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Visions of the Law – Rabbi Noam Pratzer

 

Rashi opens his commentary on the Torah by quoting Rabbi Yitzchak’s question from the midrash – “Shouldn’t the Torah have begun with “החודש הזה לכם”, the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people?” If the purpose of the Torah is to provide the Jewish people with guidance in how to live, what is the purpose of all of the stories that occupy Sefer Bereishit and most of Sefer Shemot? The text could serve its purpose more efficiently if it were cut down to a list of laws and moral norms.

Robert Cover, a professor at Yale Law School in the latter half of the 20th century, provides an insight into Rabbi Yitzchak’s question in his 1982 article “Nomos and Narrative.” He writes there “[N]o set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each Decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live.”

We are accustomed to thinking about law as a set of legislated prescriptions and of halacha as a list of rules codified in books like the Shulchan Aruch. Cover flips this presumption on its head; every set of rules, he explains, every legal system, is embedded in a history that gives it meaning, in a narrative that defines its purpose and in a story that frames the identities of its adherents.

One cannot understand the US constitution without an appreciation of America’s founding myths, of the escape from religious persecution and of the corresponding fear of centralized power that played such a pivotal role in the document’s construction.

So too, one cannot understand the mitzvoth and their embodiment in the halacha without studying the narratives that describe the emergence of our people in the books of Bereishit and Shemot. In the first two books of the Torah we read about Avraham’s departure from Ur Kasdim and the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. Having rejected the great civilizations to the East and to the West, the people of Israel are tasked with building a more righteous alternative, and it is in the service of this task that the mitzvoth are given.

To build this alternative the Jewish people will have to largely abandon the nomadic ways of their shepherding ancestors and build an independent, rooted civilization. As readers of the Chumash we have seen, repeatedly, the moral dangers that threaten rooted and prosperous settlements – symbolized by  Eden and  in Babylon and  Egypt. And so, before the Israelites begin their own attempt at building a civilization they are given mitzvoth, a set of principles designed to mitigate the moral threats that accompany civilization building.

The laws of שמיטה ויובל, of לקט, שכחה ופאה  remind us that our prosperity is a gift from God to be used in the pursuit of justice and equality, and not for self-aggrandizement. The halachot governing the treatment of people in positions of vulnerability remind us to guard against the suffering we ourselves suffered as outsiders in foreign civilizations.

And so to answer Rabbi Yitzchak’s question, by beginning with narrative, and not a list of rules, the Torah allows us to understand our obligation to the mitzvoth in the context of a greater vision.  As we study the parshiyot of Bereishit and Shemot we are given a glimpse into the soil out of which the mitzvoth emerged and we are challenged to imagine and to embody the alternative world the mitzvoth charge us to build.

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