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Parashat Bereishit 5775 — 10/15/2014

Parashat Bereishit 5775 — 10/15/2014

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the drashes on the Parshiot this year will be, Gd willing, based on the teachings of R. Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-State Israel.  R. Chanan Morrison has culled these teachings from Rav Kook’s writings and compiled them into two volumes: Gold from the Land of Israel and Sapphire from the Land of Israel.  They are available from, and from Amazon – if you’re lucky you might get them delivered by drone.  Gold from the Land of Israel (©2006) is ISBN:965-7108-92-6.  Sapphire from the Land of Israel (©2013) is ISBN: 1490909362 or 978-1490909363

… Gd turned to Hevel and to his offering. But Gd did not turn to Cain and his offering; Cain became enraged and his face fell. (4:4-5)

We know what happens next – rather than looking at his own behavior (as Gd tells him to do in verse 7), Cain blames his brother, Hevel, and eventually kills him.  But why did Gd prefer Hevel’s offering to Cain’s – the idea of offering something of the work of our hands to Gd seems to have come from Cain to begin with!

After some time Cain brought [some] of the fruits of the earth as an offering [minchah, gift-offering] to Hashem.  And Hevel also brought from the best of fhis flocks and from the fattest… (4:3-4)

The Sages pick up on the slight difference in the description of the two offerings.  Cain is described as bringing some of his agricultural produce.  The Sages interpret this as meaning “inferior produce,” as opposed to Hevel’s offering, which was the choicest of his animals.  They further explain that Cain’s reasoning was as follows: Gd is all-powerful and the whole creation belongs to Him (The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. Psalm 24), therefore He really doesn’t need my offering at all.  In that case, it doesn’t really matter what I offer Him – the very fact that I thought to make an offering at all should be sufficient.  Hevel, on the other hand, brought his choicest animals, reasoning that Gd’s needs were not primary in the relationship, since Gd has no needs.  Rather, it is our need to grow close to Gd that spurs us to bring offerings, and the better the offering, the more effective it is in drawing us close to Gd, for it involves us more intimately with the process.  Thus, Scripture says that Gd found Hevel’s offering more acceptable – reflecting the relative inner realities of the two brothers.

Rav Kook takes a somewhat different approach.  Rav Morrison summarizes:

Rav Kook suggested that the very fact that Cain, soon after this incident, would kill his own brother indicates that terrible evil was already lurking in Cain’s soul. … Bringing an offering to Gd under these circumstances is an abomination.  It only serves to amplify the power of evil.  The approach exemplified by Cain is one in which a person does not seek to purge himself from evil and immorality; rather he covers up inner evil with an outward appearance of holiness.  (Sapphire from the Land of Israel, p.23) (Emphasis mine)

Now a person’s actions come from his thoughts, and his thoughts bubble up from deep inside, from the infinite basis of our existence.  Unfortunately, the medium through which thoughts bubble up, namely our mind, is sometimes not a very clear channel, and the perfect nature of the thought as it emerges from the infinite within us can get twisted and perverted as it makes its way through the layers of our mind and out into speech or action.  We have all had the experience of being overly tired or overly stressed out and saying or doing things that we regret later, and that we never would have done had we been well-rested and thinking more clearly.

In Cain’s case, it is clear that the stress of Gd’s rejection of his offering twisted his thoughts terribly, but it is also clear that for him to have reasoned so falsely as to believe that it’s OK to bring Gd cheap gifts, he must already have been pretty twisted up inside.  Why that would be the case, I don’t think the text tells us, nor does Rav Kook, apparently, comment on that issue.  Rav Kook points out that the twisting and perversion of the thought process that we see in Cain can be a vicious cycle.  First an unacceptable offering, next step, murder.  The effects of the twisted thought is further twisting, which leads to more seriously erroneous thoughts and actions.  This positive feedback loop has the effect of amplifying the original perversion until even the unthinkable is now perfectly within reach. (Positive feedback simply means that the feedback takes the system farther in the same direction as the original stimulus that prompted the feedback – positive feedback loops, left to themselves without any damping or regulation, lead to instability in the system.)

From this perspective I think we can understand a number of issues in Torah.  For example, a blemished animal may not be offered to Gd in the Temple.  Why not?  According to our understanding, something that is not perfect, that is impure in some way, is not allowed to be brought into the area of holiness, because the imperfection will feed off the energy inherent in the holiness or holy place, but will pervert it and produce an evil influence, rather than a positive influence for the surroundings.  Another example: there are certain times when it is forbidden to study Torah.  I am writing this on the day after Tisha B’Av; I did not write yesterday because one is only allowed to study issues dealing with the destruction of the Temples on that day.  Why?  Tisha B’Av is a day when negative forces are ascendant, as evidenced by the fact that both Temples were destroyed on that day (plus other tragedies in Jewish history).  If we study Torah (or write drashes) at that time, we actually strengthen these negative forces.  This is of course the exact opposite of what we want to accomplish!

What is the solution?  Clearly the cycle of evil and perversion must be broken, and it can only be broken by contact with the good and the holy.  The task of the Jewish people is to lead the way to holiness through implementing Torah in the material world.  Rabbi Kook puts it eloquently:

The Jewish people are a sign that Divine light penetrates the lives of nations … [Holiness] is a treasure that is acquired through tenacious toil and self-sacrifice, and through the merit of generations who lovingly upheld this sacred charge.

The Sacks Hagaddah

We are again entering the season where we recite Borchi Nafshi, (Psalm 104) and Shir haMa’alot, (Psalms 120-134) during Shabbat Minchah.  And since this is the season for confessions, I once again confess my complete inadequacy when it comes to understanding, let alone commenting on or explaining, poetry.  However, a couple of years ago I got a Haggadah with a commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, then Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, The Haggadah also has 21 essays on various aspects of the Pesach holiday, and I would like to write on one each week in these months leading up to Pesach.  That will take us through the 17th of Adar, which will leave us just three Shabbatot prior to Pesach (which is itself on Shabbat this year).  The Haggadah is published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers,  ISBN: 978 965 301 653 8.

Essay 1: The Story of Stories

Even the most assimilated, non-observant Jews cling to two mitzvotbrit milah and the Passover Seder.  In the case  of the Seder, R. Sacks gives a touching analogy.  In 2000, he was invited to give a lecture at Windsor Castle, the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Europe, before the royal family.  He pointed out that if one has the good fortune to inherit such a castle, one is not merely inheriting a house, one is inheriting the history and traditions of a nation, and one must be cognizant that one must preserve and enhance that history, and its material expression, to future generations.

Since we Jews, as a people, have been forced to wander the face of the earth for the last 2000 years, we do not have impressive, ancient castles to bequeath to the future.  Rather, we have something much more precious – we have a traditiona of knowledge and understanding of life that grows out of our experience as a people and from Gd’s Revelation of His Torah to us.  That tradition holds that human life and history has a great purpose, namely the establishment of Gd’s sovereignty in the world.  When we re-enact the Exodus from Egypt every year at the Seder, we are committing ourselves anew to bringing the Redemption, that is, the perfection of the world, closer to reality.  Perhaps more important, we initiate our children into the chain of tradition, and bring them to understand and to commit to this great project that spans generations.  Even the one who doesn’t know how to ask is included!