Fatal Error Irrevocably Impacts History
ויצו ה’ אלקים על האדם לאמר מכל עץ הגן אכל תאכל: ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו
“And the Lord G-d commanded man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’” (Bereishit 2:16-17)
This parsha is said to be the most fundamental of all Torah Portions. Just as every physical trait a person has is encoded in his DNA at the moment of conception, so too, the summation of the human experience is encoded in this week’s parsha, Bereishit. One could spend an entire year studying Bereishit and its copious commentary, and still not finish even a fraction of what it contains. In it we find; Creation, the first man and woman, the first sin, the first repentance, the first murder, the first degeneration of society as a whole, and much more. But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this parsha is the first sin.
G-d put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and gave them everything they could possibly need (it was always spring weather, food grew ready to be eaten on trees, and there was no sickness…). G-d spoke to them (an incredible experience in its own right), and requested only one thing of them: Don’t eat from the fruit of one tree. Yet, before their first day was over, they disobeyed G-d! How can we understand this original error which impacted the world more fundamentally than any other single action in history?
One way to understand Adam’s mistake is to realize that he thought he knew a better way to serve G-d, even though G-d indicated otherwise. Adam felt that to serve G-d simply by not eating a single species of fruit, in a place where G-d’s presence was palpable, was not the most he could do. Adam knew that if he ate from the fruit of the tree, it would be like turning off a celestial light switch, and G-d’s presence in the world would become much more hidden as a result of sin which had entered the universe. Certain that he was capable of serving G-d in a world shrouded with darkness and confident that it would result in a far greater glorification of G-d, Adam ate the forbidden fruit.
But this was a colossal error, one that continues to challenge us until today! The truth is that when a person thinks like that, he is using his ego and believing that he knows better than G-d. G-d said serve me by doing X, but I say that I can serve you better by doing Y. The truth is that there can be no greater service of G-d than doing exactly what He asks from us!
This notion is unfortunately still prevalent today. People often tell themselves that G-d didn’t really mean that they should do everything He asked of us in the Torah, or that if He would see the modern world, He would certainly cancel a number of the “outdated” mitzvot. They feel like they can decipher what He really wants of them. The truth is that if we want to serve G-d, and not ourselves, we have to lower our ego, trust that He knows best, and realize that the best way to serve Him is to follow what He asks, not what we think He should have asked! If we do that, we will be able to reverse the effects of the primordial sin and bring the world back to the utopia it was before sin arrived on the scene!
“Worm Virus” Disrupts Historic Plan for Humanity
כי עשית זאת ארור אתה מכל הבהמה ומכל חית השדה על גחנך תלך ועפר תאכל כל־ימי חייך
“Because you have done this, accursed are you beyond all the cattle and beyond all the beasts of the field; upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life.” (Bereishit 3:14)
In this week’s portion, Bereishit, the Torah recounts the first sin in history: Adam and Eve, enticed by the serpent, ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The act was a direct transgression of G-d’s command not to eat of that tree. (Bereishit 3:1-6)
In response, each player was punished with a curse: The serpent was forced to crawl on the ground and survive by eating dust; Eve would suffer during childbirth and be subservient to Adam; and Adam would find the ground cursed in his efforts to cultivate it for food – “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken…” (Bereishit 3:14-19)
Of the three parties in this sin, the one who seemed to bear the most guilt was the serpent, who instigated the chain of events that followed. Logically, it would be appropriate for the serpent to receive the most severe punishment. To be sure, having to crawl on the ground instead of being able to walk is painful. However, when it comes to being forced to eat dust, a different picture emerges. From the outside, this seems pretty Draconian. Yet, upon further reflection, it actually appears to be a blessing! If the serpent’s diet is to consist of dust, then his “curse” is that he will never lack food! Who would not want a curse like that? Other animals have to forage for berries or hunt prey in order to survive, while the serpent needed do nothing more than take a bite out of the ground wherever he would be.
Reflecting on this turn of events, the Talmud draws a distinction between the conduct of G-d and human beings. When a person becomes enraged at someone else, he will do everything in his power to hurt the other individual, even trying to ruin his livelihood. Yet when G-d punished the serpent, He granted it an endless source of sustenance. (Yoma,75A)
How is this fitting punishment for the instigator of the primordial sin of mankind?
