On the Kollot Haftarah: What defines us as Jews?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 November 2016

Rosie and Rabbi Colin have read for us of how Abraham sent off his servant on a mission to find his son, Isaac, a wife, and how he met Rebecca at the well.

So what happens next?
Rebecca and her family invite the servant into their home, feed the camels, bathe his feet, and then he tells his story. He repeats exactly what happened.  In detail.  Real detail.

We hear repeated how Abraham tasked him, his journey to the spring, his encounter with Rebecca.  Over another 16 verses, most of a column of Torah, we read pretty much what we just read, this time as reported by the servant himself.

This might not surprise us so much.  We might consider it just a literary feature of the text.  We’re used to books that run long.  But actually, that the repetition is there at all is worthy of note.  Just the hassle of writing, the cost of vellum: ancient texts tend towards parsimony of language.  Expansion is itself the noteworthy thing.  Many sections of bible leave huge amounts unsaid.  They certainly don’t say it, and then say it again.

The Torah could have just said, should have just said: “The servant told of the events that had just happened… When he had finished speaking then…”  But it doesn’t.

And this interested some of the rabbis.  As we see in our haftarah for this morning, which, in the Kollot tradition, is taken from Rabbinic Literature, the level of detail in this narrative contrasts with the lack of detail elsewhere – especially in legal portions of the text.

Let me say a few words about the midrash we’ll be reading.

In it, we find a tradition from Rav Acha in which he remarks that sichatan shel avdei batei avot – the table-talk of a servant of a patriarch is more prominent, more privileged – literally it says more beautiful – than Toratan shel banim – the Torah of their descendants.  He contrasts the detail and repetition of our portion with a piece of Jewish legal interpretation.  We are told in Leviticus – in the section which lays out many of the biblical laws of kashrut – that the swarming things of the earth are not just not for eating, but are physically defiling – contact with them produces ritual impurity.  But how do we know that this also applies to their blood?  The Torah doesn’t explicitly tell us.  Rather, the rabbis deduce this from their close reading of Torah – in fact, they amplify the law from the presence of redundant letters in the text.  Even, the text goes on, even the washing of the feet of the servant is spelled out in more detail than this piece of Jewish law:


Kollot Haftarah, Shabbat Chayyei Sara 5777:  Midrash Genesis Rabbah 60:8
Rav Acha said: The conversation of servants from the households of the patriarchs is more prominent than the Torah law of their descendants.
The section dealing with Eliezer covers two or three columns.  [His conversation] is not only recorded but repeated!
By contrast, [the law about the uncleanness of] a reptile is in the body of Torah Law, and yet we only learn that the blood of a reptile is unclean in the same way as its flesh through amplification of the text.
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai deduces it from [the use of an unnecessary definite article in Leviticus 11:29] where it says THE IMPURE instead of IMPURE.
Rabbi Leazar ben Rabbi Yose deduces it from [the use of an unnecessary conjunction in the text of Leviticus 11:29] where it says AND THIS instead of THIS.
Rav Acha said: [Even] the washing of the feet of servants from the households of the patriarchs is more prominent than the Torah law of their descendants.
It is necessary for the text to record even the washing of their feet!
By contrast, [the law about the uncleanness of] a reptile is in the body of Torah Law, and yet we only learn that the blood of a reptile is unclean in the same way as its flesh through amplification of the text.


The meaning of this text is really extraordinarily radical indeed.

When Rav Acha says that the minor events of the lives of the servants in the Genesis narrative are more beautiful than the law of their descendants, what he is referring to is the halachic (legal) framework of the rabbis themselves.  And he could have used any number of examples other than the blood of the reptile – the definition of work on Shabbat, the process of shechita – also derived from interpretation of features of the text, not spelled out in detail.  Unlike Abraham’s servant having his feet washed!

In other words, what Rabbi Acha identifies is that the primary mode of Torah reading that the rabbis engaged in – really plumbing the Torah to discover law – is somehow at odds with the text of Torah itself.  When the rabbis use the Torah as a jumping off point to create the huge mass of legal tradition that we live today, it is not obvious that this was what the text itself was meant to do.

This is not the only place where the rabbis are self-aware in this way – though it is rare, to say the least. In the Mishnah, the earliest compilation of rabbinic law, we find a description of the laws of Shabbat as being “like a mountain suspended by a hair”: a recognition that the edifice that they built is only tenuously grounded in the text itself.  Again, there is a recognition of an arbitrariness to the rabbinic exercise.

What the rabbis don’t tell us – for how could they possibly – is what to do with this.  The legal structures of Judaism are built on the idea of an almost inevitability, and certainly a religious primacy, of the rabbinic process of legal interpretation.  Here, we are told that this might not be the case.  How terrifying this must have been for them.  No wonder the passage stops so abruptly.

So, let me suggest what we might learn from this.
But first, what we can’t learn.  We can’t learn that Toratan shel banim – the Torah, the law, of the future generations in the Jewish story is not important.  Because we recognise that there is an arbitrariness, an artificiality to the rabbinic process does not mean that we reject it all out of hand.  We should be wary of it, we should interrogate it in our personal religious decision making – we should certainly not accept at face value that the product of a superfluous definite article is the will of God for us.  But the edifice they built from that way of thinking, rabbinic Judaism, is the Judaism that shaped our ritual lives, formed the siddur, transformed a sacrificial cult into something that could survive into modernity.  Which is why this is a shul with a Talmud class, a regular midrash session, shiurim on rabbinic literature.  And why we are reading writings of the rabbis as our haftarah this morning.

But that is not enough to live a full Jewish life.

If sichatan shel avdei batei avot – the mere conversation of the servants of the households of the Patriarchs, is more beautiful than that, we must also engage with Torah for ourselves.  The main question we should ask of it is not merely a normative question: “What did the generations that came before us find in it that we have to do?”  Not merely, what is the detail of the law.
Instead we must ask a formative question: “Who do we need to be?” “What are the values it expresses?”  The fundamental question of Torah, the one that is given the prominence is “How did we come to be here?” “What is our story?” “Who are we?”

This is a rich and beautiful way to read Torah.  This morning’s portion is full of ideas, questions about our values.  From Rosie’s ideas about trust and lovingkindness, to hospitality, the role of non-Jews in Jewish life and more.

Especially, I would suggest, the importance of trust, the power of a promise – a promise made, fulfilled, and retold.  In an age in which we have just seen elected to American President a man who uttered the phrase: “It’s just words folks, it’s just words”; in which the Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth” – our portion is expressing in a way that no law ever can, the importance of keeping your word.  The servant makes a deep promise, made with sacred ritual – and keeps it.  He may do so in an unconventional way – and the oath making ritual may seem unconventional to modern tastes – but this leaps from the page – not as law but as our defining ideal.  The detail, the sheer number of words which the Torah dedicates to telling and retelling our story is to emphasise the importance of those values that we find within it.

The haftarah we are about to read asks a very simple question.  Why, when Abraham’s servant sits down at the table of Rebecca’s family, does the Torah record his telling of the story?  Why does it record them washing his feet?  The answer is one that should ripple throughout our religious lives.  Adherence to the law derived from Torah is not what defines us.    Judaism, read Torah Judaism is not merely – and I mean merely – to obey halachah.  Mere adherence to the law can lead us to a world in which some think it is OK to send a knife to a shul with a piece of halachah written upon it, without recognising how far this is from the values of Torah.

What defines us is our values, our identity, our relationship with our common story.
Yafeh sichatan shel avdei batei avot mi-toratan shel banim.  The story is not merely a prelude to law, but so much more beautiful.