Gaps in Lives of Forefathers; Torah’s Purpose
I noticed that there are a lot of gaps in the lives of our forefathers. For example, we hear almost nothing about Abraham until he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). Jacob was also quite advanced when he escaped to Haran to find his wives. According to the Talmud, he actually first went off for 14 years to study Torah (Megillah 17a). Moshe is also 80 when he first approaches Pharaoh (Shemos 7:7) – though he seemed to be a young man when he first fled Egypt (Shemos 2:11-15). And I know there is famous Midrash that he was king of Ethiopia for many years in between. Why are such basics details of the lives of such people missing? It certainly wasn’t because they weren’t doing much of anything during those times!
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for the good point. The answer is that the purpose of the Torah – and especially the Book of Genesis – is not to impress us with how great our forefathers were. The Torah is not interested in providing us with biographical sketches of the great people of our history. In fact, as you observe, huge gaps exist in the lives of our forefathers – with many no doubt fascinating details and episodes of their lives completely ignored.
The reason for this goes to the very heart of the written Torah’s purpose. It is not there to inspire us or to inform us of our noble history. It is telling a very specific story for a very specific purpose. It is recounting the story of Planet Earth.
Very briefly, the Torah’s story goes as follows: The world was created nearly perfect, it fell, and a plan was developed to bring it back to perfection. The story begins with Adam and Eve. They were created almost perfect – with only a single mitzvah to perform in order to perfect themselves entirely. They, however, failed and the world fell with them. Man would now have to surmount far greater challenges and overcome much more pervasive evil in order to perfect himself and the universe. At first this became the mission of all mankind. But with Noah’s generation and later the Tower of Babel, the world almost perished again. Man was not even going in the right direction and became deserving of destruction.
Then came Abraham and the germination of a plan. God would now choose a single family – and ultimately a single nation – as His agents to perfect the world. The world as a whole was too corrupt. But a single nation which stands above it and serves as a model for all mankind could help lead it back to goodness and God. Slowly the Torah’s notions of honesty, equality, peace, justice, education, and many others would permeate the world’s consciousness – to be adopted by other religions and eventually raise up all mankind to its principles.
The Book of Genesis, beginning with Abraham, outlines the development of God’s special nation. The Torah begins with God’s selection of Abraham as His special servant – whose descendants would be granted the Holy Land in which they would ultimately build a Utopian society for mankind to observe and emulate. The Torah then recounts various episodes from his and his descendants’ lives – not necessarily ones showing their greatness but ones in which they developed and exhibited the qualities which would contribute to Israel’s national character. Abraham was known for kindness, Isaac for inner strength, and Jacob truth – the often difficult combination of the former two qualities.
This of course is a hopelessly sketchy outline, but one critical to have in mind when studying the Book of Genesis. The Torah has an overall message in presenting the story it does. Naturally, many details – and decades – of the lives of our forefathers and foremothers are not included – because in spite of their unquestionable greatness, such periods of their lives recount tales about their personal greatness – such as that Jacob spent years studying Torah – rather than the national story of the birth of God’s chosen nation.
You also mentioned Moses in your question, so I’ll deal with his story briefly. Moses lived after the nation of Israel had been formed. Thus, the Torah is even less interested, so to speak, in telling his personal story. The Torah does tell us of his development as a leader – which is indeed relevant to the national story. If you look closely at the episodes recounted from his early life, they all revolve about his growth as a leader – how he cared for his fellow Jews, stood up for them, and involved himself in their internal matters – as well as how he cared for his father-in-law’s sheep in preparation for caring for a nation (see Exodus 2). These were all the qualities he would ultimately require to lead the nation out of Egypt.
In your question you mentioned the Midrash that when Moses was younger, he spent years as king of Ethiopia – yet that entire episode is absent from the Torah. (See this past response for more on that.) This actually raises an interesting question. If our premise is that the Torah includes information relevant to Moses’s rise as a leader, why wasn’t that story included? We would think his earlier experience as chief and administrator of an African kingdom is highly relevant to his development as future leader of Israel?
The answer would seem to be that the Torah has entirely criteria for judging Moses’s worthiness to be a leader. Of interest to the Torah is that Moses cared for every Jew – and risked his life standing up for them. The fact that he had pertinent job experience – as a capable director and manager of manpower – basically mattered for nothing. God would choose the man who showed he cared about his fellow Jews and could lead them with compassion – and who would stick up for them when they sinned, as Moses did so many times. But administrative abilities alone do not truly make a leader. In fact, such are entirely irrelevant to Moses’s true worthiness from the perspective of God.