One of the wonderful things about Torah is that there are so many different lenses through which to read it. Tradition uses the word Pardes, meaning orchard, as an acronym of four styles of Torah interpretation. The peh is for p’shat – the plain sense meaning of the text. What did these words mean to the ancient reader who spoke the language and lived in the society that the Torah describes?
The resh is for remez – hints that are alluded to in the Biblical text.
The dalet is for d’rash, or midrash, (fancy word: exegesis). This is the attempt to explain silences, contradictions, and problems in the text in ways that are not possible from within the text itself.
And finally, the samech is for sod, secret, which refers to the hidden kabbalistic, or mystical truths which are hidden beneath the surface of the text.
All four methods of biblical interpretation are valid, and all four are Jewish. All have the capability of revealing religious truths. Whenever we study Torah, it is crucial that we understand which method of interpretation we are using.
This morning, I am going to request that we suspend our skepticism for the next few minutes and immerse ourselves fully in midrash. In the midrash, Jacob is a good, pious person. Easau is wicked. And Lavan is a liar and a cheat. For now, we need to accept that particular understanding of these characters.
Parashat Toldot introduces us to the third generation of the Patriarchs. Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and they are already struggling in her womb. It is such a difficult pregnancy that she wonders if it is even worth it to be alive. The Torah tells us that she goes to inquire of the Lord, seeking a prophecy which will explain what is going on inside her body. The nature of her sons is then revealed, with a prophecy that the older will serve the younger.
The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:6), as we might expect, expands the story. Whenever Rebecca would walk in front of study houses and synagogues, Jacob would struggle to get out, and whenever she would walk next to houses of idolatry, Esau would squirm to make his escape.
Another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Toldot 110) identifies the location from which Rebecca seeks out God’s answer to her travails. She travels to the Beit Midrash, the academy, of Shem and Ever, where the answer is revealed.
Who are Shem and Ever, and why do they have an academy?
Shem is one of the three sons of Noach, who survives the flood and begins humanity’s repopulation of the earth. We do not know much about him from the Torah, only this: When Noach gets drunk and passes out naked, the middle brother Cham does something inappropriate and unforgivable. Shem, with the youngest brother Yefet, do not look at their father and respectfully bring him a cloak to cover himself. As a result, Noach curses Cham and blesses the other two children.
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem… May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…” (Genesis 9:26-27)
Notice that this blessing associates Shem with God. It also refers to tents, in which the younger brother seems to be finding shelter. Thus, Shem seems to have been a monotheist, and a man of some standing.
Ever, the other Head of School, is Shem‘s grandson, and we have no distinctive information about him from the Torah.
From these scant details, the Rabbis develop a sophisticated narrative about the state of monotheism before Abraham. Shem, later joined by his grandson Ever, establish a tent, understood metaphorically as a Beit Midrash. There, they teach about God and God’s commandments.
But, you say, the Torah has not been given yet, so how is it possible that there can be mitzvot? According the Rabbis, the seven mitzvot of the children of Noach have been given, and it is these which serve as the curriculum of this proto-yeshiva. Among these commandments, which our tradition understands as applying to all of humanity, is the requirement to have societies governed by laws that are administered justly and fairly. To create such laws certainly necessitates extensive learning, and that is the kind of learning taught by Shem and Ever.
So who makes up the student body?
One of the valedictorians is Abraham. It is in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever that he receives his introductory instructions in theology. He first learns about God from them. But was not Abraham an iconoclast, the first person to bring monotheism into the world? Not in this midrash. The difference, however, is that Abraham brings his message of monotheism out into the world. He proselytizes, so to speak, and quite effectively, whereas Shem and Ever are cloistered in their ivory tower (or tent).
In the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Avodah Zarah (BT Avodah Zarah 14b), which deals with Judaism’s laws against idolatry, a tradition is recorded that Abraham himself studied that same tractate. When he studied, however, it was comprised of four hundred chapters. He really had to know his stuff if he was going to go out into an idolatrous world and convince people of the existence of the One True God. In our Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah is only five chapters long.
A generation later, Abraham sends Isaac to the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever after his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
You can probably guess by now that Jacob will end up enrolling in his father and grandfather’s alma mater as well.
According to the midrash, Esau and Jacob spend their first years with their lives somewhat intertwined. They have yet to fully differentiate. By the time they reach their thirteenth birthday, their personalities have been revealed and they start to go their own ways. The Torah describes the respective characters of Esau and Jacob. Va-yi-h’yu Esav ish yodea tzayid ish sadeh, v’Ya-akov ish tam yoshev ohalim. “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.” (Genesis 25:27)
The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), noting that Jacob seems to be spending a lot of time in tents, identifies them as the same tents of Shem and Ever. In other words, he enrolls in the prestigious Beit Midrash that his ancestors had established generations earlier.
