Rashi vs. Ramban: Presence

Whose righteousness is the Biblical verse praising in this week's parsha?

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Torah language is always precise. When there seems to be an ambiguity, it exists to enable us to form various interpretations, as many as seventy, so that we may get a deeper understanding and appreciation of the many life lessons through which we can acquire and internalize the wisdom of our Torah. A case in point is a phrase in Parshat Lech Lecha.

After traveling to a strange land at Hashem’s bidding, after joining in a war to save his nephew Lot and then parting from him, Avram sees a vision in which Hashem appears to him, promises Avram biological children, takes him outside to see the stars, if he can counts them, and tells him, “So, shall your offspring be!” This is then followed by,”Vehe’emin baHashem, vayachsheveha lo tzedakah" - And he trusted in Hashem, and He/he reckoned it to Him/him as righteousness.

It is this ambiguity of the indefinite pronoun "lo" that creates the ambiguity in translation. Hebrew has no capital letters; what is the antecedent for He/he and Him/him? Which refers to Avram and which refers to God?

Rashi offers the simplest explanation. After Hashem promised Avram a son, Avram had complete faith and trust in Hashem. It was this faith that Hashem found so righteous and praiseworthy, says Rashi. Ramban,

Nachmanides, disagrees with Rashi. Avram’s faith had already been tested and was certainly no longer in question. Hashem certainly considered Avram righteous before this, and, at this moment, when Hashem was demanding nothing of Avraham, He would not be attributing righteousness to Avram simply for accepting and believing God’s promise. Therefore, contends Ramban, the verse must mean that Avram attributed this promise as an act of total chessed and kindness from Hashem, a promise that would never be dependent on his or on his descendants’ worthiness of continued existence both now and in the future.

Within these two divergent interpretations, we can gain many insights and lessons for our own lives and for our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

Let us begin with a fuller discussion of Rashi’s understanding of this verse. Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah explains that faith is never to be taken for granted. Even the great Avraham Avinu whose faith had already been tested and would continue to be tested understood that one’s faith is always a work in progress and must be worked on and nurtured.

Avraham arrived at his faith through an intellectual quest, yet this promise Hashem gave him was completely against all logic, for it was against nature to expect a couple so past their years of fertility to now conceive and bear children. Yet Avram did not question. He accepted Hashem’s promise on pure faith, points out Rabbi Schrage Grossbard in Daas Schraga.

Avram worked on his faith constantly, for it takes constant work to build the ladder from earth to heaven, says Tallelei Orot, and our relationship with Hashem must be built rung by rung. How many people are circumspect in keeping every detail of the mitzvoth, who study Torah regularly, yet the feeling of closeness to Hakodosh Boruch Hu is lacking,

Rabbi Rabinowitz continues by citing the Chazon Ish. It is easy to say we have faith when things are going well, but do we really attribute our health, our wealth, and all else we are blessed with to Hakodosh Boruch Hu? On the other hand, when things are not going according to our plan, do we get frustrated that we are no longer in control, or do we attribute this too to Hashem? Although we must do both, which comes first, prayer or looking for a solution?

In other words, faith involves following Hashem on His terms, not on our desire for control. Faith means we understand that everything, both what we perceive as good and as bad, is all a result of Hashem’s control over all existence.

Rabbi Wolbe expands on this idea by first explaining what emunah, what we erroneously translate as faith, actually means in Torah language. Since Torah itself is revelation, explains Rabbi Wolbe, there is no need for “faith”. What is meant when one is called a man of faith is that he is a man of equanimity and happiness, unswayed by external circumstances, for he knows that all is from Hashem. In this vein, Rabbi Wolbe explains, whether he gets a promotion or loses his job is Hashem’s determination, and the believer understands that this is Hashem’s personal prescription for his well being.

Do we attribute our raise, or finding the right doctor for our illness to our own skills, or do we thank Hashem? Conversely, and certainly more difficult, is to cling to Hashem during trying times, when we lose our livelihood, or the doctor fails to heal. Do we still see that Hashem is the ultimate doctor who enables earthly doctors to heal or bars them from fulfilling the mission of medicine? If we can ingrain this attitude within ourselves, while we may rejoice or mourn, we will remain unmoved in our devotion to the Ribbonoh shel Olam and will retain stability in our lives, for His Presence is always with us.

 This was the greatness of Avraham Avinu. Recognizing Hashem as the Creator, he trusted in Hashem, in YKVK, the four lettered name that signifies the Lord of the supernatural. So, if this God that Avram knew so well promised him a miracle of a son against all odds, says the Chasam Sofer, Avram believed the promise would materialize, and Hashem considered that belief as part of Avraham’s righteousness.

