Reb Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the MUSSAR or ethics movement in the mid-19th century, famously taught, ‘The Torah came to make a MENSCH.’ The Torah with all its laws and instructions ultimately doesn’t desire us to be mitzva machines, but to be kind, caring human beings. It’s a beautiful concept. Probably the book of Breishit best fulfills that goal. With our Patriarchs and Matriarchs teaching us how to be good people and examples for our progeny. But this week’s Torah reading, the first in our annual cycle, leaves me a bit bewildered. The majesty of God as Creator is so amazingly cool, but what’s the take away? What is there in God’s infinite power that can guide me and my behavior?
Obviously, I could find things in the behavior of the first family to guide me, but those stories are cautionary, rather than exemplary. And the star of our parsha is clearly God not the humans listed. So, I’m going to look at three very famous verses to attempt to glean a concept to guide me and my behavior.
These verses are recited numerous (at least 3) times every Friday night:
Thus, the heavens and the earth were finished, along with everything in them. On the seventh day God had completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it [as His own, that is, set it apart as holy from other days], because in it He rested from all His work which He had created and done (Breishit 2:1-3).
There are so many questions. The Ohr HaChaim begins discussing these verses by stating: We have no idea what this text is coming to teach us. We’ve already been informed that God completed the task of Creation a couple of verse earlier, when God surveyed the project and declared: It’s very good, indeed!
In verse 2, the Ohr HaChaim is equally perplexed. On the words ‘and He rested’, he sounds bewildered: Here, too, we must ask for the reason the Torah wrote these words. In verse three, his search for meaning culminates in the demand: We need to know the exact nature of this blessing which the Torah does not spell out in this instance. Our great commentary isn’t satisfied with the famous approaches to these verses, that they are teaching about some mystical creatures spawned incomplete at sunset of the sixth day or that the blessing refers to the future appearance of the MAN in the desert. The ‘plain meaning (P’SHAT)’ demands an explanation that began then and continues forever, not a prediction about an event two thousand years in the future.
The fact is that this present world can function only on the basis of an adequate supply of life-sustaining food and drink… Inasmuch as God wanted to sanctify the Sabbath, He first bestowed a blessing on that day so that it should not be devoid of any physical creativity… God provided His blessing so that not only would there be no lack of the physical comforts but an abundance. This abundance is expressed by the Halachah requiring us to have two whole loaves of bread when reciting the benediction over the Sabbath meal, to eat at least three meals on that day, and to enjoy delicacies not eaten on the other days of the week.
There you have it. All this talk of God ‘ceasing’, ‘resting’, ‘blessing’ and ‘sanctifying’ is to teach us that God is modeling this behavior of six days of toil followed by a day of contemplation and spirituality. This behavior was totally unnecessary for God, but totally required for us to transform ourselves into a MENSCH. After a week of hard work, we need this break in our labors to receive this BERACHA. The sensitive soul follows this path which leads to the experiencing of KEDUSHA
The Kedushat Levi takes this idea of the BERACHA leading to KEDUSHA to a very logical deduction. He teaches:
The seventh day that followed is to be viewed as the response by the creatures to having received such abundant blessings during the preceding six days. In other words, the day is used to show God our positive response to His generosity… thus sending back to their Creator the message (‘reflected light’ of rest) that they appreciate the ’direct light’ (of God’s blessing upon their labor) that they had been the beneficiaries of during the preceding six weekdays.
Rabbeinu Bechaye also refers to the famous Midrashic approach that the BERACHA and KEDUSHA referred to the MAN which would fall in the desert inadequate. He emphasized the fact that God in the process of sanctifying the seventh day was really distinguishing it from the other days and setting it apart. This is the greatest BERACHA, to be assigned a special, unique role in God’s created world. He points out that this term will later be applied to the Jewish nation, our greatest BERACHA is to be KADOSH.
The most important lesson to be found in our parsha is that to be a MENSCH means to recognize the holy nature of this wonderful world God bestowed upon us, and to appreciate and then be thankful for it. It is not a coincidence that the Psalm for Shabbat states: It is good to praise the LORD… I sing for joy at the works of your hands. How great are your works, O LORD, how profound your thoughts! (Tehillim 92:2 & 5). A MENSCH is aware and grateful.