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the founder of the Gerer Chassidic dynasty (Poland, 1799-1866), explains that this punishment is actually the most severe punishment possible. The reason is that by giving the serpent all the food he would ever need, G-d was essentially declaring His intention never to have anything to do with the serpent again.
Every other creature – and certainly mankind – must turn to G-d for sustenance.
The serpent has no need to do so, and thus no reason to cultivate a special relationship with his Creator. That, states Rabbi Alter, is indeed the greatest punishment of all. The serpent tried to alienate Adam and Eve from G-d; in response, G-d alienated Himself from the serpent.
On the other hand, Adam and Eve were given challenges that would compel them to reach out to G-d in order to bridge the gap they had created through their actions. Thus, even while punishing Adam and Eve, G-d left the door open to repairing the relationship. Indeed, Adam became the author of the first prayer, which is recorded in Psalm 92, “A song for the day of Shabbat.” The Hebrew can also be translated as “A song for the day of returning…”
Beginning with Adam, and throughout history, people have gained enormous strength from our ability to reach out to G-d through prayer in moments of challenge as well as moments of happiness.
The following anecdote illustrates this point: During World War II, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, one of American Jewry’s foremost religious leaders, worked tirelessly on behalf of his brethren in Europe, and was able to save thousands of lives. After the war, he continued in his work, helping the thousands of Jews in DP camps and liberated concentration camps all over Europe.
Shortly after its liberation, he arrived at a camp where the American soldiers were distributing food to a long line of survivors. Rabbi Silver opened up his packages and began distributing siddurim (prayer books) to anyone who wanted one. Within minutes, the line for the food evaporated, as all the survivors started lining up for their chance to receive a siddur!
As we turn from the High Holidays and begin to focus on the year ahead, it is important to remember that the gift of prayer is even more meaningful than any material well-being we may acquire. Indeed, the lesson of the serpent is that an overabundance of material wealth may cause us to become spiritually impoverished by creating a false sense of security that actually drives us away from G-d. On the other hand, the very things we lack are the source of immeasurable spiritual wealth, inspiring us to pray and filling our lives with a deep and abiding connection to G-d.
Two Brothers Leave the World
ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי בהיותם בשדה ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו ויהרגהו
“And Cain said to Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.” (Bereishit 4:8)
What motivates a man to kill his own brother?
Among the many other “firsts” in this week’s Torah portion is the unfortunate occurrence of the first murder. Man’s willful destruction of life stands in stark contrast to the beginning of the parsha, in which G-d lovingly creates all life. The fact that this act is not only an act of murder, but of the murder of one’s own brother, is an ominous first step in man’s moral decline, which leads at the end of parsha to G-d’s drastic decision to destroy the world He created.
With this in mind, we would expect to learn a great deal from the argument between Cain and his brother Abel, which led to the world’s first homicide. What was Cain’s motivation? And what darkness in man’s soul must we try to understand if we wish to avoid the same mistakes that sowed the seeds that eventually led to the Great Flood? Oddly enough, the Torah doesn’t seem to have much to say on the subject. The Hebrew word “said” is typically followed by the content of what was said, yet it is conspicuously absent here. What was it that Cain said to Abel, and how does this lead to the murder which immediately follows?
Rashi explains that this is the very point the Torah is making: It doesn’t matter what Cain said to Abel. “He engaged him in argument and dispute in order to find a pretext to kill him.” The conversation between the brothers was merely a pretext for Cain to rationalize his violence. His jealousy over the fact that G-d accepted his brother’s offering with pleasure, while rejecting his own offering (see Bereishit 4:3-7), is Cain’s real motivation.
Cain’s jealousy is not a logical emotion. Had Abel not been in the picture, Cain would have taken G-d’s gentle rebuke in the spirit in which it was meant. Cain would have worked hard to improve himself, and would have won a great moral victory. As it happens, however, he was unable to see his own failure outside of the context of his brother’s success; he found it easier to hold his brother responsible for his failure than to own up to his own deficiency.
This is the effect jealousy has on us. The Talmud (Avos 4:21) teaches us that “Envy, lust and [the seeking after] honor drive a man from the world”— that is, from the normal world, in which people let their minds rules their hearts and don’t commit murder. Jealousy prevents us from viewing things rationally and with objectivity. But if we can learn to spot these feelings as soon as they begin to manifest themselves, and keep them in check, we can take satisfaction in our own triumphs and live lives of true happiness.
