Destination Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Torah Readings

Destination Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Torah Readings

by Sasoon Isaac S. D., Isaac S. Sassoon



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780881256390
Publisher: KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
Publication date: 05/01/2001
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Chapter One



In the beginning (Gen. 1:1)

"For the Torah and Israel that are called [at Prv. 8:22; Jer. 2:3] beginnings" (Rashi, echoing a midrash). The idea that the world was created for humankind—or for an "elect few"—recurs in numerous aggadot. Sifre declares the world to have been created for the righteous (Sifre Dt. 38). "Rav said the world was created for none but David, Samuel said for Moses, and R. Yohanan said for Mashiah" (San. 98b). Now the drift of such aggadot may well be to boost morale and self-esteem. However, another rabbinic source appears to unlock the door onto a deontic understanding of the assertion that the world was created for Israel—an assertion otherwise liable to sound vainglorious.

    The key is to be found in the Mishnah (San. 4:5) "therefore everybody is obligated to say the world was created for me." In contemplating his great potential, explains Rashi, a person will say to himself, "Seeing that I am worth the world, let me not wreck it all through sin." Israel's sense of noblesse oblige can only be intensified by the knowledge that the Torah was entrusted to them. For peering further along the aggadic enfilade, we glimpse something of the onus the rabbis believed that Torah imposed. "Rabba, the grandson of Hana recounted, 'Once upon a time, I was wandering in the desert and saw geese whose wings had been dislocated by their excessive fat, and below them flowed streams of grease....When I reported that to R. Eleazar, he said to me, "Israel will have to answer for them"'"—because, adds Rashi, Mashiah is held up through Israel's sin and meanwhile the geese suffer (B. B. 73b).

    And as for Torah, was she not created for Israel, as R. Simeon b. Yohai taught: "It is written, 'As the days of a tree are the days of my people' (Isa. 65:22); now tree stands for Torah, as it says, 'She is a tree of life' (Prv. 3:18). And who was created for whom, Torah for Israel or Israel for Torah? Surely Torah for Israel. And if Torah, which was created for Israel, lasts forever and ever, how much more so Israel, which was created in her own right" (Eccl. Rab. 1:4).

    But far be it from us to seek in this aggadah cited by Rashi a reason or purpose for which, as it were, the Cause of all causes created His world. Speculation of that kind could never have been indulged in, for the Mishnah (Hag. 2:1) severely warns against looking before the world. And since purpose precedes action, all discussion of the question why it pleased the divine will to create the world would violate the prohibition "to look what was before." Therefore, any idea of Israel and Torah having been perceived by the aggadah as the purpose of creation is quite precluded.

* * *

In the beginning God created (Gen. 1:1)

Moreover, it says, "In six days did Hashem make heaven and earth the sea and all that is in them" (Ex. 20:11). But just in case any doubt still lingered regarding the origin of our incorporeal experiences, the sages expounded: "Seven things were created before the world was created, namely Torah, repentance, Paradise, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and Mashiah's name" (Pes. 54a)—these, too, had their origin through an act of creation just like the rest of the universe. Such preaching pulls the rug from beneath the proponents of the world's preexistence. For while the rabbis are prepared to recognize the priority of these one-of-a-kind entities, they still insist that whatsoever is other than Creator had its beginning in the time and fashion determined by the same merciful Creator who made all and comprehends all. No, not Torah not the Throne of Glory came into being of its own accord, but rather were they brought into existence when it pleased the Uncreated One.

    Incidentally, from the above rabbinic teaching a semantic distinction may be inferred between "creation" and "creation of the 'olam (= world)," inasmuch as the former may embrace things that antedate the 'olam. Thus when cosmogonists heap on us millions of years, the news is not dismaying to anyone familiar with the rabbinic notion of a process of creation that began before the 'olam-world—and in the case of Torah nine hundred and seventy-four "generations" before (cf. Shab. 88b; Zeb. 116a). However, in no way did this backdating compromise their belief that all creation is covered by the words "In the beginning Hashem created." Nor is it of consequence—seen from the point of view of the faith—whether the beginning lasted nine hundred and seventy-four generations, a myriad generations, or countless eons.

