The Era of Torah
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
"Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother's son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls that they made in Haran... (Bereishit, 12:5)
That they made in Haran: "That they gathered them in under the Wings of the Divine Presence." (Rashi, Bereishit,12:5: sv.)
The Torah tells us that Abraham and Sarah had 'made' souls in Haran; Rashi explains that they had brought many people to belief in one God. The Talmud records that Abraham began 'making souls' when he was 52 years of age, and it describes that event as ushering in a seminal period in history - the Era of Torah. It explains that the history of the world is divided into three periods of two thousand years each; the period of desolation, the period of Torah, and the period of the Days of Messiah.
The problem is that there were many great people who learned and taught Torah before Abraham. We know that Noah learned Torah and Shem and Eiver even set up Yeshivas! So why does the Era of Torah only begin with Abraham?
The first stage in answering this problem is to differentiate between learning Torah and teaching Torah. The mere fact that there were individuals who learned Torah was insufficient to usher in the Era of Torah because there was no chance that Torah would spread to other people. This explains why Noah and other righteous people who learned Torah did not suffice to end the period of desolation. But it does not suffice with regards to those people who taught Torah, namely Shem and Eiver. Why was the fact that they taught Torah insufficient to usher in the Era of Torah?
It seems that there was a major difference between the nature of the Torah that Shem and Eiver taught, and that of Abraham. The Ramban describes the kind of Torah that Jacob learned in the Yeshivas of Shem and Eiver: Wisdom and the secrets of the Torah. This demonstrates that Shem and Eiver specialized in teaching Esoteric Wisdom - perhaps akin to what we know as Kabbalah (mysticism). While this form of Torah is obviously of great import, it does not seem to be the kind of Torah that applies to practical Torah observance - it is more related to understanding the deep secrets of the Universe.
In contrast, Abraham taught a very different type of Torah. Onkelos, on the words, 'The souls that they made in Haran' translates that to mean; "di'shabidu li'Oraitta," whom Avram and Sarai made obligated to the Torah. This strongly indicates that the whole nature of the Torah they taught was to enable them to observe the Torah. It was a very practical form of Torah that directly affected the lives of the people who studied it.
In the words of Rabbi Eytan Feiner:
"Yes, it is true that others learned Torah and, in certain instances, even taught its timeless treasures to others as well. It was only during Abraham's 52nd year, however, that people were first taught to subjugate themselves to the Torah's teachings, to live by the ideals and rules bandied about its limitless scope. The wondrous beauty of the Torah cannot merely be viewed, studied, and analyzed in the abstract. In order to manifest its full splendor, the Torah must be brought down into the concrete world of 'asiya,' the world demanding real action, mandating the actualization of the manifold principles laid forth in the Torah's precious pages."
Thus, the Era of Torah could only begin when people began learning Torah in such a way that it forced them to apply what they learnt to their lives.
Another episode in Lech Lecha reveals the difference between Abraham and Shem in their approach to Torah, and indeed, all Divine Service. After the war with the Four Kings, Abraham meets Malkizedek, who is none other than Shem. He is described as "a Priest of God, the Most High" - it is explained that the Divine Service that Shem emphasized, was focused in the Higher Realms, but did not seem to be involved sanctifying the material world. In contrast, when Shem blesses Abraham, he describes God differently: "Blessed is Abram, of God, the most High, Maker of Heaven and Earth." With these words, Shem acknowledges the fact that God is also involved in the physical world, and that Abraham was the one who brought Godliness down from the Upper Realms into the Lower Realms. In this vein, we do not see anywhere that Shem observed the entire Torah, rather, Abraham is the first person who applied all the Torah he learned to action and did keep the Torah.
Only Torah that was intrinsically connected to active Divine Service could usher in the Era of Torah. This serves as a reminder that the point of Torah learning is to bring us closer to God. We know that Torah learning is a highly stimulating activity but Torah must enhance our Torah observance and connection to God.
1. Avodah Zara, 9a, Sanhedrin 97a.
2. Vayikra Rabba, 2:10, Rashi, Bereishit, 7:2.
3. One approach that I have given in the past, in the name of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe, Lech Lecha, p.6) is that Shem and Eiver only taught people who came to them, whereas Avraham was the first to actively search for students - thus it was only through his form of disseminating Torah that Torah could spread throughout the world. In this essay a different answer will be given, based on Rabbi Eytan Feiner's approach.
4. Ramban, Bereishit, 37:3. See also Baal HaTurim, ibid.
5. Bereishit, 14:18.
6. Bereishit, 14:19.
7. See Yoma 28b, Kiddushin 82a.