Parashat Shemot: The Torah of the Father, and the Torah of the Teacher

Hashem gave the Torah to a particular nation, at a particular time, based on a special perspective on the nation receiving the Torah. Hashem wants to give us the Torah personally, through a one-on-one encounter, relating to us on a personal level and revealing Himself to each individual in a unique way, based on that individual’s character traits.

Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt, Ra”m at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

The Book of Exodus is the book of redemption, the book that recounts the giving of the Torah, and it begins where the Book of Genesis left off. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household”. This is meant to teach us that the Book of Exodus is “placed atop” the Book of Genesis. It is as if the Torah was commanding us to read the Book of Exodus, not as a separate book, in its own right. From this point onward, we’ll be referring to the children of Israel as the nation of Israel. However, this verse is here to remind us that those who went down to Egypt and those who left it were all part of Jacob’s family. While the Book of Exodus is about the chosen people, who left Egypt, received the Torah and erected the mishkan, or the Tabernacle, the Book of Genesis is about family, challenges, hardships and the rises and falls affecting the cohesiveness of the family.

The first book of the Pentateuch seems to be seeking out a family that behaves with proper derech eretz, morality and responsibility. The desired derech eretz is one that reflects the proper divine unity. In this state, a person observes someone else who is completely different, yet sees that person as one who reflects part of that divine unity. In this story, the recurring motif is about one who continues the tradition, and other who is cast out. This is the case for Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. Only our forefather Jacob reaches the spiritual plane where he understands that the divine blessing can and should be transmitted through an entire family, that is, through brothers who are as different from one another as night and day.

“… and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” (Genesis 49:28)

Jacob is the one who manages to relate to each of his sons on a personal level, and by doing so, he teaches us the secret of unity, which, to our surprise, emerges through that diversity. To summarize, we’ve learned two basic principles from the Book of Genesis:

  1. The divine blessing is transmitted through the ties between parents and their children, and though the unique fabric of the family.
  2. The parents’ challenge toward their children, and the challenge between the siblings, is to understand that unity emerges through diversity.

Now that the family is united, we can proceed to the book that recounts the giving of the Torah.It isn’t our father that gives us the Torah. It’s Moses, our teacher. The Torah itself, which is given on Mount Sinai in the form of two stone tablets, is an impersonal law that treats everyone equally, from the mighty to the meek. Through the two first books of the Pentateuch, Hashem would like to teach us that His revelation and blessing upon the world passes through two main channels – through the family, and through the Torah. Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkanazi (“Manitou”) calls these two channels Torat Ha’av (“the Torah of the Father”), and Torat Ha’rav (“the Torah of the Teacher). This arrangement is crucial, because the Torah is like a divine light, which we shine into the vessel we call family. This vessel doesn’t just contain the light – it also gives the light its form.

This is the deeper meaning of derech eretz kadmah latorah. The Kabbalah teaches us that the spiritual plane our forefathers attained is associated with working on our midot, our character, while Moshe Rabbenu is associated with mohin, knowledge. We can all be equal according in our own minds and logical thinking. We can all agree upon mathematical and scientific equations. What sets us apart is our character, our midot, and the balance between character traits that varies from one person to the next. Some identify more with kindness, others identify more with justice, and so on. The differences between us emerge mainly because of our emotional orientation.

Our sages teach us that no decree is imposed on the public unless the public is able to withstand it (Babylonian Talmud 67:36). The Chatam Sofer, in his commentary on Tractate Gittin, chapter 36, explains that this principle applies not only to decrees made by the sages. It is taught by the giving of the Torah itself. Hashem gave the Torah to a particular nation, at a particular time, based on a special perspective on the nation receiving the Torah. These might answer a different question: Why was the Torah given against the backdrop of such a unique revelation of the God? Couldn’t He have simply given Moshe Rabbenu a book of laws and commandments, that Moshe would teach the people of Israel?

Based on what we’ve stated previously, we could suggest that Hashem wants to give us the Torah personally, through a one-on-one encounter. This personal attention applies on the general level as well, in terms of how God  relates to the family fabric of the people of Israel. It also applies on a personal level, that is, the revelation is personal and uniquely adapted to each individual, based on the individual’s character.

For years, educators and Torah scholars wanted to remove students, both boys and girls, from their homes (which were general perceived as having paved the way for superficiality and a wavering approach to religion), and educate them in the way of the “truth”. The educators believes that they could use logical proofs of the presence of the Almighty and the veracity of the Torah to unite everyone in the knowledge of truth: “They, too, diverting attention from the “I”… stuffing the brains and hearts with all things that are foreign to them, and the “I” gradually become forgotten…” (Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Orot Hakodesh, volume 3, page 140). Anyone who cherishes the soul and the Torah of Israel must understand that the Torah was given to the family, to the nation, to those with unique characters. We cannot, and we do not desire to disconnect the student from his or her home. To the contrary, educators must do their utmost to view children on a personal level, and see the goodness and grace in the religious and cultural identity that students brings with them from their homes.

We constantly complain about the social media generation, the generation that grew up on Facebook and Whatsapp, believing that discourse among its members is shallow. This is a generation for which any complex sentence and any logical profundity immediately gets labeled as “rambling”. This is a generation whose rebellions aren’t intended at expressing insolence; rather, these rebellions are a result of their “appetite”. Aside from the desire to raise the discourse level and educate others to think deeply, I feel this presents us with a great opportunity. We are returning to the generation where discourse revolves around values. These values are intrinsically tied to a generation seeking to bring out the uniqueness of each individual. This truly reminds us of the culture of idolatry, as Rabbi Kook explains in Zar’onim – “a wise man is preferably to a prophet” – and this is the source of our fears. However, if our words are candid, we could raise a generation preparing itself for the age of prophecy, as well.


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