* * *

God said, Let there be light (Gen. 1:3)

Nothing is said here of the creation of darkness, as it is in Isaiah (Isa. 45:7), "maker of light and creator of darkness."

    At best it may be inferred from the words "and darkness upon the face of the deep" which seem to describe the earth in the "raw"—namely, after its creation but before the coming of light. For according to tradition, Gen. 1:2 does not describe a pre-Bereshit landscape but rather a stage within the process of creation. And like darkness, the formlessness and void (tohu va-bohu) of v. 2 were also understood by the Talmud (Hag. 12a; Tam. 32a) to have resulted from an act of creation—even if Genesis chose to deemphasize that act. As to why night's creation should be understated, the midrash suspects it has to do with the melancholic mood of nighttime (cf. [HEBREW TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Gen. Rab. 3:6]).

    Further along (v. 31) it says, "God saw all that He had made and behold, it was exceeding good." Now if, as indicated, it is meaningful to speak of the "making" of darkness, then it too must be among "all that he had made." However, here (v. 4) it says "God saw that the light was good," implying that this "seeing" was the exclusive prerogative of the light, in which darkness had no share. This inference has led some to speculate that Genesis chapter 1—at variance with Isaiah and the Talmud—does not teach the creation of darkness, which phenomenon would then be understood simply as the absence of light (see Maimonides, Guide 3:10).

* * *

It was evening, it was morning, the sixth day (Gen. 1:31)

If not for the midrash, we might have overlooked the fact that this (and 'the seventh day' of Gen. 2:2-3) is the last instance of time measured from creation. "R. Simeon b. Marta said, 'Up to this point dating goes back to the era of the world but henceforth dating is by other eras'" (Gen. Rab. 9:1). And indeed talmudic registers of epochal events, for use in dating legal documents, invariably omit the creation. A typical list reads: "How do we know it is lawful to count from the Exodus? Because it says 'in the third month' (Ex. 19:1). How do we know that dating from the Exodus was not an ephemeral usage? Because it says, 'in the fortieth year after the Exodus' (Num. 33:38); not just for that generation but for [subsequent] generations, for it says, 'in the four hundred and eightieth year after the Exodus' (1 Kgs. 6:1). Once the Temple was built, they began to count from its building, as it says, 'twenty years after King Solomon had built the two houses' (cf. 1 Kgs. 9:10; 2 Chr. 8:1); when not meriting to count from its building, they began to count from its destruction, as it is written, 'in the twenty fifth year of our exile' (Ezek. 40:1); when not meriting to use their own history, they began reckoning by foreign reigns, as it is written, 'in the second year of Darius'" (Yer. Hag. 1:1). And as R. Azaria di Rossi (1511-1578) demonstrated in his book Meirat Enaim (section entitled Yeme Olam), official anno mundi dating was a relatively late innovation. Furthermore, Tosafot were patently hard pressed for halakhic arguments to justify, in the absence of talmudic sanction, 'how it is that we write creation of the world in bills of divorce (Git. 80b Tos. s.v. zo).

    But over and above reminding us that dating from creation was not the practice, R. Simeon b. Marta's words may also be read as alluding to the fact that from here on we lose track of this reckoning. And who knows whether the Torah meant us to retrieve it? The Flood, for example, begins in the six-hundredth year of Noah's life (Gen. 7:11)—not in year so-and-so from creation. As for the lifespans attributed to the ancients—such as the ten antediluvian generations of Gen. 5—it is highly questionable whether those numbers are intended for computing solar cycles. No less questionable is the usefulness of adding up the ages of Kohat (who was among the original sixty-nine souls who accompanied Jacob to Egypt according to Gen. 46:11), and his son Amram plus eighty years of Moses. For these numbers total three hundred and fifty not four hundred and thirty—the years the Israelites spent in Egypt according to Ex. 12:40. And it is precisely this type of discrepancy (which results from adding up ages) that has led some to view these ages more allegorically than mathematically. Admittedly, the elders who translated the Torah into Greek took the numbers at face value, so much so, that they interpolated the words 'and in other lands' into their translation of Ex. 12:40 (cf. Meg. 9a). So the option of taking the ages the Torah attributes to the Levitic dynasty other than literally either did not occur to the seventy-two elders or, if it did, was rejected by them. However, from the Talmud's perspective, the apologetic tinkering those elders allowed themselves was for the benefit of King Ptolemy of Egypt. Hence it cannot be concluded that their temporizing represents the sole legitimate reconciliation between the figure three hundred and fifty (which is the total we saw above; though, as noted by Rashi, years of fathers and their children normally overlap so that three hundred and fifty is too high a figure) and the figure four hundred and thirty—or even the best one. And if it must be apologetics, it is the ages that lend themselves more readily to a nonliteral understanding. And in any event, the degree of certainty as to the tenor of these numbers is hardly firm enough to construct upon it a world chronology.

