Tell Me a Story
by Rabbi Shlomo Vilk, Rosh Yeshiva, Robert M. Beren Yeshivat Hesder Beren-Machanaim
(Translated from Hebrew; read the original on Arutz 7)
When our Sages tell us that stories relating the conversations of our Patriarchs and their servants are more desirable in the eyes of God than halakhic Torah texts, they must have meant that laws and commandments that do not tell a human story and lack an ethos are, in fact, lifeless, purposeless and therefore – worthless.
Torah laws are a part of a story and a greater narrative, and as such, they are meant to preserve and serve an ethos; in return, the story lives on in light of the law. When the Torah was given, the world already had culture, stories had been told and even laws and customs were already in effect: the book of Genesis mentions sacrifices (Cain and Abel were the first to offer these); a distinction is made between pure and impure animals (Noah); Passover matzot are eaten (Lot); the mitzvah of yibum (Tamar) and the commandment of circumcision (Abraham) are already fulfilled.
Today we know that the Jewish calendar had been enacted way before the Torah was given, and that tefillin, tzitzit, Shabbat, the laws of matrimony and divorce were observed in different ways and forms by many of the nations in the region. The Torah was not given in Sinai to a people in an untaught state, a tabula rasa, nor was the purpose to turn them into a clean slate upon which brand new laws, rules and a whole new way of life would be written. On the contrary, the Torah adds and amends; it channels us and offers crucial supplements; it provides advanced moral commentary and presents important highlights, innovations, novelties and unique perspectives that humanity had missed in its natural evolvement and development. All the above are intended to give life a meaning and tell the story of the God of Israel, His people and the land given them. In other words, the Torah does not run counter to human spirit nor try to deny it; rather, it attempts to glorify it.
During the Talmudic era the stories evolve. Science, culture, economy – all these undergo change and require new highlights. The abominations of Egypt are replaced by those of Greece; the laws of ancient Mesopotamia make way for the laws of Rome, and the children of Israel are forced to cope with new social norms and new types of stories. It is Jewish halakha that tackles the new frontiers, deliberates contemporary issues and gives rulings in favor or against, all the while preserving its guiding principles and nature. The returning exiles of Ashur and Babylon take with them to Zion a new script and new names for each month of the year, and the story of the Exodus from Egypt is transformed into a new contemporary story comprising the life events of the compilers of the Haggadah, first and foremost – Rabbi Akiva.
Years later, the Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, head of the Yeshiva in Tiberias, proclaims in no uncertain terms (Tractate Shabbat, 75a): Now that Astronomy and Astrology, of the Seven Wisdoms of Greece, have become the new narrative of the modern world (the 3rd Century) we must study them, “for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations” (Deuteronomy 4, 6). This verse, written many years before, referred to the extraordinary Torah given by Moshe, and yet is quoted by Rabbi Yochanan to glorify the new emerging wisdoms.
There is no doubt that Rabbi Yochanan was not advocating to adopt the Greek culture, but rather was teaching how to relate to the wisdoms of the nations and the new stories of the world through a Torah prism, thus turning the former into a platform for Jewish wisdom and halakha. Thus, by quoting Moshe’s words from the verse in the portion of Va’etchanan, Rabbi Yochanan reminds us that Jews must keep abreast of the latest wisdoms and theories in order to be a light unto the nations and sanctify the name of God in this world.
Furthermore, being knowledgeable in new wisdoms and fields of study can provide solutions on how to conduct a Jewish way of life in contemporary times. Rabbi Yochanan understood that all stories and narratives may be used to serve the God of Israel, His nation and halakha itself, because all wisdom and knowledge – and all of history – are a manifestation of God’s presence in the world.
This then is the story that must be told about Pesach: not only how we left Egypt, but how this story can be an inspiration for all. We also have to tell the story of what in our lives belongs to “Egypt” and what belongs to “Israel”; which sea must be split and which sea can be used for bathing; what teachings offered us belong to Mt. Sinai and which belong to Mt. Seir and are not ours. Those who tell their children the story of ancient Egypt and that particular Exodus alone, and only relate the story of that specific sea and the specific Torah given at Sinai will unwittingly be doing exactly what the Torah has forbidden us – returning to Egypt, in all senses of the word.