Yitzchak Avinu is an enigma. We know so very little about him, and what little we know is mostly in this week’s Torah reading. Our parsha has the only direct communication from God to our beloved Patriarch. God instructs him to forego a sojourn in Egypt, which his father had experienced, because of a famine. Then God renews the promise of the future greatness of the Jewish nation. God concludes this assurance: All this is because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My teachings (Breishit 26:5).
This declaration is complicated. First, Yitzchak is informed that the pledge is all predicated on the greatness of his father. This is fascinating, because Ya’akov is told that greatness will come through himself, and not just through the devotion of his ancestors. Remember, both Avram and Ya’akov have their names changed as a result of heroic action on their part. Yitzchak seems to remain the relatively passive member of the Patriarchs.
Next, and more importantly for our present inquiry, what are all these instructions that Avraham was faithful to? Deciphering these terms has led to big time disagreements.
Let’s start with Rashi. What was God’s ‘Voice (KOLI)’? Those were the ten tests. The ‘charge’ (MISHMARTI)? These are rabbinic rules meant to distance us from transgressing Torah prohibitions. The ‘commandments’ (MITZVOTAI)? These are the logical mitzvot, which we would have written ourselves, if God hadn’t commanded them, like murder and theft. The ‘statutes’ (CHUKOTI)? These are the mitzvot which we don’t understand and only keep because of God’s decree, like KASHRUT or SHATNEZ. The ‘teachings’ (TOROTAI)? That is the Oral Law (Torah Shel Ba’al Peh). This position is summarized by the famous Talmudic statement: The Avot observed the Torah before it was given (Yuma 28b).
The Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, demurs. He explains these expressions by remaining within the P’SHAT (literal sense of the Torah text). KOLI was the test of the Akeida, MISHMARTI is BRIT MILA, MITZVOTAI refers to the rule that BRIT MILA must be on the eighth day after birth, CHUKOTAI and TOROTAI are the logical observances like banning theft and murder (negatives), while observing hospitality and kindness (positives). The RASHBAM is committed to the P’SHAT.
The Ramban really wants to follow Rashi’s position but he noticed a serious problem. If the Avot were already commanded to observe the entire Torah, how could Ya’akov break the law and marry two sisters? The Ramban’s solution is very elegant. The Avot were only required to observe the 613 mitzvot while residing in Eretz Yisrael. Ya’akov marries Leah and Rachel in the Diaspora.
Theoretically, we could just leave this issue now, and declare it a famous, but unresolved, argument. That doesn’t feel fulfilling. The powerful emotions stirred by Rashi seem so satisfying, while the textual discipline of the Rashbam feels so accurate. Baruch Hashem, Reb Avraham ben HaRambam (1186-1237) comes to the rescue.
This famous son of Maimonides gives an interpretation which I find sublimely satisfying. Reb Avraham follows his father’s view of Torah and Mitzvot, namely:
The intent of the entirety of the Torah is in two areas, to stabilize (TIKUN) the body and the soul…First to remove violence from the body…and, secondly to instill good character (MIDOT) into the soul…the entire purpose (TACHLIT) of all the Torah teachings is to achieve these goals (Moreh Nevuchim 3:27).
This viewpoint leads Reb Avraham to conclude:
Since the AVOT arranged all their actions to be in synch with the purpose of the Mitzvot of the Torah through their belief in the perfect unity of the Creator, they forced themselves to partner with God in their worship, reverence and love, which is the essence of the principles of the Torah belief system. As a result of this reality our Sages taught that the Avot kept the entire Torah, before it was given.
It’s not that they actually performed all the minutiae of our complex Halachic system. Instead, they lived all the principles and intentions that all these practices, both Biblical and Rabbinic, strive to instill within us. Their superior connection to God and spirituality allowed them to fulfill every goal that the Torah and the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch demand of us.
It isn’t it sad that so many of us who perform the jot and tittle of the Halacha still have so many flaws, both in our performance and in our character? This awareness should propel us to look at our mitzva performance, and ask, ‘How should doing this improve my soul?’ We should be able to do it, after all we’re their children.