On Pesach, we recall Egypt’s malicious persecution of the Jewish people and the suffering the Egyptians experienced, presumably as a punishment for their evil behavior. Significantly, both the persecution and the servitude were predicted at the Brit Bein ha-Betarim (Bereishit 15:13).
Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 6:5) asked how the Egyptians could be punished for persecuting the Jewish people if G-d already told Avraham of the occurrence.1 Rambam explains that no particular Egyptian was forced to sin. While slavery was a certainty, each individual actor’s role remained undetermined and therefore free. Ra’avad rejects Rambam’s solution with the following question: “If G-d were to say to those who strayed, ‘Why did you stray; I did not designate you?’ they would respond, ‘Upon whom was Your decree made, on those that did not stray? If so, Your decree would not be fulfilled.’”2
Ra’avad therefore proposes an alternative solution. Had the Egyptians initially listened to Moshe and released the Jews, they would not have been punished. Why? Wasn’t the enslavement immoral? The answer is that there was a decree that the Jews be enslaved. The Egyptians should not be punished for carrying out the divine decree. However, because they did not obey G-d when He demanded the Jews be released, they were punished. Moreover, the Egyptians went further than the prediction in Avraham’s prophecy. Avraham prophesied slavery and persecution, while the Egyptians crushingly worked and murdered the Jews.
This analysis raises an obvious question: According to many thinkers,3 no person will be persecuted unless there is a divine decree that he be persecuted (free will notwithstanding). If so, every persecutor should be exonerated according to Ra’avad for carrying out the divine will. One solution is to suggest that the Egyptians knew of G-d’s plan and therefore would be acting meritoriously by carrying out the divine will (assuming they did it the way they were supposed to), while a typical murderer is not aware of G-d’s plan and therefore is held responsible for his decision.4 Even presumption of the divine will is insufficient; Pharaoh’s acts could have been considered meritorious only because there was an actual prophecy concerning the enslavement. The other example cited by Ra’avad (Ashur) bears this out; in fact, Ramban (Bereishit 15:14) makes this very distinction.5
Ramban adds the moral justification for this distinction — moral acts are merits even if a person does not intend to carry out G-d’s will when performing them. But acts that generally are considered immoral (against the Torah) constitute a mitzvah only if one intends to carry out G-d’s plan, as Yeihu did when he mercilessly wiped out the house of Achav. But if one perpetrates these acts for any other reason, such as hatred, they are considered a sin deserving of punishment. By going beyond Avraham’s prophecy, the Egyptians demonstrated that they were not acting to carry out the divine will, and as such they were punished.6
To appreciate the significance of Ramban’s understanding, let us consider a basic question: Is it our responsibility to do what we can to carry out G-d’s plan in history? Or, is our job to follow the Torah and do what we think is right, leaving G-d to carry out His agenda as He sees fit? Ramban’s position here is that anyone who acts to carry out the divine plan is considered to be doing a mitzvah, even if he was not commanded.7 Moreover, this mitzvah applies even if a person engages in what would otherwise be a Torah prohibition in order to further the divine agenda. Of course, this is only if he legitimately knows that what he is doing is the divine plan. With respect to doing acts that would otherwise be immoral, only prophesy suffices. Thus, terrorism cannot be carried out in the name of G-d (unless the terrorist is a genuine prophet).
Elsewhere, Ramban uses this thesis to address another baffling question. Yosef tortures his brothers and father when he accuses the brothers of being spies. Ramban (Bereishit 42:9) deduces from the passuk that Yosef’s motivation in torturing his brothers was to precipitate the fulfillment of his dreams. Normally, such acts of vengeance would be inappropriate, but Yosef’s behavior is considered commendable because his motivation was to realize the will of G-d as conveyed to him through his dreams.8 Of course, the dreams contained no instructions. 9 Ramban nevertheless maintains that because Yosef knew them to be the will of G-d, he was right to facilitate their fulfillment.10 However, Ramban implies that one must know of the divine decree (Only if it he heard it) and act entirely for the sake of heaven (And he wanted to fulfill the will of his Creator). The requirement that one receive the information via prophecy safeguards against abuse and prevents a person from presuming the divine will and carrying out immoral acts in His name. Ramban may presuppose this thesis in numerous other places.11 We should note, however, that other thinkers reject Ramban’s presumption and maintain that absent of an explicit divine command (such as in Akeidat Yitzchak), it is immoral to take actions that would otherwise be forbidden in order to carry out G-d’s plan.12
These Ramban’s may be the basis for a fascinating assertion of the Rav: “Halakhic man discerns in every divine pledge man’s obligation to bring about its fulfillment, in every promise a specific norm, in every eschatological vision an everlasting commandment (the commandment to participate in the realization of the prophecy).” (Halakhic Man pp 100)
The Rav sees this obligation as a reflection on Halahic Man’s perspective that sees all of Torah (including seemingly non-normative sections) in halachic terms. Certain Chassidic thinkers likewise stressed the duty to bring mashiach, albeit for different reasons. Most notable among them is R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson.13 Either way, like Ramban, the Rav and the Rebbe assume that it is our role to advance G-d’s plan in history.14
1 This question is not identical to his more general question in chapter five of Hilchot Teshuva concerning the seeming contradiction between divine foreknowledge and free will. Ohr Samei’ach offers a simple distinction. Rambam’s solution to the problem of foreknowledge rests in the distinction between divine foreknowledge, which is intrinsic and therefore non-deterministic, and human foreknowledge, which is extrinsic and therefore deterministic. Thus, G-d’s knowledge of the enslavement does not compel the Egyptians; but when Avraham was informed of this fact, his knowledge (human foreknowledge) indeed precludes freedom. There is another way to understand the difference between Rambam’s questions in chapter 5 and chapter 6. In chapter 5, Rambam asked an epistemological question – how is foreknowledge compatible with the indeterminism of free will? To this, he offered the philosophical distinction between human knowledge and divine knowledge. In chapter 6, Rambam asks a different question – if G-d decreed (gazar) on the Egyptians that they would persecute the Jews, how could they be punished? This question is not epistemological, but rather relates to an issue we raised earlier (in Ramban’s discussion of Pharaoh’s free will): how can G-d’s plans in history relate to free will and justice?
