Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Avraham Avinu's Torah

One of the more controversial statements made by Chazal is "Our holy fathers all kept the entire Torah".  We are told, for example, that Avraham Avinu kept the entire Torah and all rabbinic enactments right down to eruv tavshilin.  Many people take these statements literally.  Far too many.
The objections to the statement range from the obvious to the subtle.  For the obvious, how could the Avos observe the Torah when it hadn't been given yet?  How could they celebrate going out of Egypt from slavery to freedom if they were never slaves?  How could Avraham Avinu, a"h, serve the angels who visited him milk and meat?  How could Yaakov Avinu, a"h, marry two sisters?  It's a mitzvah in the Torah to put a parapet around one's roof.  Our Avos lived in tents.  Did they build sukkos every autumn?
I believe that to best understand Chazal's statement one must understand what "Torah" is.  We are so used to using Hebrew words as labels in English that we forget they have real meanings.  For example, Torah means "teaching" or "instruction".  It is God's communication to us as to His expectations for us in this world. It is not simply the scroll we read from three times a week or the collected knowledge in all the seforim in the world.  As Chazal note, it is indescribably huge, greater than we can ever understand being the produce of the Divine intelligence.
Another support for this position can be found in the words of Chazal where they note that Torah preceded the Creation of the world.  As Chazal say, God looked into the Torah to create the world.  Now, unless one is simplistic enough to think that there was this one original scroll floating out there from the ether before the universe came into being, one must conclude that Torah is the blueprint for Creation, the framework for all existence, the answer to the question of Life, The Universe and Everything.
This helps to explain how our Avos "kept" the whole Torah.  The "whole Torah" doesn't mean performing the Taryag mitzvos but rather it means participating in the progression of history in total consonance with God's plans.  The Talmud tells us that history moves forward towards a purpose.  There will be a completion of the Final Redemption, there will be a Moshiach and there will be an Olam Haba in this reality.  For us, participating in this progression is accomplished by the performance of the mitzvos.  Through limud Torah and engaging in activities that sanctify God's name and fulfill His will we move reality forward towards its ultimate destination.
Our Avos worked on the same goal but it is important to remember that they were on a level so much higher than us that we cannot comprehend how they interacted with reality.  Every autumn, as the Torah reading cycle returns to their histories I see articles getting published about them that attempt to humanize them to a ridiculous degree, commenting on whether or not they existed, criticizing their parenting techniques, wondering about their connection to religions that have no real connection to them.  Take a step back and think about it: these men spoke with God.  They didn't just worship Him.  They weren't just highly aware of Him.  They had communication with Him.  How can we hope to understand men like that?
The Nefesh HaChaim notes that because of this heightened spirituality they were therefore able to guide all their actions in harmony with the will of God.  Avraham Avinu didn't simply feed the angels who visited him what he did because that's what was in the pantry that day.  Yaakov Avinu didn't marry two sisters because he had no Torah.  In all their actions they recognized what the right course was to take to move history forward and they took it.  These decisions, for whatever the reason was to the Divine will, were those that were necessary even if later on the halacha would forbid them.  For us, marrying two sisters is an abomination.  For Yaakov Avinu it was the step he had to take to bring forth the founders of our nation.
With this understanding we can now see how our Avos kept "the whole Torah" and it serves as a reminder to us that there is a purpose to our practice.  We are not simply to perform mitzvos out of rote or habit but to keep our minds on the bigger picture, on the grand purpose behind all our actions.  We must bring meaning into our actions and understanding how our Avos did it helps to serve as a guide.


Shira Salamone said...

A most interesting perspective. You’re linked.

micha berger said...

I like the new translation of Nefesh haChaim. It balances the precision of language really necessary for a philosophical text (even to the extent that yir'ah is consistently rendered "fear/awe") while still remaining readable.

Those who can handle philosophical discussion in the Hebrew original, though, might appreciate this link to the text of NhC 1:21. Unless you had another reference in mind -- the whole book is on wikisource! (The links below are also to WikiSource locations, including Chumash with Rashi and Ramban, and of course the Yad.)

