Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshas Bereishis 5770- Justifications…

we have just come through Sukkot and Simchat Torah and start anew the annual cycle of torah readings.  This week we have possibly the most famous sentence in the Torah, the one that begins it all:

 בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱ־לֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ:In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. (Translation from online Judaica Press Tanakh at http://www.chabad.org)

following from this, we have the sequence of creation- a sequence that seems to stir contoversy over exactly how literal it should be- from the purely literal stance of the creationists, to the purely scientific stance that this first chapter alone disqualifies the book since it flies so hard on the face of scientific reality.  Of course, there are many people who find ways to get the science and the narrative here to relate to each other- Gerald Schroeder in “Genesis and the Big Bang” does an excellent job of that.

However, one wonders- why does the Torah start with such controversy? Rashi raises the question of why to start here- stating in the name of his father Rabbi Yitzchak thta it was necessary in order that the nations of the world could not afterwards state that the Jews were thieves- since if G-d is the creator and owner of the world, he has the right to dictate who should live where. 

At one level this makes sense- after all, don’t we see the exact issue being played out now in Israel?  Even with the fact that Israel is a country proclaimed by international law by the United Nations, you still get Palestinian radicals claiming that Israel is not the country that the Torah refers to, that the Temple mount is not where the Temple stood?  In essence, it seems that the Torah, written as a document for Jews is only truly believed by them- the Christians reinterpret and alter its meaning to suit their agenda, the Muslims claim it is corrupted whenever it doesn’t say what they want.  Given this, we cannot hold it up as proof of anything- the other nations of the world reject it!

Perhaps, the issue isn’t so much as having to justify it to others, but to get us to understand that ourselves.  We have the unfortunate situation where we see Jews attacking other Jews for political gain, to ingratiate themselves with others- whether it is the Norman Finkelstein’s of the world whose anti-semitic hype against the Jews just gathers steam as he is ever more cut off from the Jewish community- or a formally well regarded jurist being the titular head of yet another United nations sponsored anti-Israel witch hunt.  The outcome of the probe by Richard Goldstone was essentially written before he ever set foot in Israel, the terms of his mandate ensured it- yet he turned away from that and worried more about his image and international stature than any truth.

That is what starting the Torah at this point is telling us: it may be controversial- it may force us to have to study such texts in depth, struggle to reconcile the surface literal level with scientific reality- but it can be done.  Gerald Schroeder could do it with physics, Ramban could do it with far less understanding of modern science, but even the science of his day, mixed in with knowledge of the hidden midrashic and Kabbalsitic meanings, he derived lessons that could reconcile this passage to science.  It did not come easy to either man- for both it required an in depth knowledge of muliple areas of learning involving years of study and a passion for truth- yet we have their writings to show us that it can be done.

Unfortunately, the modern experience shows us that this delving for truth is too rare- too many people are willing to look at a surface image and make rash statements without regard for the truth.  Why did G-d start the Torah here?  So we could not be accussed of having stolen property form other nations- but this message is not just for the other nations, but it is for us as well.  For only when Jews realise that they have as much rights as everybody else- as much of a right to exist, live and be happy as everybody else and stop apologising for existing; for daring to be succesful, for daring to be happy and to protecting ourselves, can we truly be said to understand the message of Bereishis.

note:  As always comments, corrections and discussion are encouraged

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October 15, 2009 - Posted by | Current affairs, Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , , , ,

26 Comments »

  1. Hi,

    I found your site from a rather unlikely source (NaNoWriMo).

    I’m also a halachik Jew from Johannesburg. I found this fascinating to read although I agree with the main principle disagree with the methodology of the article somewhat.

    I’m not sure if you know of Rav Gedaliah Nadel. He was a talmid of the Chazon Ish, and was a rather great scholar of Torah. He was in fact so great that R’ Kanievsky sent his children to learn by him.

    Posthumously, a book was published based on audio recordings from him that’s available in pdf form from Wikipedia’s hebrew page about him. In it he explains the creation according to science, and noticeably according to Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is quite different to Schroeder’s interpretation though. Or the Ramban’s for that matter, although the Ramban’s is allegorical in and of itself.

    My main point is that I believe the correct way to view Ma’aseh Bereishis is as something that the human cannot comprehend completely. One can attempt to approach a truth, but no man can understand the ways of Hashem.

    The way I see it, as the mishna says, one is prohibited from expounding on Ma’aseh Bereishit with 2 or more people. This is because of the depth of the concepts and our inability to fully understand it. We need to try to understand what the allegory of Bereishis is like the Ramban did, but we should never think that we totally understand the acts of Hashem

    Have a great one!
    PS. If you want to add me over on NaNo, I’m Master_Yoda

    Comment by Yehuda | October 30, 2009 | Reply

    • Shalom and Shavuah Tov

      Nice to know there are other mad yiddin in Jo’burg doing nanowrimo (for those wondering what this is- join in the fun! Its an annual challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 1 month. No prizes, no judges- just a self challenge http://www.nanowrimo.org) .

