In preparation for Passover, my close friend Howard and I studied a Ramban on Exodus, 13:16. Although midstream through this particular commentary, Ramban says he will “Now tell us a rule in the reasons of the commandments”, he offers a great deal more that I wish to share. I feel his words addressing the reasons behind certain plagues will enhance our appreciation for the purpose of Passover in general.
Ramban commences with a brief history of three errors man committed in his knowledge of God, and says that the Egyptians partook of these three: 1) the Earth is eternal and there is no God; 2) God has no ability to know man’s actions; and 3) God does not intervene with mankind, and thus, there is no reward or punishment. Ramban continues, stating that when God creates a miracle or a wonder changing natural law with individuals or nations, these three opinions become nullified:
“For a wondrous miracle teaches that the world has a Creator, Who created it anew, and He knows all, and He guides this world, and He possesses full capabilities. And when this miracle was forecasted by a prophet, it is furthered clarified that prophecy is true, for God speaks to man and reveals His principles to His servants the prophets, and thereby, the entire Torah is [also] proven.”
This all makes perfect sense. For when a miracle occurs, it teaches us that some intelligent Being exists, which controls the laws we witness. These laws governing nature have a design; something is forcing their repeated behavior. The idea of the true God, the Creator, is proven through a miracle: this Creator is responsible for the behavior - and thus creation - of these laws, for these laws only operate because an external force limits them to this select behavior. We also learn that a miracle, a change at a precise “time”, means by definition, that God is in fact intervening and guiding His created world. Third, we learn that God is not restrained by anything, and is in complete, exclusive control. Prophecy is also proven when the miracle is forecasted; for how else can a human know when a suspension in natural law will occur? And once prophecy is proven, the entire Torah that was given by God to man with prophecy, is thereby sustained.
How God Addresses Man’s Denial
Ramban continues to explain three verses found in connection with the Egyptian plagues. Exodus 8:18 reads, “And I will distinguish on that day the land of Goshen on which My people stand, that there shall be no wild beasts there, in order that you know that I am God in the midst of the land”. God teaches that He does in fact intervene; He punishes one people while saving the other: “I will distinguish”. Thereby, God removes the one of the errors listed above. God proves He is truly “in the midst of the land” and guides man’s actions.
Exodus 9:29 reads, “And Moses said to him [Pharaoh] when I leave the city, I will spread my palms to God; the voices will cease and the hail will not continue anymore, in order that you shall know that the Earth is God’s.” Ramban says these words “you shall know that the Earth is God’s” teach that God created the Earth. As we explained, only the One responsible for putting laws into motion may be the One who suspends or alters them. Hail also displayed God’s complete control over the heavens and not just the Earth alone. Hail commenced the third set of the plagues, now educating mankind on God’s reign over the heavens. The first three plagues displayed God’s reign over the Earth, as Blood, Lice and Frogs all emanated from the ground. The second three plagues displayed God’s control over all events between the Earth and the heavens: Beasts roam the Earth’s surface, and the Death of Flocks and Boils are also “on” the Earth. The last three, Hail, Locusts and Darkness displayed God’s control over the heavens and atmosphere. Earth, the heavens and all in between were shown to be under God’s hand.
The last verse Ramban quotes is Exodus 9:14, “For in this time, I send all My plagues to your heart, and in your servants and in your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the land.” Ramban teaches that with this plague of Hail, he will be viewed as “all capable”, thereby removing the notion that anything else exists that interferes with His will. No other powers exist. Why does God say He will send all His plagues to “Pharaoh’s heart, and in his servants and in his people”? Why not group them all together? Perhaps God is indicating from ‘where’ the notions arise, that there are other forces besides Him: it stems from “each man’s individual wishes.” By stating that he will affect each Egyptian’s heart, God means to indicate that other powers have no reality, other than in “each man’s heart.” He cannot simply affect Egypt, as there is no one source of idolatrous notion. The source is in “each and every individual” who creates his own wishes, and assumes new gods to exist, which will cater to those wishes. Thus, God says he will affect “each” man.
