Bereishis: Rabbi Abraham
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Parshat Bereishit, the opening portion of the book of Genesis (Gen. 1.1-6.8), will be read in the Synagogue on Shabbat September 28, when we will also bless the coming month of MARHESHVAN
With today’s edition of this weekly Torah parshah commentary, we embark on a new annual cycle of study of the Five Books of Moses. UNIVERSAL TORAH is a weekly series sharing thoughts and lessons we may draw from the current parshah having universal significance — both for the Children of Israel, the appointed Guardians of G-d’s Torah, and for all the families and nations of the earth. In our troubled times, when the world is facing war, violence, crime, illness and destruction on an unprecedented scale, mankind is in desperate need of the oldest living system of wisdom in the world: G-d’s holy Torah. For “G-d is not a man that He should lie, nor the son of man that He should change His mind. He spoke — will He not do it? He pronounced — will He not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19). “For I am G-d, I have not changed.” (Malachi 3:6). “Go and let us ascend to the Mountain of G-d, to the House of the G-d of Jacob.” (Isaiah 2:3).
IN THE BEGINNING
“How fortunate we are that Moses our Teacher showed us the right way. The Torah begins without any philosophical proof, with the simple words, ‘In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.’ We are commanded to believe in G-d through faith alone, and not to enter into speculation.” (Rabbi Nachman of Breslov).
“In the beginning G-d created.”: In the three opening words of the Hebrew Torah, G-d “signs” Himself as the G-d of Truth. The last letters of these three words, BereshiS barA ElokiM, are: Sav [according to the Ashkenazic pronunciation, or “Tav”, according to the Sefardic pronunciation] – Aleph – Mem, forming an anagram of the word EMeS, TRUTH.
The Rabbis taught that Teshuvah (“coming back to G-d”) was created even before the world. This means is that the world is not merely random. Everything that exists in the entire universe is part of a vast, unfathomable system serving a purpose that goes way beyond the system itself, a purpose that existed before the system itself in the “mind” and “will” of the One Who created it. The purpose of the system is to bestow good on all G-d’s creatures. We can receive this good only when we “return” to G-d — by seeking out and following the wisdom of God’s teaching to mankind: the Torah. Teshuvah!
Today the world seems to be on a helter-skelter path to self-destruction. The only way for us to stop it is by “coming back” to G-d.
THE GLORY OF ADAM — AND HIS FALL
At the climax of the account of the creation is the story of the creation of Adam. The Hebrew word ADAM cannot simply be understood as “man” or “human being”, “homo sapiens” or the like without further elaboration. The fact that there is a resemblance between the physical form of a human being and that of an ape does not mean they are both in the same category or on the same level. The defining qualities of homo sapiens are precisely those that differentiate him from the ape: his uniquely human powers and abilities. Similarly, the fact that two humans resemble each other in physical structure does not mean that they must be equal and identical in all respects. One may be highly intelligent, creative, loving, etc. while the other could be a psychopath, a terrorist or even a demon incarnate in a human body. What makes the two different is the mind, soul or spirit that inhabits each of their bodies. One may have an elevated soul. The other may have a “fallen” soul or the spirit of a demon. Are they both homo sapiens? Are they both Bney Adam, “Children of Adam”?
While the human body is the physical manifestation of ADAM, what makes him unique is the soul that animates his body. The soul that G-d breathed into Adam came from His very essence. Adam’s soul was created by G-d to be a separate creature, giving him the ability to connect with G-d OF HIS OWN FREE WILL. Adam’s destined role in the creation is to lead the entire world to return to G-d. He was appointed ruler over all: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the world and conquer it and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over all the living creatures swarming over the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Man has responsibility for the whole world. His task is to attain global peace and ecological balance and harmony, in which all are united in the service of G-d.
Adam was created to attain this exalted destiny of his own free will. As part of G-d’s plan, Adam therefore had to be confronted with a choice: to serve G-d by obeying His command, or to follow the “serpent” in his own heart, who tells him he can disobey G-d, do what he wants, and still get away with it. G-d says “If you disobey you will die”. But the serpent in the heart lies to us: “Do what you want — you won’t die!” Time after time, man falls for the trick.
