Todd Berman

A new beginning

Year after year, on this coming Shabbat, the Jewish people return to the Torah’s first parashah (section): Bereishit. The Torah opens with the story (or stories) of creation. It continues through the genesis of the people of Israel and their journey to Egypt. Inevitably, rabbis and teachers return to the first comments of the medieval commentator, Rashi. Rashi asks why the Torah, seemingly a book of law, doesn’t open with the first commandment to the Jewish people, which appears only in Exodus 12? What purpose do the narratives in Bereishit serve? Rashi’s answer is often quoted as proof of the Jewish connection to the land:

“IN THE BEGINNING — Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187)”

A popular rabbinic adage states, “Ein Beit Midrash Bli Chidush,” or learning something repeatedly, produces new insights.

Recently, someone pointed out to me that Rashi’s claim that “When He willed, He gave it to them, and when He willed, He took it from them and gave it to us” might not present Zionists with the support they would like. Given the destruction of the Temple and the eventual exile of most Jews, it might seem that God gave the land to the Jewish people and then took it away.

Over the past few years, I have dedicated time to learning the writings of many well-known Hassidic teachers. I was excited to discover a wonderful thought in the book Yismach Yisroel of Rabbi  Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzchak Danziger, the second Aleksander rebbe. Before the Shoah, Aleksander was, after Ger, the second-largest Polish Hassidic dynasty. The following commentary, written before World War I, stems from the anti-Zionist leaning Hassidim, which makes it all the more intriguing.

The Yismach Yisroel suggests that Rashi is focusing on the composite word “BeReishit” as “Be” and “Reishit.” He explains that two is the numerical value of the Hebrew letter “Bet” and that the Hebrew word “Reishit” means beginning. So “BeReishit” really means “two beginnings.” Rashi explains that all things in our world have two starts.

The Aleksander Rebbe draws a comparison of “new beginnings” to the blowing of the shofar. The Shofar blast consists of three or four sounds: a simple note, a broken one, and a simple final ending. The fractured middle sound is composed of the “shevarim” or broken blast, and the “teruah” or staccato, crying-like sound. The human being comes into the world whole, unblemished, and without sin, represented by the first “tekiah” sound. That is the simple state of the newborn. But as time passes, we confront our failings and fallibility. We break, and that brokenness is reflected in the “shevarim” sound of the shattered note. Sometimes, our failures lead to tears of despair. How can we return to God? The “teruah” sound represents complete brokenness which can be misunderstood as beyond repair. That is why we require the last simple, unbroken note, the final tekia sound. The shofar blasts contain all three sound-states: unblemished, brokenness due to corruption, and the purity of our accepted Teshuva or repentance.

God promises us that we can do Teshuva, repair ourselves, our relationship with others, and our connection to the Divine. The season of Teshuva that the Jewish people just experienced over the last month or so teaches us the critical lesson that after sin, we can return. No matter how far we stray, we can always return. God’s warm parental embrace awaits us all.

The Rebbe suggests that this is what Rashi is alluding to. God gave Israel to our ancestors; however, the outside world may look at the Jews and claim that the land of Israel was theirs before they sinned and the Temple was destroyed. After the exile, so they say, the Jews have been permanently rejected, and the promise of the land no longer remains. But this is not so.

Rashi suggests that the Torah could have opened with Exodus 12 and the mitzvot. We deserve the land if we keep halacha. Upon failing, we no longer merit the land of Israel and have no way to return. But the Torah didn’t focus on halacha but on the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people teaching us about God’s covenant with us. This covenant was solid until the Jewish people failed to live up to their end of the bargain. The land was taken away.

But there are two beginnings; there is always the potential for redemption. God gave the land of Israel to us for an everlasting home if and when we return to him.

I’m not suggesting that the Aleksander Rebbe was a supporter of political Zionism or the return of the Jews of his time to the land of Israel. But it is clear from his understanding of Rashi that the Jewish people can deserve Eretz Yisrael again. Just as the season of Tishrei teaches us that we can come back to HaShem, the Aleksander Rebbe taught us that we can come back to the land of Israel as well.

As we begin reading the Torah, and celebrate new beginnings, may the whole world merit Divine grace. To paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, may God’s house again be called a house of prayer for the Jewish people and the entire world.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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