Tell Me Again Why We’re Fighting
ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי בהיותם בשדה ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו ויהרגהו
“Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Bereishit 4:8)
This week’s parsha discusses the creation of the world, and most important, the creation of man. The Torah describes the birth of Adam and Eve’s two sons, Cain and Abel, and the ensuing battle between them. The incident between them began rather innocuously, when Cain offered a sacrifice to G-d, albeit an inferior offering, from the flax that he had cultivated. Abel, however, offered a choice sacrifice, from the first born and the choicest of his sheep. G-d rejected Cain’s sacrifice but accepted Abel’s offering. Cain was angry that G-d found favor in Abel’s offering, and remained angry despite G-d’s explanation. The narrative abruptly turns to a scene which takes place in the field where Cain rises and kills Abel. What happened between the time that the two brothers brought their sacrifices and the ensuing murder?
The Midrash offers numerous points of view as to what occurred between Cain and Abel. One opinion offered by the Midrash is that Cain and Abel struggled over land ownership. A second opinion maintains that the two brothers were quarreling over who would have the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, built in their territory. A third opinion posits that Cain and Abel disputed the right to marry Eve, Adam’s first wife. This presupposes that Adam had subsequently married a second woman named Eve. The fourth and final opinion cited in the Midrash is that the first Eve had already died and Cain and Abel were arguing over who would marry the extra sister that was born to Abel. What is troubling about the Midrash, however, is that all the opinions appear to ignore the original cause for contention. Cain was upset because G-d had rejected his offering and preferred his younger brother’s offering over his. Would this not have been sufficient reason for Cain to kill Abel?
A rabbi once related that when he was first hired by a synagogue, he ambitiously took on the issue that seemed to be the most troubling issue in the community at the time. For many years, two of the wealthiest members of the community were not speaking with one another. Unexpectedly, the rabbi summoned the two adversaries to his office with the intent of getting to the root of their dissension. The rabbi questioned each of them as to what they thought the catalyst had been that led to the long-standing feud. To the rabbi’s surprise, neither man was able to recall the exact point in time when the feud began. However, they both insisted that “such a fight only could have occurred if there had been good reason for it.”
Sadly, people often have fallouts in their relationships because of “something that happened long ago,” but have a hard time explaining why it had such terrible repercussions. While the Torah omitted the actual dispute that occurred between Cain and Abel, the rabbis in the Midrash, debated the nature of the quarreling brothers’ discussion. It would seem that the Biblical omission and the sage’s elaboration demonstrate the idea that one can easily become embroiled in a dispute over trivialities. Clearly, something occurred between the brothers that instigated the tension. Nonetheless, they allowed the dispute to escalate to the point where the origin of the debate was irrelevant.
This incident is a lesson in how to maintain harmonious relationships with friends and relatives. While differences and disputes are sometimes inevitable, it is essential to recognize that what unites us is more important than what divides us.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
The Torah relates that at the end of the 6th day of creation, “And G-d saw all that He made and behold it was very good.” (Bereishit 1:31) At the near conclusion of the world’s creation, the statement is made that the world is suddenly “very good.” Why is the all of creation called “very good” when each of the previous individual day’s creations were merely “good”? One answer would coincide with the popular notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Sages of the Medrash, however, take a different approach. “Good” by their definition, refers to the Yetzer Tov, the positive inclination, and “very good” to the Yetzer Horah, the negative (or evil) inclination! Alternatively, “very good,” according to the Medrash, refers to death.
Why would the introduction of the negative inclination transform a world which was (only) good to “very good”?
How would the introduction of death similarly alter the world to being “very good”?
At this point Adam and Eve had not yet violated the commandment not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and hence, were not yet destined to die. How then is “death” even relevant at this point? (Rabbi Label Lam)
Q: In relating all of the details and the order of the Creation, it isn’t until verse 2:21, the 52nd verse in the Torah, that the letter ס (samech) appears. After creating Adam, G-d cast a deep sleep upon him. After taking one of Adam’s ribs to form his wife Eve, G-d closed (ויסגר) Adam’s flesh. Why doesn’t the letter ס appear for so long, and what is the significance of the fact that it is first used in this verse?
