Just Five Rashis, Parashat Bereshit

Learning five Rashis a week in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen ben Mordechai Yidel ve-Doba Chaya.

Spread throughout the parsha, the comments of Rashi I chose for this week ask us to ponder the purpose of the Torah, whether items in nature have consciousness or freewill, man’s intermediate status between the animals and the angels, the acknowledgement of punishment as part of what made Hevel better than his brother, and when bad outcomes can be a favor to us rather than a punishment.

What Does the Torah Tell Us?

The famous first Rashi on the Torah quotes R. Yitzchak as saying the Torah should have started with the mitzvah to make Nisan the first month, the first mitzvah given the Jewish people. He says it opened instead with Bereshit in case non-Jewish nations accuse us of stealing Israel from the original inhabitants. We can answer that the earth belongs to its Creator, Who gave Israel to us.

The question betrays what might be a common assumption, that the Torah is only about law and commandments. If so, all but the legal parts of the Torah would be unneeded, leaving us to wonder why it’s there.

The answer is that the Torah isn’t only about commandments or law. R. Yitzchak’s specific example makes a point relevant to today’s politics, that our right to Israel is based on Hashem’s giving it to us. R Yitzchak seems to have assumed that that would be convincing to the non-Jews who might attack our taking the Land (or holding it).

Even if that argument no longer convinces those around us, R. Yitzchak reminds us that we should remember the basis of our claim to the Land. Politics and our failure to merit the kind of Divine Providence that allows us to ignore other nations when they are wrong might mean we have to act as if Israel isn’t simply ours by Divine fiat, but that should never lead to us forgetting the truth. We cannot always act on all the truths we know, but we shouldn’t let that cloud our awareness of that truth.

Lastly, R. Yitzchak’s idea of the Torah as teaching us extralegal lessons applies more broadly than to this one issue. If the Torah wanted to tell us all the commandments and our right to Israel, it could have skipped from Bereshit to the first mitzvah. R. Yitzchak is articulating a general perspective of Torah, that all its material teaches us important lessons, legal or not.

Nature’s Freewill

On verse 1;11, Rashi makes a remarkable comment about the trees’ formation; while it’s worth noting on it’s own, to me it also offers a plausible subtext to one aspect of the etrog we are all currently shaking. Rashi notes that Hashem commanded the earth to produce עץ פרי, a fruit tree, whereas verse 12 reports that the earth produces עץ עושה פרי, a tree that makes fruit.  This suggests to Rashi (and the sources on which he relied) that Hashem wanted the trees themselves to taste like the fruit, and that the earth failed to do so.  He goes so far as to say that this is why the earth was included in the punishment to Adam for eating from the Tree of Knowledge (“cursed is the earth on your behalf…”; this is also crucial to a proper sense of how Bereshit links Adam and adamah, earth, but beyond the scope of this Rashi).

The first surprising idea here is that the earth could contravene Hashem’s commands, or insufficiently fulfill them. Rashi implies that the earth has some freewill, because that is a necessary precursor to punishment. Rashi does not elaborate the point, so we cannot know how he saw this freewill—it’s extent or reach, for example—but it gives a different sense of the cosmos than our modern one. (We today assume that the earth and planets have no consciousness or freewill; some strands of Jewish tradition definitely assumed the former; Rashi here assumes the latter. While many of us might reject that as somewhat primitive, I note that we have no clear reason for our confidence that nature has no consciousness, other than never witnessing it. We cut into trees, and the earth, fly to the moon, and see no response from nature; we see no mechanisms for thought or consciousness, and assume there is or are none. I don’t mean I disagree, I only mean that Rashi saw it differently, and we often dismiss such ideas without any particular scientific reason to do so).

One more stimulating part of this Rashi is that it suggests a new element to the role of the etrog on Sukkot. The Torah refers to a פרי עץ הדר, fruit of a beautiful tree. Sukkah 35a derives that this refers to an etrog because it is a tree whose taste is like that of its fruit. The Gemara does not explain why that is the standard of being הדר, beautiful.  This Rashi suggests that the beauty stems from its being one of the few trees that fulfilled the original Divine command.

