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Bereishit (Genesis) 5781Parshat Bereishit
In commenting on the narrative of creation the Rabbis in the Midrash tell two stories that at first sight may seem like fanciful myths but are in fact contain a deep philosophical understanding of the nature of the universe. They noted that while G-d commanded that fruit trees should bear fruit, the next verse merely states that the earth brought forth trees bearing fruit, omitting the word fruit. G-d, they postulated, commanded that the bark of the tree should also have the taste of its fruit, but the earth rebelled and only the fruit not the bark had the correct taste. Later on, they noted it states that G-d created the two great lights but then calls them a great light and a small light. They again posited that the sun and moon were meant to be the same size but the moon complained that this equality wouldn’t work, so G-d reduced the size of the moon. What are we to make of these stories? What message were our sages trying to convey to us? If we look at them carefully we see that they tell of an original plan for creation that went wrong. Ideally, a the body of a tree should faithfully reflect the fruit it bears, the two luminaries of day and night should be of equal size. Yet in reality this was not possible. The original Divine plan when it came into contact with physical reality had to adapt to the inherent imperfection of the material world. This is a process described in kabbalistic terminology as the ‘Breaking of the Vessels’. The world by its very nature is imperfect and couldn’t be otherwise. But there is also an important moral understanding behind this concept concerning the role of humanity. The world is created with imperfections in order for us to perfect it. We are deliberately placed in a flawed environment because it is our job to correct the flaws. That is part of the Divine wisdom behind the nature of the universe. Indeed, according to Jewish mystical thought, our ability and responsibility to repair the defects of creation extend beyond this world to the very structure of the universe. Thus what the Rabbis are telling us in these midrashim is that we should not be perturbed when we live in a world that seems to us to be not quite right, where we have to deal with epidemics and other such issues for example. That is the way the world is meant to be in order that we can have a role in healing it. So as we continue top face our current predicament the first chapter of the Torah teaches us not to be astounded at such occurrences, rather to understand that they exist precisely in order for us to overcome them.Parshat Noach
Because of the wickedness of humanity G-d resolves to bring a flood to destroy the world and begin again with Noah. The Torah in describing the degenerate state of human affairs uses two different words hamas and hashchata. The first is generally translated as violence and the second as corruption, so ‘humanity corrupted their way on the earth and the earth was filled with violence because of them’. The Rabbis generally saw hamas as referring to robbery and hashchata to sexual promiscuity. But if we examine the root meaning of these two words we can discover an indictment of the generation of the flood that is relevant for our own. Hamas actually means an uncontrolled desire for the possessions of others and the belief that you have the right to acquire them by any means. It is summed up in the statement of the Mishna ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’. In this world view I should have anything I want if I can obtain it, no matter what the price to others. Hashchata really means destruction or vandalism. It is the wanton destruction of the world around us as illustrated in the prohibition of the Torah to destroy fruit trees in war. Bal taschit then becomes a general prohibition on wantonly destroying anything. In this light we can see the true sin of the flood generation. They were consumed with an uncontrolled desire for acquisition and use of resources both material and human. This led to them totally disregarding the basic rights of others, whether animal or human. People’s possessions or their bodies were fair game if you were strong enough to use them to satisfy your desires. This in turn led to the destruction of society and nature inevitably leading to the complete destruction of the world in the environmental catastrophe of the flood. This may sound somewhat familiar. Our generation and those preceding have also had an unquenchable desire to use resources, both material and human, to create ever more wealth to satisfy our need for ever more possessions. We thus have depleted the natural world of its resources and led to the degradation of our own environment. Unregulated capitalistic exploitation has led to vast discrepancies of wealth, health and education, that threaten to tear about society and cause conflict between nations. All of this is inexorably leading to an environmental catastrophe from which no one will emerge the winner if anyone survives at all. The pursuit of hamas and hashchata in our generation threatens to lead to the same result as it did in the generation of the flood. The Rabbis say that Noah spent 120 years building the ark in order to warn his generation of the impending catastrophe, they did not listen and were swept into oblivion. We have far less than that time to change our ways before it is to late. Will we maybe, this time, take heed?Parshat lech L’cha
When examining the story of Abraham, his mission seems to contain an internal contradiction. On the one hand, he is told that he ‘through you all the families of the earth will be blessed’. On the other hand his family story is one of exclusion and selection. Ishmael and Esau are not included in this blessing. Abraham is told that his posterity will be continued through Isaac, not Ishmael, and Isaac blesses Jacob, not Esau, with the ‘blessing of Abraham’. I believe that the key to solving this paradox lies in a comment of Rashi on the very phrase ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed’. He states that while there are other interpretations the plain meaning is that a father will say to his son ‘be like Abraham’. The simple meaning of this is that he should follow in the ways of Abraham. The blessing of Abraham to the world is that they should follow his example and ‘engage in justice and charity’ as G-d describes Abraham’s activity. Thus the universal inheritance of Abraham is not the specific promises of progeny and land, which are reserved for his descendants through Isaac and Jacob but his ethical inheritance that is available to all who follow his path. Unfortunately, Ishmael and Esau misunderstood this point and thought they also had a right to the other inheritance of Abraham. Christianity and Islam, also made the same mistake. Not content with the ethical inheritance of Abraham, they sought to also take on the mantle of G-d’s election of people and land and thus replace the Jews. Not only did this lead to the denigration of and the persecution of, G-d’s actual chosen people but the combination of a universalist outlook with the idea of particular election led to untold tragedy. This combination of universalism and particularism led to the idea of only one true religion, resulting in intolerance, persecution and genocide. In seeking to succeed to the particular inheritance of Abraham reserved for his actual descendants, Christianity and Islam actually forfeited in many ways the universalist inheritance of justice and charity and in the name of ‘Abraham’s’ religion, perpetuated injustice and cruelty. Thus the illegitimate attempt to supersede the Jews as the inheritors of Abraham, led to the practical abandonment of much of the his ethical inheritance. Only, when Christianity and Islam renounce their claims to the particularistic inheritance of Abraham can they truly embrace his universal heritage and themselves truly become a blessing to the world.