Monday, October 31, 2011

Bereshit (Wanderings)

Introduction: Wandering the Highways and Byways of Torah

I deliberated for some time as to what topic to choose for this year. Truth be told, I even considered taking a “sabbatical” from writing this year, as there are many pressing personal tasks I have delayed for far too long which I need to do, and at times the time spent in writing this sheet requires time that, while deeply enjoyable and rewarding, I cannot always afford. This thought was reinforced when I realized that the one major genre of Jewish literature that I have not treated in years past is that of classical (i.e., medieval) Biblical exegesis—parshanut ha-miqra—a topic in many ways more difficult and complex than any of those I have treated thus far. It seemed to me that, at least for this year, it would demand far more time than I have available, involving intensive study even before writing one word. This is particularly so in that one of the central figure ins parshanut (apart from Rashi, whom I have already treated after a fashion [see Year VIII: 2006–07], whose writing is seemingly simple—I would add, deceptively so), to whom I would doubtless devote much of my attention and energy, is Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nahman, or Moses Nahmanides, 1194-1270). Ramban’s entire approach is dialectical and polemical: he almost always begins by quoting some other commentator, usually Rashi, and then demonstrating why the latter’s interpretation is wrong, and then proposing an alternative reading of the given verse or section. Hopefully (bli neder), if the Almighty gives me continued strength, I will undertake this project in 5773 (2012-13).

But I could not see giving up Hitzei Yehonatan and disappointing my devoted readers. I thus decided this year to write “free–style”—without any preconceived limitation or specific topic or genre. Hence the title: “Wanderings the Highways and Byways of Torah,” suggesting no specific agenda, but a kind of free roving over the terrain of Torah. This also provides an opportunity to tie up certain loose ends—zenavot, or “tails,” as they’re called in Hebrew. For example, I would like to discuss treat certain psalms which seem important to me, which I did not get to during the year I wrote about Tehillim (Year VI: 2004–05). I will no doubt return now and then to the words of Rashi or to Aggadot Hazal which I have not yet examined, or simply to the peshat of the parashah. And, after Pesah, during the spring and summer months, I hope to return to Pirkei Avot, about which I have written in the past, but in helter-skelter, unsystematic fashion. In addition, there are a number of special essays which I have not yet brought to fruition, which I would like to share with readers once completed. These include a major essay on Individualism (a kind of summation of this past year’s topic); thoughts on Orthodoxy; Zohar and the Eternal Feminine; Reflections Upon Rereading Richard Rubenstein; and the follow-up to what I wrote earlier about Torat Hamelekh.

Many readers have suggested that I publish some of my writings in book form. This idea is something which appeals to me and which I would like to do, if possible. I already have a scheme as to how to organize these writings, involving multiple volumes; all that I really need is time and, at a later stage, money.

Speaking of money: I have always believed deeply in Torah Lishmah—that, insofar as possible, the Torah must be studied and taught without any thought of material reward, but for its own sake. Rambam’s declaration (an extreme minority view, certainly in today’s religious world) that those who study Torah without working, in the expectation of communal support—i.e., the kollel system—ultimately profane God’s name, resonates deeply with me. I have never studied in a kollel or lived off study stipends; I have never asked for money for sharing my insights in Torah. But, increasingly, I see the practical difficulty to this approach in today’s world. Hence, I would ask whoever can do so to contribute any sum, large or small (recommended minimum: US $20 or NIS 75 per year), to enable me to continue writing Hitzei Yehonatan and to engage in my other writing and pre–publication activity. (Re the above: I would consider this as partial reimbursement for the time invested in HY, that might otherwise have been spent for remunerative professional work.) If anyone knows of potential patrons for this project, I would appreciate their help; similar, if anyone wishes to dedicate an issue of HY to the memory of a loved one, they may do so. Concerning all these matters, please contact me for details at my email address.

In the Beginning

“In the Beginning.” When the King conceived ordaining [or: in the beginning, in the King’s wisdom], he engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark [or: spark of darkness] flashed within the concealed of the concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. — Zohar, Parshat Bereshit, I.15a. Translation from Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah, p. 52.

