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Parshat Breshit – Keeping Our Brotherhood

Posted by rabbiart on October 16, 2014

Who me?

Not me?

Got kids?  Then you’ve heard these phrases before. In particular, this might serve as  modern vernacular translation of Cain’s response to HaShem when he is asked “Where is your brother Abel?”

In his book Bedibur Echod Asher Ben-Zion Buchman offers explanations of each Parshah. In particular he searches for ‘thoughts on the unity of the weekly sidrah’. For Breshit he writes that the key phrase is “ ‘heaven and earth’, which refers to the duality in creation of the spiritual and the material”.  When he comes to the two brothers, (p. 11-12) he references Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel ( as observing that Cain קין is based on the Hebrew word that means ‘to acquire’, while Abel – הבל – means breath or nothingness.  One brother, he continues, is soley concerned with acquisition and materialism while the other brother is purely spiritual. The world cannot be built only out of the one or the other. Only through the characteristics of the lesser known third son – Seth – can the world be built up.

In concluding his remarks on Parshat Breshit, he mentions that Noah’s birth is included in this parshah, thereby completeing the first ten generations of humankind. According to the Torah there is only one sacred spark left from the divine light of creation; it is embodied in Noah, who finds favor in HaShem’s eyes.

In this parshah we have the astonishing (but not surprising!) statement that HaShem can hear the voice of Abel’s blood crying out to HaShem from the ground.

מֶה עָשִׂיתָ; קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן-הָאֲדָמָה

The Gemara (Rosh HaShana 16b) observes that there are three kinds of individuals; those who are completely wicked, those who are completely righteous, and those who are in the middle.  It is rarely if ever the case that those who are completely righteous regard themselves as having that much merit, and even more rare that the completely wicked will acknowledge that they are.  And in any event who am I, who are we, or who is anyone to judge.

As we look around the world at the beginning of 5775 it is so hard to ignore that there is so much blood crying out from the ground. Spilled by war, spilled by disease, spilled by – in our own country – racial hatred.  If HaShem were not HaShem, HaShem would most surely be deafened by the sound of all this blood crying out from the ground.

What we must not do is turn our own deaf ears.  We must not say Who Me. We must not say Not Me, and we absolutely must not question the idea that we are in fact our brothers’ keeper. In our day, perhaps we all in some way, wear the mark of Cain on our foreheads.

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Parshat Breshit – In the Big Inning

Posted by rabbiart on October 15, 2014

It’s baseball playoff fever here in the Bay Area.  The A’s fell to Kansas City, but the Giants are looking like a team of destiny, as they took a 2-1 lead last night on – of all things – a walk off error!  Our Rabbi is a huge Giants fan; I’ve never heard him mention the A’s.  Coincidence (as they say) I think not.  On the other hand, in the blueprint for the world as designed by HaShem, there is no such thing as luck, and really, we have no evidence that she gives a hoot about sports, other than – perhaps – that players not get injured.

My Uncle Sid (alav haShalom) ran away from cheder early in life and returned to the active fold late in life, becoming a pillar of his shul and a minyan regular.  It’s from him I learned to translate בְּרֵאשִׁית as “in the Big Inning”.  The customary translations are “In the beginning” and “when beginning”.  The former aligns with the theology that the earth was created out of nothing; the latter aligns with the idea that HaShem organized what was already there. Professor Robert Alter (The Five Books of Moses) renders it as “When God began to create” but doesn’t explain why he chose that particular translation.  The Chabad translation of the first two words of the Torah – בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא – renders it as “In the beginning of God’s creation {of the world}”.

Regardless, the creation of the world is certainly the Big Inning to begin all Innings.  The game is not yet over, although reading the newspaper makes one feel that it is most certainly in extra innings.

Even a cursory reading of the Torah reveals that it tells two stories in one. The story of how the world is, and the story of how the world ought to be.  Or as R. Shlomo Carlebach is reported to have said “The Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah”.

Regardless of the reader’s understanding of how the Torah came into existence, I believe that we can all agree that it is a living document that speaks to us in every generation and addresses the most issues of our times. For proof we need look no further than Rashi’s opening comment. In it Rashi asks and answers the question “why doesn’t the Torah begin with Shmot 12:2, which is the first commandment specifically addressed to the Jewish people?”. He answers, that, since HaShem created the world, HaShem may give the lands of the seven nations (what is now modern-day Israel) to whosoever HaShem chooses.  This is the answer, Rashi says, that the Jewish people should give whenever the nations of the world accuse us of having taken the land by force.

The argument over this tiny portion of the Earth continues to this day, with more and more European nations (who don’t exactly come to this conversation with clean hands) accusing Israel of exactly that – appropriation of land by force and conquest. The exploration of that debate will have to wait for a different post, but there is no doubt that the Torah has much and will have much to say on this topic because without question “It’s Alive”.

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, in his wonderful book Torah of Reconciliation makes some wonderful observations that illuminate what the Torah has to say about this argument and the terrible darkness that seems to be falling on much of the world, especially in the Middle East.  In his beginning (p.39) he writes “Peace Comes with the First Light”, referencing the verse from Isaiah (45:7) that has become (in slightly modified form) the opening sentence of the morning service.  Later on (p.49), Rabbi Lewis, referencing Rashi, states that Reconciliation is Fundamental to Creation.

As we begin anew the cycle of reading the Torah, may we (and all the peoples of the world) be blessed with understanding that (quoting Rabbi Lewis on p. 51) Teshuva is integral to the world, a world which is “unthinkable without a way to heal relationships that were in tension or were completely broken”.

Refuah Shlemah  to us all.

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