Friday, November 13, 2015

Toldot-Obedience by Ari Bar-Shain

Ari on the right
in The Gush Beit Midrash

Not long after אברהם was struck by famine, hunger hits Israel again causing יצחק to move. ה' appears to him and tells him not to leave the country. Live in Israel and I will be with you, bless you, and give you many descendants.
ה  עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי; וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי.
5 Inasmuch as Abraham obeyed me, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.
ה' promises יצחק that He will uphold the oath He took with אברהם, becauseאברהם heeded His word. But ה' doesn’t just say “My word.” He says משמרתי,מצותיחקותי and תורתי. Why so many synonyms?

רש"י picks up on the tautology and explains that really, each word represents a different aspect of אברהם’s obedience. משמרתי are גזרות להרחקה-decrees that distance ourselves from violating תורה commandments. מצותי are statutes built on intuitive morality, meaning we would keep them even without the תורה.חקותי are laws with no rational thought behind them, and the only reason we keep them is because God told us to. תורתי is mentioned to include תורה שבעל פה.

רש"י provides a nice survey of the various commandments we follow. We haveמצוות that reflect our understanding of morality and others that combat human tendencies and rationale. If the תורה only consisted of ethical law then what would qualify it as a theistic religion? There are plenty of people in the world who believe they are living moral lives, yet don’t believe in God! Judaism also has principles that we cannot wrap our heads around. Doing some מצוות we don’t understand is critical as it means we are subjugating our will and intelligence to God. Yes, there are commandments that make us live up to our higher ethical standards, but there are also some that we aren’t supposed to understand. The beauty of Judaism is merging both models together.

רש"י is teaching a timeless message, but that doesn’t mean his פירוש of theפסוק is correct. רמב"ן takes issue with one of רש"י’s underlying assumptions.רש"י, explains the רמב"ן, takes for granted that אברהם kept the תורה before it was given. How do we know this is true? What proof do we have?

According to this approach, אברהם followed the positive and negative commandments before they were given, yet we see יעקב marry two sisters,עמרם marry his aunt, and משה construct 12 מצבות! How would אברהם’s descendants permit this behavior if they are prohibitions in the תורה that their forefather outlawed on himself?

Because of these challenges, the רמב"ן presents a different theory. Like רש"י, he says each word represents a different facet of אברהם’s obedience, he just defines them differently. משמרתי is basic belief in God. מצותי are the temporary guidelines given to אברהם such as לך לך מארצך and עקידת יצחק.חקותי refers to imitatio Dei, living a life of Godly virtues. תורתי means circumcision and all of the Noachide laws.

The רמב"ן also offers categories reflecting the different areas of אברהם’s obedience. Some מצוות are more philosophical and mental, like basic faith and emulation of God, while other מצוות are more practical and concrete, like specific terminable commands, circumcision, and the Noachide laws. We are charged to serve God with both thoughts and actions. Religion is an intellectual and corporeal experience.

Whether you say אברהם kept the תורה or he didn’t, I think there is a consistent message. אברהם lived up to his expectations. God thrust upon him a list of obligations and אברהם complied. Our law book might be more expansive, but we too have to meet the expectations and follow the commandments whether they correspond with our sense of morality or are irrational, and whether they demand action or thought.

שבת שלום!
Ari Bar-Shain

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