Judaism is unique. Rav Breuer of Washington Heights, ZT”L, felt that to call Judaism a religion at all is to misrepresent it. Instead, he argued that Judaism is a Derech HaChaim, a way of life. It is all-encompassing; its focus is both body and soul, and it is action-driven. Judaism requires that we translate faith into deeds, that we keep Mitzvot. To that end, the Torah has provided us with 613 directives, which govern all our daily actions and interactions. Unlike some other religions, we are not content with theology or philosophy, although they serve as the motivation and impetus for our behaviors. Instead, we are obligated to act in a way that is consistent with our beliefs and moral principles.
Where specific Mitzvot are given, the directions for doing them are clear. In the absence of a specific Mitzvah, however, we are guided by a more ambiguous principle – that of emulating Hashem’s ways. The Talmud in Sotah (14a) teaches that to “walk after God” means to follow in Hashem’s ways. Just as Hashem clothed Adam and Chava, we should clothe the naked; just as He is kind and merciful, we should be kind and merciful. Our conception of Hashem therefore becomes our moral imperative, our code of human behavior. In our jargon, it becomes a question of “What Does/Did Hashem Do (WDHD)?” When we answer that question, we have a direction and a comprehensive moral compass for our own behavior.
The story of Beriah, Creation, is the quintessential example of Hashem’s actions. It is the story of His fashioning “Yeish Mei’Ayin,” “something from nothing.” Rav Soloveitchik questions why the Torah recounts the story of this creation for a full chapter, when it would have sufficed for the Torah simply to state that Hashem created the heaven and earth in six days and rested on the seventh. The question is strengthened by the fact that the account that the Torah does give, though detailed, leaves many questions of chronology and substance unresolved. The Rav offers the following hypothesis: “Perhaps this elaborate emphasis in the book of Genesis on God’s creation was meant to be converted into a moral challenge to man, that as God created, so should man.” He explains that man was meant to be a partner with Hashem, fashioning order from chaos. Of course, only Hashem can create (Beriah) Yeish Mei’Ayin, while man is limited to Yetzirah, the fashioning of one thing from another – “Yeish MeiYeish.” Man must have the material before he can “fashion” his product. Despite or perhaps because of such limitations, man often feels the task before him to be so awesome as to equal the creation of Yeish Mei’Ayin. As such, his perspective mirrors that of his Creator, and he is in the parallel position of making something from nothing.
The Rav exhorts us to imitate Hashem in both the material and the spiritual realm. We are to be creative in combating disease, Yishuv HaAretz, and the like. In the spiritual realm, our mandate to be “creative” takes the form of educating, parenting, and learning. Man is challenged through the Bereishit story to create, to transform the desert into productive life and turn faith into moral principle and action.
The Rav’s insight can be extended to include creativity on the personal level, as well. The timing of our reading of Sefer Bereishit – following on the heels of a period of intense self-reflection – is no coincidence. It is the tendency of man to feel insignificant, even irrelevant, after the Yamim Noraim. When man contemplates his frailty and his fallibility, he may come to perceive himself as “Ayin,” nothing – without substance and non-productive. This is precisely the moment when the Jew needs to imitate the Borei Olam, the creator of the world, who took nothing and made something from it. We are challenged by the detailed story of creation to take inspiration and direction from Hashem – to fashion ourselves anew, to make ourselves into “Yesh” from “Ayin.” Just as Hashem took nothingness and from it created a complex, multifaceted and extraordinary world, we are encouraged to do the same with ourselves. We are to be “born again Jews,” infused with the creative process and determined to make something of ourselves. Hashem gave us a blueprint and provided us with His example. By imitating Him, we bring the cycle of self-reflection, repentance and atonement to its completion, rebirth and re-creation.
The Flourless Minchah
by Jeremy Jaffe
Many days after Adam HaRishon is exiled from Gan Eden, his sons Kayin and Hevel bring sacrifices to Hashem. Hevel’s offering is recorded in Parshat Bereishit (4:4), where the Torah states that Hevel brought a Korban Mincha (meal-offering) from his flock of sheep. The problem with this is that in Parshat Vayikra (2:1), the Torah describes a meal-offering as being made from fine flour and oil. Why, then, is Hevel’s offering of sheep given this title? A similar question could also be asked about Kayin’s offering, which is also called a Korban Minchah (meal-offering). The Torah does say that he brings it “from the fruit of the ground” (4:3), a phrase that could include flour (which is originally from the ground). However, the Gur Aryeh points out that the Torah states only that Kayin brings it “from the fruit of the ground.” Kayin does not bring the actual fruits, but rather something else that comes from the fruits. If the “fruit” in question is wheat, then it would seem that what he sacrifices is probably the husks, while keeping the keeping the kernels for himself. If this the case, Kayin’s offering also does not fit Parshat Vayikra’s description of a meal-offering, since flour made from the husks would not be considered “fine.”