* * *

A garden in Eden to the east (Gen. 2:8)

The Hebrew original here rendered "to the east" is the word miqqedem. And though this rendering has wide support, including Rashi's, by no means is that support universal. Tg. Yonathan, for instance, paraphrases miqqedem as "before the creation of the world"—thus agreeing with the baraitha in Pes 54b (partially quoted above, second entry to Gen. 1:1) that finds in our phrase the idea of a primordial Garden of Eden. Ramban (alias Nahmanides, d. ca. 1270) also finding a temporal rather than a spatial meaning in miqqedem, proposes "at the start."

* * *

On the day you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen. 2:17)

Some believe this text implies that if Adam and Eve had not listened to the serpent they would have gone on living until the earth itself wore out. According to this teaching, death came into the world (for humans and animals?) as a consequence of sin. By way of proof they cite "and unto dust will you return" (Gen. 3:19)—the nadir of Adam's curse. Apparently this view can be traced to a baraitha: "four [people] died due to the serpent" (B. B. 17a) and Rashi explains, "They did not deserve to die except that death had been decreed upon all Adam's progeny thanks to the machinations of the serpent."

    The majority, however, seem to side with R. Meir, in whose Torah they found written, "And behold, it was exceeding good, and behold, death is good" (Gen. Rab. 9:5), meaning to say that creatures were created mortal, and that mortality was not a change of plan introduced after Adam's sin. But then how is the warning "on the day you eat of it you shall surely die" to be understood? One answer is to emphasize "on the day", i.e., death would follow swiftly on the heels of transgression. Alternatively, the death with which he was threatened may be thought of as chastisement short of expiration. For the word "death" seems on occasion to carry the sense of retribution in general in texts such as "only let this death be removed from me" (Ex. 10:17); "he who acts thus is deserving of death" (2 Sam. 12:5). And though it is only the noun "death" that occurs in these verses, it would be convenient—especially in view of Adam and Eve's attested survival (cf. Gen. 4:25)—to extrapolate from the noun to the verb, thus allowing "you shall surely die" to denote nonfatal "dying."

    And such an understanding would coincide with a tannaitic opinion found in tractate Avodah Zarah (5a). "How then does the first tanna explain the verse, 'Surely as Adam shall you die' (Ps. 82:7)? Death means poverty, for the master said, 'These four are considered as dead: the poor, the blind, the leper and the childless. The poor as it says, "Those who sought your life have died" (Ex. 4:19) ... the blind as it says, "He has caused me to dwell in darkness as one long dead" (Lam. 3:6); the leper as it says, "Let her not be like a corpse" (Num. 12:12); the childless as it says, "Give me children or I die" (Gen. 30:1)." A parallel midrash is applied by R. Joshua b. Levi to the verse in Isaiah "The youth shall die at a hundred years" (Gen. Rab. 26:2) and by the Talmud (Stab. 70a) to the mention of death at Exodus 31:14.

    Even broader is Nahmanides' application: "The sages' use of the terms 'death' and 'life' is not always a literal one but may designate respectively any form of this-worldly retribution such as leprosy, destitution, loss of children, or similar afflictions, all of which the rabbis referred to as 'death' just as reward and beneficent recompense is called 'life' in their parlance" (Torat ha-Adam, beg. of the Gate of Recompense).

* * *

The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:22)

The aggadah has the infant Moses choosing the embers instead of the gold, thereby demonstrating, to Pharoh's relief, a normal child's incapacity to tell safe from sorry (Ex. Rab. 1:26; see on Dt. 1:39).

