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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

During the coming weeks we will read the last three parshiyot of Sefer Breishit which conclude the Torah’s account of the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs.  Many commentators, and most notably Ramban, teach that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, that the lives of our forefathers in some way contain a blueprint of the Jewish historical process.

Rav Soloveitchik, in his Abraham’s Journey, raises a simple question. Is Ramban, by positing that every event of Jewish history has been unalterably fixed by a paradigmatic action by our ancestors, abandoning historical freedom and replacing it with rigid determinism? Is all of Jewish history a predetermined affair over which we have no control? Does the behavior of individuals or of the entire community have no real impact on subsequent events because the pattern was determined more than three thousand years ago? What is the role of the Jewish People through the generations? Are we not free to shape our own destiny? What are we to make of the exhortations of the prophets which urged the People of Israel to mend their ways if all was predetermined and unchangeable?

Rav Soloveitchik’s response is that, yes, the experience of our ancestors “foreshadowed the tragic as well as the redeeming events of posterity. Whatever happened to our forefathers was bound to transpire in the life of the nation.” But the events recorded in the Torah are signs or symbols of future events, and signs and symbols are always subject to interpretation. There is a message in every biblical event, but the freedom of “the People of the Bible” has not been curtailed because a message, too, is subject to many different interpretations. 

Jews have always understood that the eternal truth of Torah is revealed by way of many interpretations and that all of them are true. That is why the Gemara can tell us that in the classic halakhic disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:

אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיי
-both opinions are the words of the living God

This is true not only in halakha but also in historical interpretation. “Each event was predetermined by the symbolic act of the forefathers. Yet, in every generation how to interpret the event is up to the individual or the people as a whole.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein

Head of School

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