By Rabbi Marc Israel
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, Genesis 25:19 – 28:9.
When teaching Torah, especially for those new to it, I often point out the numerous literary devices that the text utilizes. The Torah is presented in different styles — mythology, legal treatise, travel diary, genealogy, narrative and poetry — in different places. These literary devices point toward the important questions to consider when reading a text. One who ignores metaphor when reading poetry cannot truly understand the text. Similarly, reading mythological texts as a history textbook can lead one to overlook its most important teachings.
The book of Genesis is written as mythology, so we should not focus solely on its historicity. Like many great myths, its characters may be historical figures, but if that is our only question, we miss the point. Our rabbis understood this, as we can see in their commentary of Genesis 26:5.
In this passage, God is blessing Isaac after commanding him to remain in Israel during a famine. God explains that all the promises made to Abraham — descendants as numerous as the stars, the land of Israel and serving as a conduit for blessings for all nations — are to be fulfilled through Isaac, because “Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws and My teachings.”
Rashi explains that each phrase in this verse conveys a different type of biblical or rabbinic law, indicating that Abraham followed all the mitzvot, including not mixing wool and linen (which would violate Leviticus 19:19), avoiding eating pig and upholding the prohibitions of Shabbat. As Ramban points out “all this interpretation is posited on the opinion that Abraham fulfilled and observed the Torah before it was given on Sinai.”
But, Ramban continues, there is an inconsistency with this reading, pointing out various places where our ancestors clearly violated some of the basic biblical law: building monuments, marrying two sisters at the same time, etc. He asks, “How then was it possible that they should be permissive in matters of Torah which Abraham their ancestor had prohibited on himself.”
He then explains how those same phrases could refer to the Noahide laws, which already existed: “My charge” indicates prohibited marriages. “My commandments” is robbery and murder. “My laws” refer to tearing a limb from a live animal. And “My teachings” equals idol worship. This allows the more literal reader to reconcile the text with history.
At the same time that Ramban offers this more rational explanation of the text, he also recognizes the power of the myth that Rashi and the midrash convey. The notion that Jacob studied in the great yeshivot of Shem and Ever or that Abraham kept kosher, allows readers of Rashi’s commentary to see themselves as deeply connected to their biblical ancestors.
And so Ramban continues by explaining how Abraham could have known the law before Sinai: “Our ancestor Abraham learned the entire Torah by ruach hakodesh [divine inspiration] and occupied himself with its study and the reason for its commandments and its secrets, and he observed it in its entirety as ‘one who is not commanded but nevertheless observes it.’”
By offering both explanations, Ramban preserves the Biblical timeline of the giving of the law with its observance, while also maintaining the sense of connection that Rashi’s mythological interpretation intends to convey.
Texts that convey scientific and historical fact teach us what is true, while mythological stories teach us great truths (beliefs). In recent years, we have seen the trouble that comes when people treat facts as beliefs and beliefs as facts. The Ramban teaches how to differentiate between the two, to value both and, most importantly, to not confuse one for the other. It’s a lesson we all can learn.
Rabbi Marc Israel is the rabbi of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.