Melchizedek and the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber
Parshat Lech Lecha 5782
In our parasha after the battle of the kings in the plain Avram meets King Melchizedek of Salem who gives Abram bread and wine. Melchizedek is also called Cohen l’kE-l E-lyon, Priest of G-d Most High. And Melchizedek blesses Avram saying “Blessed be Avram of G-d Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth. And blessed be G-d Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”
Now this is most interesting. Melchizedek means roughly righteous king, and he is already a priest of G-d, whereas Avram, soon to become Abraham, is the founder of our religion and the first monotheist. Didn’t Melchizedek just steal his thunder? Also, he was king of Salem. Remind you of any place of future kings you might think of? Jerusalem, for instance.
The questions raised in this interaction stirred up a lot of questions and of course a backstory (i. e. Midrash) had to be written.
The Rabbis identified Melchizedek as Noah’s son Shem. And Shem along with his great-grandson Eber had been teaching Torah already for a long time, according to midrash. Huh? Aren’t we just at the beginning of the Torah and here some guys in between Noah and Abraham are already teaching the whole thing?
Well, mystically the Torah is the blueprint of Creation and predated it. According to the Zohar, knowledge of Torah laws was passed down from Adam, Seth, Enoch and Noah to Shem. And according to the Torah both Shem and Eber lived long enough to be contemporary with the Patriarchs, albeit hundreds of years old.
I give credit to Rabbi Yehudah Shurpin of the St. Louis Park Chabad who wrote an article on his “Ask Rabbi Y” blog entitled “Did Abraham really invent monotheism” for many of the ideas in my drash.
Rabbi Shurpin cites Maimonides in Hilchot Avodah Zarah saying that Avram came to the recognition of one true G-d on his own unlike Shem and Eber who “learned about G-d from their own ancestors.” Avram did not limit his teaching to a private school, but broadcast his religious understanding to everyone he met. He broke the idols. He was fearless.
So, what happened to Melchizedek’s Priesthood? Rabbi Ishmael in tractate Nedarim 32b said that G-d intended to continue the Priesthood from Malchizedek’s descendents. But Malchizedek in his words blessed Avram before he blessed G-d, putting a man before G-d, so G-d decided to bring forth the priesthood from Avram. Psalm 110:4 says “The Lord has sworn and will not repent, ‘You (Avram) are a priest forever, after the order (dibrati) of Mechizedek’” meaning, “because of the word (dibbur) of Melchizedek.
Now this same Melchizedek figures prominently in the Christian bible book of Hebrews where he is used to justify a non-Jewish Christian priesthood. According to Jacob Petuchowski’s article “The Controversial Figure of Melchizedek”, 2nd Century Rabbi Ishmael may have been reacting to this Christian expropriation in his arguments in the Gemara. In the Mishnah and Talmud, the corruption of the Hasmonean Priestly dynasty was downplayed. Instead of Priestly ceremony the Rabbis ennobled Torah Study and used the Midrashic idea of the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber to give the culture of Torah Study an ancient sanction.
In Midrash Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Rebecca each studied with Shem and Eber which gave them the foundation to combat the cultural forces they each struggled with.
Miriam Pearl Klahr in a Kol HaMevasser article, “The First Beit Midrash: The Yeshivah of Shem and Eber” writes:
“Hazal’s use of the Yeshivah of Shem and Eber made the struggles of the Avot relevant to Jews of later generations. Jews of Hazal’s time went to batei midrash and Jewish sages to find faith, build relationships with God, and discover inspiration for combating assimilation and hardship Hazal therefore say that the forefathers went to the righteous elders of their times, Shem and Eber, and learned Torah from them. This Torah learning served as a foundation for the forefathers’ survival of exile. Thus, the stories of the forefathers become relatable archetypes of Torah dedication. A struggling Jew in exile can understand the story of Jacob and Joseph and look to them as a relevant role models.
The importance of the Yeshivah of Shem and Eber lies not in its historical accuracy, but rather in its representation of a culture in which one can maintain a relationship with God despite its difficulty. According to the read of the Midrash, God did not simply appear to the Bible’s heroes. They were not born with deep strength and conviction; rather, the forefathers worked hard to develop their faith. They went to seek advice from those who knew more than they. They spent time contemplating G-d and life’s meaning.”
Let the accumulated wisdom of Hazal help us in our contemporary search for meaning in G-d’s world.