Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Texts and Contexts

My resolution for this new year is that, with G-d’s help, I will do muy best to give expression to my destructive instincts. 

One of the great challenges we faced when we arrived in Uruguay some 35 years ago was: how do you sell religion to a secular-minded person?

It would seem more difficult than lighting a match under water…

Today I understand that you can’t “sell” anything to anyone in this regard. What you can and should do is present things properly and trust that they will be attractive enough to sell themselves. 

In practice it is not so easy, since the cultural barrier between the secular and the religious —at least in the Uruguayan version I came to know— is so strong, people are so “religiously” secular, more secularist than secular, that they don’t even listen to what the religious person is saying, even if he is saying 2+2=4. 

It’s that barrier that I set out to demolish, at least try and put some cracks in it.

How do I plan to accomplish this goal?

Each week I plan to examine a text from the Bible reading of that week with emphasis on Rashi’s commentary and the Rebbe’s—may his merit shield us from— analysis of it.

What does all this have to do with my destructive instinct?

I will explain.

The greatest barrier that the Jew who “believes that he does not believe” has with regard to the study of biblical sources is that he feels that it is necessary to be religious or a believer in order to find it interesting or relevant. “If I’m not a believer, why would I want to study religious texts that talk about subjects that don’t interest me,” he reasons.

I can understand that. 

—OK, Mr. Secular, so you’re not interested in religion and irrational beliefs; are you interested in brainteasers based on logic?

—Yes, of course!

Great! Now we have a starting point.   

Biblical texts contain complex multidimensional structures, starting with the four  basic dimensions of understanding known as Peshat, Remez, Derush and Sod in addition to the fifth category: Chassidut. In each dimension one can find an infinite number of expressions; in fact, the obligation to study the Torah consists not only of learning what has already been discovered but also of discovering something that until now has perhaps gone unnoticed. It is a never-ending task, to be sure. But, before entering into the analysis of advanced and more sophisticated levels as to what the text wants to say and can say, it is necessary to understand what it is saying on the most basic level known as Peshat or Peshuto shel mikra.

Now, it is not always an easy task to discern the Peshat dimension of a biblical text. Many times there is information that to the untrained eye seems to be lacking, although to the experienced eye it is more than evident. A good example to understand this dynamic is the game of Sudoku, where you have to fill in the empty squares on the grid with the correct numbers. If only one number were to be missing it would be quite evident which one it is. The great challenge is when many numbers are missing and the solution is not so evident. The difficulty of the challenge depends on the capacity and the experience of each player. The Master will see the solution right away and will be able to give you some elements that will help you solve the rest. Perhaps the clues that are so obvious to him will still be insufficient for others of lesser training and it will be necessary that another Master come show you how to identify the missing links, based on the information that the first Master provided.

As far as understanding the biblical texts is concerned, the first Master was Rashi, whose commentary always aims to clarify the Peshat level of the texts. Everything Rashi writes in his commentary is in order to help us understand what the text is saying, why it says what it says and why it does not say what it does not say. His goal is not to interpret the texts but to help us understand them.

But, for most of us, the subtleties and nuances of Rashi’s commentaries on the biblical texts elude us. We are very fortunate that in our generation, in 1964, the year of mourning for his mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, A “H, the second Master trail blazed a revolutionary approach to understanding Rashi’s commentary  and in a systematic way began to shed light on this hitherto unnoticed fascinating world of Pirush Rashi. Every Shabbat, at the Farbrengen gathering the Rebbe would analyze Rashi’s commentary on the first and last verses of that week’s Bible reading. After the conclusion of the year of mourning, the Rebbe would select a verse from the parashah with Rashi’s commentary to be analyzed  every time there was a Farbrengen on Shabbat. Over the course of close to thirty years years the Rebbe identified and articulated a whole sophisticated system of Pshuto shel Mikra with hundreds of rules that determine what can and cannot fall within the Peshat criteria. One simple thing became clear: simplicity is not so simple.

You don’t have to be a believer in order to enjoy the intellectual and logical challenges that each approach by the Rebbe to Rashi’s commentary presents; you have to be —or believe that you are— intelligent and be willing to have your intelligence challenged. 

(The Akshn who resists even a proposal of this nature reminds me of the applicant for an accounting position who, upon learning that it was for a dairy exporter, says: “Sorry, I can’t take the job; I’m lactose intolerant…”)

In my humble opinion and experience, this method of study —if done correctly— can be a very effective tool to be able to break down the barrier that prevents the Jew who believes that he doesn’t believe from having and enjoying a meaningful, challenging and ultimately satisfying contact with the biblical texts.

According to the great Mystical and Chassidic masters, within the sophisticated simplicity of Rashi’s commentary one can also find a “wine” dimension —sod or secret— of the text. Through a thorough understanding of Rashi’s commentary one can succeed in shedding light not only on the texts, but also on other dimensions of the Torah, on life and its challenges. Usually, after explaining what the text is saying the Rebbe would go on to share some of the broader themes to be extracted from the text, in addition to what it is saying explicitly.  

