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Parashat Bereshit 5778 — 10/14/2017

Parashat Bereshit 5778 — 10/14/2017

Bereishit 1:1 – 6:8

For this year’s drashes I found a wonderful volume of commentaries by Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508). As the title suggests, Abarbanel was of Iberian heritage, born in Lisbon. He died in Venice in 1508, after the expulsion of the Jewish people from Spain and Portugal. He came from a long line of Sages who were active both in Jewish scholarship and in the administration of the state, and was familiar with all of the arts and sciences of the West as well as the full gamut of Jewish law and philosophy. Although fully committed to the Divine origin and inerrancy of Scripture, Abarbanel had no qualms about asking penetrating questions on the passages that trouble us to this day, and indeed, on those that don’t trouble us, but probably should. I’m looking forward to going deeply into Abarbanel’s thinking, and I hope you will enjoy the ride with me. Fortunately, this year I have all 5 books of Torah in one volume of Abarbanel.

The book is Abarbanel on the Torah by R. Pinchas Kasnett, published by the Jewish Learning Library of Ohr Someach, ISBN 978-1-61465-418-6, Jerusalem, 2017.


And Gd regretted that He had made mankind on earth, and He was angry with the heart of mankind. (6:6)

This statement is troubling for two reasons. First, does Gd have emotions like His creatures? Does He get angry, or regretful, or disappointed? Second, how can Gd regret any of His actions? Did He do something wrong? Did He change His mind? “Darn, if I had only considered that possibility I never would have done it!”

In general when we describe Gd in anthropomorphic terms, we say we are describing Gd’s interaction with creation, but that Gd’s essence is essentially unknowable. Thus, if a monster storm dumps 50″ of rain on a major city, leaving it under water, flooding a million cars and rendering thousands of people homeless, then it certainly seems as if Gd is angry. Now we can locate many “natural” causes for the damage and destruction in Houston (I am writing this right after Harvey devastated the city) – climate change fuelled by the oil industry which has fuelled Houston’s growth, poor land-use planning that affected the ability of the soil to hold and drain water, etc. Nevertheless, it took a particular combination of events coming together to produce the unprecedented event. If we ascribe to the notion that nothing happens unless Gd wills it to happen (at least outside the realm of human free will) then Gd caused Harvey and its effects, and, were Gd a person, that would signal that He was very angry.

What about regret? Torah tells us that Gd does not change His mind (Bamidbar 23:19). We do find, however, that the prophet Yonah was concerned that Gd accepted repentance, and if he went to Nineveh and prophesied its destruction, and the people repented, Gd would accept their repentance and make a liar out of Yonah. So he tried to run away, only to be foiled by a storm and a “great fish.” Now we can get out of this problem by saying that Gd’s “promises” of retribution are always conditional – if the people repent, the retribution is averted. In fact, the Talmud states that this is always the case with prophecy – a negative prophecy can be averted by repentance (and the prophet is not thereby branded a “false prophet”), whereas a positive prophecy will always take place (and if it doesn’t then the prophet is branded a “false prophet”). In this case, there is no “regret” or changing of mind on Gd’s part – the outcome was structured into the prophecy from the outset.

Before I quote Abarbanel, I want to note that, like Ramchal, the very large body of Abarbanel’s original work (125 pages on the creation story of Chapter I alone!) was whittled down, translated and paraphrased by the editor of our volume (i.e. R. Kasnett). So citations from Abarbanel must be understood in this light.

An individual whose wickedness goes no further than his actions can hope that his behavior can be corrected. However, when a person is truly evil, his desires, motivations and thoughts are also rooted in evil. In this case there is no hope for correction. …

The result is that Gd “regretted” that He had made mankind on earth. The question that immediately arises is, What is the meaning of the words “on earth”? … Curiously, the Name of Gd that appears in this section is the four-letter Name that connoted the Gd of mercy.

The verse is telling us that mankind’s wickedness was due to the gross materialistic nature of the earth itself. Gd saw that the pure rational soul that He had imparted to mankind could no longer be connected to the polluted physical body that characterized mankind at this point. As a result, Gd decided to destroy these physical bodies, not out of hatred for their material dimension, but rather out of His love and concern for the needs of the rational soul. Hence the consistent use of the Name that connotes a “Gd of mercy,” even though Gd’s decision to destroy mankind appears anything but merciful.

There are several noteworthy points here. First, in Gd’s eyes the soul is the primary component of the human being, and the body is distinctly secondary. This should not be surprising – the material world is like the thin crust of solid earth that overlies a vast, dynamic ocean of spiritual existence. The soul is eternal, and was put in this body for two reasons – to perfect the material world, and in so doing become more perfect and expanded. When the soul is not doing its job properly, it becomes as it were polluted, attached to the body and to the material world. This is actually very painful for the soul – nowadays we call it mental illness. Thus Gd, in His great mercy, allowed all these souls to be freed from their bondage to a physical body. It seems cruel, because were a human being to kill off so many people, he would be considered a monster, like Hitler or Stalin or Mao. That is because we have a limited view of things; if our awareness were expanded to the point that we could see the world at least somewhat as Gd sees it, some of the apparent contradictions would disappear.

The second point has to do with Gd’s regret. If Gd is omniscient, surely He knew that mankind would become corrupted on earth and would have to be wiped out. Why then did He regret having made man (as a combination of Divine, eternal soul and transient, ephemeral, earthly body)? Abarbanel gives the example of a gardener who plants a tree, knowing full well that in a few years he will have to prune some of the branches. Does he regret having planted the tree? Does he regret needing to remove the branches? Perhaps from an outsider’s perspective, but from the gardener’s perspective, which encompasses the whole life cycle of the tree, certainly not!

The beautiful liturgical poem Anim Z’mirot has a line, They allegorized You, but not according to Your reality, and they portrayed You according to Your deeds. We are finite, human creatures. Even though our consciousness can comprehend the transcendent wholeness of life, we do so through a human nervous system. Our Sages tell us that there are 50 Gates of Wisdom, and that Moshe Rabbeinu passed through 49 of them. We are charged to do the same, or to come as close as we can, but we must humbly recognize that “a human being cannot see My Face and live.” We will always have an outsider’s perspective vis-à-vis Gd.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Simchat Torah

Why do we dance in the Synagogue on Simchat Torah?

When all the bricks are in place, then the bricks become a house but it is not until the house is lived in that it becomes a home.

On Simchat Torah, all the words of Torah have been recited and Torah is a house that we can live in but it is not until we actually live it, that we know Torah is our home, our Home. Dancing is a vital part of living and with our dancing we make Torah our Home.

Baruch HaShem