Stories Mean the World

Sefer Bereishit, a book known for its stories, is not known as an explicit source of Jewish law, nether civil or ritual. A quick look at Sefer Hahinukh, a book from the Middle Ages which attempts to catalogue the mitzvot found in every parasha will only turn up three mitzvot in the entire book (the obligation to reproduce, brit milah and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve -gid hanasheh). Still, here and there, if one looks at the midrashic tradition to the book, say, in Bereishit Rabbah, the rabbinic commentary to Bereishit from the period of the Talmud, one can find in its interpretation of stories, sources or, at the very least, justifications for practices which have become legal obligations.

Parshat Hayei Sarah opens with the death of the matriarch, Sarah, and her husband Avraham’s acts to ensure her a proper burial. Not unlike today, the patriarch, Avraham, had to concern himself with the purchase of a burial plot for his wife and he goes about this with due diligence:

And Sarah dies in Kiriat-Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to mourn Sarah and to cry for her. And Avraham rose before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you. grant me a burial-holding with you…’ (Genesis 23:2-4)

The juxtaposition of Avraham’s mourning for his wife and his immediate actions to procure her a burial plot inspired Rabbi Yohanan, perhaps the most prominent sage in Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period, to see it as textual justification for the following law in the Mishnah:

Said Rabbi Yohanan: From where do we teach in the Mishnah – One whose dead rests before them is exempt from the recitation of the Shema and from tefillah (the praying of the Shemoneh Esrei), from putting on tefillin and from all of the commandments of the Torah? From here: ‘Vayakom- vayidaber’ (And Avraham rose up – and he spoke) (Bereishit Rabbah 48:6 Theodore- Albeck ed. p. 624)

What might prompt a sage like Rabbi Yohanan to propose an anachronistic link between this story and the idea that the legal obligation to prepare for and bury a close relative overrides other religious obligations, a period in the mourning process known as “aninut”? (A perusal of the midrashic material on this story yields a number of other mourning practices “founded” in this story.) I think the answer is quite clear. We are informed and inspired by stories of the founders. These stories provide us with paradigms for our behavior and link us more closely to our tradition and our place in it. They make what we do unforgettable and create an impetus for doing what we do the “right way”.

Ultimately, it is “our stories” which make us who we are and create the “world” in which we live.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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