Torah for the Times

Friday, November 18, 2011 - 21 Chesvan, 5772

Torah Reading: Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 - 25:18)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:17 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:19 PM

Torah, Past and Future

The Torah is known for its brevity. Many of the laws of the Torah are mentioned ever so succinctly. Others are merely hinted in the Torah. Often one word, or even one letter of the Torah, can be the basis for the derivation of an entire Torah law. In short, the Torah is extremely economical when it comes to the use of language.

Yet, this week’s parshah is a glaring exception to this rule. In this parsha we read of how Abraham asked his servant Eliezer to travel to his homeland to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. The Torah relates how Eliezer prayed to G‑d and stipulated that the first girl whom he will ask for water and who will offer to bring water to his camels as well is the one that he will select for Isaac’s bride. And, indeed, this is exactly what happened. The Torah recounts in detail how he gave Rebecca jewelry after she offered to supply water for his camels. The Torah then describes how Eliezer repeats the entire story to Rebecca’s father and brother and how they finally consented to the marriage. All of this is reported in vivid detail with many points repeated two or three times. This is quite uncharacteristic for the same Torah that insists on brevity even in the most important areas of law.

Rashi cites the Talmudic sage, Rav Acha who anticipated this question and answered with a startling statement: “The conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs are more pleasing before G‑d than the Torah of their children, for the narrative of Eliezer is doubled in the Torah while many essential elements of the Torah were given only by allusion.”

This statement at face value is difficult to understand. How could a “mere” story be more important than the laws of the Torah? Moreover, the Torah is divided into the Written Law and the Oral Law. Despite the fact that many of the laws are merely hinted in the Torah, they are expounded upon at great length in the Oral Torah (much of which was subsequently committed to writing in the Talmud and Midrash). Why was the Written Torah chosen to detail the stories of the Patriarchs (and their servants) while the intricacies of the laws of the Torah are reserved for the Oral Law?

“Than” and “From”

One novel way of understanding Rav Acha’s statement is to use an alternate translation of his words. In Hebrew the letter mem is a prefix that can be translated either as “than” implying that the former (the conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs) is greater than the latter (The Torah of their children). The prefix mem can also be translated as “from,” thus yielding the following rendition: “[That] the conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs is pleasing before G‑d is derived from the Torah of the children.” The Torah of the children informs us of the greatness of the conversation of the servants of the fathers.

In other words, we can only fully appreciate the value of the conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs because we have access to the Torah given to their children, the Jewish people.
According to this novel way of understanding Rav Acha’s message, there is no suggestion that the laws are of minor significance. Rather, it suggests that when we examine the incredible wealth of knowledge that is implicit in even one small letter of the Torah, we will begin to appreciate the importance of the stories of the Torah as well. We will then not view these stories as mere historical accounts or interesting anecdotes but as eternal messages.

If even one letter of the Torah can form the basis of an elaborate edifice of laws, it tells us that every letter of the Torah contains unfathomable depth. There is no limit to the number of ideas and applications that can be derived from the slightest nuance of the Written Torah. We can then infer that all of the Torah, including the casual conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs, contains profound and timeless messages.

One possible reason why the details of the commandments are not fleshed out in the Torah is to underscore the infinite value of Torah. The deeper something is the more we have to resort to hints and allusions to convey their transcendent nature. By giving us only sketchy and cryptic information to convey intricate teachings we are exposed to the true G‑dly nature of Torah. When we realize its true nature it instills within us great respect and reverence for the Torah.

The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Akiva died the “honor of Torah” ceased. Rashi explains that Rabbi Akiva was known for his ability to demonstrate the significance of even the slightest nuance of the Torah. He was able to interpret even the “crowns” above the letters, known as Tagim, in addition to the words themselves. No detail is superfluous and nothing in Torah is devoid of meaning.

Moreover, the fact that there is so much hidden in even one letter of Torah is an indication that the narratives of the Patriarchs and their servants contains within them even deeper mysteries as well as down to earth instructions.

The Torah and the Children

We can take this a step further. Not only do the laws of the Torah given to the “children” provide us with insight into the depth of the Torah inherent in the conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs, it goes beyond that.

The emphasis should not just be on the Torah, it should also be on the children, for Rav Acha did not just mention the Torah; he specifically referred to the Torah as “the Torah of the children.” Perhaps his intention was to highlight the degree to which the Jewish people (“children”) have realized the significance of every minute detail of Torah and were prepared to sacrifice so much for their observance. Just as the intricacies of Torah inform us of the deeper meaning in the conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs, so too, the dedication of the children to what might seem the minutiae of Torah tells us something about our origins. It directs us to search for the root of this phenomenon. Children like this do not grow in a vacuum.

Look to the Rock

Thus, when we look at the Jewish people and their dedication to Torah it informs us of our Patriarchs, Matriarchs and even their servants.

Indeed, the prophet Isaiah (51:2) states: “Look unto the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look unto Abraham your father and unto Sarah that bore you. For when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him and made him many.” By reflecting on the intricacies of Torah we get a glimpse into the lives of our Patriarchs.

A New Torah

When we examine the foregoing citation from Isaiah it is noteworthy that shortly after pointing us to the past, exhorting us to “look unto Abraham”, it changes direction to talk about the future Messianic Age at which time “Torah shall go forth from Me.” According to the Midrash this refers to the novel teachings of Torah that will be revealed by Moshiach in the Messianic Age, in relation to which, our Sages tell us, the Torah we are in possession of now is “hevel-vanity.”

What, we may ask, is the connection between looking to our past and the new dimension of Torah that we will be taught by Moshiach in the future?

When the reverence for our Torah reflects the superior and more exquisite beauty of our Patriarchs, we thereby prepare ourselves for the Torah study of the future. The Torah we study today is the precursor to the Torah of the future.

When we appreciate the stories of the Torah—and particularly the miracles of the Patriarchs that are highlighted in the narrative of Eliezer the servant of Abraham—it prepares us for the miracles of the future.

When we study Torah by searching for new ideas and continually seeing its intricacies and new shades of meaning, we will be prepared for the time when we will see the ultimate novel dimensions of Torah that will be revealed to all of us exclusively by G‑d through Moshiach.

The Torah we learn now links us to the future just as it connects us to our past.

Moshiach Matters

While Maimonides writes that Judaism has 13 fundamental principles, or Ikarim, and includes the belief in Moshiach’s imminent arrival as one of them, the Chofetz Chaim goes one step further. He calls the belief in Moshiach the “Ikar HaIkarim - the principle of all principles.” According to him, belief in Moshiach is even more fundamental to Judaism than the other 12 principles enumerated by Maimonides.
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