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Parshat Toldot - What Mitzvot Did the Avot Keep?

What mitzvot did the Avot keep? Rashi, commenting on a pasuk in this week's Parsha, claims that the Avot kept the entire Torah - even the Oral Law and later Rabbinic prohibitions. Many other commentators disagree.

In Part One, we discuss this pasuk by delving into a little 'parshanut appreciation.' In Part Two, we'll use the Seforno's pirush on this pasuk as a springboard for a discussion on 'wells,' "maase Avot siman la'banim," and a Biblical theme that will serve as a basis for our understanding of the sequence of events in Nviim Rishonim.

Early in this week's Parsha, when God commands Yitzchak to stay in Eretz Canaan during the famine (see 26:1-5), Hashem concludes His affirmation of the "bechira" to Yitzchak with an interesting reference to Avraham Avinu:

"... Ekev asher shama Avraham b'koli... - because Avraham listened to Me, and he kept mishmarti, mitzvotei, chukotei, v'toratei." (26:5)
When reading this pasuk, the obvious question arises: What is the precise meaning of each of these words that describes the variety of ways that Avraham listened to God?:
    a) Shama B'koli
    b) Mishmeret
    c) Mitzvah
    d) Chukah
    e) Torah
As we should expect, each of the classical commentators contemplates this question, but to our surprise, each commentator presents a different approach. Hence, an analysis of this pasuk will provide us with an excellent opportunity for an insight into the exegetical approach of each commentator.

As usual, before we turn to the commentaries, let's first consider what we should expect to find.

What We Would Like To Find
Ideally, we'd like to find within the Torah's story of Avraham Avinu (i.e. from Lech L'cha to Chaya Sarah), an example of God's commandment that employed each of these specific words. However, a comprehensive search only finds specific examples for the first three [shama b'kol, mishmeret, & mitzvah], but not for the last two [chuka & torah].

Hence, to explain this pasuk, we must either:

    'widen' our understanding of each of these last two words to allow an example from within the stories of Avraham;
    'widen' our 'pool' of events to find examples from either earlier in Chumash (i.e. Parshat Noach), or later in Chumash (i.e. after Matan Torah);
    redefine our entire approach to the meaning of this pasuk.
With this background, we'll present the "parshanim" in what we venture to call 'logical' order: from 'textual' pshat -> to 'thematic' pshat -> to 'drash.'
Let's give it a try.

Rashbam - 'Simple' Pshat
Rashbam presents what we referred to above as 'simple' pshat. Within the stories of Avraham Avinu, for the first three words he identifies a precise example for each:

    a) Shama B'kol - at the Akeyda
    "...Ekev asher shamata b'koli" (see 22:18)
    b) Mishmeret - to perform Brit Milah
    "v'ata et briti tishmor... himol kol zachar" (see 17:9)
    c) Mitzvah - The Brit Milah of Yitzchak on the Eighth day
    "And Avraham circumcised Yitzchak his son when he was eight days old - ka'asher tzivah oto Elokim" (see 21:4)
However, he can not find an example for the last two words: Chukah & Torah. Therefore, Rashbam widens his 'pool' by including the 'ethical' mitzvot that Avraham himself kept, as they are implicit (even though they are not explicit):
"Chukotei v'toratei: According to ikar pshuto [simple pshat], all of the 'obvious mitzvot' [i.e. ethical laws] like stealing, adultery, coveting, justice, and welcoming guests; these applied before Matan Torah, but were renewed and expounded in the covenant [of Matan Torah]." (Rashbam)
[This last line in Rashbam is most likely based on Shmot 24:7 in relation to ethical mitzvot in Parshat Mishpatim/ see TSC shiur on Parshat Mishpatim]

Note how Rashbam understands Chukim & Torah as general categories for the ethical mitzvot, without providing a more precise definition. However, because according to 'pshat' Chukim & Torah must include specific mitzvot that Avraham himself had kept - Rashbam is 'forced' into this more general definition.

[Note however that each of his examples of ethical mitzvot actually relates to a specific event in the life of Avraham: stealing - "asher gazlu avdei Avimelech" (see 21:25!!)
adultery & coveting / Pharaoh & Avimelech taking Sarah
justice - w/ Melech Sdom & Shalem, after war of 5 kings
welcoming guests - the 3 angels & story of Lot & Sdom!]

Chizkuni - Even 'Better' Than Rashbam
As we noted above, in his attempt to find a specific example for each word, Rashbam is only '3' for '5.' However, Chizkuni doesn't give up so quickly, and attempts to identify '5' for '5!'

