Parshat Shekalim: The Two Sides of The Coin

This week, after reading through Mishpatim, with its laws between Man and Man, Man and God, and Man and Ox, we will read Parshat Shekalim, which is about counting.


Wait, wait hold on there Your Excellency, we have to count in a very specific way. We can’t count by numbers, 1 Jew 2 Jew 3 Jew, because that will lead to a plague, apparently. So count by things! Let them bring in, I dunno, sticks, stones, something. No, we have to count them with money. I guess that makes sense, we could raise some money for The Tabernacle Fund, how about a nice round figure of a shekel a person? Nope. Half a shekel.

What I’m trying to say is, this is a weird kind of mitzvah.

Yet, I think it can give us an important insight into how the Torah resolves the tension between two competing values, of the rights of the individual and the good of the community. The tension between these two values animates many philosophical discussions, secular and religious. Of course, such values are only healthy when they are in tension, because an extreme in either direction is a bad thing. And I believe that the way the mitzvah of the half shekel is structured shows how Judaism keeps those two in balance.

How? So let us think this out. How does valuing the role of the community to an extreme become a bad thing? Well, if individuals are not seen as having their own rights and are merely seen as tools for the greater good of the community, it can lead to those rights being trampled upon for the greater good. Such a community would view its members as not individuals in their own right, with their identities, contributions, strengths and weaknesses, but merely as another faceless statistic in the crowd. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Nazi concentration camps, where inmates were stripped of any identity, their name, their clothes, their appearance, and given numbers, like commodities.

Thus, to counteract this notion, the Torah demands that we not count people as mere numbers from an undifferentiated mass, but as  individuals, each equally valued and each with their own contribution to make to society. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 38 may deepen our understanding of this concept:

אדם יחידי נברא, ומפני מה….תנו רבנן: להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא; שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד – וכולן דומין זה לזה, אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון -ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו, 

Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mould of the first man, and not one resembles the other.

Each person, created in the mold of Adam HaRishon and in the image of their creator, is a unique coin that is valid legal tender in the economy of Jewish society.

But, on the flip side of the coin (haha), it is possible to lean too far towards the value of individuality. It is possible for a person to see themselves as the only worthwhile end, that they owe nothing to society at large, and they should only be concerned with their own achievements and their own aggrandizement, subscribing to the idea of greed as good and selfishness as virtue. These people do not recognize the validity of other people’s needs, and they view their half-shekel as the only viable gold standard. To those people, the Torah says, you are never truly free and isolated from larger society. You are not a unit unto yourself. You are a half-shekel, you are incomplete and dependent on others, and you have no identity that exists totally independent from the world around you.
Thus, the Torah strikes a delicate balance between the competing ideas of the rights of the individual and the needs of the community. People are not mere numbers, and we value each individuals unique qualities and contributions, and do not see them as mere means to an end, but at the same time, each person must recognize that they do not exist independently of society, that they are necessarily incomplete and debt to those around them.

To end off, I’d like to quote an interesting/weird midrashic statement (Megillah 13b) and explain it in light of what we’ve been saying:

אם על המלך טוב יכתב לאבדם ועשרת אלפים ככר כסף וגו’ אמר ריש לקיש: גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שעתיד המן לשקול שקלים על ישראל, לפיכך הקדים שקליהן לשקליו.והיינו דתנן: באחד באדר משמיעין על השקלים ועל הכלאים.

“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver”, Reish Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the One whose word created the world, that Haman would weigh out shekalim in order to attain the consent of Achashveros to destroy the Jewish people. He [G-d] therefore preceded their shekalim to his, and for this reason we learn that on the first of Adar an announcement is to be made concerning the shekalim. (Megillah 13b)

So, Reish Lakish says that God knew that Haman would weigh out shekalim, so he gave B’nei Yisrael the mitzvah of shekalim to counteract that. How does that make sense? If we look at Haman’s case for the extermination of the Jews, one of the thing he says is that they are מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, “scattered and dispersed among the nations,” which seems to be not only a statement on the Jewish people’s place in Diaspora, but a statement about the Jewish community itself, that it is scattered and and lacking in unity, full of different factions and competing agendas, each believing that the larger community should simultaneously accommodate every aspect of their agenda and deny the place of other agendas in their community. And the antidote to this observation of Haman is this mitzvah of the half-shekel, and the lesson contained therein.

Devar Torah Shabbos Shira: Songs, Songs of Songs, And Our Educational Mission.

I’m going to attempt to keep this relatively short. I find my divrei torah suffer when I try to stuff too much stuff in. Think of this as an exercise in brevity.
This shabbos is traditionally known as Shabbos Shira, on account of the Song at The Sea that occurs in this week’s parsha, sung by B’nei Yisrael after they crossed the Yam Suf and watched their tormentors drown in the sea. R. Hutner, in a number of places, most notably Pachad Yitzchak Pesach Maamar 15, observes that song, throughout Tanach, is always sung upon the downfall and defeat of evil. There is, however, one exception: Shir HaShirim. Shir HaShirim is in fact not about the defeat of evil, and is rather an allegory concerning two lovers. R. Hutner, later on in Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, sees this as a reflection the era Sholomo lived in, one of peace and quiet in which the Temple was built, one relatively uninterrupted by war and discord. In such an era, the focus is not on defeating evil, as that has already been accomplished. Rather, the focus is on imbuing every aspect of one’s life with holiness, such that even one’s mundane activities become an allegory for divine ideas. Thus the name of the book: Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, the song sung not because evil is defeated, but beyond that, when good is victorious.
It is worthwhile to consider to what extent we focus on, in Jewish education, defeating evil, ie, staying away from sin, refuting bad ideologies, drawing lines against modernity, at the expense of focusing on building a positive Judaism, articulating a bold vision of what Judaism can contribute to the modern world. May we sing that Song of Songs speedily in our days.

