The Torah that preceded Shavuot’s giving of the Torah

How can the word Torah appear in the Torah before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai? For the Torah states in Genesis:“BECAUSE ABRAHAM LISTENED TO MY VOICE, ABIDING BY MY DISCIPLINES, MY MITSVOT, MY DECREES AND MY TORAH” (Genesis 26:5)

Torah has the general meaning of teaching, so teaching or law is often used to translate Torah. But the Genesis narratives must have been passed down orally for generations or the Jews in Egypt would have been unaware of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This oral Torah is what is referred to here and in Exodus 13:9 which is also prior to the giving of the Torah at Mt.Sinai. The Rabbis taught that an oral Torah was given with the written Torah at Sinai. But they thought of it primarily in terms of the legal developments that would flow from the original written Torah, although some of them included Midrash glosses in the oral Torah.

Most modern Biblical scholars believe that oral traditions proceed written ones by centuries; so it is reasonable to understand the verse as referring to this oral narrative.

“I WILL GIVE YOU THE STONE TABLETS AND THE TORAH AND THE MITSVAH THAT I WROTE TO BE TAUGHT.” (Exodus 24:12)

Rabbi Simon ben Lakish says the stone tablets refer to written scripture, the Torah refers to the Oral Torah i.e. the Mishnah which is the legal base of the Talmud, the Mitsvah means the mitsvot, ‘that I wrote’ refers to the Prophets, and ‘to be taught’ refers to the Talmud.

By this Rabbi Simon ben Lakish means that just as a seed already contains all the information/DNA to create a future tree, so too the revelation at Sinai already contained all future legal and religious developments within it.

Thus, although in many areas of Jewish religious life, Orthodox Judaism seems very remote from Biblical Judaism, it really is not further away than many Supreme Court decisions that are supposed to be based on the Constitution.

For example, the Supreme Court maintains that there is a Constitutional right to privacy, but it is not literally written in the constitution.

The Supreme Court rather derives the hidden seeds of a right to privacy from the Bill of Rights explicit limits to government interference in a citizens private life

But Midrash Hagadol glosses ‘to be taught’ to mean that not everything was already taught: rather just the basics were, so future generations could study them and interpret new insights and understandings out of the old.

These views are rejected by the medieval commentators Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. They admit that some say that ‘Torah’ refers to the written Torah and ‘Mitsvot’ refers to the Oral Torah. Nevertheless, both claim that all the various terms refer to the stone tablets alone.

I think the stone tablets refer to the ten declarations/commandments that were carved into the two stone tablets. The Torah refers to the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7) that Moses wrote (Exodus 24:4) and later included the Book of Deuteronomy that Moses wrote shortly before his death (Deuteronomy 31:24-27).

The Mitsvah refers to all the mitsvot that God told Moses to speak to Israel (Exodus 25:1 for example). These oral commandments, which were not written down until much later, were included in the Oral Torah.

Some oral mitsvot and narratives were written down 10-20 generations later and added to the Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomy by Ezra to constitute the Torah of Moses.

Most were not written down for 40-50 generations and were included along with the various views of 1st and 2nd century rabbis in the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the patriarch and in collections of Midrash edited still later. Each generation added to the oral Torah through legal opinion and narrative Midrash.

Religious fundamentalists, who usually take Scripture literally and simplistically, always have problems with the obvious development of their religious tradition over the centuries. They often call these developments; deviations, distortions and even degenerations. They believe that only the behaviors and understandings of the first few generations of believers are correct.

But all religions that have a history of more than two or three centuries, have had to rely on inspiration interpretations to met the changing circumstances of human history, and that is why they are still alive today.

Indeed, it is the ability of Sacred Scriptures to inspire people who live in very different circumstances from the original group of believers, that provides evidence that the original texts are more than simply human creations.

A religious text offers several messages to those who study it with the four paths of Par-dais. At different times in our personal lives, and in the life of our community and our nation, different people will need and will find different insights in God’s inspired words.

As Psalm 62:12 says, “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard.” There are very few verses in the Torah, or other Sacred Scriptures, that have only one meaning! That is true for life in general.

Jewish sages proclaim that every verse in the Torah has 70 different facets. No one person and no one generation knows all 70 aspects because there are questions that future generation will ask that previous generations cannot even imagine.

Yet we Jews believe that each generation will find its answers in Torah through the four methods of Pardais study of the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states that contending interpretations of religious texts are both the words of the living God. “Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the Halacha (legal ruling) is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the Halacha (legal ruling) is in agreement with our views’.

Then a bat kol (heavenly voice) announced, “ Both (views) are the words of the living God; but the Halacha is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”

Since, “both are the words of the living God,” what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the Halacha fixed [90% of the time] in agreement with their rulings? – Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the House of Shammai. Not only that, but they stated the opinion of the School of Shammai before they stated their own opinion.”

Thus, in deciding which gloss is right for you to follow, always reject those glosses that come from scholars who say that only their interpretation is correct. As it is written: “She speaks with wisdom, and the Torah of loving-kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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