The Jewish People among the Nations of the World

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Yaakov settled in the land in which his father lived – in the Land of Canaan.  

(Sefer Beresheit 37:1)

1. The Patriarchs as humanity’s teachers

Parshat VaYeshev opens with the above passage.  In its discussion of this passage, the Midrash explains that each of the Patriarchs was committed to the mission of educating humanity.  Each denounced idolatry and communicated the message that Hashem alone should be worshiped.   

Maimonides also discusses this issue.  He describes Avraham’s extensive efforts to teach these truths to humanity.  He explains that Avraham appointed Yitzchak to continue his work.  Avraham charged Yitzchak with the task of teaching and reforming humanity.  Yitzchak appointed Yaakov to continue this mission. However, Maimonides indicates that Yaakov’s mission was somewhat different than that of his father and grandfather.  Yaakov’s mission was to teach.   He was not charged with the responsibility of rehabilitating humanity.  It seems that according to Maimonides, Avraham and Yitzchak shared the mission of teaching and restoring humanity to the worship of Hashem.  Yaakov also shared this mission.  However, it was not his focus.  He did not teach primarily in order to reform humanity.  He taught to preserve and communicate the truths developed by his father and grandfather.  This could be achieved without directing his attention to the nations of the land.  Therefore, his focus was upon the teaching and development of Bnai Yisrael.

And Avraham called the name of that place “Hashem will See”.  Today, it is said, “On Hashem’s Mountain He will be seen”.  (Sefer Beresheit 22:14)

And Yitzchak went forth to meditate in the field toward evening.  He lifted his eyes and he saw that camels were coming.  (Sefer Beresheit 24:63)

And he was frightened and he said: How awe-inspiring is this place.  This must be the house of G-d and the gateway of heaven.  (Sefer Beresheit 28:17)

2. The unique element of each Patriarch’s mission

The first of the above passages appears in the Torah narrative of the Akeydah – Avraham’s binding of Yitzchak in order to offer him as a sacrifice.  After Hashem’s angel tells Avraham that Yitzchak is not to be sacrificed, Avraham gives a name to the mountain that was the site of the encounter. 

The second passage appears in the Torah’s description of Yitzchak and Rivkah’s initial encounter.  Yitzchak is described as meditating in a field.

The final passage appears in the Torah description of Yaakov’s first prophecy.  This prophecy was received by Yaakov as he began his journey from his father’s home to the Charan.  Upon awaking from the prophetic dream, Yaakov was frightened.  He recognized the sanctity of the place at which he had received the prophecy and described it as the house of Hashem and the gateway of heaven.  

The Talmud explains that all of these events occurred at a single place.  The Akeydah, Yitzchak and Rivkah’s encounter, and Yaakov’s dream all took place upon Mount Moriah. This site was destined to be the location of the Bait HaMikdash – the Holy Temple.  The Talmud notes that this single site is described differently in these three passages.  In the context of Avraham’s visit, the site is described as a mountain.  Yitzchak is described as meditating in a field.  Yaakov refers to the site as the house of Hashem.   Why is this single location described with three different terms?

An interesting explanation is attributed to Rav Avraham Kook Z”L. Avraham confronted humanity as a lone voice.  He had a message that was novel and alien.  In order to be effective in communicating his message, he had to break down barriers of ignorance and primitivism.  As a pioneer, he was required to be a teacher and publicist.  Figuratively, he delivered his message from a mountain top.  His success required that he capture the attention of the inhabitants of the land, and that he maintain a high level of visibility.

Avraham succeeded in introducing to humanity the imperative of serving Hashem alone and the falsehood of idolatry.  After Avraham, the message was known.  Some accepted Avraham’s ideas.  Many more continued to reject his message.  However, the message was no longer novel or revolutionary.  Therefore, Yitzchak’s mission was different than his father’s.  He continued to teach and to reform humanity’s religious notions.  However, unlike Avraham, he did not need to do his work from the top of a mountain.  Figuratively, he performed his mission upon an open field.  He welcomed all who wished to be his students.  He was humanity’s teacher but he was not a publicist.

Yaakov built walls and created a house.  Before Yaakov, truth was spread by Avraham and Yitzchak to all of humanity.  However, it had no home.  No nation was dedicated to consistently upholding and embodying the messages of Avraham and Yitzchak.  Yaakov continued to teach humanity.  However, his focus was on creating a house – a nation that would be devoted to the truths of the Torah.

And you should observe and perform (them) for it is your wisdom and intelligence in the eyes of the nations.  For they will hear of all these laws and they will say: This great nation is truly wise and understanding.  For what (other) great nation is there whose G-d is close to it – like Hashem, our G-d – at all times that we call out to Him?  What other nation has just laws and statutes like this entire Torah that I have placed before you today?  (Sefer Devarim 4:6-8)

3. Bnai Yisrael as a light to the nations

An important question remains.  Why did the mission of the Patriarchs’ change over the generations?  Specifically, Avraham and Yitzchak focused on the teaching of humanity.  Yaakov’s focus was on the creation of Bnai Yisrael.  Why was Yaakov’s mission different than his father’s and grandfather’s?

The above passages speak to this issue.  These passages are part of Moshe’s final address to Bnai Yisrael.  He explains to the nation that faithful observance of the Torah will earn the respect of the nations of the world.  However, Moshe’s message is somewhat confusing.  First, he asserts that when Bnai Yisrael observes the Torah then the nations will recognize the wisdom of its laws and statutes.  Then, he asserts that the nations’ admiration will be in response to the providential relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.  He then returns to and reiterates his initial assertion.  The impression that is communicated by his presentation is that the nations’ admiration is linked to both appreciation of the wisdom of the Torah and to their recognition of the reality of providence.  Furthermore, these two factors are somehow intimately related to one another.  

Apparently, the messages communicated by the wisdom of the Torah and the reality of providence are complementary.  Together, these two messages communicate to the world that the providence enjoyed by a nation is a consequence of its behaviors and attitudes.  We are not rewarded simply for obedience.  The Torah outlines for us a set of behaviors and attitudes that are wise and intelligent.  By virtue of our travel along the Torah’s path of wisdom we enjoy Hashem’s providence.  In other words, Hashem rewards us for acting intelligently and if we expect to be rewarded, we must conduct ourselves in an intelligent manner.    

4. Teaching the Patriarchal message through example

This is essentially the message taught to the world by the Patriarchs.  They did not call upon humanity to adopt a revealed religion.  None existed.  They did not demand obedience to a prophetic teaching.  Instead, they beseeched humanity to abandon superstition, ignorance, and primitivism.  They asked only that humanity act intelligently.  They asserted that if humanity adopted intelligent behaviors and attitudes, then it would enjoy the blessing of providence.

Now, the generational transition of the Patriarchs’ mission can be understood.   Avraham and Yitzchak were teachers to humanity.  However, their lessons were somewhat abstract.  They could not provide a compelling demonstration of their message.  Each of the Patriarchs enjoyed a providential relationship with Hashem.  The Torah explains that at times this relationship was evident to the nations and they were impressed.  However, Yaakov established a nation whose destiny and history would provide profound and compelling testimony to the Patriarchal message.  Bnai Yisrael’s history and destiny would perfectly reflect this message.  Providence and observance of the Torah’s intelligent, wise and just commandments would be directly related.  

In short, Avraham and Yitzchak had no option other than to teach with words.  Yaakov initiated a new method of teaching.  He established a nation whose existence would teach by example.