He goes back later for graduate school.
This morning’s Torah portion ends with Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath after he steals the older twin’s blessing. Rebecca urges her favored son to travel East to her brother Lavan’s home in Haran to wait for Esau’s temper to cool. Isaac then offers Jacob a parting blessing and sends him on his way.
Rashi, based on a midrash in the Talmud (Rashi on Genesis 28:9), then performs some detailed calculations. He looks at the various ages of the characters that are described at different points in the story, and comes to the conclusion that there are fourteen missing years between the time that Jacob leaves home and when he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s household.
Where did he go in the meantime?
You can probably guess by now. What do people typically do when the economy takes a downturn? They go to graduate school.
Jacob reenrolls in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever. Why is it so important that he spend this time learning? Because of where he is about to go. Jacob leaves penniless, but his destiny is to become wildly successful in his time abroad. Jacob will prosper in Lavan’s house. But there is an inherent danger, as Lavan is not a good influence. He is greedy and duplicitous. There is a real risk that when Jacob is away from home, outside of his parents’ influences, he will assimilate Lavan’s value system. How can Jacob spend so much time with Lavan without becoming him?
He needs an inoculation from the influence of his no-good uncle. That is where school comes in. Education is what will enable Jacob to retain his values despite his environment. Intensive Torah study inside the academy will prepare him to live a life of Torah out in the world.
Jacob might also need some time to mature on his own. After all, the fact that he is running for his life is kind of his own fault. He has outnegotiated Esau for the birthright, stolen the blessing from him, and lied and tricked his father. Perhaps Jacob needs to go back to school for some moral reeducation as well.
As it turns out, Jacob does well in Lavan’s household. He spends twenty two years there, builds a family, and acquires great wealth. Jacob eventually must leave, however, as it is not his home. He knows that to fulfill his destiny, he must separate and go back home. One of the first things he does after returning to the Land of Israel is to force all of the members of his household to throw out any personal idols that they have brought with them. Those idolatrous values from Lavan’s home will have no place in Jacob’s household.
On one level, these midrashim about the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever are anachronistic. They retroject the Rabbis’ values of Torah study into an ancient time which clearly had different priorities and institutions. On the other hand, by using recognizable contemporary symbols, these midrashim are able to tell us something about what was important to the Rabbis in their own time, which may help us better understand the situations we face in the present.
In sending Jacob to yeshivah, the midrash does the same thing as I did a few minutes ago when I described Jacob’s return to yeshiva as graduate school. This is one of the ways that Torah comes alive for us.
So what are the Rabbis trying to tell us in these midrashim? They are making a point about how we can best prepare ourselves and our children to deal with the world successfully without taking on the bad qualities of that world.
One lesson they may be imparting is how to best prepare oneself to maintain one’s values within a wider society that does not share them. That sounds pretty relevant to me. Judaism has always struggled with finding a healthy balance between engaging with the world, incorporating positive elements from other cultures, and resisting the negative ones.
Let me share an example. This coming Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is known as Black Friday. Over the last several years, we have seen Black Friday pushed back earlier and earlier onto Thanksgiving, giving consumers more opportunities to buy stuff and giving retail workers less opportunities to celebrate Thanksgiving. It creates a sense of competition between stores to move up their openings times so that their competitors do not gain an advantage. And it creates competition between consumers who feel that they need to be first in line in order to get the best deals. The result is a cheapening and weakening of Thanksgiving, which in my opinion is the one national holiday that most Americans seem to take seriously.
The Canadian organization Adbusters created a campaign a few years ago called International Buy Nothing Day, on which people are urged to not spend any money on Black Friday.
As Jews, we do not really need to set aside a day for anti-consumerism. We already have Shabbat, which instead of once every 365 days, occurs once in seven. Nevertheless, every year when Black Friday roles around, I am so happy to be Jewish, and to not have that pressure to go out and get the best deals on Christmas presents. I would put Black Friday in the category of things from the dominant culture for us to avoid.
But we have assimilated much that is good into our tradition as well.
In recent decades, we have incorporated into Judaism values like feminism and social action while struggling to resist messages that promote violence and encourage immodesty. How do we inculcate the moral strength to stick by the values of our ancestors? Through learning.
The lesson here is that a deep education in Torah lays the essential moral groundwork for going out into the world and behaving as a Jew ought to behave. It was that education, at least according to the midrash, that was available to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was that education that made it possible for Jacob to go abroad, away from the protective influence of his parents, retain his values in a foreign culture, and eventually return home with those values intact.