For as long as I can remember, I have looked to Ramban to guide me through Chumash. I am not foolish enough to suppose that this personal predilection tells any objective truth. I cannot believe that anyone in our generation would arrogate to himself the right to judge among the classical commentators. Still, so it seems to me, most of us feel more attracted to one commentator than to others, and for me the lodestar has always been Ramban.
Perhaps, although when I began learning Ramban seriously I was not yet aware of it, I intuited something of what the great Chasam Sofer had in mind when he wrote (Responsa 6:61), While the Ramban commentary to Chumash is readily available, there are few who actually study it. This, in spite of the fact that it is one of the most basic Jewish texts. It offers foundations for emunah in its fullest sense, it provides the roots for the flowering of true religious experience.1 Moreover, in his ethical will he advised his sons to study Ramban’s commentary and to teach it to their children. He felt that the commentary was a repository of those elements which undergird the faith commitments of the Jew.
It seems that the Chasam Sofer saw something in Ramban which he did not see in Rashi. This, in spite of the fact that Ramban, in his introductory remarks to Chumash, asserts unequivocally that to Rashi accrues the mishpat habechorah, the “right of the first born,” implying that his own commentary must take a backseat to Rashi’s immortal work.
We will resist the temptation to guess where in the Commentary Chasam Sofer found the fundamental truths of which he spoke. I have some candidates in mind but, without much more probing and analysis, they would have to remain mere guesses. We can employ ourselves more usefully.
Rather, I want to use this Preface to explain what I am trying to do in this book.
I once heard from the late great R. Yaakov Kamenetzky that Ramban used his Commentary to present an entire philosophy of Judaism. He, no less than the Rambam, felt the need to give body to the ideas which animated his relationship to the Ribono shel Olam, to the Torah, to Eretz Yisrael and to Klal Yisrael. He felt himself consumed by a holy fire which demanded to be released. He dreamed of energizing and illuminating the lives of the “young men who are drained and exhausted by exile and sorrows.” However, while Rambam chose to present his thoughts in the garb of the philosopher, producing the immortal Guide, Ramban decided to walk in the footsteps of the “lions” who had preceded him. He would “learn” a “parashah Chumash” and make the written Torah yield its secrets.
R. Kamenetzky’s idea fired my imagination. Was it really true, I wondered, that by studying the Commentary carefully and lovingly, new and deeper understanding of Yiddishkeit could and therefore would open up? Were there really worlds waiting to be discovered, heights to be scaled and depths to be plumbed?
I decided to give it a try; to approach the Commentary from a broader perspective. Rather than learn an individual Ramban on an individual pasuk, I would, to the extent that it lay within my ability, shoot for the entire sugia, range as far as I was able, and, by wedding many different comments into an integrated whole, begin to pin down a shitah, a coherent philosophy which would allow me to apprehend a Judaism of which, till now, I had been ignorant.
I chose to explore Ramban’s ideas about the nature of man (chapters 1–10) and of hashgachah, God’s involvement in human affairs (chapters 11–20). I treated each section as a self-contained unit and did not, as I was researching them, spend much time or thought on how the two might eventually mesh and interact.
That I left for chapter 20 and the Epilogue, which, now that I have written them, seems to me to be the most important part of the book. I did indeed find new dimensions in areas of the Torah which I had long known but never understood as profoundly as I do now. Everyday mitzvos sprang to life and were revealed as part of a grand system in which life in the Kingdom of the Ribono shel Olam finds expression.
I meant the strange expression “life in the Kingdom of the Ribono shel Olam” quite literally. I am writing this paragraph on Erev Yom Kippur 5766 and look back upon the nine first days of this year’s Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. On Rosh HaShanah we are bound to pronounce the Ribono shel Olam as our king (Rosh HaShanah 16a). In the past I had only the haziest idea of what this really meant in practical terms. I truly believe that having studied the ideas of the Ramban with which I deal in this book and having thought the whole thing through as I laid it down in the Epilogue, I have, to some extent, penetrated to the true meaning of this exercise.
It has been a heady experience. Come, join me in the search.
*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.