    But is it likely that Scripture means to imply that only with their eating of the tree of knowledge do Adam and Eve outgrow their mental and moral nonage? After all they were charged not to eat and held responsible for their disobedience, none of which would be feasible or just in the case of a minor. Therefore "knowing good and evil" should perhaps be understood as an attribute qualifying "has become like one of us" rat. her than an independent attribute. That is to say, the "knowing" of Adam and Eve had broken barriers and was expanding heavenwards (without putting too fine a point on the mighty metaphor 'like one of us').

* * *

Now lest (pen) he stretch forth his hand and take of
the tree of life and eat and live forever (Gen. 3:22)

The concern voiced in the words 'lest he stretch forth' astounds the reader because it occurs in speech attributed to the One for whom nothing is impossible. Nor is this an isolated example. "lest the people change their minds when they see war" (Ex. 13: 17); "lest the land become desolate" (Ex. 23:29; see on Lev. 14:36); "lest I annihilate you on the way" (Ex. 33:3)—all express concern introduced by the Hebrew word pen.

    Rambam seeks to take the edge off our bewilderment by explaining the purport of these scriptures to be the Creator's endorsement of His creation—showing regard for the work of His hands. But far be it from such scriptures to doubt His power to intervene at will. (cf. Guide, 3:32). The same idea presumably underlies Rashi's comment to Dt. 29:12: 'therefore the Almighty binds you with these oaths to ensure that you do not provoke Him since He cannot break away from you.' Of course Rashi does not mean to deny Hashem's omnipotence, but simply to convey how inextricably the divine name is forever associated with Israel, so that by the nature of things, even when they go astray, "Men say of them, 'These are the people of Hashem'" (Ezek. 36:20).

* * *

Abel and his gift (Gen. 4:4)

The Hebrew word translated here as "gift" is minha, the identical word used of Cain's offering (vv. 3-5). But minha can also denote a cereal offering, as opposed to an animal sacrifice (e.g., Lev. 2 passim; Lev. 7:37; Jud. 13:19). Here, however, minha could not carry that narrower meaning because Abel offered an animal, not a grain, sacrifice.

* * *

Hashem gave (va-yasem Hashem le-) Cain a sign (Gen. 4:15)

The Hebrew verbal phrase lasum le is familiar from verses such as Num. 6:26; 2 Sam. 23:5, where it means "to give" or "to grant." Yet a tradition ancient and persistent found here nothing as vague as the giving of some indeterminate sign, but rather the inscription of a letter on Cain's person. Tg. Yonathan adds the further refinements that it was a letter of the divine name inscribed on Cain's face. Rashi agrees with Tg. Yon. (except that Rashi has "forehead" instead of "face"). A variant midrash occurs in Yalkut Shimoni Genesis (38) and Pirke R. Eliezer (21) where the letter is inscribed not on the visage but on the arm, and furthermore it is simply "one of the twenty-two alphabetical characters in which Torah is written." In his commentary to the latter midrash, R. David Luria (1798-1855) remarks, "Here it is the arm, and in Tg. Yonathan the forehead, both being locations of the tefilleen (= phylactery) tokens." The factor common to all these midrashim is that the sign of Cain was a single cipher emblazoned on the body.

    As to its function, it would appear that a sign—whether abecedary or of otherwise recognizable delineation—served the vassal or dependent who bore it as an 'identity-card' affording him protection proportionate to his master's clout. Retainers of a lusty potentate could strut about with heads high. In Cain's case, nothing could have stopped Abel's next-of-kin avenging themselves on him. And then, from the Supreme Authority, Cain receives a sign that would stand him in good stead as shield and buckler "in order that anyone meeting him should not smite him" (Gen. 4:15). The mark inked on the foreheads of the men that sigh and groan (Ezek. 9:4, 6), though designated tav not 'ot, "served as an 'ot so that the destroyers would not harm them" (Rashi to Ezek. loc. cit.). So much for signs stamped on a person by others.

