be guided by our minds, cleaving to God as the source of knowledge. This serves as the defining dissimilarity between “us” and “them”. No other religion lays claim to such a foundation. 

There is a common theme that we can use to tie Rashi and the Ramban together. We are a people beholden to the religion of rationality, and this needs to be on display through our execution of the commandments. Without question, this generates a qualitative breach between our religion and that of others. This cannot translate into an emotional sense of supremacy – rather, it should be viewed as a tremendous opportunity, ours for the taking.