Rashbam to Bereishit 4:3 offers one possible answer to this question. He believes that the word Minchah in the context of Kayin’s offering means “gift.” This word could therefore really be used to describe any offerring in addition to the formal “Korban Minchah.” In fact, Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch points out that in Malachi, the word Minchah is indeed used to describe any type of Korban, not only those made from fine flour. Any Korban that someone chooses to offer can thus be treated as a “Minchah,” a gift to Hashem.
The Nature of Torah
by Avi Levinson
The very first Pasuk of the Torah reads, “Bereishit Bara Elokim Et HaShamayim VeEt HaAretz.” Most people translate this verse as, “In the beginning, Hashem created Heaven and Earth.” The problem with this translation, as Rashi notes, is that the word Bereishit is in construct form; it means, “In the beginning
of.” This Pasuk is missing an object; what was it the beginning of?
Rashi gives two explanations. The first, simple explanation is that the implied object is the creation; thus, the verse reads, “In the beginning of the creation of Heaven and Earth…” It is not significant that the Pasuk does not express a complete thought; not all Pesukim are complete thoughts (see Devarim 2:16). The second explanation is that the prefix “Bet” on the word Bereishit does not mean “in.” Midrash Bereishit Rabbah explains that here the prefix “Bet” means “Bishvil” – “for” or “because of.” The word Reishit refers either to the Torah (as in Mishlei 8:22) or Bnei Yisrael (see Yirmiyahu 2:3). The verse therefore reads, “For the sake of Torah,” or “For the sake of the Jews,” “Hashem created heaven and Earth.” The world was created for us to learn the Torah.
Rabbi Leib Kelemen uses this idea of changing the meaning of the prefix “Bet,” but changes it to “with.” (One example of “Bet” meaning “with” is “BeYad Chazakah,” “With a strong hand,” which is found many times in the first half of Sefer Shemot.) The Pasuk thus reads, “With Reishit, Hashem created Heaven and Earth.” Using the two aforementioned explanations of Reishit, two interpretations are possible: “With the Jews, Hashem created Heaven and Earth,” or “With the Torah, Hashem created Heaven and Earth.” Obviously, the first interpretation can not work here, because the Jews did not exist yet. According to Rabbi Kelemen’s explanation, the world was created with the Torah. This means, in effect, that the Torah is a nature creating device; it was used to created the entire natural world as we know it.
A story which took place some time ago in San Francisco, California will help us understand this idea. The mayor of the city, Mayor Masconi, offended one of his aides in a certain remark he made. That night, this aide went to a friend who owned a gun shop and purchased a very explosive gun. The next morning, on his way to work, the aide stopped at a convenience store and bought a box of high-sugar cakes. He ate the entire box on his way to work. When he arrived at the mayor’s office, he took out his gun and shot the mayor, killing him instantly. When the police arrived on the scene, they immediately tackled the aide and arrested him. Once they had handcuffed him, the aide said that he had killed the mayor because he hated the mayor’s policies.
This aide hired a very clever lawyer, who had his client tested for hypoglycemia, an abnormal reaction to sugar. The lawyer found that his client’s genes were slightly hypoglycemic. He therefore pleaded temporary insanity in defense of the aide, because of the huge amount of sugar in the cakes he had eaten for breakfast. The sugar reaction was timed, and it was found that his blood-sugar level would have been lowest when he was pulling the trigger of his gun, and would have returned to normal at about the time the police were handcuffing him, which is why he had the common sense to admit to the murder. In his closing arguments, the lawyer stated that the jury could not convict his client because there are only two determinants of human behavior: nature (genes) and nurture (environment). The aide’s nature was hypoglycemic, and the environment was high-sugar, so he had no free will in his murder of the mayor. The aide was acquitted based on this argument.