The Return of the Devar Torah: On Bathrooms, Leaders, and Judaism’s All Encompassing Religious Vision.

The other day, I was scrolling through my newsfeed, when I saw a rather striking link someone had posted about an art exhibit depicting various world leaders sitting on the toilet.  Besides for being quite obviously visually provocative, it occurred to me that in a bit of “hashgacha pratis”, this link was actually very relevant to a medrash on this week’s parsha.
To introduce the first of the 10 plagues, that of blood, Moshe is told by God (Shemot, 7:15):

לֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ לִקְרָאתוֹ עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר וְהַמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לְנָחָשׁ תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ

Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand.

So, we may ask, why is it important that Moshe go to him in the morning, by the river? Additionally, the language is a little interesting. Go down to the river and, behold! Pharoah’s gonna be there! There seems to be an element of the unexpected in Pharaoah being there at that particular time.

Rashi, quoting the medrash, is sensitive to these linguistic nuances, and puts forth this interpretation, which seems to me a justifiable peshat:

הנה יצא המימה: לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו

behold, he is going forth to the water: to relieve himself, for he had proclaimed himself a god and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he went out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs. — [from Mid. Tanchuma, Va’era 14; Exod. Rabbah 9:8]

Many of you no doubt have heard this explanation before, because its a favorite of grade school teachers desperate to get the fickle attention spans of 8 year olds. It also made its way into “The Interview” as a running gag about the mythology Kim Jong-Un puts up around himself, which makes me think there was some Jewish guy in the writers room. But it seems to me that there is actually an interesting point to be made about this interpretation.

Let us ask, why would it be a problem if Pharaoah, as an alleged deity, went to the bathroom? Certainly our own objections to such an idea as impossible for an incorporeal God would not have applied to the polytheism of Ancient Egypt. Nor would such an idea be particularly morally troubling, either because going to the bathroom is a morally neutral act, (and possibly a positive one, if health is considered morally positive), or from the fact the Egyptian gods particularly moral individuals.

Rather, the problem raised by going for the bathroom for Pharaoh is that it is unseemly for a god, a religiously significant figure, to be involved in activities so mundane and so human. Religion, to Pharaoh, is primarily concerned with the greatness and awesome power of the gods, and devotion and worship thereof. For religion to get involved in the mundane and nitty-gritty details of daily life, of going to the bathroom, and perhaps, by extension, the way one treats one’s slaves, is immaterial to the religious pursuit. Religion, to Pharaoh, is an obligation primarily to Gods that is discharged on special occasions, not something that guides the way one acts in his daily life. He can go to the temple, offer his sacrifice, and order the subjugation of an entire people without any contradiction.

Moshe, by surprising Pharaoh during his morning bathroom break, is not just breaking the mythology around Pharaoh, he is making an ideological point about religion. Your religion may see your mundane activities as incommensurate with religiosity, your religion may allow to enslave and oppress an entire people as long as it does not impede your worship, but in our religion, there is no such divide. Your daily life is not just religiously relevant, but it is of the primary importance that you not just come to Shul on shabbos and hear a sermon, but live your life guided by religious principles and religious law, including, yes, halachos of going to the bathroom. You cannot hide yourself from the nitty-gritty details, you cannot have a split personality of your religious self and your day-to-day self, you cannot secretly go to the bathroom in the morning and proclaim yourself divine in the afternoon.
There is a quote attributed to the Kotzker that was apparently a favorite of R. Yehuda Amital’s, on the passuk, (Tehillim 115:16) ” הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם, לַיהוָה;    וְהָאָרֶץ, נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם, The Heaven belongs to God but the earth belongs to humanity” The Kotzker speaking for God, says: “Angels, I have enough of. What I want is human beings!” God wants us not to be angels, not belonging to this earth, with a religion that concerns itself only with matters of spirituality. He wants human beings, with all our flaws and all our temporality, both our physical and spiritual selves, to involve themselves totally in the work of perfecting the world he placed us in.

Scattered Personal Thoughts On Cooking, Anxiety and Channukah

Since my years in yeshiva, I have found that, for me, one of the most effective modes of therapy for the times I find myself in a troubled state of mind is cooking myself some dinner. Somehow, during the times in yeshiva that I fell into deep depression, cooking myself a simple dinner of pasta, often served with a sauce of my own invention (butter, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper) that I called “Yeshiva Noodles”, and it would make me feel better. When I went to YU, during dark days in my freshman year, living in a dorm without a kitchen, I found myself lost without my preferred method of coping, and the promise of a kitchen to cook in was one of the motivating factors that led me to move off-campus. During that time, I branched out from Yeshiva Noodles to, well, other kinds of pasta, and then other stuff as I challenged myself more and more. French Toast I recall being one milestone. Simple stuff, but I was having fun. Now that I’m married, I’ve expanded my repertoire considerably, and it still comforts me on the rough days I still have on occasion.
Why does it work? Back in yeshiva,  I figured the reason this worked was “I may be a failure at everything else, but at least I can feed myself”, which I think tells you more about why I kept getting depressed than it does about why that made me feel better. I think it can be partially explained by one peculiar feature of my cooking hobby, which is my stubborn refusal to follow recipes. I love nothing more than just making something up from the ingredients I have at hand. Sure, I look up recipes occasionally just for inspiration and basic direction, ie, what temperature to set the oven to and stuff like that, but I always insist on adding something of my own, and I rarely, if ever, measure out spices to conform to a recipe. (Obviously, baking is not my forte.) Part of this is a healthy non-conformist streak, the same instinct that, for instance, decided that if I was going to throw a baseball, I was going to throw it sidearm because it was weird to throw sidearm.

