Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yitro 5763/ January 25, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Yitro 5763/ January 25, 2003

Between Creation and Torah

Prof. Dov Landau
Department of the Literature of the Jewish People

The two chapters that describe Torah from Sinai (Ex. 19-20) are the culmination of a single comprehensive system which began with Creation. The goal of this program is to curb human nature and to direct people to choose, of their own free will, lives that are imbued with divine sanctity. Were it otherwise, it is difficult to understand why Creation, especially the making of mankind, should have required such sophistication. A primitive being, without an elaborate body and soul, would have sufficed for a life of unlimited desire.

This program, which runs from Creation to Theophany at Sinai, is revealed through the biblical stories. Rashi thought that the biblical stories had a different purpose, as he makes clear in his very first comments in Genesis 1:1, where he asks, citing Rabbi Isaac, "Might it not have been more appropriate to begin the Torah with the verse, 'This month shall mark for you,' which is the first commandment that was given to the Israelites? What point was there in opening with 'In the beginning'? The reason is that 'He revealed to His people His powerful works, in giving them the heritage of nations' (Ps. 111:6)."

Rashi's remarks provide a basis for our inalienable right to the land of Israel. At second glance, however, as we go through the narratives of Genesis and half of Exodus, we discover that Rashi's thesis is questionable, for only a few of the stories clearly attest "His powerful works" and our right to the land. Do Adam and Eve, eating from the Tree of Knowledge, or Cain, who kills another human being, attest these things? Clearly also the narratives about Lot's daughters, Reuben's mandrakes, Tamar, Potiphar's wife, and the like are not direct proof of "His powerful works". We are left with many stories which make us ask: what made Rashi group all the stories from Genesis 1:1 through Exodus 12 (or Exodus 19) as having anything in common?

On closer examination we see that even that the stories of Adam and Cain, Lot and Abimelech, Pharoah and Er's wife Tamar, and even Potiphar's wife - all these involve trials in which the Lord tested these people, just as He tried Abraham; but in contrast to Abraham, they did not pass the test. Scripture hints that Adam's sin was not merely that he ate a forbidden fruit, but that he attempted to rebel against G-d. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge after the snake's assurance that they would be "like divine beings who know good and bad" (Gen. 3:5). Man, the being with the power of speech, is the creature that is closest to the Creator, sometimes even seeing himself as equal to Him, trying to rival Him and take His place. Had he not been rebellious, had his entire sin lay in being enticed to eat the forbidden fruit, one could hardly suppose that he would have been punished so severely, being banished forever and made mortal, himself and all his descendants after him destined to die. Neither Adam, nor Cain, nor Lot's daughters, nor Abimelech, nor Pharaoh, nor even Er's wife Tamar, or Potiphar's wife - none of whom belonged to the Children of Israel - none of them stood up to the tests by which G-d tried them; this was to prove to the nations of the world that they did not deserve to keep the land of Israel in their own hands as their inheritance.

Putting representatives of the other nations to the trial in order to see if they merit receiving the Torah and the land of Israel certainly does attest "His powerful works." The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Adam but one thing, and Adam failed; He gave seven commandments to the offspring of Noah, and they failed. Little wonder that the Sages deduced from these passages that the Holy One, blessed be He, approached all the nations with the Torah, but none of them would have it; until He came to the people of Israel, who said "we shall do and obey" (Pesikta Rabbati, 21). The Creator did not deny other peoples the Torah or the land of Israel until they had shown their lack of interest or inability to accept them. "His powerful works" here express the idea, "The Rock!-His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just" (Deut. 32:4).

In The Liberal Imagination (New York, 1950, p. 202), Lionel Trilling maintains that every literary work reveals the blind spots of human beings. In Macbeth, Duncan is blind in that he does not see Macbeth's true intentions. King Lear proves blind with respect to his daughters, and Gloucester, whose story parallels the plot of Lear, is doubly blind - both physically and spiritually. Balzac's Père Goriot is essentially like them. All failed to see or understand the consequences of their actions. Just as blind was Orgon, in Moliere's play, failing to understand that the impostor Tartuffe was no less than a cheat, an adulterer and a traitor. Even Max Frisch's Walter Faber, and many other characters of the same ilk, are not free of this trait. Nor is it a theme in literature alone. History is replete with calamities that occurred because of human blindness. The Torah anteceded literature, presenting us Adam and Eve in their blindness. They did not see that what lay before them was a snake full of guile, plotting to lead them astray. Thus, in Genesis, and in Exodus as well, we read about the blindness of all those figures whom G-d put to the test.