A: When spelled out, the letter ס (samech) is written סמך, which is also the word which means “support.” The Talmud teaches (Yevamot 62b) that a man who dwells without a wife is lacking many things, one of which is a חומה– wall. The commentators explain that a supportive wife can serve to protect and encourage her husband. The Torah relates that G-d created Eve to serve as an עזר כנגדו– helpmate opposite him – for Adam. The numerical value of this phrase is 360 – the number of degrees in a circle which surrounds and protects what is inside of it. The Targum renders the word “helpmate” into Aramaic as סמך– supportive wall. For this reason, a bride walks around the groom under the wedding canopy to symbolize this function. For this reason, the very letter which means support and is written as a circle is used for the first time to describe the creation of the first person – Eve – who fulfilled this role. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
The serpent told Eve that if she ate from the Tree of Knowledge, she would not die. Seeing that it was desirable, she ate some fruit and gave some to Adam. G-d punished Eve with the difficulty of raising children and the pain of childbearing. (Rashi Bereishit 3:4-16) Eve’s curse is twofold: the difficulty of raising children and the pain of childbearing. Since pregnancy precedes raising children, why would the Torah reverse the order of these curses?
Q: The serpent succeeded in getting Eve to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge by convincing her that doing so wouldn’t cause her death (Bereishit 3:4-6). However, immediately after eating the fruit, she gave some to Adam to eat with her. Rashi explains that she did so out of a fear that after her death, Adam would remain alive and would find another mate. How is it possible that Eve ate the fruit out of a conviction that doing so wouldn’t be fatal, only to immediately fear the aftermath of her impending death?
A: Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky explains that when a person is overcome by a desire, he loses control of his rational thought processes. In this case, Eve had such an urge for the forbidden fruit that she “logically” convinced herself that it posed no threat to her. However, as soon as she gave in to her craving and consumed the fruit, her desire was gone and she was able to assess the situation rationally, at which point she immediately recognized the danger in which she had placed herself. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
After settling into their respective professions, Cain and Abel were both motivated to bring an offering before G-d. G-d accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s (Bereishit 4:2-12). Following that rejection, Cain is driven to murder his brother Abel. When meting out Cain’s punishment, G-d tells him that he is more accursed than the ground that swallowed up his brother’s blood. What might it mean that the ground is “accursed”?
As part of his punishment, Cain is told that he must travel the land like a nomad, never settling down. Divine punishments are always meted out midah k’neged midah — in a way that directly correlates with the sin. In what way does being forced to wander the earth correlate with the sin of killing his brother?
Cain worked the ground, while Abel was a shepherd. The Torah recounts that at the end certain period of time, Cain brought an offering to G-d. Abel followed suit and also brought an offering. Rashi notes that there were differences in their approach: Although Cain was first to bring an offering, it was not from the best of his produce; Abel brought from the choicest of his flock. G-d accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s. This rejection hurt Cain tremendously – to the point at which even G-d’s personal words of encouragement were not sufficient to comfort him. In a jealous rage, Cain killed his brother Abel. (Bereishit 4:2-8)
Granted that Abel’s offering was qualitatively better than Cain’s, but why would G-d ignore Cain’s spiritual achievement in initiating some type of offering?
In a similar vein, Abel’s offering was in a sense inspired by Cain’s example. Why might G-d not have given Cain the credit for that alone?
After giving names to each of the animals and birds, Adam recognized that he had yet to find an עזר כנגדו – a helpmate to oppose him. Why would he look for a mate who would oppose him?
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
The book of Bereishit is also known as Sefer HaYashar – the Book of the Upright, for it relates the stories of the Patriarchs who were upstanding individuals, as the Talmud teaches regarding the verse in Sefer Yehoshua [Joshua 10:13]: “Is this not written in the Book of Yashar? What is the ‘Book of Yashar’? Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, ‘This is the book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were all Yesharim. ’ How do we know that they are referred to as Yesharim? Because the gentile prophet Bilaam requested, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous…’” – Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarrah 25a
The numerical equivalent of the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is 560. This is also the numerical equivalent of the word Yesharim.
If it is the book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, why is it known as Sefer HaYashar [singular], and not Sefer Yesharim [plural]? Although all three of the Patriarchs are discussed, this title seeks to emphasize the first of them, who introduced this upright behavior into humanity on a widespread scale. This was Abraham and the word HaYashar, alludes to him because the letter Hey was added to his name and it should be read, Hey-Yashar. – Ben Yehoyada, Avodah Zarrah 25a
Referring to the Patriarchs as Yesharim, upstanding men, is not merely an honorific title. It conveys an important message to us, their descendants. Each of them was dealt with dishonorably by his fellow man on more than one occasion, yet none them of acted dishonorably in return. They maintained their uprightness in the face of widespread deceit, vilification, and scandalous accusations. Their steadfast adherence to decency and righteousness is an important aspect of their legacy.
