Some may say that the mystic Nachmanides (1194-1270) was more interested in heaven than earth. Unlike Maimonides (1138-1204), who focused on a scientific study of the world, Nachmanides was concerned with the way in which Jews interact with God.
Maimonides’ view led him to see three people-oriented purposes for the 613 biblical commandments. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:27–54, he states that God mandated the commandments (1) to teach people proper thoughts, (2) to improve the behavior of individuals and (3) to improve society. Nachmanides took a different approach.
The Commandment to Remember the Exodus from Egypt
Jews are instructed to remember, mention and discuss the Exodus from Egypt frequently. They are told, for example, to wear tefillin containing references to the Exodus on each day except for the Sabbath. They are instructed in the Ten Commandments to remember the Sabbath day because God ceased creating on that day and because of the Exodus from Egypt. They are commanded to place mezuzot containing biblical readings about the Exodus on their doorposts. They must also mention the Exodus on every holiday in the Kiddush, the prayer over the wine recited at the beginning of the festive holiday meal. Thus, the Exodus is recalled seven days a week.
Maimonides’ Understanding of the Exodus’s Significance for Jews
Maimonides, as usual, sees a benefit for humans in the remembrance of the Exodus. One benefit is that it prompts Jews to recall their history. In his Guide 3:46, he explains that the Passover laws such as eating unleavened bread were instituted in Egypt “because they [the Israelites] could prepare it [their food] quickly … so that no one would be late in leaving Egypt with the main body of the people, and be thereby exposed to enemy attacks. These temporary commandments were then made permanent, so that we may remember what was done in those days.”
In 3:43, he adds that Jews are told to observe the holiday of Passover because it is an opportunity for rejoicing, and people need joy.
Passover also educates Jews about the deep-seated connection between the laws of nature and divine law. Maimonides states that since Passover occurs in the spring, the association of the two reminds Jews of the important interrelationship between the laws of nature and biblical law. Torah law coaches people to use nature to live properly.
Maimonides writes that the “aim and object of the Exodus from Egypt,” was to bring the Israelites to Sinai where they were given the law. This lesson about the law is so significant that Passover is observed for seven days. “If the eating of unleavened bread on Passover were only commanded for a single day, we would never have noticed it, and its purpose would not be known.” Thus, in a word, all of the reasons that Maimonides postulates for Passover, its observances and why Jews were told to keep it in mind, are practical, people-oriented and designed to instill good ideas and improve individuals and society.
What is Nachmanides’ View?
What is the significance of Passover to Nachmanides? Why is it mentioned so many times in Jewish practices? Why is a father mandated to teach his children about the Exodus? Why is it so important that a separate night was set aside to recall the Exodus at a Seder meal?
Nachmanides discusses this subject in his commentary to Exodus 13:16, a verse that the rabbis interpret as a decree to don tefillin daily. After speaking about the Exodus from Egypt, Scripture mandates: “And it shall be a sign upon your hand, and frontlets between your eyes; for by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
Nachmanides writes: “And now I will tell you a basic principle underlying many biblical commands.” He identifies several kinds of individuals who have wrong-headed convictions. The first group denies the basic principle that God created the world. (The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, taught that the world existed forever and coexisted with God.) The second are people who refuse to recognize that God knows what occurs to humans. The third group is comprised of those who may think that God knows about people, but denies that God pays attention to them. God, they assert, cares for humans as much as humans care for fish. They look at them and may even admire them and take delight in them, but take no notice of their individual lives. Just as it is ridiculous to imagine people rewarding and punishing fish for their behavior, so, too, these people say, God neither rewards nor punishes.
Many scholars are convinced that Maimonides denies the existence of miracles. All agree that he at least minimizes them. But Nachmanides was convinced, strongly and unyieldingly, that God is constantly involved in the world, as an eagle watching its young, performing miracles lovingly for humans on a daily basis. He felt, as the saying goes, that no leaf falls from a tree unless God wills it and causes it to fall.
Nachmanides was persuaded that two kinds of miracles exist. The first, like the Passover plagues, are open and evident to all. Others are hidden and do not show God’s involvement, like the falling leaf, winter snow or rain, even the shining sun. This belief in miracles was so significant and fundamental to Nachmanides that he proclaimed, “From [belief in] large perceptible miracles one [comes to believe] in hidden miracles, which are the very foundation of the entire Torah. A person has no share in the Torah of Moses our teacher until he believes that all that occurs is the result of miracles, not the laws of nature…. Everything happens by divine decree.”
Nachmanides was convinced that the three above-stated erroneous convictions are rebutted and totally destroyed by the open miracles of Passover, which demonstrate what he considered the basic principle of Judaism: the daily involvement of God in world affairs and the existence of hidden and open miracles.
According to Nachmanides, when Jews ponder the Exodus from Egypt – as they are told to do daily – and the miracles that preceded the Exodus and made it possible, they realize that the three notions are entirely incorrect. The performance of the Egyptian miracles reveals: (1) There is a God who is involved in this world and who is constantly creating through miracles [and if God creates miracles, God certainly could have created the world]; (2) God knows what is occurring to humans [for how else would God know of Israel’s need for help?]; (3) God punishes those who act improperly [such as the Egyptians]; and (4) If a miracle is predicted by a prophet, as it was by Moses, it also shows the truthfulness of prophecy, that God lovingly reveals the divine secrets to prophets. These perceptions, according to Nachmanides, are derived from the Passover epic and are basic to the understanding of Judaism.
Since, he continues, God does not repeat open miracles in every generation to teach scoffers the truth of the divine relationship with humanity, God instructed Jews to make a variety of visible signs to remind them daily of the profound and basic lesson of the Exodus. This is the reason that the Passover Seder is celebrated and the Exodus is written in mezuzot on doorposts and on tefillin set on a person’s head and arm. A multitude of other practices are mandated for the same purpose: to recall the basic principle of the Torah, God’s daily involvement with the world.
Nachmanides offers a unique interpretation as to why so many Jewish practices are associated in one way or another with the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus miracles teaches the basic principle of Judaism: there is a God who created the universe, knows all that occurs, is involved daily in earthly affairs, performs open and secret miracles, helps the worthy and punishes sinners, and communicates to prophets.
The Rambam felt that the observances of Passover were meant to “instill good ideas and improve individuals and society.” While we celebrate Passover this week in quarantine, I think it is important to take some time to reflect on what G-d is trying to teach us about coronavirus as we celebrate and recall the Exodus. Back then, G-d was teaching us, among other things, that slavery was wrong. Today some charedi Jews feel that G-d sent the coronavirus. They might ask themselves what is G-d trying to teach them—not to go to Shul?
I do not think G-d caused coronavirus. Rabbi Slifkin pointed out to me Rambam’s letter to Jews in Marseilles, where he wrote that when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE it was because Jews focused on bad theology and neglected military preparations. Similarly, we have a coronavirus pandemic because governments lack in medical preparations (for example, we do not have enough masks in the US). I would add that the Rambam wrote in his MT that we should pray and fast, but these procedures do not change nature. Rather, they help us recognize the damage and help prompt us to find new creative ways to deal with the situation.
I think if the Rambam here today he would say that Jews should recall the past and use it in such a way as to improve society, not that we’re still fighting against slavery, but coronavirus by washing hands, ejoying Pesach and staying at home.
Thank you, Rabbi, for another excellent essay that helped me think.
Happy Passover and keep well,
I agree with you.