The ability to see perspicaciously belongs to G-d, as we observe from the seven repetitions of "G-d saw that this was good" (Gen. 1:1-31). Also Abraham and his sons were blessed with this ability to see clearly. Abraham "saw the place from afar" (Gen. 22:4). Just as we read about Abraham, so too we read about the Israelites: "All the people witnessed [lit. saw] the thunder and lightning" (Ex. 20:15), and further on it is said, "and they saw the G-d of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity" (Ex. 24:10). Clearly one kind of seeing is not like the other, and this case was different from all other seeing. In the wake of this "seeing" came a sense of unity, as we read regarding Abraham and Isaac: "And the two of them walked on together" (Gen. 22:8). Also, regarding the Israelites it is written: "All the people answered as one" (Ex. 19:8). Thus, the Torah draws a straight line from Adam, who did not "see" the nature of the snake, through several stations, up to Abraham, and on to his descendants, who stood at Mount Sinai and did "see" what was before them.

Now it becomes clear that the entire biblical narrative until midway through the book of Exodus serves to show the world that until the generation that stood at Sinai, none of mankind had been worthy of the Torah or of the land of Israel. Nevertheless, the trend towards imbuing humans with higher goals did not cease, but became focused on Abraham and his descendants. Though the lesson we learn from the failed heroes of the biblical narratives is that most people were not capable of accepting and upholding the Torah, nevertheless precisely these human failings in standing up to G-d's tests make it clear that mankind could not exist without the Torah. Without guidance in all sorts of detail, human beings cannot find their way to choosing the straight and good. It seems that the Torah does not confirm the existence of an immanent morality in the human soul. If people had such an autonomous morality there would be no need for the Torah or for free will. But free will is essential to mankind, its absence totally abnegating the uniqueness of being human.

The problem of relaying the Torah to all of mankind was solved by giving it to the Israelites, who were delegated the role of being "My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6). Sforno preceded Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, saying (s.v. ve-atem tehiyu li mamlekhet kohanim ve-goi kadosh [but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation]): "So that they understand and instruct all mankind to all call on the name of Lord and worship him as one." The connection between the people of Israel receiving the Lord's sovereignty and the land of Israel now becomes clear. Giving the Torah to the people of Israel alone was the result of the failure of the nations of the world to stand up to G-d's test. They did not have the strength to accept G-d's impact directly, and therefore the people of Israel were given the task of exerting this influence indirectly.

From the Torah itself we know that the sin of the Golden Calf, Korah's rebellion, and the spies' counsel occurred close to the time the Torah was received, which would mean that the Israelites, too, had difficulty standing up to the test. However, since Abraham had already proved his ability, and even the generation of the Exodus managed to rise above themselves for a brief moment at Sinai, this showed that the people of Israel had potential. Thus the binding of Isaac and the Theophany at Mount Sinai were transformed from historical events to hope for the future.

Due to this hope, the test continues to our own times. Therefore there is no escaping the question whether we are capable today of facing up to the challenges of the Torah. Are we not failing, like Cain and Esau, in that we plot against our brethren? Are we not failing in our observance of the commandment to respect the elderly (Lev. 19:32)? Do we return the garb of the poor, that we take in payment of their debts (Ex. 22:24-26)? Do we not oppress the widow and the orphan (Ex. 22:21), when it comes to their pension rights? Do we not withhold wages from the day-laborer (Lev. 19:13)? Do we live up to the rest of the Torah's commands? Do we come close to, or aspire to achieve the level of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, or to Moses on Mount Horev? Lastly, do we understand that all these and the rest of the 613 commandments of the Torah are integrally tied to our continued existence in the land of Israel?

Now we can better understand Rashi's commentary, as well. The Torah began with "In the beginning" because "He revealed to His people His powerful works." That is surely so of Creation, in banishing Adam from the garden of Eden, in the flood, in the generation of the tower of Babel, and the ten plagues, and more. Indeed, that is also the case in all the tests to which the Lord put the nations of the world, showing them that they were not worthy of the Torah or of the land of Israel. The land of Israel would be given only to those who observed the Torah and its commandments.