Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

After All That – The Beginning

I had a great holiday season and I hope you did too. I got to go to the zoo with my granddaughters, and dance with the Torah and dance with my sons and dance with my granddaughters and sleep in the sukkah and discuss interesting Torah things with the family and I hope you did too. (Or that you will one day.) I got to wake up early for mitzvah reasons, and eat delicious things, and I got to not start a fight by assuming ill intent in a text message, and I got to help a friend jump start his car, and I hope you did too. (Or that you will one day.) I got to go on the train ride and the antique cars with my granddaughters, and watch my married boys be good husbands, and I got to pour my heart out in davening for myself, my family, my students and my friends, and I hope you did too. (Or that you will one day.) It was a great time.

In one of my classes I pointed that out on the secular calendar there are a series of holidays (Halloween, Thanksgiving, X-mas, New Years) that all come in quick succession. But they don’t really represent a pattern; they just happen to be clustered that way. On the Jewish calendar we have Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur, then Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. I asked if they all just happen to be that way or if maybe they represent a system. The enthusiastic students found different, creative ways to identify how these holy days point towards a pattern. But yesterday, on my way home from shul, I found myself wondering if perhaps the question was incomplete.

Maybe the system starts with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Shabbat Bereishit? Indulge me in this inquiry for a moment. Is it possible that Simchat Torah is not the end, but the penultimate moment, and right now, Shabbat and reading Parshat Bereishit is the pinnacle?

If we imagine that the simcha of Simchat Torah is not just and ends but also a means – that we are supposed to use that simcha to recommit to study and reaffirm our faith – it does seem to fit.

It feels appropriate to be digging into the creation story now, still basking in the light of the chaggim.  A few days ago, during an “Ask The Rabbi” session a student asked why I believe in G-d. The conversation went something like this:

Student: Why do you believe in G-d?

Me: Because I’m a simple person and not capable of a high degree of faith. You have blind faith that universe just came to be by accident, but I’m a simple person. I can’t have such faith. So, I believe the simpler thing, which is that a Creator made the universe on purpose.

Student:  *stares in surprise*

Student: Even if the odds of the universe happening are 1 to 10 2,685,000  it’s still possible.

Me: Exactly. You have blind faith in a nearly impossible situation. I’m just not capable of that much faith. So I have to follow logic. And logically, since there is a Universe (I think), it just makes more sense that it wasn’t an accident.

Student:  *blinks confusedly*

All that being said, the questions of how to reconcile the first 2 chapters of Bereishit intrigue many students and theologians. But that’s not interesting to me this year.

I’m much more interested in the Garden of Eden stuff.

Let me try and focus your attention on one particular curiosity. Adam and Chava are told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but (spoiler alert) they do. And when Adam misses the opportunity to admit his misdeed, G-d starts doling out the punishments.

When we get to Chava we read these very curious verses: “I will greatly increase your suffering and your childbearing; in pain you will give birth. Your craving will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Whoa. That’s not a very 21st century thing to say. How are we and our little American brains and our very modern sensibilities supposed to take that?

A few years ago, I was getting ready to teach these pesukim to a class of very intelligent and insightful 11th graders and I was really stressed out. What is the truth that Torah is conveying? I know it can’t mean that a husband is supposed to rule over his wife because Allison told me so. So, what’s the reality of it?

Take a look at the next set of pesukim – the punishment to Adam: “The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat with frustration all the days of your life. Thorns and thistle will grow for you . . . with the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken . . .” That’s also pretty heavy stuff.  Adam was cursed with the fact that he would have to work hard to produce food. But that doesn’t stop mankind from trying to make it easier! Adam was cursed with hard work and frustration and traffic and paperwork – but that doesn’t stop us from inventing power tools and GPS and auto-fill. I haven’t met a frum Jew who refuses to use Waze to shorten his commute to work because Adam was cursed by G-d with having to work hard to make income for his family, and traffic is a fulfillment of G-d’s will. The Torah is describing that the natural state of mankind is that it’s hard to make a living. But we are empowered to make that easier. (Some might say required to work to make that easier.) “In pain you will give birth.” The natural state of a woman is that it hurts to give birth. But we are empowered to make that easier. (Some might say required to work to make that easier.)

And I think that is the case with the phrase, “Your craving will be for your husband, and he will rule over you,” as well. The natural state of a woman might be that she would be intimidated by her husband, or she might feel that she lacks a certain agency in their intimate life (see Rashi – v’hameivin yavin). But we are empowered to create relationships where there is loving equality. (I say required to make such relationships.) The Torah is saying this is the natural situation; this is how it came to be. Now go fix it.  I honestly think that is the real truth of what the Torah is telling us.

I hope that this year you will seek out messages from the parshiyot that are fresh and relevant. I hope you are inspired by the simcha of Simchat Torah to reinvigorate your faith and practice. I hope that you will be unsatisfied with seeing curses in the world without thinking about how to help. And I hope I will too.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now three precious granddaughters.
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