      To the more serious comments: Ma’aseh bereishis is definitely something beyond the comprehension of humans. The Mishnah you quote is from daf 11b of masechta Chagigah is expounded on in the pages following (I think it is directly addressed on daf 12b though its a while since I studied the masechta so I might be off). Even there, it has some serious qualifiers as to whom is allowed to study. An interesting commentary by Rashi on this is that maaseh bereishis refers to the secrets of the earth, and maaseh hamerkavah to the sercets of the heavens.

      When it comes to expounding it- there is an interesting phenomenon- you find various Midrashim, Ramban, Kli Yakar and various others writing on the topic but it would seem that the Mishnah seems to forbid this kind of public exposition. A commentary on the gemorrah here that sheds some light states the reason that expounding it to more than one student at a time, is that the teacher needs to make sure the person listening to them is paying full attention and will listen fully to the teacher. In a small group of three students, one will listen and the other two will talk between themselves and not learn fully. However, a public lecture or book, where there is not the normal give and take of a lesson and thus no debate, people will listen to the lecturer the full time and thus it can be expoubded on to a certain level. Thus you find Ramban expounds on some of his explanations when he writes his peirush on the Torah to a point where it is acceptable- but stops and will often state things like “beyond this point there is something for those who know” or “a great lesson can be learnt from this by the wise”. Extremely fustrating for those of us who do not know and aren’t amongst the wise- but understandable in light of the Talmudic injunction on how this should be taught.

      When it comes to Rabbi Nadel’s book, as I understood it, it is fairly controversial with some charging that it does not accurately reflect his views and should not be read. I’ll discuss it with some Rabbonim and get an idea if I should or should not read it- I have so much to study anyway that if it is controversial and questionable, then it goes to the bottom of the pile which means I may reach it some time after I retire LOL

      Comment by marcl1969 | October 31, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hi allonyoav just dropping by to pay a visit I am Moshiach now at yahoo Q/A

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | October 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. By the way, good shabbos to you and your family.

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | October 30, 2009 | Reply

    • Shavua Tov and welcome here. Just a heads up- don’t post misisonary material here- it will not be seen as everything is held for moderation before being available for public viewing and I remove any and all missionary material, links to misisonary sites and links to business sites- be they in the body of a comment or under an userid.

      Comment by marcl1969 | October 31, 2009 | Reply

      • Don’t worry you won’t have that problem with me, unless you want to get into a related topic and then ofcourse since it is your blog site it will be at your discresion. However I did place my advertising website because you do have a bar stating to place a website link. If you don’t want me to place it it will be fine no problem.

        Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 1, 2009 | Reply

  5. I heard something a little different from what Yehuda posted above I heard this from a Rabbi Named Rabbi Shlomo D Lipsker at the Bal-harbor shul in Miamibeach, Florida. He said ” No one should try to dwell on things that happened leefney maasey Bereishit since there was nothing but darkness upon the earth or the face of the deep as the text in Bereishit says.

    וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.

    Just mentioning a lecture I heard from the aformentioned source. Hope to see what your or Yehuda have to say.

    Avraham.

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 2, 2009 | Reply

    • There is actually no disagreement amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim on that- all agree that we cannot discuss what came before Ma’aser Bereishis. There is a Midrash that states that the Torah starts with the letter ב to hint at this- it is closed on three sides hinting at the prohibition we should not inquire as to what came before (i.e. what occurred before ma’aser bereishis), what lies on top (i.e. what is above the head of G-d in the vision of the merkavah (divine chariot)), what lies below (i.e. what is beneath the arms of G-d in the vision of the merkavah).

      However, their is discussion as to exactly what was created- this comes form the fact that the grammar is interpreted as to state that the events in the Torah are part of the initial creation and not necessarily the first events of the creation. In this regard there is another midrash that lists things created BEFORE the events in the Torah, but still part of the maaser Bereishis: The Torah, the Kisei Hakavod, The third temple, the names of the avot, the name of mashiach (I think there are others but I don’t have Midrash rabbah handy)

      As such, the peirsuhim on this verse tend to look at these issues, and anything they discuss would fall into the understanding of it being part of the maaser Bereishis even though they fall before the creation of the heavens and earth; they do not delve into what may have come before due to the prohibition to do so.

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 3, 2009 | Reply

  6. Would the mashiach in his 70 levels of K’dusha be one that could expound on these issues before creation or does this rule apply to all of us and if he can what talmudic refferance can I find this at?

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 3, 2009 | Reply

    • 70 levels of Kedushah? I have never read or seen such a concept, do you have a source for that?

      Generally there are seen to be 49 levels of Kedushah- thus the 49 days of the omer and the reference to how each of the sefirot are related to the others to contemplate on each day. Generally the 50th level is seen as the level of G-d, and a level unattainable for any other being- natural or supernatural.

      As for the rules regarding studying Ma’aser Bereishis and the Merkavah, they are in the takmud masechta Chagigah starting on daf 11b and goiing through to daf 14b

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 3, 2009 | Reply

  7. Humm sorry lol yes I meant 49 you’re correct 70 was typing in a hurry and thinking about something else not related. I don’t have that volume though, I’m going to have to purchace it thanks for directing me to it.

