The Depth of Thought of the Ramban

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

As some may have noticed, much attention is paid to the Ramban in many of these articles, and rightly so. The Ramban wrote in a manner that many times was quite cryptic, that if taken at face value would fail to reveal the true chachma of his writings. A perfect example of this can be found in this week’s parsha. What we will see is an initially obscure piece that actually reveals a fundamental idea about God’s justice.

In Parshas Ve’eschanan, we are told the following about God (Devarim 7:9-10):

“You will know that Hashem, your God, is the God, the trusted Almighty, who keeps the covenant and the kindliness for those who love Him and for those who keep His commandments, for a thousand generations. And He pays His enemies to his face to destroy him. He does not delay for His enemy--- to his face does He pay him”

The Ramban offers a lengthy commentary on both verses; it is his focus on the second verse that is quite difficult to understand. He first notes the focus on God repaying those who love Him with kindliness, contrasting that with repaying those that hate Him (the punishment to the Egyptians being the example at hand). He writes:

“Now this attribute that he mentioned is true forever. Thus although there is a wicked man whose life is prolonged in his evil doing, it happens to him only because of this above-mentioned attribute that He is the Keeper of Mercy, and he [the wicked] has done some good which must be recompenses. If so, there among the middos of God but two middos: He repays good for good, and evil for evil. 

It is possible those who hate Him are those confirmed sinners who deny His existence and have no merit at all. As the Rabbis have said: ‘Rabbi Yeshaya said: Because of three things God is long suffering to the wicked in this world – they may repent, or they have observed commandments for which God repays them for their recompense in this world, or perhaps righteous people will descend from them’”.

He then cites different examples of great leaders who emerged from parents who were reshayim.

The Ramban seems to emphasize that there is one golden rule when it comes to God’s actions – good for good, evil for evil. Simple enough. But then he goes to great length to explain what would seem to be a contradiction to this rule. We always encounter people who are clear reshayim, sonei Hashem and yisrael and deniers of God, and yet they live long lives. He tries to explain that this fits under this rule as well, citing the above Midrash, which lists three reasons why God withholds destruction from the rasha. While the second rationale has merit on the surface, the first and third seem almost outlandish. How often does the rasha indeed repent, or have children who are great tzadikim? In other words, it is almost like an easy rationalization. If an evildoer is punished or dies early on, then it is evil for evil. If not, then it must be he has some potential merit. What insight into this middah is being revealed by the Ramban?

As mentioned above, the rule portrayed by the Ramban is a well known concept. In fact, he writes about this rule in an almost matter-of-fact manner. Is it really that obvious? There is a system of schar v’onesh that exists, operating as Objective Justice.  A person is always judged by God based on his actions. It is as simple as that, yet the Ramban places special emphasis on this concept. Throughout Jewish history, this essential idea has been under assault from within. We constantly attempt to attribute the good or bad that occurs to someone or something other than God’s system of justice. We are told that certain causal relationships will bring about the good – wearing a certain color string or putting a metal object into bread. And when we are punished, rather than looking inwards and realizing it is due to our own actions, we instead look to the unchecked mezuzah or some other external irrelevant feature. The Ramban is telling us that it all comes down to these two middos – good for good, bad for bad. The fact that this is a concept many people have difficulty internalizing lies in understanding the Midrash cited by the Ramban.

What do these three possible scenarios share in common? Each represents an area of knowledge beyond man’s realm, which reflects back on our actual extremely limited knowledge of schar v’onesh. The first seemingly remote possibility is that the rasha will be chozer b’teshuva, repent and return to God. What the Ramban is telling us is not an idea in probabilities. Instead, the ability to know whether a person will choose to return to God, utilizing his freewill, is a knowledge only God can possibly know. The same theme exists in the second possibility. How God determines a person is to be rewarded for his act of perfection requires a knowledge that is beyond man’s capabilities. The last scenario as well is in line with concept. No doubt the norm is not to have great leaders emerge after being raised and influenced by sonei Hashem. The point is not whether or not it normally occurs; rather, the idea here is one should realize the infinite amount of causes and effects that would allow for such an outcome. A person must understand it is beyond his ability to ever know exactly how the tzadik emerges from such a household. 

What we now see is a different way of looking at this middah of God. The Ramban is telling us that there is one overall fundamental that we can have knowledge of – that God acts in a just manner, repaying good with good and evil with evil. We know there is a system of justice, and all acts by God are inherently just. However, we have no positive knowledge of any of the particulars. We cannot know the inner workings of an individual, determining whether he uses his bechira. We cannot know the extent of perfection a person achieved with a specific mitzvah, and how and when he will be rewarded. We cannot know the infinite elements involved in a specific outcome. To some, lacking this knowledge is frustrating, and a reaction to this is to seek out a more paternalistic version of God. However, while one may achieve an initial emotional high, ultimately he will see an unsatisfactory outcome. We must understand this inherent limitation, and through this knowledge, the Ramban is telling us, we can internalize this fundamental idea.