But part of this, I think, is a rebellion against the rest of my life which is conducted in the opposite way. I constantly worry about whether what I’m doing is objectively correct and good, be it in the papers I write, due to my desire for scholarly objectivity, in my interactions with other people, where my Asperger’s makes ascertaining the “correct” way to interact with people an object of intense scrutiny and investigation, or in my religious life, where the goal is to follow the precepts of a detailed and immense code of law governing every area of one’s life. This is absolutely not necessarily a bad thing. People should absolutely be careful around truth, around other people’s feelings, and about religious law.  But it can be taken too far. It feels like in my life I’m constantly trying to find the right recipe, the absolutely perfect set of ingredients, in order to achieve my desired goals, and I stress constantly about whether I’m going to turn out just like that perfect picture that accompanied the recipe. Often enough, I decide that if I can’t do it perfectly, if I’m just gonna mess everything up, its not even worth trying. But in actual cooking, not in the above metaphor cooking, I get to relax a little bit, even have a little bit of fun, get a little bit daring, try something new, and do the best with what I got. And the only judge is whether the food tastes good in the end, whether I cut the onions exactly to size or not, whether I use the right type of pan and the right type of oil. Sure, those things would help make the food better, and I do watch cooking shows and read food blogs to pick up tricks and tips for making stuff even better. But the point is to make good food, not perfect food, and to take joy in the process, not worry incessantly about the result. And if it turns out bad, its not such a big deal, because I’ll get to try again next time.

Obviously, this attitude cannot be applied in totality to the religious life of an Orthodox Jew. Ours is a religion which cares about the small things, which believes in humanity enough to charge it with living a life totally infused with Godliness. But perhaps we can learn a little bit from it. That we should take joy in the process of being a religious Jew, and not just be worried about the results. That we can take a step back from being crippled by an anxiety over whether we got the recipe exactly right, and do the best job we can with the ingredients we have, and trust that God will appreciate our best attempts, even if they’re not objectively perfect. Perhaps this is one lesson we can take out of Channukah. The Chashmonaim came to the kitchen with a recipe for Menorah Light, serves 8 days, and they only found enough oil for one. They could have just stopped there and decided to order takeout. But they pressed on, because it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has give it its best shot. And God recognized it as good enough.

Devar Torah Vayishlach (From 2013. The Best One I’ve Ever Written.)

So, my thoughts on this parsha are rather thin, but I’m going to attempt to advance my own understanding of the story of Yaakov and the Man who he wrestles with. It’s probably more my peshat than peshat, but sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing.

The story starts with Yaakov left alone. Suddenly, a man appears out of nowhere, and wrestles with him, until dawn. We are given no reason for this assault. We have no idea who this person is (and the midrashim aren’t so sure he’s a person). Yaakov is at the mercy of absurd and senseless violence, caught in the dark alone.
Yet, he wrestles until dawn, and when the man sees that he is unable to overcome Yaakov, he hits him in the thigh. He then asks Yaakov to let him go, because day is about to break, but Yaakov won’t let him go until he blesses him. The man asks him his name, Yaakov gives it, and then the man says his new name is “Yisrael” for he has striven with man and god and overcome. Yaakov then asks him what his name is, the man says “why must you know my name”, blesses him and leaves.

Weird story for all sorts of reasons. I don’t know what peshat is. I think Chazal’s reading actually makes the most sense. But let me offer my own.
I see this story as a good metaphor for the life of a religious person.
As religious people, we see the world with certain axioms. God exists. God is good. The world was created by a good God. But sometimes, we find ourselves alone in a world that makes no sense, that doesn’t fit with the religious notions we have, and we are assaulted with doubts and questions and problems. How can God allow evil to happen? How do we know God exists? Why would a good God create this place?
And we struggle with these questions. We come up with proofs of God, and answers for theodicy, and justifications and explanations and deep philosophical thought. We struggle with the questions, we wrestle with them, and we fight them to a draw. We may even think we are “winning”, that we have fought off all the questions and made a rational and coherent system of Judaism that explains everything.
But, there’s an issue. The very presence of those doubts, the very existence of those questions, mean that any of our answers is flawed from its inception. If everything in our religion was rational and self evident, there shouldn’t have been any problems to begin with. The questions do not disappear because of the answers. They’re held off, kept at bay, fought to a draw. But you can’t defeat them entirely. This realization paralyzes us, and makes us unable to completely defeat the doubts that plague us.
Thus, they ask to be let go. And its tempting to abandon the struggle and accept that it all doesn’t make sense. Let the problems go, let them walk away somewhere else, and when the dawn comes, they’ll be gone.

But no! The religious believer demands that he come out with something, anything from this struggle. He refuses to let go, demanding a blessing, something he can salvage from this experience.
The response: Your name is Yisrael, one who strives with man and God. What defines you is the struggle, between man and God, between the finite slice of reality you have and the infinity of God. Some allege that religion is about comfort, about certainty. I doubt it. For how can a thinking person be comfortable with the state of the world when it’s supposed to be the creation of a perfect God? How can someone be certain about God’s goodness and existence in the face of evil? Are those things so easily reconcilable? Religion means you allow yourself to be pulled in two different directions, the divine ideal and the human real, to allow that tension to bother you, to agitate you, until you have to wrestle and struggle with attempting to reconcile the perfection of God’s creation with its corruption, to strive with both man and God.
But still, we still want to know, why those questions and doubts exist, what their purpose is. What is the name, the essential purpose of this force that assaults us? The answer: Why must you know my name? Why must you know everything? None of us can possibly be all-knowing, and each of us only has their small slice of reality. Uncertainty, doubts, and questions lets us know that there is an infinite, unknowable reality that we don’t have access to by ourselves, and spurs us to discover more of that. Certainty, on the other hand, means remaining static, comfortable that your slice of reality is all that exists. We need to not know things to have any hope of progress.