Adam was created to rule the entire world, but he cannot even rule over his own heart — and sins. When a person comes to his senses and understands what he has done by eating the forbidden fruit of evil, he discovers the painful truth. “With the sweat of your brow you will eat bread until you return to the earth, for from it you were taken, for you are dust and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). After Adam’s sin, life is a constant struggle, leading only to the grave. Only with death can sin be finally atoned. “To dust you will return”. This is because everything must “return”! Everything must come back to G-d! Teshuvah! Man’s task is to return to his destiny, which is to conquer the world and join it back to G-d. “Who is mighty? He who conquers his evil inclination” (Avot 4:1).
THE COMMANDMENTS THAT APPLY TO ALL MANKIND
“And the L-rd G-d commanded the Man saying, from all the trees of the garden you may surely eat” (Gen. 2:16). The Rabbi’s taught that G-d’s commandment to Adam implies six universal laws which are all allusively contained in the Hebrew words of this verse (as discussed in Midrash Rabba Bereishis 45:5 and Talmud Sanhedrin 56a; see Rambam Mishneh Torah Laws of Kings 9:1):
1. Idolatry is forbidden.
2. Blasphemy is forbidden.
3. Murder is forbidden.
4. Sexual immorality is forbidden.
5. Robbery is forbidden.
6. Men must govern their affairs under a system of law and justice.
These six laws, together with the prohibition of eating a limb from a living animal (see next week’s Parrshah, Gen. 9:4) make up the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah, also known as the Seven Universal Laws.
THE PROHIBITION OF MURDER
In the intricate, endlessly profound tapestry of the holy Torah, the Seven Universal Laws are deeply bound up and meshed in with the 613 commandments that apply to the Children of Israel. Thus every portion of the Torah has profound significance for all humanity and each one contains lessons that may deepen our understanding of the Seven Universal Laws.
Of the seven, one that stands out particularly in Parshas Bereishis is the prohibition of murder. The Torah is the “book of the generations of man” (Genesis 5:1): man was commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” — to breed children and children’s children, to cherish and nurture LIFE. The antithesis of life is death. The Rabbis taught that when “G-d saw all that he made and behold it was VERY good”, the word “very” teaches that even death is beneficial (as it atones for sin). However, death is in the hands of G-d: “See now, for I, I am He, and there is no god with Me; I kill and make alive, I smote and I will heal and there is none to redeem from My hand” (Deut. 32:39). A person who arrogantly takes G-d’s prerogative into his own hands and appoints himself as the angel of death to kill another is a shameful, counterfeit ADAM, a criminal who should be stoned and then hung ignominiously on a tree before being buried (see Deuteronomy 21:22-3 and Rashi there). Such a man is a “curse of G-d” (ibid). In the words of Rambam (Laws of Murder 1:4): “There is nothing to which the Torah takes greater exception than bloodshed, as it is written (Numbers 35:33): And you shall not pollute the land. for blood — that is what pollutes the land.”
The story of Cain’s killing of Abel over the inheritance of the world is the story of human history. Mankind’s task is to learn how to settle disputes amicably instead of fighting and killing one another. In our times, it is particularly important to emphasize the criminality of murder because of widespread insensitivity to the seriousness of killing. Many voices can be heard defending killers, and protesting against their execution as prescribed by the Torah. Many in the world even rationalize and justify wholesale murder and violence when committed for the sake of a “cause”, and celebrate terrorist attacks against their enemies. This simply illustrates the depths to which “Adam Beliya’al”, the Worthless Man, can descend, as in the story of Cain and Abel.
The Torah clearly teaches that murder is an abominable crime which must be requited with death in order to punish the villain and protect human society. Yet at the same time as seeking to impose justice, our societies must also ask themselves why killing, murder and violence are so rampant. These are not inexplicable scourges that have no cause. Our rabbis revealed what causes murder to become rampant: “The sword comes into the world because of the failure to execute justice without delay, because of the perversion of justice and because of those who issue Torah rulings which are not in accordance with the halachah” (Avot 5:8).
Developing a system of law and government that is just and free of corruption (in fulfillment of the Seventh Universal Law) is the key to cleansing the world of the scourge of murder and violence.
Is it our responsibility to attempt all this? That is the question of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The lesson of the story is that the answer must be a resounding YES! As brothers and sisters, Children of Adam, Children of Noah, we are and must be our brothers’ keepers. We must take responsibility. We must seek the welfare of our brothers and sisters everywhere. How can we best do this? Through studying, practicing and promoting G-d’s Torah, which is the master plan for universal peace and harmony.