What to make of Torah’s telling and retelling same story?

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation in University City and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.


In this week’s Torah portion, Chayeh Sarah, Sarah dies and Abraham appoints Eliezer his servant to find a wife for Abraham’s 37-year-old son, Isaac.  Abraham makes Eliezer swear that he will go to Abraham and Sara’s relatives to find a wife for Isaac and not to the people of Canaan. The Torah then describes in great detail the trip Eliezer takes and how he finds Rebecca, Isaac’s wife-to-be, by making a deal with G-d that whomever he meets at the well and who offers water for him and his camels, she will be the wife for Isaac. Rebecca meets Eliezer at the well and offers just that. Eliezer gives her rings and goes to meet her family, where he recalls the entire story and the Torah records all of his words for us, retelling the entire story.

Rabbi Shlomo Isaac, the famous 11th century commentator known as Rash”i, is bothered by the long detailed depiction of Eliezer’s trip and then the almost verbatim repetition of it in the Torah when Eliezer recounts the details of his trip to Rebecca’s family. Rash”i’s explanation, quoting the Midrash, is that we see from here, “the everyday conversations of the servants of our ancestors is more dear to G-d than the Torah of their progeny,” for later in the Torah when the commandments are given, most are given in much less detail than that of the story of Eliezer finding a wife for Isaac in our portion.

In other words, even the seemingly minor narrative sections in Genesis are dearer to God than the sections of law given later — a strange conclusion for a book which we refer to as “The Law.”  After all, isn’t the primary function of the Torah to dictate law? The word Torah itself, in fact means “instruction.”

Perhaps we can answer this question with another comment of the Midrash as quoted by Rash”i, on the first verse of the Torah. The Midrash asks why the Torah does not begin from the first commandment given to the Jewish nation a book and a half later when they leave Egypt.  Is the Torah not a book of law?  Why all the stories for a book and a half before getting to the bulk of the laws?   

The Midrash answers that without the creation stories of Genesis the world would not know that God created the world and thus has the right to give the land of Israel to the Jewish people. It is a strange answer in many ways — is giving the Jewish People the Land really the reason for all the stories in the Torah?  

Maybe the Midrash is telling us something instructive.  We understand that the laws are there to guide us, but what of the many stories in the Torah?   What is their purpose?  Perhaps in order to be a nation in a land, the Land of Israel, we will require more than law to govern.  A country, a nation, may be defined by its legislative and governmental processes. One could say it is democracy which makes the United States what it is.  But not so a people.  A people is not the sum of its laws and customs but something deeper, something more subtle.  

The Midrash may be telling us that the Jewish people are less a nation and more a people, a family.  Just as parents parent their children with the voices of their own parents in their minds, so too the Jewish people. What makes us unique is not the law, as important as it is, but something much deeper. The Jewish people’s story is what characterizes us as the unique family we are. Let us never forget that though some keep the law and some do not, some study it and some as yet do not, some value it more and some less, we the Jews are more than a nation — we are a family.