22 Dec Parhsat Vayigash: Did the Avot Study the Torah? Why Does it Matter?
One of the distinctive aspects of Judaism is its emphasis upon Torah study. Unlike other religions in which study is generally relegated for “men of the cloth”, in Judaism the study of the word and will of G-d – as distilled in His Torah, is incumbent upon everyman. It is the tri-part balance between belief, study and commandments which lends Judaism its durability. Yet, hundreds of years before G-d conveyed His word to man our Avot, the founders of our people, discovered G-d’s presence. In a confusing pagan world of immorality and violence, they discerned the presence of a One Creator and carved out lifestyles based on the Divine will. How did these great men and women uncover the presence of G-d in this confusing world?
Firstly, they were able to perceive a Divine artist of the grand masterpiece called the universe. The midrash describes Avraham as observing our world as a sprawling “city” noticing its order, proportion and symmetry. Convinced that there must be an architect for this city he searched for G-d’s presence. The world we inhabit bears the imprint of G-d’s intelligent design: some people are able to sense Him in the science of our universe, while others are more awakened to the Divine presence by the beauty of creation. Either way, our Avot peered at their world and traced it back to G-d.
However, they didn’t just sense G-d in “cold science” or even in the radiant beauty of our universe. Additionally, they identified a moral energy to our world. Rational science is emotionless and “morally blank” but our world bristles with moral spirit. Our universe is built upon science and math in a manner which supports life and human welfare; our world is a delicately balanced system which enables human existence. Without this balance the world would be inhabitable, even though it would still exhibit scientific order. There is moral spirit which created a world of life and welfare. Moreover, these great founders of our nation didn’t just detect moral spirit to this world- they fashioned their lives and their societies in the image of this moral Creator. They introduced bold new ideas into the human experience: justice, ethics and respect for the human condition. Our Avot noticed the moral underpinnings of G-d’s world and re-landscaped the human realm based on the Divine image peering at them.
Finally, our Avot detected G-d through history. They appreciated that that human experience isn’t static but that history is, instead, directly impacted by human behavior. History is adversely affected by human malfunction and misconduct just as it is redeemed by human virtue and moral heroism. History has a beginning and a definite endpoint- the perfection of Man in a kingdom of G-d. At the center of this historical struggle between good and evil are the Jewish people- tasked with redeeming humanity and teaching G-d to Man. This mission would be fiercely and violently opposed by enemies of G-d, but G-d would always protect his people and assure their survival. Sensing this historical journey, the Avot were able to detect the Divine author of history.
However, despite their remarkable ability to detect G-d in Nature and History our Avot also studied Torah. The midrash stresses that all Avot studied Torah, but the more famous images portray Ya’akov’s Torah study. Initially, Ya’akov is presented as a “tent–dweller” and the midrash identifies these tents as study halls of Torah. Subsequently, the midrash reports that Ya’akov studied Torah for fourteen years in a yeshiva, prior to journeying to join Lavan and his family. Finally, in parshat Vayigash, the midrash describes Yehuda’s advance mission prior to the family’s descent: to assemble a yeshiva in Goshen to assure serious Torah study in Egypt. These are the more well-known sources; beyond these portraits of Ya’akov’s Torah study, the midrash also describes Avraham and Yitzchak as students of Torah.
These midrashim about the Torah study of our Avot raise very interesting questions. Firstly, what exactly were the Avot studying, if the text of Torah as we know it had yet to be delivered? It is difficult to determine precisely what form of Torah text predated the actual delivery of Torah at Sinai. As Torah is the will of G-d, it obviously predates human history and Torah certainly existed prior to its delivery at Sinai. Additionally, there are many different “ways” to read the Torah, beyond the actual form which was delivered to us. Torah letters and words can be recombined in countless permutations, yielding numerous additional layers of meaning. Having received our version of the Torah at Sinai, we must read “our version”, but it is altogether possible that our Avot had access to different versions unbeknown to us.
In addition to studying the sections of Torah which had been delivered to them, our Avot intuited the Divine logic of Torah even without an explicit or precise text. The midrash describes Avraham’s “kidneys” as pulsing with Torah knowledge; Avraham lived in such harmony with G-d that his very being sensed and lived Torah and its logic. Even without organized texts of G-d’s word, our Avot were able to “feel” the will of G-d and implement that will in their actions and lifestyles.
Why does all this matter? Why is it significant that our Avot studied Torah before it was delivered to us at Sinai? Why is this a recurring theme in the midrash?
Firstly, their Torah study was their gateway to the Divine presence in Nature and Science. As Torah contains an “approximation of G-d” and His will it is a portal to understanding the entire universe, all of which is the handiwork of G-d. Ideally, and by definition, all science and all wisdom can be accessed through the study of Torah. As science is G-d’s system and Torah G-d’s will, Torah is, by definition, a blueprint for all science and all creation. Sadly, most mortals cannot ever hope to understand Torah well enough and deep enough to access science, math or music solely through this blueprint; those who seek to study other elements of G-d’s world must study it frontally. However, hypothetically all reality can be accessed through Torah. If the Avot discerned G-d in their universe, they were aided by Torah and the revealed will it contains. Deciphering G-d through Nature alone without the “codes” which Torah provides would be imperfect and deficient.
Secondly, by studying Torah, we create a greater Divine presence in our world. The more that human beings understand Torah the closer humanity is to Him. The more we study the more we know of Him; both rationally and supernaturally the presence of G-d is augmented the more that His creatures understand Him. The Avot viewed themselves as builders- they were laying a spiritual foundation for humanity; they imagined a world of G-d’s presence and laid a platform for this reality. It is inconceivable that they structured this platform without interacting at some level- cognitively or intuitively- with G-d’s Torah.
Finally, the Torah study of the Avot was crucial in introducing a vital aspect of Judaism- observance of commandments. Again, it is unclear what form and what level of mitzvah observance our Avot adhered to; however, it is abundantly clear that their lives were, at the very least, synched to the general halachik system. Perhaps they adhered to the entire system, but, minimally, their lives were harmonized with halachik fundamentals gleaned from Torah study. Judaism is predicated upon a belief system, but also upon the concept of subservience to Divine commandments. Without a life of submission to commandments the religious platform our Avot were constructing would have been inadequate.