“And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. It was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” (Bereishit 1:31)
It was very good – At the conclusion of each of the other days of creation it only says, “And G-d saw that it was good.” Why at the end of the sixth day does it refer to the creations of that day as “very good”? Until the end of the sixth day, each creation was only one part of an incomplete whole. Independently each was “good,” but no more. Upon the conclusion of the Six Days of Creation, when all was completed, it was appropriate to comment on the entirety of creation and state that it was “very good.” – Rabbeinu Bachya
It was very good – Although it referred to all prior creations as “good,” it referred to the creation of man as “very good.” This is because man is the pinnacle of creation and the purpose of all the other creations is only to assist him in his mission to serve his Creator. Their creation was only meaningful if there would one day be a human being who could utilize them for his ultimate purpose. Once man was created, their existence was validated and now their creation too, attained a status of “very good.” – Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz)
HaEmek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) adds that the words “very good,” refer to the fact that all the created works of G-d complement each other perfectly and work together in perfect harmony. Rather than compete with one another, each lends support to the others in an area where one is deficient. Thus, each creation is good, but together, the strength of each is magnified and they are deserving of the label, “very good.”
“And G-d said to the serpent, ‘Because you did this, cursed you are from all the animals and from all the beasts of the field, on your belly you shall crawl and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.’” (Bereishit 3:14)
And dust you shall eat – The taste and pleasure of food were taken from him following his sin. A similar result occurred once the Jewish people descended in their level of morality as the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [48a] tells us, “From the time the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) was destroyed…the taste of fruit was removed…” – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno)
And dust you shall eat – Is this really a curse? All it means is that the serpent will always have food readily available to him and who wouldn’t want that? Contrary to popular opinion, lack of food is not a curse, but an opportunity to beseech the Almighty for our needs. The serpent, by virtue of his ever-present food supply, no longer would have the desire, and consequently the opportunity, to maintain a relationship with G-d by beseeching Him for his needs. – Rabbi Yitzchak of Vorka
Rabbi Yitzchak offered a beautiful analogy to illustrate this idea. He compared it to a father whose son demonstrated great disrespect to him and showed little remorse after the fact. Although greatly distressed by his sons’ actions, the father knew that he couldn’t neglect to tend to his needs. On the other hand, he had no interest in pursuing a relationship with his ungrateful child either. He therefore called him over, handed him a voucher for ten years worth of food, and asked him not to contact him again until his food supply ran out. Although on the face of it, this is a magnanimous act that bespeaks deep love; in reality, it entails the greatest rejection imaginable. By providing the serpent with unlimited food, G-d demonstrated a complete lack of interest in ever having to deal with him again. There is no greater curse imaginable than the Almighty deciding to terminate His relationship with a species.
“And G-d said to the serpent…And I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall strike you on the head, and you shall strike him on the heel.” (Bereishit 3:14-15)
I will put hostility – The serpent intended for Adam to die by eating first, and then he would marry Eve. In response, G-d placed enmity between the serpent and the woman and foreclosed any such possibility for generations. – Rashi
I will put hostility – A serpent has no greater enmity toward mankind than any other reptile. Rather, the verse intends to convey that the serpent had a special affinity for Eve and engaged her in conversation often. She responded toward his overtures and thus, was ensnared in his plot to murder Adam. G-d’s solution was to remove this special affinity and replace it with the standard enmity that these beasts had for mankind. – Toldos Yitzchak [Rabbi Yitzchok Karo]
He shall strike you on the head, and you shall strike him on the heel – When he is a “head” – [i.e. a leader because of his observance of Torah and Mitzvot], then he will succeed in striking and eliminating you. However, when he is a “heel” – [i.e. lowly and disrespected because of his abandonment of Torah and Mitzvot], then you will be able to strike and eliminate him. – Or HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Atar)
The commentators explain that “He will strike you ‘Rosh’ [on the head]” can also be understood as a technique to successfully vanquish the evil inclination as represented by the primordial serpent. If we refuse to engage him in conversation or even contemplate his sinister suggestions, then we will swiftly dispatch him and be rid of his influence. This is called striking “Rosh,” i.e. first, before he has a chance to penetrate our consciousness. If however, he is allowed to peddle his wares among us and we do not banish him immediately and only seek to rid ourselves of him once he’s well-ensconced, then victory will be his. He will strike us from the “heel” i.e. when his threat is only dealt with in delayed fashion.