    But also on record are those who inscribe their own persons, such as the one who "inscribes his hand to Hashem" (Isa. 44:5) as testimony of his submission to the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Nor had the custom been forgotten in rabbinic times when it was taught, "One who has the divine name inscribed on his flesh is forbidden to bathe, to anoint, or to stand in an unclean place" (Shab. 120b). Critics often provide worthwhile information about the object of their strictures. In the course of a mishnaic discussion on what constitutes tattooing (as prohibited in Lev. 19:28): "R. Simeon b. Yehudah said in the name of R. Simeon, 'One is only liable if one tattooes the name, for it says, "you shall not tattoo yourselves; I am Hashem"'" (M. Mak. 3:6). The custom condemned by R. Simeon involved scratching the divine name on the flesh—at least according to the simple sense of the Mishnah and as understood by R. Aha b. Rava in the Gemara (Mak. 21a). Ultimately, however, the Gemara preferred to have the 'name' in the words of R. Simeon 'if one tattooed the name' stand for the name of an idol. Either way, this mishnah testifies to the practice of stamping one's religious troth on the flesh (see also Rambam: "it was a custom of idolaters to inscribe their persons to the idol, thereby symbolizing their enslavement and enlistment to its service"; [A. Z. 12:11]).

    Carrying the divine name about one—specifically on the forehead and arm—as a mark of commitment and self-dedication to Hashem's service, survives ostensibly in tefilleen. Tg. Yonathan's paraphrase of Dt. 28:10 reads: "all the peoples of the earth shall see the divine name inscribed at the time the tefilleen is upon you (or that is inscribed as ordained in tefilleen) and they will be afraid of you." As commentators have pointed out, according to Yonathan (and R. Eliezer; cf. Bet. 6a) the parallel between tefilleen and Cain's 'ot becomes even more striking; the sight of both being said to disarm the foe. Not entirely unrelated is the gold plate (sis) that adorned Aaron's brow, for it was engraved with the dedication "holy to Hashem." And when all families of the earth shall come up to Jerusalem to worship, then the bells on the horses' foreheads will bear the selfsame words "holy to Hashem" (cf. Zech. 14:20 and Rashi, ad loc.).

* * *

Father o fall who play the harp (kinnor)
and pipes (ugav) (Gen. 4:21)

Rashi cites an aggadah that rather cynically lists the abuses to which the inventions of Lamech's three sons were put. On the other hand, it is not likely that anyone viewed these inventions as wrong per se. After all, Jacob was a dweller in tents (Gen. 25:27), and the Temple choir had its pipes (ugav; Ps. 150:1, 4; Tg. to Ps. 150:1), not to mention the harp, 'first fiddle' of the Levitic orchestra. Besides, of all civilization's achievements, why select the dubious ones (improbably to indicate distrust of human inventiveness in general)? Perhaps the metallurgist Tubal-Cain was the culprit. Bronze and iron were forged into instruments of destruction; iron coming to symbolize weaponry, so that its contact with the stones of the altar was forbidden (Ex. 20:22; Dt. 27:5; M. Mid. 3:4).

    Later on, Rashi himself recognizes the benefits metal implements bring to agriculture: "until Noah there was no plow, but he introduced it ... this was the relief" (or comfort; Rashi to Gen. 5:29). The Mishnah teaches: "There were ten generations from Adam to Noah to make known how great is His long-suffering. For only after the remorseless provocation of all those generations did He finally bring upon them the waters of the Flood" (Avot 5:2). This unfavorable assessment of the ten antediluvian generations seems to have been widely held. But it is their motives that the aggadah mistrusts; not that the things they abused were intrinsically bad. If you like, theirs was a knack to vulgarize. Mark how even the ineffable name, which had no doubt acquired a unique sanctity by virtue of its habitual use in invoking the Creator, is diverted to idols starting with the generation of Enoch (Rashi to Gen. 4:26 based on Gen. Rab. and Mekh. Yithro 6).

    But the day will dawn when Tubal-Cain's invention reverts to its pristine rusticity (whatever his intentions may be): "they' shall beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-hooks" (Isa. 2:4). Likewise, instrumental music, exiled from its legitimate home for no discernible halakhic reason, shall ring out once again in houses of prayer and learning (except for the Sabbath, a day of stillness and quiet repose, on which. outside the Temple, all instrumental music was prohibited including the sounding of the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Saturday), and wheresoever else Israel gathers to offer praise to their heavenly Father.


From every animal I will require it (Gen. 9:5)


Excerpted from DESTINATION TORAH by Isaac S. D. Sassoon. Copyright © 2001 by Isaac S.D. Sassoon. Excerpted by permission.

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