By saying that the Torah is a nature creating device, we can respond to the claim of this lawyer. It does not matter that nature and nurture predict one behavior; the Torah can change nature to cause a completely different behavior. Whatever genes might have an effect on human behavior can be reformed and reconstructed by the Torah. Learning Torah allows us to change our own natures, and become new and better people. As we start this new year, let us pray to Hashem that He grant us the ability to remove any bad traits we may have, using the Torah as the medium.
A Fiery Beginning?
by Tzvi Zuckier
At the conclusion of each of the first six days of creation, the Torah states, “Vayehi Erev Vayehi Voker,” that a night and a day passed. The Torah Temimah asks: why does the Torah not also say this concerning the seventh day of creation?
He cites the Talmud Yerushalmi in Berachot 8:5, which quotes Rabi Levi in the name of Rabi Bezeirah, who answers that the sun shined for 36 hours straight, from Friday morning until the end of Shabbat. Hashem did this because he wanted to refrain from creating Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning.
The Yerushalmi adds that when Adam first saw darkness on Motza’ei Shabbat, he became extremely fearful, for the sun had shone continuously throughout his short life. Rabbi Levi says Hashem presented Adam with two flint rocks to rub together and create light. Furthermore, Shmuel adds that the reason we make Havdalah on a fire after every Shabbat is to signify that Motza’ei Shabbat commemorates the creation of fire.
The only other day on which we cannot use fire is Yom Kippur. Shmuel’s reason for making Havdalah on Shabbat does not apply to Yom Kippur when it falls out on a weekday. In this case, we follow the opinion of Rav Huna quoting Rabi Avahu quoting Rabi Yochanan, who says we can make Havdalah with fire for a second reason – to commemorate the fire’s resting over Yom Kippur. For this reason, we go out of our way to make Havdalah on a candle lit throughout Yom Kippur, because this Havdalah commemorates our renewed use of fire following Yom Kippur.
Bein Adam LeDoro
by Mr. Arthur J. Poleyeff
(with thanks to Yair Manas, class of 2003)
In the first pasuk of Parshat Noach (6:9), Noach’s name is mentioned three times. This is due to the three Midot Tovot attributed to Noach: (1) He was a Tzadik, (2) a Tam, and (3) a Mit’haleich Et HaElokim. Many of the events in Noach’s life also revolve around the number three – he had three sons, and he saw three different worlds in his lifetime: The world before the flood, the world destroyed during the flood, and a new world created after the waters receded. Later in Tanach, Daniel also saw three worlds during his lifetime. He saw the world during Bayit Rishon, after the destruction of Bayit Rishon, and during Bayit Sheini.
Why does Rashi have to say that there is a doubt whether Noach would have been considered a Tzadik had he lived at the same time as Avraham? Why make Noach out to be a questionable Tzaddik? We can learn from this that a person has to make a name for himself in his generation, notwithstanding the circumstances. No excuses! We must try to make an impact on our generation and to rise above its challenges and conquer them.
Later in Parshat Noach, the Torah tells us of two generations of sinners, The Dor HaMabul (the generation of the flood), and the Dor HaPlagah (the generation of division). The Dor HaMabul lost its fear in Hashem. They partook in all types of immoral and destructive activity, as the Torah states, “VaTimalei HaAretz Chamas,” “The Earth was filled with robbery” (6:11). In short, the Dor HaMabul is described as very bad. Yet, the Dor Haflagah is even worse; they lost their morals to an even greater degree, rebelling directly against Hashem’s authority. They attempted to build a tower, go up to Heaven, and conquer the heavens (Bereishit Rabbah 38:7). This is defiance at its pinnacle.
Which Dor was inferior? The Dor HaMabul lost its fear of Hashem, and its Bein Adam LaChaveiro skills were very lacking. One might think that the Dor HaFlagah’s violation (not fearing Hashem’s authority) was worse, but quite the opposite is true. Hashem needs us to think of our fellow men first. He can forgive, to a certain degree, defiance of His authority. For this reason, the punishment for the Dor HaMabul was more severe than the punishment for the Dor HaPlagah.
Let us learn from these lessons that Bein Adam LaChaveiro is paramount. How our fellow man is treated and how we become role models for our children (and students) are of supreme importance.
