In many human endeavors, but especially in the realms of psychology and spirituality, our experience of the past dramatically influences how we act in the present. This linkage of past and present is evident in Jewish experience as well.
If we measure time in a linear fashion, the biblical heroes appear as distant and detached. The Torah appears as an ancient document unrelated to our modern situation. On the other hand, we also can experience time in a spiral-like way. In our learning we can revisit the heroes of the past with each yearly reading of the Torah. Then the insights that we derive from reading into and out of Torah become more profound as we grow older and more experienced.
Our relationship to Abraham serves as an example of the way we relate to time and tradition. Let us examine the continuing saga of Abraham found in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. Looking at the text, we find the stories of Sodom and Gemorrah, Hagar and Ishmael, and the binding of Isaac. Of course, the rabbis viewed these events as having occurred as written and as foreshadowing future events. In this light, the rabbis viewed Abraham as the founder of Judaism, and they believed that his life story served as a precursor to the destiny of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik analyzes this traditional perspective in a collection of his writings, “Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch.” He describes Abraham as a man and symbol, a “personality and paradigm.” As a person, Abraham was flesh and blood, and he breathed the spiritually rarified air of Mesopotamia and Canaan. Surely, Abraham’s reality was a prerequisite for the existence of the Jewish people. Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches, “If we were to deny the truth of the Abraham story, our historic march would be a fathomless mystery, an insensate, cruel, absurd occurrence that prosecutes no goal and moves toward nothingness, running down to its own doom.”
Abraham’s life foreshadows the ebb and flow of Jewish history. Nachmanides sees a causal relationship between the actions of the patriarchs and the destiny of the Jewish people. Rabbi Soloveitchik softens this determinism. He argues that the foreshadowing in the Genesis stories does not mitigate the free will of future generations. Rabbi Soloveitchik believes that the interpretive tradition of the rabbis makes multiple outcomes possible. Like a white light that refracts into a multicolored rainbow, halachic disagreements confirm the autonomy of each generation.
Jews experience Abraham’s life in a uniquely Jewish way. Jews view history as “time awareness.” Jews live in the ever-fleeting present, looking at life through the lenses of past events and future expectations. Through “retrospection … the distances separating the ages and millennia” are “not so pronounced as in general history.” This intense relationship with the Jewish past enables modern Jews to live a life informed by Abraham and his life story.
We should be living in a “masorah community.” Masorah means more than “tradition,” as in the Hebrew translation of “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye sings out “Masorah! Masorah!” Masorah is a profound spiritual orientation in the Jewish experience of time. Masorah “implies an awareness of the togetherness of the centuries and millennia, of the unity of time within one experience…. It is a community within which the past does not fade away but rather moves into the present…. In this community, personalities communicate throughout the ages; minds that are thousands of years apart address themselves to each other; heartbeats merge into the historic sound.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message is clear: The secular perspective of our society has created a culture in which we are disconnected from “historical memory and great vision.” Living only in the present, we worship the idols of “usefulness and pleasure.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik would have us see the world through Jewish eyes, welcoming biblical heroes back into our lives. The reading of the Torah each week gives us the opportunity to read into and out of the Torah text. Thus, in a very profound and intimate way, we relate to Abraham and Abraham relates to us.
A personal note: I regret that I never studied with Rabbi Soloveichik. While I prepared for the rabbinate at HUC-JIR on 68th Street in the 1970s, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught uptown at Yeshiva University. Regrettably, the denominational divisions of American Jewish life too often separated students and teachers. Now I read Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings and I contemplate his ideas. I imagine taking the A train uptown, sitting in his class, and learning Torah.
May God bless our teachers for passing Torah from one generation to the next.