Ramban is teaching us that God’s very words in Exodus were directed at the primary confusions, which plagued man since the time of Enosh, Adam’s grandson. Man’s mind had become confused, and he made a few central errors about God’s existence, His abilities and His knowledge. These verses address these precise faulty notions. Ramban tells us that so important are these ideas, that Chametz and the Passover sacrifice are met with excision if violated. So important are these concepts, these absolute truths, that we reiterate them in Mezuza, the Shema, Tefillin and through Succah. Many other commands as well are “Remembrances of the Egyptian Exodus” because they teach these fundamental ideas concerning God. Ramban goes out of his way to again list in this commentary these fundamentals proven by miracles: Proof of God’s act of Creation; God’s knowledge; His providence over mankind; Prophecy; the truth of the entire Torah; and also, that God’s mercy extends to those who fulfill His will, as we see He saved those Jews who killed Egypt’s God - the Paschal lamb - and circumcised themselves at His command.
The Meaning of Life
As if we have already been sufficiently overwhelmed by such enlightenment, Ramban introduces an even greater concept. He states the reason for “The Initial Creation”:
“We must know that God created us, and this is the purpose of creation. For there is no other reason for the Initial Creation, and there is no desire in God for man except this; that man should know, and thank His God that He created him.”
Many ask what is the meaning of life. Ramban answers: we are to know God, and thank Him that he created us. We are to realize - what most of us with the desire to be free - suppress. For when one realizes he is created, his own wishes must be subjugated to God’s commands. It is a most profound and emotionally impacting idea, to reflect on the conviction that “I am created.” This is no small idea, and not one to be passed by. It takes time to digest. After all, we have been “free” to live, as we desire all our lives. But to confront this truth, that we once were not here, and that “God made me” is both a humble experience, but a liberating one. It liberates us from the bondage of our own fallacies, and allows us to live perfectly in line with God’s plan, which means we will achieve greater satisfaction, as we no longer combat a truth, which only seemed restrictive. This truth that we are “created”, will most certainly allow us to live in line with truth. And when one lives with truth, and does not follow his own agenda, then he also lives in line with God’s plan, and this must infinitely surpass our imagined happiness, and enable the best experience for man.
Rabbi Reuven Mann asked, “Is this an ends, or a means? Is man to simply arrive at this knowledge that he is created and thank God for it, and that’s it – he need not move any further with life?” Rabbi Mann answered that this realization that we are created beings, is perhaps the beginning, not the end of the line. Meaning, once man achieves this realization and it is true to him, he is now ready to embark on his true life, where he views the Torah as something he must do, and something he desires to do, as he sees the Torah as God’s will, and himself, as God’s creation. It is this false view that we are “our own people”, ignoring the fact we are created, that causes man to sin, and many of our errors in life. But once man truly accepts himself as a “creation”, then his life’s perspective is completely changed, and now, he may perceive this existence untainted with personal wishes. He may now approach a Torah lifestyle completely objectively, where all he learns is no longer filtered through his wishes. Now…he finally sees truth.
All is Miracle
Returning to the topic of miracles, Ramban concludes, “man has no portion in Moses’ Torah if he does not view everything as a miracle, and nothing is natural”. But he qualifies this, “everything is God’s decree, whether a righteous man receives reward or an evil man is punished.” Of course when a leaf falls from a tree, it is not a miracle, but natural law, as Maimonides also teaches (“Guide”; Book III, chap. XVII, pp 286-287; Dover ed.). What Ramban addresses here is not natural occurrences, but “man’s fate”. This, Ramban says man must view as directly from God, “all His ways are just.” This means that each and every man and woman obtains what is exactly just for him or her. This too is sensible, as all is in God’s control; there is nothing that can prevent God from being completely just, as the prophet says.
The Goal of the Commands
What then is it that Ramban commenced with, what he says is a “rule in the reasons of the commands”? It is clear: Ramban is teaching us that the commands have as their goal, our realization that God exists…He is responsible for all, He knows all, and He guides all as exact justice abounds everywhere for everyone. The commands are to enable us to arrive at the most dominant and primary truths about reality. And the best expression that we accept that God is all this, is when we accept that WE are created. It is only at this point that we truly admit of these ideas, when we view our very selves as “created”.
What is the purpose of life? To accept with intelligent conviction that this life is created, that all is created, that WE are created, and Who this Creator is. We were given intelligence to arrive at truths…let’s not pass by on the most essential truth as Ramban teaches. Let us be fortunate that we came across this Ramban. I truly thank Howard for bringing it to my attention, his brother Marc for teaching Howard about it, and our Rav Muvhak for his class on it last year. This is what we should get excited about in life, when we learn profound new ideas that will change us forever.
Happy Passover to everyone.