BTW, everyone knows this idea that the avos kept the entire Torah because it's Rashi's. But Rashi is taking sides in a 3 way machloqes on Yuma 28b:

1- Rav: The avos keps the entire Torah

2- R' Ashi: ... even the derabbanans.

3- R Shimi bar Chiya: Avraham only kept the 7 mitzvos and beris Milah. (If we're talking all three Avos, presumably the only variation is Yaaqov and his sons keeping gid hanasheh.)

Rashi is quoting Rav Ashi. But he is in the minority. Most rishonim (see discussions on Bereishis 26:5)hold like RSBC. Including: the Rambam (Melachim 9:1), his son R' Avraham, the Me'iri (intro to Avos), the Ramban, Seforno, Ibn Ezra, Radaq, Chizquni and the Rama (okay, not a rishon).

According to RMMS's (the 7th Lub Rebbe's) understanding of RYYS (his father-in-law and predecessor; see Sefer haMaamarim 5697, pg 282 - a hagah titled "beruchnius velo begashmius), Rav and R' Ashi aren't being fully literal. The avos accomplished the spiritual objectives of the mitzvos, and not for every mitzvah did they physically fulfill it
as we would.

A consequence of the rise of the liberal movements is that maximalist hashkafic positions are pushed in some circles so as to avoid their mistake of compromise. Another consequence which feeds this is a focus on studying halakhah to the exclusion of machashevah. (There are other consequences too, but I'll stick with the relevant.) Between these effects, people see Rashi and think that anyone who holds like R' Shimi Bar Chiya or the Ramban (never mind the staunch rationalists like the Rambam) is watering down their Torah.

With tefillos that everyone here has homes and even heat and food for Shabbos,

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Yishar kokacha and what an amazing link.

I do disagree about the English translation of NCh though. They remove quite a bit of material, especially the kabbalistic stuff, which I found fascinating in the original. I was actually really disappointed

On the other hand, your insights are quite valuable in this matter.

Kol hakavod and have a safe, warm Shabbos

micha berger said...


I think you are describing the "old" (2008) translation by R' Avraham Yaakov Finkel. I was talking about the new (Sep 2012) translation by R' Len Moskowitz (whose name may be familiar from around the Torah-discussing web).

Follow the link above, and check out the "Look Inside" preview, and make sure also to see the blurbs on the back cover. RLM's intent is clearly far more focused on accuracy than on preserving the "frum" popularization/simplification of R' Chaim Volozhiner's ideas. (If you buy it from that link, Amazon will pay AishDas a commission.)

micha berger said...

Weird, neither link to Amazon worked!

and maybe this link won't be mangled. (If not, you may have to cut-n-paste the url above.)

AztecQueen2000 said...

I have no problem with the idea that the Torah (as in there is one G-d and we do what G-d wants) was followed even in the time of Avraham. I do have a serious problem with a Midrash that said both Avraham and Lot observed the prohibition of chametz during Pesach, when the events that would lead to both Pesach and the prohibition were a few centuries off.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Reb Micha, kol hakavod. I was not aware of this new version and was indeed referring to the 2008. Next time I'm in a seforim store I'll give it a look!

micha berger said...

AztecQueen2000: In order to believe that Avraham avoided chameitz on the day that would be Pesach, one would have to reverse the causality. IOW, it's not that Pesach runs from 15 to 21 Nissan because we were redeemed from Egypt then. Rather, this period is metaphysically connected to redemption, and that it why we were redeemed specifically then. The spirituality of the date caused the history, rather than the other way around.

For that matter, if one follows the majority of rishonim and earlier acharonim who take medrash metaphorically, that particular message could have been the point of the medrash. Not that Avraham actually ate matzah but that the date already had spiritual significance in his day, despite it being before the events we commemorate.

Maya Resnikoff said...

What a lovely framework for thinking about the purpose of mitzvot. I'm always fascinated by the contrast between understanding the mitzvot as being for our benefit versus them being for God's benefit. Your last paragraph seems to unite them beautifully- they are for our benefit in helping us to be in contact with God and to do God's work- so that they benefit both God and Israel...