“And Adam lived [another] one-hundred and thirty years and he brought forth in his form, like his image, and he called his name Shet (Seth)” (Bereishit 5:3)
One-hundred and thirty years and he brought forth – Following his sin, he separated from Eve for this length of time in repentance. – Rashi
It required this length of time to rid himself of the impurities caused by his sin before he could produce a pure soul like that of Shet. – Or Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar)
And he called his name Shet – The name Shet alludes to the fact that “Mimenu HuShet Kol HaOlam” – from him will descend the entire world, because all the descendants of Cain and Abel died in the Great Flood and only Noah and his family, who descended from Shet, survived. – Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 14:11
The name Shet is spelled Shin, Taf, which are the last two letters of the Aleph Beit. Zohar tells us that when Adam sinned, he violated the first twenty of the twenty-two letters with which the Torah was written. Only the last two letters remained untainted and therefore, as a symbol of his repentance, he named his next child after those two letters. Although these words contain deep mystical secrets inaccessible to us mortals, on a superficial level, they convey an important message that as long as there remains within a person at least one dimension of purity, he can still draw on that power to pull himself out of the clutches of his evil inclination.
“Lemech lived one hundred and eighty-two years and had a son. He named his son Noah, saying, ‘This one will bring us rest from our work and the anguish of our hands, from the soil which G-d has cursed.’” Bereishit 5:29
This one will bring us rest from our work – Prior to Noah’s time they had no agricultural tools and he invented such tools for them. Furthermore, the earth had been producing thorns and thistles when wheat was sown as a result of Adam’s curse. This sorry state ceased in the days of Noah. – Rashi
This one will bring us rest from our work – Were they prophets that they knew that this child would accomplish this in his lifetime?
They did not call him this name at the time of his birth. Rather, this was the name that was given to him when they saw the ground change its habits during his lifetime time. – Aderes Eliyahu (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Slomo Zalman – The Gaon of Vilna)
When Adam was cursed, the Almighty said to him, ‘The soil will be cursed because of you. In sorrow you shall eat from it all the days of your life… until you return to the ground…” The first child born after the death and burial of Adam was Noah. Thus, it was obvious that the birth of this child heralded the removal of the curse of Adam. – Riv”ah
Until the birth of Noah, all men were born with their fingers fused together in web-like fashion. Noah was the first one born with separate digits. This left him too weak to plow the ground using his hands. Forced to innovate, he invented the plow, which in turn, made life easier for all of mankind. – Rav Yehudah HaChossid
When Adam was cursed by the Almighty, he inquired how long the curse would be in effect. The Almighty responded that it would continue until a child is born circumcised. Noah was the first child born circumcised so they knew that he must be the one who would herald the new era. – Midrash Rabbah
Sforno offers an explanation more basic than all of the above. The name given Noah was simply a prayer offered to the Almighty asking that this child spell relief from the agony they had encountered until his time. The Almighty saw fit to grant their request and the curse of Adam was lifted. Such is the power of a heartfelt prayer that it can eradicate the most serious of decrees.
Hey, I Never Knew That
“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth” (Bereishit 1:1). The traditional tunes of the Torah reading (trop) have an etnachta, a pause, much like a semi-colon after the word “created.” The rule of this punctuation is that the phrase before the etnachta must be able to be read independently. This presents a problem, as the phrase, “In the beginning G-d created” has no subject; what did He create? Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky discusses this and explains that the phrase should be read as “G-d created beginning(s).” The first aspect of the physical world that G-d created was time, and hence He created the concept of beginning, as hinted at by the tune (Emet L’Yaakov ad loc).
Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the cycle of Torah reading for the year. One of the sources cited for this practice is King Solomon. G-d came to King Solomon in a dream and asked what He should give him. King Solomon did not ask for power or wealth but rather the wisdom to lead his people with justice. G-d granted him this request, and when King Solomon awoke with his newly found Divine wisdom, the verse states, “And Solomon awoke; and, behold, it was a dream. And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the Ark of the Covenant of the L-rd, and offered up burnt offerings, and offered peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants” (Kings 1:3:15). The Medrash writes, “From here we see that one should make a feast on completion of the Torah” (Midrash Rabbah, Shir Hashirim 1:9). Just as King Solomon celebrated his newly acquired wisdom, every time we finish the Torah and absorb more of its wisdom we, too, celebrate (Eliyahu Rabba, Orach Chaim, 669).
