In a recent session of seminar THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY Part 1 (Conflict in the Bible: Who, What, & Why It’s Important for Us) ‘we took a short side-journey to explore a basic question which underlies all we have (and will) been studying. That is: What is the point of the Torah?
This is not Hillel’s solution to the riddle (‘Teach me the Torah on one foot’) or even Akiva’s verse (‘Love your neighbor as yourself’) . It goes to the heart of understanding how the Torah was written. And why? Because, from almost any point of view, the Torah is not very consistent. Is it an historical narrative? Well if so, it really doesn’t give us much coherent history. Some incidents are glossed over. Some are explored and analyzed in great depth. Some stories are repeated – sometimes with contradictory narratives. Is it a book of halakhah? Then why include stories altogether?
The first Rashi commentary on the first verse raises this point and he begins by stating that the Torah is a law book, a collection of mitzvot (which the sages fix at 613). Of course, if that is the case, then the historical narratives are superfluous. It’s supposed to be a constitution, not a collection of shared stories (Of course, the first 3 mitzvot – be fruitful & multiply, circumcision and prohibition against eating the ‘gid hanasheh’ – the cut of meat with the sciatic nerve – are scattered throughout the book of Bereshit, but it’s only part of the story). The laws in the remaining books are sometimes presented as lists of commandments – some of which are not even clearly explained, occasionally repeated and often included in a story.
It’s as if the Torah is in conflict with itself over what kind of book it should be, and the book’s description is as much a matter of personal preference as it is a matter of design.
Meanwhile, back to Rashi.
Rashi begins his commentary with a question (in the name of Rav Yitzhak): ‘Why does the Torah begins with Creation if it is, in fact a law book?’ His answer is that the Torah wanted to emphasize that the world belongs to God, and not to anyone. So that is anyone were to challenge the children of Yisrael’s right to live in Canaan/Yisrael, and accuse of being thieves, they could answer we don’t claim to own it. The Canaanim lived there before. We lived there, too, for a time, until it was taken from us. . (Interesting that Rashi wrote this while living in France in the time of the Crusades). And we are living here today – all by the grace of God. So the story parts are really part of a framing narrative that puts the book of law – the Torah – into a context that’s more than just a common mythos. This problem is further exacerbated when you consider that the Torah is not even written sequentially,
So if the Torah is a book of law, why is it written in this not-a-history-not-a-law-book format? I suggest it’s that way to provide a moral lesson.
First, we have a series of events which in and of themselves are cautionary tales. Adam betraying his wife as she deflects responsibility for her action;. Noah building the teivah to save himself and his family; Avraham favoring one son over the other, only to later agree to offer him as a sacrifice, no questions asked; Yaakov cheating his brother; and so on. .
These are descriptions of the lives and fates of those who followed God’s laws and those who did not (with the ultimate role model being Moshe, who followed God and led his people to Canaan but ultimately lost his chance to enter because he didn’t listen to God’s directive).
The Torah leads us from creation into ‘The land of our fathers’ and tells us how to get there and, moreover, stay there.
So rather than conflicting with the mitzvah sections, the stories serve the mitzvah sections through illustration (and sometime origin). The ultimate purpose, to give us an advantage, as it were, that will enable us to live and prosper in the land of our ancestor.
The message is right there. If we follow these laws we will be allowed to live in the land. If we do not obey, we will be removed. We may get the first shot, but that doesn’t guarantee we always hit the mark.