The Midrash poses a question that seems fanciful and highly theoretical. However it is actually deeply grounded in human emotions, goals and aspirations:
“When God wished to give the Torah to Israel He said to them ‘Will you accept my Torah?’ They responded ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘then provide a guarantor that you will keep (the Torah).’”
Let’s face it, God is beyond time so He knows full well whether we were destined to keep the Torah or not. Therefore the question can’t literally be “who will be the guarantor,” but rather, what will motivate the Jewish People to keep the Torah. In fact, from our perspective of living 3,000 years since the Torah was given, we can further define the question of the Midrash. After all, for much of Jewish history the majority of Jews were not observant.
What is the primary motivation that keeps a core group of Jews observing the Torah
The first suggestion in Midrash Tanchuma is that the motivation surely comes from those who exerted a powerful spiritual impact. Their influence is so great, it is felt as strongly today as it was throughout the millennia – namely, our Forefathers.
Surprisingly, this suggestion is rejected. The Midrash sites their errors in judgement – albeit extremely minor compared to our day to day challenges. Avraham asked God for a sign that he will inherit the land. (Genesis 15:8). Isaac initially favored Eisav over Yaakov. As for Yaakov, the Midrash implies (after cross referencing with Bereishis Rabbah 91) that in his anguish over losing Yoseph, he was reluctant to send Binyamin down to Egypt with his brothers. That’s to be expected but Yaakov is faulted for not initially trusting that it was all part of God’s plan.
The next suggestion is “let our prophets be our guardians.” After all, the prophets were the spiritual guardians of the Jewish People for centuries. They have never relinquished that role because their words were not simply meant for those who lived in their generation. They also speak to us today.
Citing verses from the Book of Yechezkel and Yirmiyahu about false prophets rebelling against God, the notion of the prophets being the guarantors was also rejected.
The final suggestion is immediately accepted by God with great enthusiasm, however its meaning is shrouded in mystery:
“Our children can be our guarantors. God immediately accepted and gave the Torah to the Jewish People…Therefore when Jews abrogate the Torah God collects from his guarantors as it says ‘If you forget God’s Torah I will forget your children’” (Hoshea 4:6)
In what way can God “collect” from our children
Is the Midrash suggesting some sort of punishment is taken out on children for the misdeeds of their parents? That would contradict a fundamental precept of the Torah:
“Children are (only) held liable for the iniquity of their parents for 3 or 4 generations if they continue (their parents’) hatred of Me (God)” (Exodus 20:5).
Perhaps the Midrash is alluding to assimilation. If we forget God, our children will forget their Jewish identity.
What truly sustains Torah values?
A commentator to the Midrash “Anaph Yoseph” (who also wrote the commentary entitled “Eitz Yoseph”) transforms the words of the Midrash into more contemporary terms:
He explains that the Midrash was exploring three possible ways that Torah values can be sustained for future generations. The first method he describes as “nature.” Meaning that thanks to our forefathers it is in the DNA of every Jew to keep the Torah. It is passed down from father to son.
As idyllic as it sounds, the Midrash realizes that this will not necessarily play out this way and sustain the Jewish People.
The second suggestion in the Midrash was the Prophets which the “Anaph Yoseph” takes to mean the teachers – an ongoing education system. This seems perfectly rational. Statistics show that the greater level of Jewish education, the greater commitment to Jewish values. However. this too provides no guarantee. Perhaps there are extenuating circumstances involving access to education and the quality of that education.
A consummate emotional and spiritual investment.
According to Midrash Tanchuma the guarantors which God ultimately accepts are the children. The “Anaph Yoseph” sees this as another way of describing a deep-seated desire among Torah observant parents. Having children who continue their parents’ values is the ultimate reward for all the time and effort they have invested. While having children who leave the fold can feel like one of the biggest disappointments in life.
There’s an old Jewish joke about two women sitting on the park bench talking about – what else – their medical conditions and their children. One brags that her son is so successful he has a private jet. Not to be outdone, the other says “my son is so successful, he spends $650 an hour just to sit with a psychiatrist and talk about me.”
For religious parents the wealth of their children is not the ultimate source of fulfillment. Rather, when children continue an observant lifestyle they feel they have fulfilled their most important role.
As for the deal cut 3,000 years ago, they kept their side of the bargain.
- This is found in the Midrash Tanchuma Hashalem edition and in Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:4