    Quick question though, does this mean that tractate masechta Chaggigah has added midrash by rabbanum on Sh’vuos?

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 3, 2009 | Reply

    • Sorry I didn’t approve this sooner- I thoght I had!

      Teh Talmud in masechta Chagigah discusses the issues around studying the maaseh Bereishis and Merkavah, and gives a few examples. it is where the famous stoty of Rabbi Akivah and his disciples come from. However, there is not that many explicit midrashim or explanations on either. Their is a discussion on the seven levels of shamayim and elsewhere a discussion on the angels of the Merkavah- but it is all fairly high level and without knowing the concepts behind it, it doesn’t delve into details that would be in the realm of sod.

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 11, 2009 | Reply

  8. This tractate sounds fascinating. I’m going to try aquiring it soon. Thanks again.

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 11, 2009 | Reply

    • It is an interestig masechta, but this info is only around 5 dafs and not the major focus of the masechta

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 11, 2009 | Reply

  9. I would like your comment to ensure I’m on the right track here. Upon examining the question of why begin the Torah in Bereishit instead of Mt Sinai for instence. Can it also mean to say that a jew who has lost his or her identity is on a journey towards Mt. Sinai?

    Perhaps the counting of the omer till Sh’vous doesn’t illustrate this already? If your reply is yes, then if our identity is based within the Torah then what could be said before the giving of the Torah? “Hypathetically speaking”.

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 13, 2009 | Reply

    • Its an interesting comparison. Jews who have lost their identity and are returning to Yiddishkeit are a frequent modern phenomenon. The Baal teshuvah movement is probably larger and stronger than at any other time in history- even as we see th eopposite end of the spectrum, the asismilation intot he surrounding culture, growing rapidly, especially in the liberal movements.

      In a way it could be said that the chozeret b’teshuvah are on a journey to Hat Sinai- but in the same way we can say that every Jew is on that journey. We are told to treat everyday as if it were the day we received the Torah, as if it were somthing fresh and as precious as something brand new to us. Similarly, none of us are perfect nor at the height so of spirituality that Bnei Yisrael achieved at Har Sinai. All of us need to wok on our spirituality, improve ourselves and work towards achieving the spirituality represented by matan Torah.

      Even before the giving of the Torah- we had the Torah. we see this in various places. teh meforshim state that the Avot all adhered to the Torah when living in Eretz Yisrael. Even Lot adhered to the Torah in Eretz Yisrael- Ramban comments that the reason he served matzot to the angels when they come to him Sodom because it was Pesach! We also have the midrash that states that when the Jews were tricked into slavery by volunteering for public works programmes by Pharoah (and then not being allowet to unvolunteer themselves!), the tribe of Levi were not enslaved since they stayed out of it as they were busy studying Torah. As such, even from the beginning the Jews had the Torah- they were not required to keep it (the Avot voluntarily kept it in Eretz Yisrael and Yosef kept it even in Egypt), and studied it, even before they were required to obseve and keep the mitzvot.

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  10. Are you implying that Lot was a Navi? Are you saying he had the foresight to know that peasach was to be celebrated in the month nissan?

    The only referance that I know the Torah declares someone a prophet was Avraham abbeinu I’ve never heard a mention of Lot being one although I might have overlooked this.

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 13, 2009 | Reply

    • Lot need not necesarily have known this for himself- he may have learnt this from Avraham. we do know that he was able to see the angels even though the people of sodom could not (Ramban points this out from the fact that the door was opened but the people of Sodom asked who he was talking to- they could hear the voices but not see the angels.) However, ramban also points out with Hagar that she saw an angel but is not a prophetess and states that an angel can be seen by an ordinary person if it is necessary for their task.

      I have never seen Lot referred to as a prophet, as such he probably just learned the correct behaviour from Avraham.

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  11. Yes ok I understand, this seems a bit interesting though because it sounds almost as if the nefesh of a navi can be transferable or atleast it sounds something like smichas.

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 13, 2009 | Reply

  12. I should’ve continue to address my comments in the same post, sorry bout that. Anyways, I was implying about Lot’s learning from his cusin Avraham. Could this be an accurate assumption?

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 13, 2009 | Reply

    • I would think it is accurate to believe that Lot learnt from Avraham. I don’t know of any sources off hand to corroborate that, but the only way for Lot to have known about the Torah and to have observed the commandments is through Avraham as he was not a prophet.

      As for the concept of the navi’s soul being transferrable- well, not while he was alive. But the concept of reincarnation is there (the Yom Kippur machzor has the story of the 10 martyrs which is essentially about reincarnation though it juxtaposes the deaths of sages from various eras as these 10 were not all alive at the same time). There is a concept that being a navi involved a lot of preparation and study and may have had a form of smichah- but I have only heard this second hand and don’t know the source for this claim.

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 15, 2009 | Reply

  13. Hey everyone just wanna say hello and introduce myself!

    Comment by glillseable | November 16, 2009 | Reply

  14. Yeshikoach

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 17, 2009 | Reply

  15. Good shabbos

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | November 20, 2009 | Reply

    • Shavua tov

      Comment by marcl1969 | November 23, 2009 | Reply


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