My eclectic educational background left me with dichotomous messages regarding Tefila. Raised Chassidish, I was constantly told that Tefila is the best means to grow closest to God. In contrast, in the non-chassidic yeshivot where I studied for many years during my teens and twenties, they stressed that Torah is the most efficacious means to achieve this goal.
When I was younger, these two views presented me with a spiritual challenge. Which do I privilege: Torah or Tefila? I saw them as mutually exclusive. With maturity, however, came the realization that these two routes to God can operate in tandem, that one could possess multiple means to the same goal. These days, I am therefore thankful for the mixed messages I received in my schooling. As someone who prays three times a day and spends most of the day learning or teaching Torah, I was gifted the tools to infuse ALL parts of my day with Godliness and God consciousness.
Embracing these dual approaches, I noticed something about our daily Tefila which I had previously overlooked. Tefila and Torah study are in fact intertwined: the climactic request at the end of our trice daily Amidah prayer is ותן חלקנו בתורתך; (“Give us our share in Your Torah”.) This conclusion of Tefila dramatically sets the stage for our Torah study. As we take leave of davening, we ask that our next pursuit, the study of Torah, will achieve its optimal goal: the discovery of OUR share of God’s Torah Yet, this notion of OUR share in God’s Torah requires explication.
While this request of the liturgist is emphatic, repeated multiple times in the prayer, it is also vague. What indeed is our share? The Tefila implies that we have something to contribute. But we are left wondering what it looks like. The implication of such a petition is also the claim that the Torah is somehow incomplete, a radical suggestion indeed.
This week’s Torah portion may perhaps be one of the sources for the liturgists’ claim. In terms of narrative, this is a transitional week. This Shabbat we will read the last installment in the Abraham story. Next week’s reading shifts to Yitzchak. Wrapping up the section on Abraham, we read three chapters about the final stages of Abraham’s life, each conveying a different episode. The first chapter tells us about Sara’s death, the second discusses his son Yitzchak’s marriage, and the final chapter tells us about Abraham’s remarriage after Sara’s death.
While the first two vignettes are told in relative detail, the third is extremely terse, giving us a skeletal outline of that phase of Abraham’s life. In brief sketches it tells us that he remarried; had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; the unique way in which he divvied up his inheritance between his two families; and, finally, about his death.
The brevity leaves the reader frustrated. The centrality of Abraham in the Torah’s narrative, leads one to expect a more comprehensive biography of him. Instead, we only receive a brief sketch, outlining his life’s trajectory in broad strokes. While this kind of brevity is particularly acute here, it is not unique to this parasha. One is often left with a similar feeling in almost every parasha. In general the Torah feels incomplete with holes punctuating many of its stories. The only way to make sense of this style of storytelling is to change our understanding of the purpose of these tales. History is about recording events in detail and with precision. These tales have neither. Instead of a full-fledged description of what transpired, we have notes and outlines.
One is left to conclude that these stories are not there for historical record keeping. Their purpose instead is to lure us in with enough information so that we feel compelled to fill the gaps and plug the holes by ourselves. We are asked to be readers, not listeners. Our task is to make these moral fables concerning our forebears compelling and complete. Biblical stories are made complete in a unique way. We don’t have historical artifacts to fill the gaps. All we have at our disposal is our imagination. Intuition and conjecture are the tools we use to complete these tales.
Historicity is not the reason the Torah records these stories. Instead, they are there to serve as a beacon and moral guide for creating for ourselves a life that is ethical, loving and caring. That is why we do not use historical tools to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of what happened. What “actually” transpired is of secondary importance to us. What we are after is significance. What can we learn from these tales?
That is the message the liturgist is so emphatically trying to convey. Torah was not given to us at Sinai, it was shared with us. There are raw materials in there for us to work with. It was deliberately revealed to us in this incomplete fashion, inviting us to join into a partnership with the Giver of the Torah so that we become active participants in the story, not passive bystanders.
May we all continue to fulfill our role in this unfolding story which is perpetually being written. Each of us has a unique contribution to make without which the Torah will forever remain incomplete.