There are many stories in Tanach, many of which are open, public miracles, showy spectacles that make it abundantly clear that there is a God who is powerful and present. But I believe its siginifcant that what defines our people is not the certainty of Egypt or the fiery spectacles of Elijah, but the valiant, uncertain struggle of Israel.

Devar Torah Toldot: Rivkah and a Critical Modern Orthodoxy

What I’d like to do this week is do another broad, sweeping character analysis, which seems to be the kind of devar torah I gravitate towards. This week, I’d like to look at the respective character traits of Yitzchak and Rivkah, and how they differ. We are conveniently provided with a focal point of their divergent personalities: Their attitude towards each of their children.

וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת־עֵשָׂו כִּי־צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת־יַעֲקֹב

And Yitzchak loved Esav, because he put game in his mouth, and Rivkah loved Yaakov

Now, what I’d like to investigate is what about Yitzchak leads him to prefer Esav, and what about Rivkah leads her to prefer Yaakov? What aspects of Yitzchak’s background and personality incline him more towards the אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, the hunter and outdoorsman that is Esav, and what aspects of Rivkah’s background and personality lead her to prefer the אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים that is Yaakov? What factors are responsible for such a sharp divergence in parental attitudes?

Let us start by looking at Yitzchak and his background. Yitzchak, is raised by Avraham and Sarah, both righteous people. He has a, for lack of a better term, sheltered upbringing. As the miraculous child and presumed heir to the mission of Avraham he is the apple of his parents eye, doted on and treated with the utmost protection of caution, albeit with one notable divinely requested exception. Possible bad influences, like Yishmael, are banished at the first sign of trouble. He is not allowed to leave the land of Israel, and Avraham has to send a servant to go find him a wife, which cannot be from the surrounding Canaanites, who Avraham deems too immoral and corrupt to be an acceptable option for his precious son. Yitzchak grows up protected and sheltered from the dangerous and immoral world outside.
It thus may be natural that he would come to idealize the outside world he has no access to. And as he grows older, blind and homebound, he may imagine that the world outside the bubble he was raised in may not be so bad after all, being as he never really has seen it, romanticizing the unknown and forbidden.

But his son Esav, an אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, a man of the outdoors, occupies that space that Yitzchak has never seen, and he knows how to trap, how to take the wild and untamed outdoors and capture it and bring it back to his father, to provide him a tantalizing taste of what Yitzchak never had access to, to put צַיִד בְּפִיו. Before giving, or attempting to give, Esav a bracha, he instructs him specifically to צֵא הַשָּׂדֶה, go out into that tantalizingly mysterious world I have no access to, and וְהָבִיאָה לִּי וְאֹכֵלָה, bring it back to me and I’ll eat it, and have a taste of it. Yaakov can’t provide that, he is just the same old, a אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, content to stay within the same walls Yitzchak wishes he could see beyond. Yaakov presents no tantalizing possibility, no romantic idealization of the unknown, just the same world Yitzchak has already knows.

Rivkah, on the other hand, does not have that same sheltered background, growing up not around the virtuous Avraham and Sarah, but the duplicitous and immoral Lavan and Betuel. Rashi on 25:20 sees the passuk’s repetition of her Aramean origins as an implicit praise for Rivkah, who emerged righteous despite her background. She has had to live in direct tension between her own morality and that of her surroundings, between her own ideals and the context she lived in, and she has emerged victorious, and did so without sealing herself from the world like Yitzchak did, because that option was completely unavailable to her. She resisted negative influences through the sheer power of her will and the conviction that she was right.

As such, Rivkah bears no romantic illusions about the world outside the Abrahamic family. She knows it too well, knows its violence, its deceit, its immorality all too well to idealize it. She properly recognizes Esav for what he is; not an exciting ambassador from the paradise outside the walls but a violent and impulsive hothead, with a nihilistic philosophy and a willingness to use violence to impose his will on others, who has absorbed the very aspects of the outside world Rivkah has fought against all her life. Instead, she properly recognizes the value of Yaakov, whose continuation in ideals and methods of his forebears she can more correctly recognize as preferable to the ideals of the outside world.

It is often said that what separates the Haredi world from Modern Orthodoxy is its suspicion of the outside culture. In one sense, that is certainly true. The Haredi world separates itself from the outside world and builds up walls around itself, to protect itself against the threats posed by modernity to religion while Modern Orthodoxy engages with the outside world and doesn’t separate itself from it, actively embracing the challenge to as fully observant Jews in modernity. But in a different sense, I submit to you, it shouldn’t be. Our engagement and familiarity with modernity should not result in an uncritical acceptance of it. Just the opposite, in fact. I can understand if you live in a Haredi enclave, where the secular world is a forbidden but tantalizing possibility, that you would idealize it, like Yitzchak idealizes Esav.

But if you’re a Modern Orthodox person? If you, like, Rivkah, are intimately familiar with the world outside Judaism, if you have actively engaged with it and lived within it? We’re the ones that should know better, to be able to look at modernity not with the wide eyes of an outsider romanticizing the unknown but with the eyes of an insider with a sense of critical distance. We’re the ones, who, while on one hand, can appreciate the good and admirable aspects of the surrounding culture, its proficiency in science, its commitment to use its gained knowledge for the betterment of humanity, its commitment to truth, its tolerance and kindness, can also take a step back and see the unsavory and less admirable aspects as well. We are the ones in position to see society’s greed, its materialism, its selfishness, its disregard and often utter contempt for the less fortunate, its nihilistic debasement and commoditization of the human being, its glorification of violence and war and power, and to distance ourselves from those trends. We should be the ones to truly appreciate the value of Shabbos, a momentary rest from greed and materialism spent in more important pursuits than the one for capital. We should be the ones to truly appreciate halakha, which demands much from humanity because it believes in humanity. We should be the ones to appreciate the learning of Torah and the values it represents, of moral education as a means of the improvement of society instead of violence and war, its overriding concern for the less fortunate, its commitment to the possibility of a better world. And we should be led to those realizations not because we have shut out the outside world, but because we have looked at it, carefully, critically, and unblinkingly, and preferred some of our values to some of theirs, the אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים to the אִישׁ שָׂדֶה.

