והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאכי אלוהים
עולים ויורדים בו
הראהו בחלום הנבואה כי כל הנעשה בארץ נעשה על ידי המלאכים
והכל בגזרת עליון עליהם
, כי מלאכי אלוהים
אשר שלח ה' להתהלך בארץ לא יעשו
קטנה או גדולה עד שובם להתיצב על אדון כל הארץ לאמר לפניו התהלכנו
בארץ והנה יושבת
בשלוה או מלאה חרב ודם, והוא יצווה עליהם לשוב לרדת בארץ ולעשות דברו:והראהו כי הוא יתברך נצב על הסלם
He was shown in the prophetic dream that all that is done on earth is done by the angels, all a decree from on high. For God’s angels, who are sent by Him to walk the earth will not do anything, from the smallest to the biggest, until they return to stand in front of the Lord of the whole earth and report to Him. [They tell Him] whether she [the earth] is peaceful or full of swords and blood, and he will order them to return to earth and do His bidding. He also showed him [Yaakov] that He is on top of the ladder.
(For those who have not used Chavel’s original Hebrew edition of Ramban, I highly recommend it. Ramban is a master at using verses from Tanach as the basis for his sentences and ideas. Chavel refers each citation to its original source. Here the poetic language is based on Iyov 1 and 2).
Ramban has a different view of nature. As he explains many times in his writings, we are fooled when we think that because nature is repetitive, there are natural laws that govern everything. Ramban did not accept that there are natural laws at all. His understanding of how things operate is that everything is governed by stars. God gave over to the stars the power to decide how things work. Every occurrence we see, whether when we lift our finger or when a leaf falls, every occurrence is caused by the external influence of a star. There is in general a predictive quality to how things will go, but that is only because the forces generated by the stars have set things in motion and they, the stars, have decided not to interfere or change. Should they arbitrarily decide to interfere those things will not happen. The “souls” of the stars, the “thinking” element in them, are the angels and are represented in this dream as climbing to report to God. (See Ramban Devarim 18:9- ועשה עוד על הכוכבים והמזלות מנהיגים מלאכים ושרים שהם נפש להם)
The point is that the stars themselves, though generally left to their own machinations, do so only because God allows it. Should He decide to change the rules, He will. (For an in-depth discussion of Ramban’s position on this and the underlying thinking, see this article http://hakirah.org/Vol%202%20Buchman.pdf by R. Asher Benzion Buchman in Hakirah vol. 2). This understanding of how the world operates, though foreign and viewed as magical and absurd by contemporary intelligent people, was however the view of Ramban’s contemporaries in Catholic Europe, forced on them by their lack of understanding of the physical sciences. The point of the dream was to tell Yaakov that although in the natural order of things, God leaves it to the stars (angels), a person can remove himself from their control and be placed under God’s direct oversight and protection.
ומבטיחו ליעקב בהבטחה גדולה
להודיע שהוא לא יהיה ביד המלאכים אבל יהיה חלק ה' ויהיה עמו תמיד
כמו שאמר והנה אנכי עמך ושמרתיך בכל אשר תלך
כי מעלתו גדולה משאר הצדיקים שנאמר בהם
תהלים צא יא) כי מלאכיו יצווה לך לשמרך בכל דרכיך: )
He offered Yaakov a great promise telling him that he will not depend on the angels. He will belong to HKBH who will be with him always. As He told him, [the following verse] I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go. For his [Yaakov’s] status is greater than all the Tzadikkim [righteous] about whom it is said He will send His angels to protect you in all your ways.
Although even the righteous remain under the direction of the angels, the thinking part of the stars who report to God and can be ordered not to harm him, special great Tzadikkim who cleave to HKBH bypass this array of intermediaries and fall under God’s direct oversight. In other words, Ramban argues that Divine Providence is also only available to the very righteous. There is no Hashgacha Pratit on every individual human being. Ramban is consistent as he also tells us in Breishit 18:19 –
ירמוז, כי ידיעת השם שהיא השגחתו בעולם השפל, היא לשמור הכללים
וגם בני האדם מונחים בו למקרים עד בא עת פקודתם
Even people are left in it [the world] to chance until their time [of death] comes.
אבל בחסידיו ישום אליו לבו לדעת אותו בפרט, להיות שמירתו דבקה בו תמיד, לא תפרד
הידיעה והזכירה ממנו כלל
This idea of Ramban is repeated in many of his theological writings and is an interesting study of how the early Spanish Kabbalah understood the world’s workings and God’s place in it.
Although he agrees with Rambam that Divine Providence is dependent on the state of perfection of the individual, the mechanism of Divine Providence is completely different in Ramban’s world. We saw that to Rambam, Divine Providence is a natural consequence that results from the insight and knowledge acquired by the prophet when he understands the natural functioning of the universe from God’s perspective. Ramban’s world does not have a self-functioning natural order. It either is a directed system controlled indirectly by God via the stars or, in the case of the very righteous, controlled directly by God. The protection the righteous gets is not a result of his decision and action but rather, if the decision and action are made with the proper intention, God makes sure that no evil befalls him. Ramban can therefore see nature as a continuous miracle unnoticeable when things happen repetitively as predicted and noticeable when they deviate from the norm. Both, the normal and the abnormal are actively controlled by non-physical forces. The spiritual world is very much a reality. Magic is deeply entwined in the makeup of the universe. It is man’s goal to bypass this array of magical forces by submitting himself to God’s will. That is done through the Mitzvot, through offerings (Korbanot) and prayers, through meditative attachment to God.
So what is Ramban’s understanding of the Mitzvah to go in God’s ways? It cannot mean emulating Him and partaking in nature. Nature after all is not consistent. It is always dependent on God’s direct or indirect direction.
I will address this in my next post.