Rabbi David Walk
We love our ancestors. For that reason Jews do whatever possible to try to identify with these giants of our first generations. We're not satisfied with being moved and impressed with their heroic deeds rather, we try to imagine them in ways which make them more accessible to us. Let's be honest. Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya'akov and Rachel were very different from us. Their world didn't have land lines, let alone iPhones. It's hard to feel that close to someone who has never had a Café Latte Venti with skim milk and Splenda. So, in our minds we give them a sort of make over. The Mama's get a sheitel and a gingham dress; the Papa's get peyot, beards and tzitzit. It's okay, no harm is done, and we feel right at home with them in their living room, right down to the plastic slip covers. However, periodically we want to emerge from this emotionally satisfying delusion, and see them as they were, nomadic shepherds from the Bronze Age with whom we outwardly share little in common. Perhaps the greatest attempt to highjack our forebears from their historical context takes place in this week's Torah reading.
In our parsha we read: Because of the fact that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions (Genesis 26:5). What are all these Divine instructions which Avraham paid attention to? The most famous response comes from Rashi: 'Because Abraham hearkened to My voice': when I tested him. 'and kept My charge': Refers to decrees to distance himself from transgressing the warnings in the Torah. 'My commandments': Refers to things, which, had they not been written, we would have commanded them, like robbery and bloodshed. 'My statutes': Refers to things that the evil inclination and the nations of the world argue against, like prohibitions against eating pork and wearing garments of wool and linen: 'and My instructions': Refers to the Oral Law, the laws given to Moses from Sinai. [Yoma 28b]. So, according to this famous Midrash quoted by Rashi, the list of five different kinds of instructions (kol, mishmeret, mitzvah, chok, Torah) heeded by Avraham includes the entirety of Jewish law as followed by the Jewish nation over a thousand years after their deaths.
To take this position seriously not only stretches our credulity that the Torah and Talmud were already observed at that early date, but causes many problems with the actual flow of the narrative. The most famous problem, explained by the Ramban (Nachmanides) is that Ya'akov broke the Torah by marrying two sisters. The clarification of the Ramban is that the patriarchs only felt duty bound to keep the Torah while residing in
But are there other ways of looking at those five terms? And, of course, the answer is yes. The sixteenth century Italian commentary, Reb Ovadia Sforno, explains the verse term by term. The expression 'God's voice' means the things that Avraham heard directly from God. The word in Hebrew mishmeret which we translated as 'charge' relates to those activities which are near and dear to Avraham's heart, like kindness and hospitality. God has encouraged Avraham in those positive spiritual areas where he already has a proclivity. This Torah material gets personalized. The reference to mitzvoth includes those areas of law already commanded to Noach. Avraham took it upon himself to be exemplary in those particular performances as an encouragement to others. Chukim are again those areas of the Divine law which people have trouble understanding. Finally, the reference to Torah, seems to mean that Avraham would delve into the underlying reasons and rules embedded in the commandments of God. That's what we call derash.
Therefore, these five terms don't have to be understood miraculously that in some way the patriarchs were able to perform all the mitzvoth which we have become accustomed to over time. Our identification with these giants isn't based upon the minutiae of Jewish Law, rather it's based upon their sincerity in following the word of God as they understood it, and their integrity in leading a moral and ethical life style in spite of the heathens amongst whom they dwelt. We learn from their actions not from whose Hashgacha they trusted.
What we can learn from this detailed verse is that there is more than just the Code of Jewish Law in our lives. When the verse said that Avraham followed the voice of God and guarded certain guidelines, I think an extremely important lesson is to be learned. Even within the legal system there are lacunae. We fill those areas of silence with the voice of God which we must hear emanating from the verses and laws which guide our lives. We often know what to do even when no law covers the circumstance. And not every one has to do it the exact same way, because every one of us has a mishmeret, an area of proper and spiritual behavior specific to us. Some may major in prayer, another in charity and a third in Torah study.
We really do learn from our beloved ancestors but in more general ways than the famous Midrash suggests.