Parshat Toldot: A Crackpot Theory on the Avot Keeping the Torah (from 2013)

This is a long one, fair warning. It’s a theory I’ve been playing with for some time and now trying to commit to writing. I’m not absolutely positive about it, and it’s a shot in the dark of sorts, but I thought I’d lay out what I’ve got. Hopefully I’m onto something.

Remember this video?

I remember when I first saw it, laughing at the all-too familiar scenario of a yeshiva bachur trying to give over an incredibly problematic dvar torah was relayed by the clipped voices of cartoon bears. “The avos kept the Torah before har sinai? What a dumb idea!” I probably thought. This video seemed to shoot it down and smash it to pieces, rendering it absurd and useless. No reasonable person would ever take the idea that the avos kept the torah before Har Sinai seriously! I mean, come on, look at all the difficulties it raises!
Let’s put it back together, shall we?

The fact is, a lot of reasonable people take the basic idea of the avot’s religious observance seriously enough to not dismiss it out of hand. They redefine “keep”, “Torah”, and “before Har Sinai”, but they do not simply throw it out. I don’t think there is anyone that thinks that the Avot did not adhere to some kind of religious law. Are we supposed to believe that Chazal were idiots, that Rashi never bothered to think about what he was writing, that Avraham ben HaRambam was irrational, that Ibn Ezra took midrashim too seriously, that Rashbam didn’t care about peshat? That would be silly. The idea is part of Jewish tradition, and was clearly seen as something to be grappled with. Why is that so?

So first of all, just philosophically, its a larger question  than might be readily apparent. At the most basic level, If you believe that all of what we do as Jews is fulfilling God’s will, than it becomes problematic to say that the avot did not do the same exact things, and any claim to the contrary needs to be theologically justified. But besides that, other issues are touched on: If the Avot didn’t have Torah, does that mean murder was allowed? Can’t be, right? But then what’s the exact difference between murder and marrying two sisters? So let’s say you answer the former is rational, and the latter isn’t. Does that then mean that there are irrational mitzvot with no reasons behind them? And then it becomes a big nafka mina for the concept of ta’amei hamitzvot. Maybe murder is one of the sheva mitzvot? But so is arayos? And then it becomes a discussion about what the sheva mitzvot are. Maybe the latter was moral before matan torah. But why should morality be changed by revelation? A lot of issues get touched on here.

So let’s start with the key source, a passuk in our parsha:

Bereishis 26:5
עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי:

There are a number of issues: Number one, why the repeated terms? Number two, what mitzvos, chukim, and torah exists before the actual torah? The idea that there was some type of Torah before Har Sinai does not come from nothing, it is actually in the pesukim, and the commentaries must try and figure out what is being referred to here. Each will give an answer that keeps within their own perspective on the philosophical issues being touched upon. Let us start with first, most straightforward explanation, that of Rashbam:

חוקותי ותורותי – לפי עיקר פשוטו כל המצוות הניכרות כגון גזל ועריות וחימוד ודינין והכנסת אורחים, כולם היו נוהגין קודם מתן תורה אלא שנתחדשו ונתפרש[ו] לישראל וכרתו ברית לקיימן.

Rashbam sees the rules referred to here as the basic, rational rules that society needs to function, which includes civil law (theft, courts) and moral strictures (hospitality, sexual morality). In other words, the avot were not lawless anarchists. Those rules were in place before matan torah, but are not dependent on revelation, and then are “renewed and explained” at Matan Torah. This understands the civil and moral law of the Torah as rational and not dependent on revelation, as opposed to ritual law, which is. This seems to be a reasonable reading, but it is not without issues. For one, most of civil law does not pertain to individuals, and the Avot could not have realistically followed the details of dinei nezikin with their neighbors who did not have these laws. They could not have set up courts without having a political entity. Making the claim that the Avot then followed the civil law and morality of their times would solve that issue, but raises its own philosophical questions, and more immediately peshat questions. Why are all the terms possessive, implying they are from God, not from the surrounding society? And why is it impressive that Avraham was a decent citizen?

Next we’ll look at the Ibn Ezra on our passuk:

והחוקים הם חוקות השם שילך האדם אחרי מעשיו כאשר אפרש בפסוק שעטנז (ויקרא יט, יט), ואלה החוקות נטועות בלב, והתורה שמל עצמו, ובניו ועבדיו,ובפסוק והתורה והמצוה (שמות כד, יב) אבארם היטיב

Ibn Ezra sees “Torah” as commands like circumcision, and “chukim” as things that are “implanted in the heart”, and that category seems to be the one that describes what kind of mitzvot Avraham followed. Ibn Ezra then promises that he will explain it by Shatnez. So let’s look at that Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 19:19
וטעם להזכיר אחר אלה המצות בהמתך לא תרביע כלאים – להזהיר אחר היותך קדוש, שלא תעשה חמס לבן אדם כמוך, גם לא תעשה לבהמה לשנות מעשה השם, על כן כתוב את חקתי תשמרו לשמור כל מין שלא יתערב מין עם מין. כלאים שני מינים. ועוד אפרש מלת כלאים, וטעם השדה והבגד להיות לזכרון, כי יש מצות רבות לזכר כחג המצות, וסוכות, וציצית, ושופר, ומזוזה, ותפילין. ופה ארמוז לך סוד, דע כי השלם שלם מאד, על כן כתוב באברהם וישמור משמרתי מצותי חקותי ותורתי

Kilayim and Shatnez, to the Ibn Ezra, are mitzvot that are about being kind to nature and not wanting to mess around with God’s creation, and meant to remind of you of that command.  Just like the mitzvot of Pesach, Sukkot, Tzitzis, Shofar, Mezuzah and Tefillin, are meant to remind you of things. And then it’s a secret, which would then explain the passuk we care about, if we understood it. Thanks a lot, Ibn Ezra. Thankfully, he has a more helpful comment elsewhere.

