Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parashat Vayetze. Which Yeshiva did Yaakov attend?

Our parsha opens with Yaakov's travels to Haran. For the reader of peshat, the notable event interrupting his journey is the dream at Beit-El, otherwise his journey would seem smooth and relatively uneventful. But Rashi, suggests a rather that his journey to Haran was extended by 14 years:

וישכב במקום ההוא - לשון מיעוט באותו מקום שכב, אבל ארבע עשרה שנים ששמש בבית עבר לא שכב בלילה, שהיה עוסק בתורה: רש"י בראשית פרק כח

In other words, Yaakov had spent 14 years in the "House of Ever" learning Torah. Rashi is drawing upon a Midrashic tradition that there was a Yeshivat שם ועבר, an institution in which the Avot (and, it would seem, their contemporaries) would study "Torah."[1]

And this is fascinating. What did they study in Yeshivat Shem V'Ever? Why does Yaakov need to spend 14 years there? - After all, did he not have the best education at home? He would have studied with Avraham and Yitzchak!

Let us articulate a few reflections upon this Midrashic tradition:

Of course, homiletically, the Midrash seeks to view the Avot engaged in a classic religious act – sitting in the Beit Hamidrash over a Gemara and learning Rashi and Tosefot! However if we can be less literal about this Midrash, we may suggest the following.

1. Even if a person has a solid religious tradition from home, as a young person seeks to build his own independent life (Yaakov is leaving home and setting up his own family) he needs to develop an independent, personal religious direction. And that involves seeking other teachers, alternative spiritual models. We can build upon our parents' Judaism but it isn't sufficient. We need to move away, to reexamine and to reconstruct our own personal Judaism on our terms. This needs to be done by studying and experiencing fresh and different religious environments.

2. It is fascinating that there seems to be a Torah of the Avot, and then a Torah of Shem V'Ever which quite evidently represents a non-Jewish, universal monotheistic moral tradition. It is challenging to contemplate the thought that Yitzchak would need to study at this institute of universal wisdom. Does this mean that our parochial Judaism does not suffice as a preparation for the outside world? Or maybe along with our Judaism, we need to study other wisdom? Or was Yaakov – on the way to Mesopotamia – seeking to ally himself with local monotheists? Or possibly, in seeking a better preparation to confront the local challenges of Haran, he needed to study with people who had already contemplated and grappled with the local philosophies, and Yaakov needed their guidance.
Much to think about...
Shabbat Shalom

[1] Rashi's source is the Midrash in BR 68:11, (a tradition also mentioned by Seder Olam). For other references to Yeshivat Shem VaEver, see BR 52:11, 56:11 that Yitzchak studied there after the Akeida, 63:6 that Rivka consulted with Shem about her pregnancy, 63:10 that Yaakov studied there, 84:8, Shir Hashirim Rabba 6/6.


Daniel Yolkut said...

R' Yaakov Kaminetsky develops a somewhat similar approach in Emes l'Yaakov.

Alex Israel said...

ברוך שכוונתי לדעת גדולים