After quoting the same first three examples as Rashbam, Chizkuni also finds specific examples for Chok & Torah as well, but to do so, he must employ some 'textual' assistance from Sefer Tehilim:

    d) Chukah - Brit Milah for all future generations
    At Brit Milah, Avraham is commanded:
    "v'hayta briti b'vsarchem l'brit olam" (see 17:13)
    And in relation to that same mitzvah, we find a pasuk in Tehilim: "zachar l'olam brito... asher karat et Avraham... v'yamideha l'Yaakov l'chok, l'Yisrael brit olam..." (see 105:8-10 /or "hodu" in Psukei d'zimrah!)
    e) Torah - Avraham's original aliyah to Israel
    God commands Avraham: "lech l'cha..." (see 12:1-3)
    And once again, we find a pasuk in Tehilim where God's instruction to take a certain path is referred to as "hor'a'ah": "askilcha v'orecha b'derech zu taylech" (see Tehilim 32:8)
This attempt by Chizkuni to identify a specific example for each word is simply ingenious, however he himself admits that he is 'stretching' pshat a bit too much. Therefore, he concludes his pirush by suggesting that a more simple "pshat" for "mitzvotei chukotei v'toratei" would be to include the seven laws given to the children of Noach, which Avraham himself also kept.

Ibn Ezra - A Different Brand Of "Pshat"
Ibn Ezra, himself a strict follower of "pshat," takes a very different approach. He disagrees with Rashbam & Chizkuni's approach that we must find a specific example to match each of the five words. Instead, he understands every aspect of this pasuk as a very general statement. First of all, he explains that mishmereti is a general category that includes all of the three names that follow, i.e. mitzvotei chukotei v'toratei, and they themselves can also be understood as general categories (that he will explain their nature later on in his pirush of Chumash).

In closing, Ibn Ezra 'admits' that it may be possible to 'thematically' identify each of these three words with a specific mitzvah (based on his later definitions of those categories):

    c) Mitvah = "Lech L'cha..." i.e. Avraham's aliyah
    d) Chukah = Avraham's 'way of life' (engraved in his heart)
    e) Torah = Fulfilling the mitzvah of Brit Milah
Note that Ibn Ezra makes no attempt to find a 'textual' example for each word in this pasuk, only 'thematic' examples instead! This is quite typical of his approach to "pshat."

Radak - 'Widening the Pool'
Radak's approach is quite similar to Ibn Ezra, for he understands each of these words as general categories. However, Ibn Ezra seems to limit his pirush to those mitzvot that Avraham himself was commanded, while Radak adds to this list all of the "mitzvot sichliyot" [the laws which man can arrive at using his own intellect], whether their reason is obvious or not. In these categories, Radak 'widens the pool' by including all of the mitzvot of Bnei Noach.

Rashi - The Midrashic Approach
Note how Rashi prefers the Midrash on this pasuk, explaining that Avraham Avinu kept the entire Torah (even though it had not yet been given at Har Sinai). This allows Rashi to provide an example for each word (based on that understanding):

    a) Shama B'kol - when I tested him (at the Akeyda/ see 22:18)
    b) Mishmeret - Rabbinic laws that protect the Torah laws
    c) Mitzvah - the 'logical' and ethical laws of the Torah
    d) Chukot - the Torah laws that have no apparent reason
    e) Torot - the Oral law, and "halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai"
One could suggest a reason in "pshat" why Rashi prefers the "midrash." The fact remains that we find in this pasuk specific categories of mitzvot that are never mentioned in Sefer Breishit (such as Chukim & Torot). On the other hand, these categories are found after Matan Torah! This suggests that Avraham may have kept the Torah laws as well (see Yomah 67b & 28b).

[This is typical of Rashi's approach. He will often quote a Midrash to solve a problem that arises in pshat.]

As usual, Ramban takes issue with Rashi's approach for implies that we must follow the opinion that the Avot kept the entire Torah. But if this was the case, how did Yaakov marry two sisters, etc.? Instead, Ramban follows an approach similar to Ibn Ezra (and Radak), understanding each word as a general category. However, unlike Ibn Ezra, Ramban brings specific examples of these thematic categories from laws of Bnei Noach (and not from God's special commandments to Avraham Avinu).

Afterward, Ramban returns to the Midrashic interpretation, adding in his usual dose of 'zionism.' He resolves the problem that he raised, explaining the Avot's obligation to follow the ('future') laws of the Torah applied only in Eretz Yisrael.