Ibn Ezra Shemot, 20:2
והדרך הראשון: מצוות שהם נטועות מהשם בלב כל אנשי דעת והם רבים ואין בעשרת הדברים רק השבת לבדה שאינה בכלל שקול הדעת, על כן כל משכיל בכל עם ולשון מודים בהם כי הם נטועים בשקול הדעת. ועליהם אין להוסיף ולא לגרוע. והם ששמר אברהם עם מצוות האחרות נוספות. והשם לא נתן התורה רק לאנשי הדעת. ומי שאין לו דעת אין לו תורה.

This is where he brings it all together. The type of mitzvot that Avraham chiefly performed (which we’ve previously seen are chukim) were the mitzvot that are implanted in man’s heart by way of his reason, which all of humanity agrees upon. That includes 9 out of the 10 commandments, and apparently, kilayim. The Ibn Ezra seems to have an idea which is a slight expansion upon Rashbam’s, in that the Avot kept the commandments that are universal and not dependent upon revelation, but Rashbam limits it to civil law and moral strictures that are immediately obvious as societally necessary. Ibn Ezra includes shatnez and kilayim, trying to fit them under the umbrella of moral strictures, which he is forced to do once he’s defined chukim as rational commandments by the pasuk describing Avraham’s observance. He also includes all of the 10 commandments, which includes the more theological first two commandments. Both of these expand upon the Rashbam’s definition. This may be indicative of Ibn Ezra’s medieval rationalist bias, as he sees many beliefs and mitzvot as rationally self-evident, and thus, any rationally self-evident mitzvot would have had to have been observed by an intelligent person like Avraham.

I think Ibn Ezra is onto something, but I don’t think his idea works as currently iterated. His definition of “chukim” are things that are universally self-evident, but includes things like monotheism, which was definitely not universally self-evident in the times of the avot. And I find it hard to buy the notion that the moral justification of the rules of kilayim is so ironclad its universally self-evident. Additionally, the notion of universally self-evident mitzvot doesn’t work quite well with the possesive “chukotai”. There still is a particularistic element of these words that is being neglected.

But of course, its not the Rashbam or the Ibn Ezra that raises the most problems. It’s the Gemara and its corresponding Rashi in our passuk that causes the most problems. With that, we come to Rav in Yoma 28b:

אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר יעקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו’. אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב: ואימא שבע מצות! – האאיכא נמי מילה. – ואימא שבע מצות ומילה! – אמר ליה: אם כן מצותי ותורתי למה לי? אמר (רב) +מסורת הש”ס: [רבא]+ ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי – אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.
Rab said: Our father Abraham kept the whole Torah, as it is said: Because that Abraham hearkened to My voice [kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws].21 R. Shimi b. Hiyya said to Rab: Say, perhaps, that this refers to the seven laws?— Surely there was also that of circumcision! Then say that it refers to the seven laws and circumcision [and not to the whole Torah]? — If that were so, why does Scripture say: ‘My commandments and My laws’? Raba or R. Ashi said: Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the ‘erub of the dishes,’ as it is said: ‘My Torahs’: one being the written Torah, the other the oral Torah.

So first things first, Chazal were not idiots. Rav did not come to this position to corrupt the text to fit some preconcieved or sinister aims. He is actually trying to solve the textual difficulties of our passuk, as well as the larger question of the nature of the avot’s religious observance. And there is a reasoned debate here: Maybe its only sheva mitzvos? But then what about circumcision, which Avraham was definitely commanded to do? Ok, then sheva mitzvos plus circumcision. Ah, but then what do you do with the extra terms, mitzvotai v’toratai? (I think what the gemara is doing is asking the question we’ve stated, ie, the possesive form and necessarily particularistic connontation of that) Must be that it refers to the written and oral Torah. Thus, Avraham kept the written and oral Torah, “even eruv tavshilin”, which is more than just the sheva mitzvos bnei noach, and is more than the sheva mitzvot bnei noach and circumcision.

Rashi based on this gemara, explains each term used in the passuk individually.

שמע אברהם בקולי – כשנסיתי אותו:
וישמר משמרתי – גזרות להרחקה על אזהרות שבתורה, כגון שניות לעריות ושבות לשבת:
מצותי – דברים שאילו לא נכתבו ראויין הם להצטוות כגון גזל ושפיכות דמים:
חקותי – דברים שיצר הרע ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז שאין טעם בדבר אלא גזירת המלך וחקותיו על עבדיו:
ותורתי – להביא תורה שבעל פה, הלכה למשה מסיני

Thus, Avraham is praised for keeping all aspects of Torah, comprising direct commands, decrees, rational commandments and irrational commandments, and Oral Torah.

Now, such a position seems very difficult, and is the kind of position that would attract the ire of our cartoon bear friend.  How could they have kept the written torah when a lot of mitzvot are based on Yetziat Mitzrayim and other historical events that happen after them? What about all the stories, their own stories, did they know those too? And Oral Torah? They were following takanot issued in response to realities thousands of years in the future? Not to mention the idea, stated by Rashi with no apparent irony, that Avraham was keeping halachot moshe m’sinai before either Moshe or Sinai.  Yet, I don’t think it’s realistic or honest to pretend that Chazal and Rashi didn’t realize any of these issues. At some point, they would have to deal with these questions somehow.