The Chasam Sofer and Toras Chaim both pick up a grammatical nuance in our verse. He’emin is the causative form of the verb a-m-n. What did Hashem consider the righteousness of Avraham Avinu? Not his own faith, but his resolve to implant this faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu in his progeny, even if they did not yet exist. This transmission of the faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, of causing his children to continue this faith, is what Hashem considered the righteousness of Avraham. Therefore, from the moment our child begins to speak, we teach him Torah tzivah lonu Moshe – Moshe has commanded us in [the precepts of] Torah, writes Rabbi Wolbe.

The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, approaches the question of Avram’s righteousness, or perhaps in this context “charitableness” is a better translation of tzedakah, from a different perspective. In His role as Father, Hashem had already prepared the blessing of children for Avraham and wanted to bestow them on His son. But, like rain falling from the sky, the blessing needed a fitting vessel to gather it and contain it so it could be channeled to its proper recipient. Avram needed to become that vessel, to be worthy of this blessing.

So when Avram accepted Hashem’s promise of children with full faith of its fulfillment, Avram demonstrated to Hashem his unflinching faith and thus became the appropriate vessel for receiving these blessings. That Avram gave Hashem the opportunity (so to speak) to bestow this gift upon him, according to this beautiful interpretation, was a great gift Avraham gave to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and it was this opportunity to give that Hashem recognized as Avraham’s righteousness. Similarly, Hashem wants to bestow blessings upon all His children. How are we working on ourselves to make ourselves fitting vessels to receive His blessings?

Now let us turn to Ramban’s interpretation, that Avram considered Hashem’s promise an act of righteousness, kindness or charitableness (all appropriate translations of tzedakah). The Vilna Gaon explains that Avraham believed that Hashem’s blessing of progeny like the stars in the heavens was an unqualified promise. That meant that this promise was not contingent on Avram’s worthiness or the future merit of his descendants. This promise would be eternal and would defy nature.   

Rabbi Moshe Bick puts this promise into historical perspective in Chayei Moshe. He takes as a reference point the verse in the Song of the Day for Shabbat from Psalms, “Lehaggid baboker chasdecha ve’emunascha baleilot – to relate Your kindness in the mornings and Your faith in the nights.” During the day, when things are going well for us, personally and nationally, it is easy to believe in Hashem. Then, we are required to be grateful for our blessings. But at night, during the Inquisition, the pogroms, and the Holocaust, it is difficult to retain our faith in Hashem’s promise to our forefather.

That’s why Hashem took Avram out to view the night sky. “Look into the darkness. Do you see how the stars shine brightly in the night? Thus will be your descendants. Just as the stars shine in the darkness through My hand, so will your progeny continue to exist in their dark nights.” From Rashi’s perspective, Avraham’s faith and the continued faith of Bnei Yisroel in Hashem’s promise is the righteousness Hashem attributes to Avraham; from Ramban’s perspective, Avraham considered this promise a commitment of eternal kindness on Hashem’s part, whether or not we merited survival.

What then lies at the crux of the divergent perspectives of Rashi and Ramban? Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen presents the analogy of two Jews. One Jew is frum from birth who received his education and spiritual support from his family all his life. While he is rewarded for observing Torah and mitzvoth, he experienced minimal struggle, and is not rewarded for struggling. The baal teshuvah, on the other hand, had to defy his family’s wishes, had to struggle for funds to learn something about his religion, and fought to practice his religion. Hashem rewards him not only for Torah observance but also for the struggles along the way.

Time has passed, and the baal teshuvah is now comfortably practicing Yiddishkeit. He is an accepted member of his religious community and the patriarch of a wonderful Jewish family. Rabbi Koffman cites Rabbi Lopian in maintaining that Hashem continues to accrue credit to the baal teshuvah for his previous struggles even though he is no longer struggling, Similarly, if we work on improving a particular character trait, Hashem credits us with the struggle and, according to Rabbi Lopian, He continues to credit us for struggling even after we have improved and mastered this characteristic.

Not so, says Rabbi Zusia. Rabbi Zusia contends that while Hashem indeed credits us with our struggle, once we have crossed the line and are no longer struggling, credit stops accruing. We are only credited with the struggle of the moment in simple interest rather than as compound interest.

This analogy forms the basis for the differing opinions of Rashi and Ramban.

Rashi maintains that Hashem recognizes Avraham’s struggles throughout his life. Hashem is crediting Avraham with reward for that struggle on a compound basis even after Avraham passes each test. Therefore, Rashi maintains that Hashem keeps remembering Avram’s faith at this moment and will keep rewarding him for this righteousness.

Ramban, on the other hand, believes as Rabbi Zusia believed, that Man is only rewarded for his struggle of the moment (in addition to the standard rewards for that mitzvah itself). Therefore Ramban maintains Avram attributes this “righteousness” as a kindness from Hashem above and beyond anything he personally merits.

For us, the process works both ways. We must always be cognizant and grateful for all the kindness Hashem does for us for which we are really unworthy, but we must still continue to work on ourselves, to build our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu so that we live with full faith of His presence in our lives through both the challenging and the joyous times.

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Shabbat Shalom