Ramban Slams Abraham


Parshat Lech Lecha

The Ramban (Gen 12:10-13) describes Abraham as "sinning a grave sin inadvertently" twofold when he left Canaan during a famine to go down to Egypt:

1. By placing Sarah his wife in mortal danger by misrepresenting her as his sister, in order to protect his own life.

2. By leaving the Land of Israel, although God had commanded him to settle there, showing lack of faith that God would help them through the famine.

When Sarah afflicts the pregnant Hagar (Abraham's second wife and Sarah's maidservant), to the extent that Hagar flees from Sarah, and runs away into the desert, the Ramban harshly criticises both Sarah and Abraham: (Gen 16:6) "Our mother (Sarah) transgressed by afflicting her, as did Avraham by allowing her to do so."        

Furthermore, Ramban says that there were horrific and bloody consequences for the Jews due to Abraham and Sarah's sins.

According to the Ramban, Abraham's "grave sin" of leaving Israel during the famine, and deceiving the Egyptians, including Pharaoh himself, resulted in the exile & slavery of the Children of Israel in Egypt.

"It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharoah was decreed for his children."

And the mistreatment of Hagar resulted in the enmity of Ishmael's descendants (the Arabs) against the Jews.

"Ishmael would be a wild ass of a man to afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kinds of affliction".

The Ramban's slamming of Abraham and Sarah is in stark contrast to the general approach of the Medrash and classic commentators, who tend to portray the forefathers as huge tzadikim who were put to tests, which, with few exceptions, they passed with flying colours.

I personally find much of the book of Genesis to be distressing.

While reading and hearing commentaries portraying the forefathers as exemplary and towering figures of righteousness, I read with my own eyes descriptions of their behaviour, while sometimes indeed heroic and righteous, often appears deceitful, thieving, violent, abusive, devious and murderous.

Not qualities which I would wish to imitate, nor my kids to adopt as role models.

Not only does that behaviour seem not exemplary, but through today's eyes, the Avinu family would apparently have police and social services files in scandalous abundance.

Nor do I have comfortable answers to my concerns - which I find, as we progress through Genesis, to sometimes become moral outrage.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (The Hirsch Chumash p.305) acknowledges the Ramban's severe criticism of Abraham's behaviour, of placing Sarah in danger to protect himself, by stating:

The Torah does not seek to portray our great men as perfectly ideal figures; it deifies no man..It does not set before us the life of any one person as the model from we might learn what is good and right, what we must do, and what we must refrain from doing. When the Torah wishes to put before us a model to emulate, it does not present a man, who is born of dust. Rather, God presents Himself as the model, saying: "Look upon Me!" Emulate Me! Walk in My ways!" We are never to say: "This must be good and right, because so-and-so did it". The Torah is not an 'anthology of good deeds.' It relates events not because they are necessarily worthy of emulation, but because they took place.    

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Parshat Lech Lecha also brings the Ramban's criticisms of Abraham and Sarah:

What is deeply interesting about the Ramban's approach to Abraham and Sarah is his willingness to point out flaws in their behaviour. This answers a fundemental question as far as our understanding of the narratives of Genesis is concerned. How are we to judge the patriarchs when their behaviour seems problematic: Jacob taking Esau's blesing in disguise, for example, or Shimon and Levi's brutality in the course of rescuing their sister Dina?

The stories of Gensis are often morally perplexing. Rarely does the Torah pass an explict, unequivacal verdict on people's conduct. This means that it is sometimes difficult to teach these narratives as a guide how to behave. This led to their systematic reinterpretation by rabbinic midrash so that black-and-white take the place of subtle shades of grey. 

Rabbi Sacks concludes: In Judaism the moral life is about learning and growing, knowing that even the greatest have failings and even the worst have saving graces.    

Personally, I find the behaviour of our forefathers to be ethically confusing and troubling throughout Genesis, and the traditional medrashic approach, taught to Jewish children, and accepted by many adults, to be most unsatisfactory.

As a starting point I would observe that, if Gensis were to be (chas vesholom) a myth, presenting fictitious founders of the Jewish nation, then these mythical figures would be painted as paragons of virtue, kindness, compassion, integrity and moral courage.

That the forefathers are actually portrayed throughout Genesis warts-and-all, both their heroism and corruption, does underline that the stories are indeed factually true - without whitewash nor apologetics in the original text.

As Hirsch says: "It relates events not because they are necessarily worthy of emulation, but because they took place."  

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