The questions raised above all stem from pretty much two assumptions: That the Torah originates all the laws contained within it, and that the stated reasons, often historical, for the laws in the Torah, are the definitive and only reasons for those mitzvot. By way of example, (which we will use through the rest of this piece) Pesach did not exist before Yetziat Mitzrayim, because we keep Pesach to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim, and thus, when Rashi quotes a Medrash saying that the Yitzchak ate a Korban Pesach, it is problematic. And it so follows that claiming that the Avot kept the whole Torah is absurd and ridiculous.

My contention is that Chazal did not necessarily hold of those assumptions. The fact that they even broached the notion of the Avot keeping the whole torah before Har Sinai shows that they do not make either assumption. They do not assume that mitzvot only existed after Har Sinai, and they do not assume that the reasons for the mitzvot are defined exclusively by those given in the Torah. The Torah was followed in full before Har Sinai, but for different reasons than what we know. Consequently, somehow, Pesach was observed by the avot, but without the historical reasons we are told of by the Torah, because those reasons are not exclusive.

I think such a notion of pre-Sinaitic Torah is not only defensible, it fits better with what we know of the Torah’s historical context.  In the past couple hundred years, we’ve learned a lot about the Ancient Near East and the context of the Torah, and we’ve seen a lot of ideas and laws that are in the Torah that seem to be highly similar to the cultures of their times. This raises a lot of issues as to the divinity and uniqueness of the Torah. If Pesach seems to be patterned after a neighboring springtime agricultural festival, then the notion that God commanded it seems to be weakened. This is the concern that Rav Kook addresses in Eder HaYakar, and what he says is sneakily radical:

“וכן כשבאה האשורולוגיא לעולם, ונקפה את הלבבות, בדמיונים שמצאה, לפי השערותיה הפורחות-באויר, בין תורתנו הקדושה לדברים שבכתבי-היתדות בדעות במוסר ובמעשים. האם הנקיפה הזאת יש לה מוסד שכלי אפילו במעט, וכי אין זה דבר מפורסם שהיה בין הראשונים יודעי דעת אלהים, נביאים, וגדולי הרוח, מתושלח, חנוך, שם ועבר וכיו”ב, וכי אפשר הוא שלא פעלו כלום על בני דורם אף-על-פי שלא הוכרה פעולתם כפעולתו הגדולה של “איתן האזרחי” אברהם אבינו ע”ה, ואיך אפשר שלא יהיה שום רושם כלל בדורותם מהשפעותיהם, והלא הם מוכרחים להיות דומים לעניני תורה. ובענין דימוי המעשים הלא כבר מימות הרמב”ם, ולפניו בדברי חז”ל, מפורסם הדבר שהנבואה מתנהגת עם טבעו של אדם, כי טבעו ונטייתו היא צריכה להתעלות עפ”י ההדרכה האלהית, ש”לא נתנו המצוות אלא לצרף בהן את הבריות” . ע”כ כל הדברים שמצד החנוך שקודם למתן תורה מצאו מקום באומה דבעולם, אם רק היה להם יסוד מוסרי, והיה אפשר להעלותם למעלה מוסרית נצחית ומתפתחת, השאירתם התורה האלהית. ובהשקפה יותר בהירה הוא היסוד הנאמן לההכרה התרברתית הטובה הנמצאת בעמק טבע האדם, באופן ש”זה ספר תולדות אדם” הוא כלל כל התורה כולה, ושהוא עוד כלל יותר גדול מהכלל של ,.ואהבת לרעך כמוך” שכדברי רבי עקיבא .
And similarly, when Assyriology appeared, striking doubts into people’s hearts with the similarities that it found, according to its ethereal conjectures, between our holy Torah and the contents of cuneiform inscriptions, in terms of moral principles and practices.
Do these doubts have even the slightest rational basis? Is it not well known that among the ancients there were people who recognized God, prophets, and spiritual giants, such as Metushelach, Chanokh, Shem and Ever, and the like? Is it possible that they had no influence on their generations? Even if their achievements do not compare with those of Avraham Avinu, how could their influence possibly have left no impression whatsoever upon their generations? Surely [their teachings] must have resembled those of the Torah.
As for the similarity in practices, already in the days of the Rambam and even earlier, in the words of Chazal, it was well-known that prophecy operates in tandem with man’s nature. Man’s natural inclinations must be raised through Divine guidance, for “the mitzvot were given solely for the purpose of refining mankind.” Therefore, those elements of education that preceded the giving of the Torah which had found a place in the nation and the world, so long as they had a moral foundation and could be elevated to an eternal moral height, were left intact in the Divinely-given Torah.
Looking at the matter more broadly, this is the basis of the positive cultural consciousness that is found in the deepest recesses of human nature, such that “This is the book of the generations of man” embraces the entire Torah. It is a principle even greater than the principle of “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as stated by R. Akiva.
All of this should be taken into consideration by every discerning individual. Then there would be no room whatsoever for fraudulent heresy to spread in the world and to be reinforced through such events.”

Let’s unpack Rav Kook’s statement here. Denying the similarities between cuneiform texts and the Torah is not strictly necessary, because such similarities can be ascribed to the influence of pre-Abrahamic prophets, who are thus responsible for the “positive cultural consciousness” that is universal in human nature. Rav Kook is noticing that religion is a universal human phenomenon, accounting for that fact with the notion of pre-Abrahamic prophets, and that consequently there are positive religious impulses that are inherent in the human condition. Thus, the similarity of Near Eastern Culture on the Torah is not treif. On the contrary, those ideas and practices of that culture which had a moral foundation was left in the Torah, building upon the universal religious consciousness and raising it to new heights. So if we find that Pesach seems to be based on a neighboring pagan holiday, it is not proof of the non-divinity of the Torah, but merely the incorporation of a genuine religious impulse into the Torah.

