The Halakha, which was given to us from Sinai, … declares that any religiosity which does not lead to determinate actions, firm and clear-cut measures, chiseled and delimited laws and statues, will prove sterile – Rabbi Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man.
When God reveals Himself to Isaac with the blessing of the covenant, He tells him that He is doing so: “because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). The Talmud (Yoma 28b) interprets this verse to imply that Abraham performed the Torah entire, both written and oral, including rabbinic enactments made thousands of years later. The Midrash expands such observance to include all the patriarchs, and indeed, all the leaders of the nation who preceded the giving of the Torah.
Now, while we might be inclined to take this statement allegorically, Rashi brings it as the literal meaning of our verse:
- My charge refers to precautionary measures intended to avoid infringement of biblical prohibitions: such are the rabbinical inhibition of marriage between relatives of the second degree and the rabbinical regulations regarding not doing certain acts on the Shabbat.
- My commandments refers to things, which, had they not been written, would have been fit to be commanded, e.g. prohibitions against robbery and bloodshed.
- My statutes: Referring to things that the evil inclination and the nations of the world argue against, e.g. prohibitions against eating pork and wearing garments of wool and linen for which no reason is given but which are the decree of the King …
- and My laws: To include the Oral Law, the laws given to Moses from Sinai.
Nachmanides, upon quoting Rashi, enumerates various difficulties inherent in assuming the Talmudic position as literal, for if the patriarchs kept the whole Torah, how then do we find them explicitly violating laws of the Torah – e.g., Jacob married two sisters. Nachmanides advances a number of solutions but ultimately concludes by explaining the plain meaning (pshat) of the verse as follows:
- My charge means faith in the Deity, … and calling by the name of the Eternal to bring many to His worship.
- My commandments refers to all that God commanded Abraham: Go out of thy land, the bringing of his son as a burnt-offering, and the expulsion of the maid-servant and her son.
- My statutes refers to walking in the paths of God by being gracious and merciful, doing the righteousness and judgment, and commanding his children and his household concerning them.
- and My laws refers to the circumcision … as well as all the Commandments of the Sons of Noah which constitute their law.
Nachmanides, in consensus with all the classical commentators, interprets the verse as referring to Abraham’s faith and goodness, fealty and morality. But, if the straightforward meaning of the verse is as such, what is the import of the Talmudic exposition? And what, then, is Rashi’s point in bringing the Talmud as the straightforward explanation of the verse?
Not a few commentators have asserted that the Talmudic position can be understood literally, the patriarchs having been inspired by divine revelation to keep the whole Torah. On this, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (Netivot Shalom, Akdamot Milin 3) writes, that while such is certainly a possibility, “the truth of the matter” is to be found in the verse “You shall do what is good and right in the eyes of God” – for it is this verse that is at the essence of Torah observance, and it is to this essential observance that the Talmud refers when it states, “Abraham kept the Torah entire.”
In a similar fashion, Rabbi Abraham son of Maimonides (Genesis 35:1) reads the Talmud allegorically, explaining that the patriarchs’ actions were in accord with the Torah’s commandments in that they achieved the faith, love and awe of the Creator that the commandments serve to engender. Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and others in this school of thought explain how the Talmudic statement implies that the patriarchs understood the general theological notions that underlie the Torah’s commandments.
And this brings us to Rashi. Now Rashi surely understood that the simple meaning of our verse is that Abraham was a faithful servant of God who did what was “good and right in the eyes of God” and that the Talmud articulates this very point allegorically. The reason, I propose, that Rashi brings the words of the Talmud, instead of their implication, to explain the literal meaning of the verse is to convey a critical message about the covenant that might otherwise be overlooked in its seeming banality.
Our verse, as mentioned at the outset, comes within the context of the transmission of the Abrahamic covenant to Isaac. Here, Isaac is told that he will inherit the blessings of land and offspring “because – ekev – Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Now, this being the first time such a transmission is effectuated, it serves as the prototype for all future transmissions. Indeed, the Midrash Aggada notes that the word “ekev” is used again in reference to the transmission of the covenant to the Jewish people: “And it shall come to pass, because – ekev – ye hearken to these ordinances, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep with thee the covenant and the mercy which He swore unto thy fathers, and He will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee …” (Deuteronomy 17:12-13).
The covenant, in essence, is the mutual agreement wherein the people keep God’s commandments and God blesses the people with land and offspring. Now, given that this is the covenant of Abraham we must fulfill it as Abraham did. Yet herein we arrive at ambiguity: are we to fulfill the covenant like Abraham by “having faith”, “being gracious and merciful”, “doing righteousness and judgment” and simply abiding by the natural morality of the commands to Noah, or are we to follow Abraham as paradigm for fulfilling anything and everything that God commands – even, for example, unto the sacrifice of Isaac?
Rashi resolves the ambiguity by bringing the allegory of the Talmud as the simple meaning (pshat) of the verse. The covenant of Abraham entails accepting every possible form of divine command – “commandments, statutes, and laws” – even unto the rabbinic enactments that are part and parcel of the divine authority invested in man (Deut. 17:11). This observance, it must be said, will ideally serve to inculcate the more amorphous qualities exhibited by Abraham.
And this brings us back to the Talmud. The Talmudic statement that Abraham observed the whole Torah, I suggest, is one that purposely outrages the senses in order to convey a critical message that might otherwise be overlooked in its seeming banality. The message that the Talmud so wants us to understand is that Abraham achieved his deep bond of “faith, love and awe” with the Creator, thus becoming worthy of the covenant, not through some “amorphous religious experience”, but by treading the path of “determinate actions, firm and clear-cut measures, chiseled and delimited laws and statues”.
And as did Abraham, founder of the covenant, perform the Torah entire, so too must we, inheritors of the covenant, perform the Torah entire.