If so, we might be told to take it on Sukkot as a reminder of what Nature could have looked like, had it only fulfilled the Divine Will. As we celebrate a harvest and Hashem’s bounty, we take a fruit that is the exemplar of all that Nature could and can be.

The Two Sides to Humanity

On 2;7, Rashi notes that the Torah spells the word וייצר, and He formed, with a double-yud, where it uses only one to describe the formation of the animals; he attributes that to humanity’s facing future judgment at the Resurrection of the Dead. In that same verse, he explains Hashem’s blowing a soul into the first man’s nose as reflecting humanity’s combining a lower part (the body) with a higher part, a soul.

Rashi uses that for his own reasons. I am more interested in his highlighting how human beings are both of and not of the natural order. This comes up again in 3;5, where he understands the serpent’s claim that eating of the Tree of Knowledge would make the humans like gods in that they, too, would create worlds. In verse, when Hashem “worries” that humans had become like Him, Rashi says that their new knowledge makes humanity even more singular; if they became immortal, too, it would make it too easy to err and think them the equals of Hashem.

This line of thought in Rashi is in one sense obvious, yet also surprisingly relevant to a culture that speaks of humans as if we are ruled completely by nature, that takes for granted that we are no different than animals in responding to physical realities. Rashi, operating before modern science (so that he wasn’t writing this to intentionally counter that view), posited a duality. We are not just animals, Rashi would say, even as we are partially animals.

So that all the aspects of our reality that are ruled by nature are our “lower” parts; that doesn’t mean we don’t have a soul and a higher self, one that was close enough to Hashem that He “had” to avert our achieving immortality, because we’d look too much like a god (note, by the way, that it’s not that we would be a god; immortality is not the only or crucial difference between us and Hashem).

Hevel’s Acceptance of Divine Judgment

One of the aspects of the Cain and Abel story that has long bothered me is why Hashem paid attention to Hevel’s sacrifice and not his brother’s. On 4;3, Rashi says that Kayin offered bad fruit, whereas Hevel gave the best of what he had. Unfortunately, there’s not great textual support for this negative view of Kayin (he seems to derive it from the verse’s saying he took מפרי האדמה, of the fruits of the ground, suggesting not all. In other contexts, that “of” is taken as a positive, so this isn’t ironclad).

On 4;2, though, Rashi gives a better reason. When the verse says Hevel was a shepherd, Rashi notes that Hevel abandoned working the ground because Hashem had cursed it. On the one hand, we could read this as a criticism: if Hashem said to work the ground with difficulty, perhaps the punishment included an obligation to work the ground. But that’s not what the punishment said—it said we would have a hard time working the ground to produce food, not that we had to work the ground.

Hevel found another way to support himself. While his brother bulled through the curse, seeking ways to cajole the ground into growing the food he needed, Hevel tended sheep, which provide milk, wool, leather, and meat. It’s contrasting models of how to deal with a punishment from Hashem: try to stay the course despite the new reality, or change to adapt to a world in which that punishment is in effect.

It’s Hevel’s profession that led Hashem to accept his sacrifice, this Rashi implies.

The Fragile Righteous Man

On 5;24, the words ואיננו, כי לקח אותו אלקים, and he wasn’t for Hashem had taken him, tell Rashi that Chanoch was taken before his time. He explains this as a function of Chanoch’s tenuous grasp on his tzidkut, his righteousness, the ease with which he could be tempted to evil. To protect him from himself, Hashem took him early.

As usual, Rashi drops the idea without fleshing it out, but it adds another piece to any discussion of theodicy, of bad things happening to good people. It’s not a universal answer, but it is a stimulating additional piece of the puzzle: perhaps some of what seems bad to us is Hashem helping us or others avoid backsliding. Death is an extreme example, but all sorts of accidents or illnesses or other life-changing events do close off certain paths for people, and force them onto others.

If we applied this Rashi, we could sometimes say that those events ensured that good people were helped to keep from yielding to their baser selves.

So, as promised, Rashi has given us insight into Torah as a book of ideas in addition to laws, of Nature and its possible freewill, of the two sides to human beings, of how to accept and work with a punishment from Hashem, and then how to see that what seems like punishment might be closer to a favor, saving us from ourselves. Moadim le-Simcha and Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
Related Topics
Related Posts