We see a possible precedent for this idea in a medrash on Avodah Zara 8b. The gemara there talks about an 8 day Roman Holiday called “Saturnura”, and offers this fascinating origin story

ת”ר: לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך, אמר: אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו, וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים, עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית[ובתפלה], כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך, אמר: מנהגו של עולם הוא, הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים, לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימיםטובים, הוא קבעם לשם שמים, והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים.
When Adam HaRishon saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, “Woe is me, perhaps because I have transgressed [with the Tree of Knowledge], the world around me is being darkened and returned to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the mode of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer he said, ‘This is the natural way of the world’, and he took it upon himself to keep an eight days’ yom tov. In the following year he appointed both (the eight days preceding and following the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year) as yomim tovim (plural). Now, he designated them for the sake of Heaven, but they [the idolaters] designated them for the sake of idolatry.

This is an incredibly radical and important medrash. Chazal, by putting Adam HaRishon as the main character, are ascribing the idea of an 8 day winter festival to a universal human religious impulse, inherent in the human condition. Because of Adam’s experience, there is a human need to have an 8 day winter festival, which was at first designated for the sake of heaven, but then taken over by idolatry.  It’s intriguing, how mythic, even pagan, this story sounds, with Adam attempting to deal with the natural cycle, chaos, and his own mortality  with repeated ritual. Even more exciting, this impulse seems to manifest itself in Judaism in the form of Channukah, which is given historical reasons that happen much, much later than this story, obviously. That impulse later found itself a historical manifestation, but that impulse was there the whole time.

So now we can present a possible notion of what it meant for the avot to keep the whole Torah, the Written and Oral. Not only did they keep civil law, or moral strictures, they kept the ritual mitzvot in line with universal religious impulses, ahead of the reasons given in the Torah for them. They kept Pesach, ate matzos, brought korban pesach not in line with the historical reasons given in the Torah, but in line with the inherent human need to consecrate the spring with a ritual festival. Heck, they might have even kept Channukah, based on the Gemara we cited above. They did not have just the civil or moral part of Judaism, they had a fully formed religious system. Maybe that system had different reasons to it. Maybe it looked somewhat different, or had a different focus, less about history and more about Maybe in that iteration of the system marrying two sisters is okay, while in a later iterations it was not. But it was a full, autonomous system.

This is not to say, however, that they were indistinguishable from their Ancient Near East neighbors. The text itself is clear that they viewed themselves as qualitatively different. Our passuk is clear that the laws spoken of do not come exlusively from their surrounding culture, from reason, or from universal religious feeling, but from God. So perhaps, even though their system perhaps seemed more pagan than ours does, there was always something that distinguished the Abrahamite family from its neighbors, something essentially incommensurable with its surrounding society. They had fundamentally different conceptions of theology, law, and morality. This Yosef Ibn Kaspi’s understanding of the notion, laid out in “Tirat Kesef” on Lech Lecha

ואשיב ואומר כי ידוע שמנהג הארץ  ההיא לקחת  איש אחד נשים  רבות, עם  שגם תורתנו התירה זה לעמנו,  ולכן היה מהפלגת קדושת  אברהם,  אע״פ שגדלה תשוקתו לבנים שלא נזדווג רק לאשתו  הנכבדת,  אשר הוא נעזר ממנה לכל עת צורך,  גם לא לשפחותיו הנמצאות אתו  בבית,  ומה טוב מה שאמרו פלוסופי  חכמינו קיים אברהם  כל התורה כלה  (יומא כ״ח), ודי במה שזכרנו  מופת  שהחמיר על עצמו אף במקום שהתירה אותו התורה העתידה להמסר לכלל עם ישורון. והנה ביאר כי אברהם לא בקש זה משרה, אבל שמע לקולה כאשר בקשה זה מאתו, ובכלל זה שלום הבית  ג״כ שהוא עיקר גדול לכל מבקש שלמות .

And I will further say that it is known that the custom of that land was for one man to take many wives, besides that our Torah permits this to our nation. And therefore it was of the great holiness of Avraham that, despite the greatness of his desire for children, he only paired with his honored wife, from whom he received aid at any time of necessity, and not from his maidservants who were found with him in the house.
And how good was that which the philosophers of our Sages said, that Avraham kept the entire Torah (Yoma 28b). And it is sufficient in that which we have mentioned, the exemplar that he was strict upon himself even in a place that which was permitted by the Torah which was to be transmitted over to the populace of the nation of Yeshurun. And behold, it explains that Avraham did not request this of Sarah, but rather that he hearkened to her voice when she requested this of him, and encompassed with this is the peace of the household {shalom habayit}, which is as well an important fundamental to anyone who desires completeness.”

Avraham differed from his society in subtle ways, in the way he ran his household and treated his wife, and that’s what Ibn Kaspi thinks the gemara meant. Avraham’s religion was fundamentally different than his surroundings. Rav Kook has a similar explaination for the Gemara’s choice of Eruv Tavshilin as the primary example of the extent of Avraham’s observance. An Eruv Tavshilin allows one to cook on Yom Tov for Shabbos, and involves differing levels of kedusha, and the ability to distinguish between them. Thus, explains Rav Kook the avot were able to distinguish not just between holy and mundane, but between differing levels of holiness. To tie into my idea, the avot were able to distinguish between their religion and their neighbors’ religion. Even if they may have seemed superficially similar, they labored under fundamentally different assumptions. That’s my theory, and I hope someone thinks it makes sense.