It’s Not Just About Me
by Jonathan Bloom
In Parshat Noach, we see an entire generation of people killed because Hashem saw fit that they be punished for their sins. The Torah says that the people were corrupt, degenerate, and violent, and Hashem thought it was necessary to start over. However, the question we must ask is: what were the specific sins of the Dor HaMabul?
The Midrash states that a major sin of the Dor HaMabul was that the men used to take two wives. They would have children with one and use the other for personal pleasure. Everyone will agree that this is a disgusting practice, but how was this seen as so corrupt that the people deserved to be wiped out by the flood? The answer is that taking two wives was the start of the decline of society. People saw personal pleasure as the number one priority. With this kind of mindset, the people became completely corrupt and degenerate, and the generation deserved to be destroyed.
When main “moral” of a society is self-indulgence, the society is naturally corrupt. Nowadays, all most people care about is pleasing themselves. Once our society opened itself up to accept some self-indulgence, morality levels dropped. Nowadays, the value people place on an item or activity is based on how much pleasure they can derive from it, not on whether it has intrinsic value or is the right thing to do.
The lesson to be learned is obvious. The important things in life should not be self-indulgences and what gives us pleasure. The things we should enjoy most are Davening and learning Torah. We should be working harder toward becoming closer to Hashem than we do toward having a good time. Once we permit ourselves to look exclusively for pleasure, even for just a short amount of time, we begin a downward spiral toward the corruption of society, as seen in the Dor HaMabul.
The Sky is Falling!
by Avi Wollman
Towards the end of this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes the sin of Migdal Bavel, in which the people said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth” (11:4). The Midrash quotes an interesting piece of Aggada on this Pasuk, stating that one third of the tower burnt, one third sunk into the ground, and the last third is still here today – so tall, the Midrash says, that it makes palm trees look as tiny as grasshoppers. As with many such Aggadot, this seems to be a figurative Midrash; we can be sure that this one’s authors did not actually see or know of remnants of this tower, and therefore must mean to say something deeper [Rabbi Jachter notes: the remnants of the tower are claimed by some to remain to this day in Iraq and might have been seen by Chazal; see Rav Elchanan Samet’s essay on Parshat Noach in his first volume pf Iyunim B’farshi’ot HaShavua]. What could the Aggada be trying to teach us by telling us the fate of the tower?
Rav Nissan Alpert has a novel approach to this dilemma. He links the above Midrash with another Midrash on the phrase three Pesukim earlier, “And the earth was of one language and of ‘Devarim Achadim.’” Rav Alpert quotes three common explanations on this last phrase. According to the first, “Devarim Achadim” simply means “common words,” referring to the people’s one common united government. The second explanation interprets this phrase as “sharp words,” because the people rebelled against Heaven by placing a sword atop their tower to challenge Hashem if He would ever try to intervene in this world again. According to the last explanation, they put a sword on top of the tower to hold the sky up so it should not fall and cause another flood, as they believed this was simply a naturally recurring problem.
The tower that burnt, Rav Alpert says, represents the first explanation. The philosophy of outright battling against Hashem no longer exists; everyone recognizes that such a feat is impossible. The second explanation’s ideal of a united government has never been achieved, with each attempt since the government of Migdal Bavel failing, yet the idea keeps reemerging. This concept is therefore like the tower that is submerged. Rav Alpert adds that it will never be achieved until the arrival of Mashiach.
The last tower, however, unlike the other two, still stands. Noach preached for 120 years that a flood would come if the inhabitants of the world would not do Teshuvah, and just as he said the flood came and destroyed all but Noach and his family. Yet the generation following the flood still said, “It must be because of natural reasons.” Hashem performs miracles that are so great that when we look down from their heights the palm trees look like grasshoppers – and yet people miss them. This last “tower” of human stubbornness and refusal to see Hashem’s hand is as strong today as ever.
While we do not see Noach-scale events on the average day, Hashem constantly performs more subtle but equally great miracles. Although we hear this message all the time, few remember to actually put it into practice. Start small – every morning try to find a moment, maybe even while on your way to Minyan, to reflect on how you managed to do everything you have done so far that day, from going to the bathroom to having a roof over your head. To put it another way, what’s the
real reason that stops the sky from falling?
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This week’s issue of Kol Torah has been sponsored as a Zechut for the Refuah Shleimah of Tzivia Rivka bat Naomi Chedva.
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This publication contains Torah matter and should be treated accordingly.