In closing, Ramban returns to his own comprehensive thematic 'pshat' approach [how's that for a definition], by explaining each word in relation to Avraham's 'way of life' or a specific event:

    b) Mishmereti - Preaching and teaching his belief in God
    c) Mitzvotei - every specific commandment by God
    e.g. "Lech L'cha," the Akeyda, sending Hagar away...
    d) Chukotei - acting in God's way, being merciful & just
    e) Torotei - actual mitzvot, e.g. Brit Milah & Noachide laws
Note how Ramban's approach is most comprehensive, attempting to tackle pshat, while taking serious consideration of the Midrash, and looking for overall thematic significance.

We conclude with Seforno, as his approach is quite unique, and it will also introduce Part Two.

Seforno, like Ramban & Radak, understands these words as general categories relating to the "seven mitzvot of Bnei Noach." However, Seforno adds that not only did Avraham keep these laws, he also taught them to others. God is not proud of Avraham for any specific mitzvah, but rather praises him for his daily 'way of life!' Why does Seforno take this approach?

Seforno, unlike the other commentators thus far, takes into consideration the immediate context of this pasuk, i.e. the story that follows! Let's explain.

Note how the pasuk that we have been discussing (i.e. 26:5) continues with the story of Yitzchak's confrontation with Avimelech (see 26:6-33/ note how 26:1-33 is all one 'parshia,' thus implying a thematic connection between all of its psukim).

Seforno understands that this pasuk serves as a bit of "musar" [rebuke/ or at least encouragement] to Yitzchak. God explains to Yitzchak that being blessed with the "bechira" is a two-way street. After Avraham was chosen, he spent his entire life preaching and teaching God's laws - calling out in God's Name, and setting a personal example by pursuing "tzedek u'mishpat." [See also Ramban & Seforno on 12:8!]

However, as of now, Yitzchak himself had yet to do so. But God expects him to take an example from his father.

In this manner, Seforno explains why Yitzchak suffered so much strife with Avimelech and his servants in the story that follows (i.e. the arguments at "esek" & "sitnah"). However, later in this same 'parshia,' we find that Yitzchak himself finally "calls out in God's Name" (see 26:25-29). From that time on, Yitzchak becomes successful, and develops a positive relationship with his neighbors. God is with him, only once he fulfills his responsibility.

As usual, Seforno's pirush is the most thematically significant, focusing both on overall thematic "pshat" as well as "musar" that we can learn from.

With this in mind, we continue in Part Two with a discussion of that confrontation between Yitzchak & Avimelech.

Part Two - What's in a Well

Before we begin, a short explanation of the difference between a "bor" (pit or cistern) and "be'er" (well) which will help us understand the story of Yitzchak and the Plishtim.

There are two basic methods of water storage in ancient times:
I. The "Bor"
The most simple method was to dig a "bor" - a cistern - into the bedrock to collect the rain water as it falls (or flows in from the surrounding hills). To increase its efficiency, the "bor" must be covered with "sid" [plaster] to stop the water from seeping out.

II. The "Be'er"
A "be'er" (a well) is quite different, for instead of collecting rainwater (from above), it taps the underground water table (from below). To reach that level [better known as an aquifer] one must dig a hole into the ground to reach it. Once opened, the well will supply water as long as water remains in the aquifer. [The aquifer receives its water from accumulative rainfall which seeps through the ground until it reaches a non-porous rock level.]

So what does any of this have to do with Torah?

An Ancient 'Water Fight'
This background explains the quarrel between Yitzchak and the Plishtim over the "be'erot" (see 26:17-26). Since ancient times there have always been disputes concerning the rights to the underground water table. For example, Avraham dug wells and thus staked his claim to their water supply. After his death, the Plishtim plugged those wells and opened their own tap to that same water supply (see 26:18). Yitzchak attempted to re-open the same wells that his father had dug. Upon doing so, the Plishtim protested claiming that the water belonged to them (26:20-21). [See Ramban 26:17-18!]

[Btw, this argument continues until this very day. According to the Oslo accords, a special committee is set up to reach an agreement over conflicting claims to the rights to the valuable water table which stretches under most of Yehuda & Shomron.]

Instead of fighting, Yitzchak tries again and again until he finally opens a well which no else has a claim to - naming it "rechovot" (see 26:22).

So why does the Torah discuss such mundane issues?

Peace & The Mikdash
A famous Ramban on these psukim (on 26:20-22/ which you probably never saw) asks this very same question! He claims that if we follow only the "pshat" of these stories, they appear to carry very little significance. Instead, Ramban claims that the story of these three wells represent future events of Am Yisrael's history in regard to the first, second, and third Temples. ["maase Avot siman l'banim"/ see Ramban inside.]

One could suggest that the story that follows provides additional support for Ramban's approach.

