Friday, January 12, 2007

Ramban's Introduction To Shemot (Shemot 5767)

The introduction of Nachmanides to the book of Shemot is very often quoted. Here it is (from Chavel’s translation) in full:

In the Book of Genesis, which is the book of Creation, the Torah completed the account of how the world was brought forth from nothingness and how everything was created, as well as an account of all the events which befell the patriarchs, who are a sort of creation to their seed. All the events that happened to them were symbolic occurrences, indicating and foretelling all that was destined to come upon their seed. After having completed the account of creation, the Torah begins another book concerning the subject that had been alluded to in those symbolic events [recorded in the Book of Genesis].

The Book of Veileh Shemoth was set apart for the story of the first exile, which had been clearly decreed, and the redemption therefrom. This is why He reverted and began [this second book of the Torah] with the names of those persons who went down to Egypt, and mentioned their total number, although this had already been written. It is because their descent thereto constituted the beginning of the exile which began from that moment on.

Now the exile was not completed until the day they returned to their place and were restored to the status of their fathers. When they left Egypt, even though they came forth from the house of bondage, they were still considered exiles because they were in a land that is not theirs, entangled in the desert." When they came to Mount Sinai and made the Tabernacle, and the Holy One, blessed be He, caused His Divine Presence to dwell again amongst them, they returned to the status of their fathers when the 'sod eloka' (counsel of God) was upon their tents and "they were those who constituted the Chariot of the Holy One." Then they were considered redeemed. It was for this reason that this second book of the Torah is concluded with the consummation of the building of the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Eternal filling it always.

This fascinating piece is based on a well-known principle, which the Ramban invokes frequently throughout his Torah commentary – ‘ma’asey avot siman l’vanim’. This means that the events that occurred in the lives of the ancestors were harbingers of the national experiences of the Jewish people that would follow later in history.

The Ramban here understands that Shemot is a rerun of BeReishit, albeit at a national level. The small events in the lives of the ancestors would be played out in the lives of the nation. Since the goal of BeReishit was to describe how the family of Avraham found God and created a private forum in which it was possible for human beings to relate to Him, Shemot must fulfil the same goal, albeit at a macrocosmic level.

As well as foretelling what would happen to the expanded family of Avraham, the Ramban tells us that BeReishit provides us with a framework from which one may begin to understand Shemot. The final moments of the book of Shemot are highly significant here – the moment when the Divine cloud rested upon the Mishkan, filling it with eternal glory. Until this time, the lofty achievements of the ancestors remain unfulfilled in their descendants. Now, at last, the mission of BeReishit was completed nationally through Shemot. The reference to the ‘chariot’ is worth a final discussion. The ancestors introduced God-awareness to a pagan world. As such, they were the conveyors or ‘chariots’ of God. The image of a chariot is often used to describe the process of something being conveyed through an alien environment. Thus the ancestors were ‘chariots’, revealing God in a hostile world. The opening of the Mishkan, the climax of Shemot, celebrated the very same concept at the heart of the Jewish nation.

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