Word of the Week
“שמים — shamayim — the heavens…” Nachmanides translates shamayim as the “spiritual world” and “Earth” as the physical world. Others translate the term as “the heavens” or “the sky” and explain the word as a composite of שם — sham — there, and מים – mayim — water (Talmud, Chagigah 12a). Some understand the word as a plural of the word שם — sham — there, indicating the heavens as always distant, “there,” and far away (Seforno). Rabbi Moshe Shapiro adds a philosophical dimension to this explanation and points out that wherever anyone on this world is going, the destination can always be expressed as “there.” Shamayim is often used to mean the World to Come, or heaven, so that the word, the plural form of “there,” indicates the “place” where all “theres” can be found, the ultimate destination of every single person (See also Kimchi, Sefer Hashorashim, sham).
The first word of the Torah, “Bereishit” — בראשית, is usually translated as “in the beginning.” Thus, the standard translation of the first verse is, “In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth.” Rashi, however, points out that the word is grammatically in a construct known as סמיכות — “a connected word,” which should be translated as “In the beginning of…” Rashi therefore translates the first verse as, “In the beginning of G-d’s creation of heaven and earth,” giving it a totally different understanding.
Dear Rabbi Meisels,
We just read the story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge and I grew up thinking that it was an apple tree. My husband insists that this is not the case. I was hoping you would clarify this for us. Also, can you please explain why the Torah might have concealed this information from us in the first place?
Your husband is certainly correct that the Tree of Knowledge was not an apple tree. What’s left for us to discover is what kind of tree was it? The Talmud discusses this question and cites three opinions on this matter:
R’ Meir is of the opinion that the tree that Adam ate from was the [grape] vine, since the thing that most causes weeping to a man is wine…R’ Nehemiah says it was the fig tree…R’ Judah maintains that it was wheat… Tractate Brachos, 40a
The Medrash adds an additional opinion that is particularly noteworthy as it relates to the just-concluded Succot holiday: “Rabbi Abba of Acco says, ‘[The tree of which Adam partook] was an Etrog tree…’” Medrash Rabbah Bereishit 15:7
However, that very same Medrash concludes with yet a fifth opinion that stands in stark contrast with the first four opinions mentioned above:
Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Yehudah Bar Shimon said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, ‘The Holy One Blessed is He absolutely did not reveal the name of the tree nor is He ever destined to. After all, the Torah instructs us [Vayikra 20] to execute the animal with which a woman cohabited to spare her the shame of people referring to her shameful act each time they encountered the animal. If the Torah was so careful to preserve the honor of Adam’s descendants, how much more careful would it be to preserve Adam’s own honor (and refuse to conceal the identity of the tree with which he sinned).
The commentators reconcile all of these disparate opinions by explaining that indeed, the Torah concealed the identity of the tree in an effort to preserve the honor of Adam and Eve, but it provided various hints to help us understand what it was about the tree that rendered it so attractive in their eyes and induced them to disobey the will of G-d. Each of the opinions lend insight into the nature of its attraction and serves as a valuable warning against falling prey to the arguments of the Yetzer Hara [evil inclination] for all future generations. Let us examine each one and try to discover the deeper meaning behind them.
The grape produces wine, which while endowed with many wonderful qualities, when over-imbibed, serves as a catalyst for a great deal of sin. Excessive intake of wine causes a person to escape his state of mental vigilance, and foolish behavior that was previously unthinkable, suddenly appears pleasurable and worthwhile.
In ancient times the fig was a principal source of honey [See Rashi Vayikra 2:12] and as such, is representative of excessive pursuit of sweetness and pleasure. Convincing a person to focus on the pursuit of pleasure is a primary weapon in the Yetzer Hara’s arsenal used to induce man to sin.
Wheat is identified by the Talmud [Berachot 20a] as a symbol of wisdom and intellectualism. Sometimes the Yetzer Hara encourages us to discard age-old Torah principles in the name of intellectualism and enlightenment.
The Etrog is the only tree whose fruit and bark share an identical flavor. By partaking of the Etrog, Adam and Eve demonstrated a desire to “compete” with their Maker, precisely in the manner that the serpent had suggested [Bereishit 3:5]. They wished to ascend to His level [if that were possible] much as the Etrog tastes exactly like its origin. This unwillingness to be subservient to their Maker is at the root of much sin and drives a person away from G-d.
