Thursday, June 07, 2007

Relying on Miracles

Sorry for the delay in posting...My schedule hasn't permitted me to write much lately, but I am beginning to get back on track!

In this week's Parasha we read about the famous incident of the spies. Moshe sent twelve representatives of the Tribes of Israel on a fact-finding mission to the Land of Canaan. As we all know, the would-be spies utilized their trip as an opportunity to orchestrate a quasi-rebellion against Moshe and, as a result, the Jews were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years.

The commentaries debate whether Moshe sent spies because it was appropriate to do so, or whether this choice was actually a concession to the weakness of the Jewish people who needed reassurance before their entry into the land.

The Ramban argues that it stands to reason that Moshe would have sent spies regardless of the feelings and attitudes of the people. Although the Jews were charged with the responsibility of conquering the Land of Israel, Hashem expected them to conduct this campaign prudently and not to rely on miracles. As a part of normal military strategizing, Moshe would certainly have sent agents to gather data that would help him formulate a swift and efficient approach to capturing the Land. Moshe would have proceeded like any other political leader in this respect and would not have blindly and simplistically placed his trust in Divine intervention.

The Ramban's interpretation, however, raises an interesting difficulty. In Parashat Lech-Lecha, the Torah tells us that, immediately after Abraham arrived in Canaan, there was a famine in the land and he was compelled to relocate to Egypt. Although most commentaries regard this choice as appropriate and wise, the Ramban is an exception. He criticizes Avraham for lacking the faith necessary to remain in Israel despite the scarcity of food. Since Hashem had instructed him to settle in Canaan, Avraham should have trusted that he would be well taken care of even during a period of hardship.

In another post, I discussed the more traditional view of this narrative about Avraham and the lessons we can derive from it. It is certainly possible (and, in my opinion, more intuitive) to read the story of Abraham's trip to Egypt differently, and not to construe it as a failure on his part. Nonetheless, this is how the Ramban interprets Avraham's choice in this matter - as an error of major proportions.

The question, then, is clear. In the case of Avraham, the Ramban suggests that unwillingness to rely upon Divine intervention is a defect. By contrast, when it comes to the story of the spies, the Ramban states that, as a matter of course, a person should not rely upon miracles, and that it would have been incumbent upon Moshe to dispatch spies on an investigative mission before leading the Jews into Israel. Why does the Ramban distinguish between these two circumstances? Is reliance upon Divine aid praiseworthy or inappropriate?

I believe that the Ramban would answer as follows: Avraham was (ostensibly) commanded by Hashem to dwell in the Land of Canaan. Remaining there was, in and of itself, fulfillment of a Divine decree, and Avraham should have been willing to take risks in order to do so. There was no excuse for him to leave and thereby contravene Hashem's instructions. Avraham had reason to assume that God would provide for him in Israel no matter what, since he was involved in the performance of a mitzvah that could not be completed otherwise. Put simply, being in Israel was the mitsvah.

On the other hand, the commandment given to the Israelites in the desert was to conquer and settle in the Land of Canaan. But making decisions about how they would accomplish this objective was their responsibility entirely. Because it was only a means to an end, the process of conquest and settlement had to be carried out with careful forethought, extensive planning and thorough deliberation. There was no guarantee of miraculous assistance unless the Jewish people did their part to make the mission a success. Divine intervention would be experienced on an as-needed basis only!


David Guttmann said...

It makes sense especially in light of Ramban's undersratnding of the meaning of EY. There Avraham was completely free from the stars and under the direcrt stewardship of Hashem. I wonder if rambam would agree that Avraham sinned?

Shabbat Shalom

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