These words, with which the text of Sefer ha-Zohar properly begins, are deeply evocative of the mystery of Creation. The important thing about this chapter is not, as the Creationists have it, whether it is to be read as a literal description of origins, nor the pros and cons of Darwinsim, nor whether the universe is 5772 or 15,000,000,000 years old (even if these disparate views can somehow be reconciled through clever mathematical sleight-of-hand). The perennial question elicited by the beginning of Genesis is: why is there Being at all? A. J. Heschel once said that the basic religious emotion is wonder, what he called “radical astonishment.” Knowledge of God begins with a certain sense of childlike amazement at the fact that this beautiful world, with all its diverse species and vistas and phenomena, and all the vast, nearly infinite space beyond it, exists at all, rather than there being nothingness. Beyond that, the message of Genesis 1 from verse 2 on is that there is order rather than chaos (symbolized by the primordial waters); the Six Days are paradigms for God ordering the world from chaos….

The First Sin

A few brief thoughts about the story of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden—one of the most important and suggestive stories in the entire Torah. Following the mystery and wonder of Being, the central question posed here is: What is Man? What is the meaning of life as a human being? What are we to do with the ambiguities, ambivalences, and antinomies with which we live?

I see a line connecting the notion of man dominating the rest of Creation (1:28b); the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; the disruption the idyllic relations between man and woman as a result of the sin, expressed in the curse addressed to Eve, “Your desire shall be towards your man, and he shall rule over you” (3:16); and God’s words to the angry and frustrated Kain, foreshadowing his murder of Abel, “If you do good, you shall be uplifted; but if not, sin crouches at the door, and its desire is to you, but you may [or: must] rule over it” (4:7). Kain is confronted with moral choices, indeed, with two chances to improve himself—already now, when he is angry and frustrated; and even if he submits to Sin—the violent, even murderous impulse lying within every person, here personified as a wild beast lying in wait to pounce on him—he may yet succeed in taming and dominating him.

Two leitmotifs here: the intellect, the crowning glory of the human species, is also a potential pitfall, a quality with its own innate dangers. The mind, ever active, is filled with curiosity, with the desire to know (the woman saw that the fruit was not only good to eat and attractive in appearance, but also that the promise of knowledge which it offers is somehow “pleasant”: 3:6). It also provides the ability to dominate—for human beings to dominate all of nature, and of man to dominate woman. Together with that, we are also filled with inchoate desires and lusts, which drive us to action at least as much as does our intellect: the woman’s desire for her husband, notwithstanding the inevitable domination that comes in its wake; and the sin–demon lurking by the gate, that caused Kain to smite his brother.

There are those thinkers—first and foremost one of the wisest and greatest Jews ever, R. Moses Maimonides—who suggest that, if only we could learn to give the intellect a final and conclusive victory over the inchoate elements in our nature—our desires, lusts and instincts, our imagination, our emotions—all would be well with us. Then we will become a kingdom of wise philosophers who will spend our time contemplating the Godhead. But somehow, with all due respect to the Great Eagle, besides whom I am like a puny ant, I don’t think it’s going to happen—not in this world, and not with this human species. (And for those who are in doubt on this point: go see the award–winning film, “Footnote,” about the scholars of Jerusalem).

The Torah of Beginnings

Even more than Rosh Hashanah, I see Shabbat Bereshit as the real beginning of the year—that is, the effective beginning of the year made up of ordinary days and weeks, during which we get up, go to work, come home, eat, spend time with family, sleep, have Shabbat once a week, and face the challenge of somehow finding time and mental room to fit in Torah and prayer and other mitzvot—not to mention dealing with all the situations of real life in an ethical and menshlikh fashion. The festivals are a sort of “time out,” a special, elevated kind of time, during which we are as much preoccupied with preparation and observance of the various rituals and celebrations as we are with “ordinary” concerns. The real beginning of the latter only comes with Parshat Bereshit.

It was in this light I wanted to preset a few teachings from the very first page of a wonderful little Hasidic book, Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik by R Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, but due to constraints of both time and space I will postpone that until next week.

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for October 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.


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