These are just some of the myriad insights our sages offer into this fundamental episode and I have no doubt that further study will prove highly illuminating and enlightening.
Rabbi Elazar Meisels
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and he shall cling to his wife and they will become one flesh” (Bereishit 2:24). The commentaries (Nachmanides, Rashba, Responsa 1:60) understand that the Torah is describing the natural fact that once a man marries he becomes more attached to his wife than to his parents. Rabbi Moshe Sofer rules that the verse is actually a positive commandment that obligates the husband to become emotionally, spiritually, and physically close and attached to his wife. He maintains that one of the blessings recited at the wedding is actually a blessing on the performance of the mitzvah of “he shall cling to his wife” (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim 1:55).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was asked why there is greater celebration and joy on Simchat Torah than on Shavuot. After all, Shavuot is when we originally received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, whereas Simchat Torah celebrates a much later custom, that of reading the Torah publicly over the course of the year. He answered that on Shavuot, we were passive recipients of G-d’s gift of the Torah, but on Simchat Torah, we celebrate the fact that we are active partners with G-d in the Torah. We read and study the Torah, and through the wisdom of our Sages, and the customs of our communities, implement it in our daily lives. Simchat Torah reflects the Jewish Peoples’ love for the Torah, their involvement in the Torah, and their devotion to G-d, Giver of the Torah.
(Rabbi Mordechai Becher)
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion, Bereishit, marks the beginning of the Five Books of Moses and recounts events from the creation of the world through the emergence of Noah and his sons, more than 1500 years later.
It is important to note that the Torah is not a history book in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it is an accounting of the moral history of humanity, with the Jewish people occupying the pre-eminent role as G-d’s emissaries on earth. Thus, the entire story of the creation of the world through Adam and Eve is told in just 31 verses, or .5% of the entire number of verses in the Torah. On the other hand, momentary events may be recounted in scores of verses or more.
The portion begins with the creation of the world in 6 days – Day 1: light and dark; Day 2: sky and water; Day 3: earth and seas; Day 4: Sun, moon and stars; Day 5: fish and fowl (and all creatures that swim in the sea or fly in the sky); Day 6: Animals and mankind. On the seventh day, G-d rested, which we commemorate by observing Shabbat.
Man was created in the image of G-d, meaning he has been infused with a Divine soul, granted creative power over the earth and given Free Will with which to make moral choices and determine his own fate.
As a moral history book, the Torah begins with the first moral test presented to humanity. G-d placed Adam in the Garden of Eden and instructed him to work it and guard it. He also issued the first negative commandment: Do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge.
However, through the serpent’s enticement of Eve and her subsequent enticement of Adam into eating from the fruit of this tree, mankind failed this test and was banished from the Garden of Eden. With this act, the daily existence of humanity changed radically, from a life of abundant blessing and ease into a life of toil and struggle. “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” G-d declared (Bereishit 3:19), setting the stage for human history as we have experienced it.
The portion continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel became a shepherd; Cain a farmer. After a period of time, Cain initiated the idea of bringing an offering to G-d. Abel followed suit, though he went a step further by bringing the choicest animals from his flock. Much to Cain’s dismay, his offering was rejected, while Abel’s was accepted. Rather than learning the moral lesson of his brother’s actions, Cain killed Abel in a fit of jealous rage – the first murder in human history.
When challenged by G-d, Cain at first tried to deny his deed: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he stated (Bereishit 4:9) – a phrase that haunts those who would do evil to their fellow human beings until this day.
G-d punished Cain by forcing him to wander the earth. However, in response to Cain’s repentance, G-d tempered this punishment, commanding that no one would be allowed to kill him for seven generations.
Eventually, Adam and Eve had a third son, Seth. The sons of Seth and the sons of Cain went on to populate the earth. However, it was not long before these ensuing generations devolved from their original knowledge of the existence of one true G-d into idol worship. Without the moral compass of worshipping G-d, the moral state of humanity quickly degenerated into cruelty, violence and robbery.
Seeing that mankind had indeed lost all semblance of humanity – i.e. the ability to act according to one’s higher nature – G-d declared that He would bring a flood to destroy the world. The portion ends by stating that one person, Noah, found favor in G-d’s eyes. It is through Noah and his sons that the humanity would continue to exist.