Note that immediately after this incident, Yitzchak ascends to Be'er Sheva, God appears unto him, and once again promises him that he will continue the blessing of Avraham (see 26:23-24). In response to this "hitgalut," Yitzchak builds a mizbayach and calls out in God's Name (compare with similar act by Avraham in 12:8, 13:4 at Bet-el and 21:33 at Be'er Sheva).

Recall our explanation in Parshat Lech L'cha how 'calling out' in God's Name' reflected the ultimate purpose for God's choice of Avraham Avinu [note "ba'avur Avraham avdi" in 26:24!]. Now, for the first time, Yitzchak himself accomplishes this goal in a manner very similar to Avraham Avinu.

What took Yitzchak so long? As we mentioned above, Seforno explains that once Yitzchak 'called out in God's Name,' the Plishtim no longer quarreled with him (see Seforno on 26:25). In fact, immediately after Yitzchak builds his mizbayach, another well is dug without a quarrel (26:25), and afterward Avimelech himself offers to enter a covenant with Yitzchak, thus ending all future quarrels.

According to Seforno, by fulfilling his divine purpose, Yitzchak reached a level of 'peace and security' with his neighbors. This Seforno implies that the first two disputes began because Yitzchak had not done so earlier! [See also Seforno 26:5]

There remains however a small problem with Seforno's pirush. The first time Yitzchak achieves peace is when he digs the well of Rechvot - which took place before he calls out in God's Name. According to Seforno, must we understand this 'pre-mature' success simply an act of God's "chessed" that Yitzchak did not really deserve?!

What Comes First?
One could suggest a slightly different reason why Yitzchak did not 'call out in God's Name' until after digging his third well. Recall, that even before the incidents with the wells the Plishtim and Yitzchak did not get along so well. [See 26:6-14, especially 26:14 - they became jealous of Yitzchak and his wealth.]

Because the first two wells led to serious disputes, under those conditions, Yitzchak was not able to 'call out in God's Name,' for most likely - no one would listen! It is only after Yitzchak digs a third well, and this time without any dispute with his neighbors, does he ascend to Be'er Sheva to build a mizbayach and follow his father's legacy of 'calling out in God's Name' to those who surround him.

We can infer from these events that before Am Yisrael can fulfill its ultimate goal of building a Mikdash open for all mankind, it must first attain a certain level of stability and normalized relations with its neighbors. This 'prerequisite' can be inferred as well from the Torah's commandment to build the Bet Ha'mikdash as described in Sefer Devarim:

"... and you shall cross the Jordan and settle the land... and He will grant you safety from your enemies and you will live in security, then you shall bring everything I command you to ha'makom asher yivchar Hashem - the place that God will choose to establish His name [i.e. the Bet ha'Mikdash]"
(See Devarim 12:8-11)
This prerequisite is actually quite logical. If one of the purposes of the Mikdash is to provide a vehicle by which all nations can find God (see I Melachim 8:41-43!!), then it should only be built once we achieve the status of a nation that other nations look up to. [See also Devarim 4:5-8!]

[Of course, Bnei Yisrael need to have a Mishkan - for their own connection with God - immediately after Matan Torah. However, the move from a Mishkan to a Mikdash only takes place once Am Yisrael is ready to fulfill that role.]

In the history of Bayit Rishon [the first Temple], this is exactly the sequence of events. From the time of Yehoshua until King David, there is only a Mishkan, for during this time period, Am Yisrael never achieved peace with their enemies, nor did they establish a prosperous state that other nations could look up to. Only in the time of David did Am Yisrael reach this level of prosperity, peace, and security - and this is exactly when David ha'melech asks to build the Mikdash. God answers that indeed there is an improvement, but Am Yisrael must wait one more generation until a fuller level of peace and stability is reached - only once Shlomo becomes king and both internal and external peace is achieved. [Read carefully II Shmuel 7:1-15, especially 7:1-2 - "acharei asher haniyach Hashem m'kol oyveyhem m'saviv."]

[The popular reason given for why David could not build the Temple - because he had 'blood on his hands' - is not found in Sefer Shmuel, rather in Divrei Ha'yamim in David's conversation with Shlomo - but this is a topic for a later shiur. That reason also reflects a certain lack of stability in David's time, due to both the civil wars and external wars. See I Divrei Ha'yamim 17:1-20, & 22:2-15!]

In summary, we have shown how the sequence of events between Yitzchak and the neighboring Plishtim may not only 'predict' what will happen in Am Yisrael's history, but can also serve as guide for us to understand the order in which we should pursue our goals. Iy"h, we will continue this topic in our upcoming series on Nviim Rishonim.

    Shabbat Shalom,