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Parashat Bereshit 5776 — 10/07/2015

Parashat Bereshit 5776 — 10/07/2015

Gen 1:1 – 6:8

I am learning more and more to trust in Divine Providence.  As we approached the end of 5775, I had still not settled on a source for my drashes this year, and I was getting nervous enough to consider writing about the Haftarah each week.  In the nick of time, I received an email from Koren that R. Adin Steinsaltz’s new book, Talks on the Parasha, has just been released (ISBN 978-1-59264-418-6,  R. Steinsaltz, among his many accomplishments, is the author of a massive translation/elucidation/commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, being issued in installments by Koren.  I immediately ordered the book, and after reading the first two talks I am sure you will not be disappointed in what R. Steinsaltz has to say.  I make no such guarantees about what I have to say.

And… since I have gotten started thinking along those lines, I will take the opportunity to write a little something on the Haftarah each week.  The difficulty I have with the Haftarah is that it is, in most cases, written in very beautiful, poetic language; and I have enough trouble understanding English poetry.  Hopefully with a good translation I can write something sensible each week.

There was no man to till the soil (2:5)

What is a person’s purpose in this world? … Man is charged with preserving the world.  He is the one who must water the trees  and ensure that nothing is damaged. … Man is charged with a greater mission, namely, “which Gd created to do.”

    When Gd creates the world, He intentionally leaves things in an inccomplete state.  It is as if He says, “Look, I made the pattern, but I left you several things to complete on your own.”   This introduces man’s requirement “to do” – to take action, to become a partner, as it were, in the Creation.  This is part of our essence as human beings. (pp 5-6)

Rashi famously opens his commentary on Torah with the Midrashic question, “Why did Gd begin Torah with Creation; it should begin with the first mitzvah given to Israel,” which is all the way in Parashat Bo, the third parashah in the second Book of Torah.  (Of course, then we would have only 4 books of Torah and the song Echad Mi Yode’a would be messed up, not to mention that we wouldn’t know anything about the 3 Avot and the 4 Imahot!).  Of course, one answer is that Torah is more than just a book of laws.  It also deals with the deepest questions of existence – what is the nature of existence in general, and of our existence in particular?

R. Steinsaltz tackles the issue head-on.  When Gd created the world, He did not create it perfect, at least not from our point of view.  He created it to be perfected, and it can only be perfected by beings with a nervous system supple and complex enough to know the difference between perfect and imperfect.  That would be us.  Why is this necessary?

The essence of being able to perfect the world is that one must be able to make choices.  We have come to know and appreciate that animals have much greater capabilities for reason, communication and emotion than we previously thought, but nevertheless, their ability does not approach that of human beings.  We don’t find animals producing works of art or literature, nor do they appear to have the ability to pray.  We still believe, in general, that animals are guided mostly by instinct – even a loving family dog will sometimes get triggered to do something harmful, as learned behavior is overcome by an instinctual reaction.  As someone who has engaged in a lifelong struggle with anger, I can attest that this kind of instinctual behavior persists in humans too.  Humans, however, can engage in a lifelong struggle to overcome these reactions, and sometimes can achieve a measure of success.  More to the point, humans can recognize that it is important to overcome our reactions, whether instinctual or learned, and instead respond to every situation as it is, rather than as it appears to be at first glance.

This freedom to choose gives us the ability, as R. Steinsaltz notes, to become Gd’s partner in Creation, and this gives our actions cosmic significance.  And R. Steinsaltz goes on to state that this is “part of our essence as human being.”  Without getting into a discussion over what R. Steinsaltz means by “a part” (he may have just been speaking colloquially), I am going to give my take on the idea that action is only a part of what it is to be human.  From here on, please do not quote anything here in R. Steinsaltz’s name!

As we have discussed in these essays, there is a transcendental, infinite value that underlies all creation.  Since the transcendent is a level that is beyond all boundaries, there is no distinction of time or space, and therefore there can be no change or activity at that level.  Indeed, when one has an experience of the transcendent, it is experienced as pure silence.

This of course is the exact opposite of activity, yet it is part and parcel of ourselves – indeed, since it is unchanging, I think we could say that it is more essential to our identity than all the activity of our individual personality which it underlies.  In Biblical terms, we have a body, which is our active, physical component, and a soul, which is the silent, underlying component, “the piece of the Divine [in us] from Above.”  On the macroscopic level of course, all of creation is the active part, while the transcendental level of life, the same one, unified transcendental level, is the silent basis of all this activity.

I would like to suggest that as much as our activity is meant to perfect the world, our activity in the world is also the mechanism by which we perfect ourselves.  In fact, I think we can view perfecting the world and perfecting ourselves as two sides of the same coin.  For one thing, in order to perfect the world, we really need to perfect ourselves.  Otherwise our activity may not be in the direction of perfecting the world at all.  As much as we try to fix something, if our vision is limited to a part of reality, we may break something else, something that may be out of our vision.  If you don’t know how to solve a Rubik’s Cube you know exactly what I mean.

The solution to this problem is that we must establish our awareness so that our vision is unrestricted, and that means having our awareness on the transcendental level, as that level is beyond all boundaries and restrictions.  When we have stationed our awareness in the transcendent, then we can act most effectively in our environment.  When we identify ourselves with the transcendental value of our personality, then the petty boundaries of the physical world do not hold enough delight to divert us from making the correct moral choices.  And making the correct moral choices means infusing more of the perfection of the transcendent into creation, so that it more perfectly reflects the the perfection of the Creator.

Haftarah, Yeshayah 42:5 – 42:10

I, Gd, have called you in righteousness.  I took you by the hand and kept you; I made you into a covenant of the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness out of prison.  (42:6-7)

Our charge as a people is to be a “light unto the nations,” as Isaiah says (many of these expressions come from Isaiah, as do the majority of the Haftarot in the yearly cycle).  What does it mean to be “a light unto the nations”?  Certainly on the surface level it means setting an example of honesty and righteousness, of modesty and humility – in short, sanctifying Gd’s Name, since we are known as Gd’s people.  I think Isaiah is telling us that we have to teach the world about the reality of life – we have to open eyes that are blind to the underlying transcendental value of life, and to bring the prisoners of the physical world out into the eternal light of pure spiritual existence.  We can teach by precept and we can teach by example.  Truly, in order to teach by precept, we have to be teaching by example as well, otherwise our words are, to whatever extent, belied by our actions.  Therefore, the first thing we have to do as the “chosen people” is to establish our awareness on the transcendental level, beyond any considerations of the flesh, beyond imperfection, beyond limitations, beyond agendas.  When we act from that level, we will truly be fulfilling the whole purpose of action.