  * * *

So let’s begin with a verse from this week’s reading, Bereshit.

One of the first documented episodes in human history is that of Cain’s envy following G-d’s favorable reaction to the offering of fat sheep brought by his brother Abel and the lack of reaction to the offering Cain had offered up from his harvest. As a result of his envy, he ended up killing his brother Abel. 

In verse 4:3 it says: “And Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the land”. Rashi quotes the words “from the fruit of the land” and comments: “from the most inferior quality. And there is an Aggadah (Midrash) that says it was flax seed.”

The Rebbe asks: How does Rashi know that “from the fruit” means that it was from the most inferior quality? And why is it so relevant to the understanding of the text —to the point of quoting a Midrash— to know that it was flax seed that he offered up?

The answer: 

Why is it that G-d was pleased with Abel’s offering and not with Cain’s? Are there any clues in the text in this regard?

With his commentary Rashi points out that the explanation is hinted at in the way the Torah describes what each one of them brought: As for Abel’s offering, the verse says: “And Abel also brought of the best of his sheep and of their fat“, unlike the description of the offering of his older brother, Cain: “And Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the land. The implication, then, is that he brought not the best of his fruit, but the worst. 

The question then arises: Why would it occur to Cain to choose for his offering, whose purpose it is to thank and please G-d, from the most inferior quality of his harvest? Wouldn’t that be offensive?

That is why Rashi quotes the Midrash that says it was flax seeds. In other words, Cain’s offering consisted of a product that was highly valued at that time, to the degree that the first of the four rivers that came out of the Garden of Eden was called Pishon because of the flax “Pishtan” that grew on its banks.

With this we understand that Cain considered that it was enough to offer up produce selected from the best product that he had, albeit not the best quality within that product. Abel, on the other hand, brought the best that he had within his flock.

After concluding the analysis of Rashi’s commentary on the text of the verse, the Rebbe points out that from this we can go on to learn three lessons beyond and based on the meaning of the text: one regarding a Halachah (law) referring to the sacrifices brought in the Temple, one regarding mystical/philosophical concepts and a third lesson regarding behavior in general.


Maimonides formulates the following in his code: “if one wants to generate merit for himself, when he offers up a sacrifice he must bring it from the best within that species” and quotes as a source two verses: 1) Leviticus 3:16 that says that one must destine “all the choicest for G-d” and 2) our verse that describes the sacrifice that Abel brought and G-d’s reaction as a result of it. How do we know that “all the choicest” means the best within the class from which one brings the sacrifice and not that one must always bring from the absolute best that he has?  Maimonides gives us the answer by quoting the verse that speaks of Abel’s sacrifice: we see that even though he didn’t bring an animal from the very best that he had —he brought his sacrifice from his flocks and not from his herds— the fact that he brought from the best that he had within that class is what caused G-d’s pleasure, unlike Cain’s offering that even though he brought his offering from the best class within his crop, since what he brought was from the most inferior quality within that class, G-d didn’t accept it.

Mysticism/Chassidic philosophy:

The deeper dimension of this story: Why is it more important to bring as a sacrifice the best within the species and not necessarily from the best species? The reason is that we need to use the best of each species in order to demonstrate that everything, every type of existence within Creation, belongs to G-d. Based on this concept, we can understand why it was that Cain brought his offering from the best species —flax— but not of the best quality within it. The explanation is as follows: Sacrifices are meant to express the absolute truth of G-d, that G-d is the only true existence. That condition of unity and uniqueness is manifested in two ways: 1) by transcending diversity and 2) by expressing Himself through all kinds of differences, thereby uniting them. Flax represents —because of the way it grows (each seed producing but a single stem)— G-d’s unity that transcends differences. Cain wanted to activate and connect with G-d’s absolute truth as expressed through His transcendence. That’s why he didn’t focus on quality: different categories of quality imply diversity and Cain was aiming to connect with and draw down G-d’s unity that transcends diversity. The reason G-d did not accept his noble intentions is because the ultimate goal is not to escape from diversity but to find unity within it. He should have also brought the best within the species itself, thus expressing that each expression of diversity is nothing more than a manifestation of one and the same truth. In terms of Jewish mysticism: the ultimate goal is to manifest the unity of Echad rather than Yachid.

Practical life:

From Cain’s way of thinking and acting we learn that it is not enough to have the highest ideals; one must also have the loftiest kind of behavior. The fact that Cain was satisfied with having very high spiritual aspirations, far from the earthly reality, led to his eventual fall to the point that ended up killing his own brother. You cannot ignore the physical reality nor escape from it; you need to conquer and sublimate it. The ultimate goal is not to aspire to the highest levels of understanding; it is to do your best within each reality in which you find yourself. The reality in which you find yourself does not depend on you; G-d put you there. What does depends on you is what you decide to do with the challenge and opportunity that G-d presented you with. 

Dear reader, the development of this theme in its original is much broader, more complex and richer. What you see here is only a brief summary. I hope it will be enough to whet your appetite for more.

Source: Likutei Sijot Vol. 15, pp. 20-26.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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