2 Rambam might respond that certain events are predictable on a macro level even while individual actors retain freedom. This has many parallels in the physical universe; while we cannot predict the path of a particular electron on a quantum level, we can accurately predict the movements of larger bodies made up of these electrons. The same can be true, argues Rambam, concerning human behavior. For example, government statisticians (or cooks in cafeterias) can very accurately predict certain general behavioral patterns that free actors will follow. And if humans are capable of such predictions, certainly G-d can make such forecasts.
3 Including Rasag (Emunot v-Deot 4:5), R. Bachya ibn Pakuda (Sha’ar Bitachot 7), Sefer ha-Chinuch (241), Abrabanel (Bereishit 37), and Gra (Mishlei 11:19).
4 The problem with this answer is that there is no indication that the Egyptians knew of Avraham’s prophecy that the Jews would be enslaved. Perhaps Ra’avad means that even if Pharaoh was aware of the prophecy, he still would have been punished because of his malicious intentions.
5 He writes: “Know and understand that G-d will not exonerate the murderer of a person who was written and inscribed on Rosh Hashana for death just because he carried out G-d’s decree; he (the victim) was wicked and was killed because of his sins, yet his blood will be demanded from his murderer.But when the decree is articulated by a prophet, then it depends: if a person listened in order to carry out the will of his Creator, there is no sin, but rather a merit. As it says concerning Yeihu: “Since you did well by executing what was proper in My eyes – according to all that was in My heart you have done to the house of Achav – your descendants of the fourth generation shall occupy the throne of Israel.” But if he listened to the divine command and murdered out of hatred or to undercut him, then he will be punished because he intended to sin, and it is considered a sin.”
Ramban later illustrates this point by noting that Nevuchadnetzar was punished even though he knew of the prophecy to destroy the temple because of his ulterior motives and because he went beyond the divine decree. Ramban implies that these prophecies concerning Nevuchadentzar were so concrete that he likely had no free will about whether to attack. His freedom lay in his motivation, and in that respect he failed (his motive was wicked). Thus, even if a prophet’s prediction limits freedom, it never limits a person’s intention; a person’s mind always remains free, and it is in this realm that a person ultimately is judged.
6 Ra’avad alludes to the motivational factor when he says that Ashur was punished for its arrogance. In other words, its motivation for conquering the Jews was self-aggrandizement and not the fulfillment of the divine will; accordingly, it was punished.
7 There are many cases where we maintain that a person should seek to carry out the divine will even in the absence of a specific command. In these cases we see the actions as right, even absent a divine command. Ramban goes one step further in claiming that they are right simply because one knows that they are part of G-d’s plan.
8 Likewise, the Vilna Gaon (Aderet Eliyahu Bereishit 42:9) stresses the immense value of this sort of behavior: “And for this reason the Torah prefaced [it’s account of Yosef’s actions] with “And Yosef remembered the dreams” in order to make known that all that he did was only out of his righteousness, in order that the dreams be fulfilled and G-d’s decree not be subverted. And this is an important precept throughout the Torah.”
9 Some (see Abrabenel and aforementioned Gra) have argued that because he received this information via prophesy then failure to do what he could do to carry out the dreams would be tantamount to kovesh nevuato.
10 This approach to Ramban was developed together with R. Dani Zuckerman.
11 Another place where Ramban presumes that knowledge of the divine will is equated with a command is Ramban Bereishis 49-10, who writes concerning non-Davidic kings: “And when Bnei Yisrael continued to appoint kings from the other tribes, and did not revert to the tribe of Yehuda, they transgressed on the command of the Divine Will and were punished for it.” While there was no formal mitzvah to anoint only Davidic kings doing otherwise is considered sinful insofar as it contradicts the divine will. Kudos to R. Dani Zuckerman for this insight. (Rambam in disagreeing with Ramban on this point might also be l’shitato. R. Elchanan in Kuntrus Divrei Sofrim p. 90 (published in vol. 2 of Koveitz Shiurim) argues that the entire basis is rabbinic legislation according to Ramban is the presumption that the laws reflect the divine will.
12 R. Yitzchak Arama rejects Ramban’s understanding of Yosef’s actions, claiming that this was not Yosef’s responsibility and does not justify immoral behavior. But as we see from his comments here, Ramban maintains that anytime a person knows of a divine plan, he should hasten to carry it out, with or without an actual commandment.
13 See, for example, Torat Menachem, 5742, pp 1292. Kudos to R. Yosef Bronstein for pointing this fascinating connection out to me.
14 However, they do not advocate doing so through otherwise immoral actions. Thus, they need not agree to Ramban’s far reaching application of this principle.