October 6th, 2015
Are the translators right to say that B’reshit bara Elokim means “In the beginning God created”?
Possibly not, though despite the translation it is axiomatic to the believer that history did begin with God’s act of Creation. The problem is that reshit does not mean “the beginning” but “the beginning of” (compare Gen. 10:10), which is supported by the vocalisation with a sh’va, which denotes “in (or at) the beginning of…”. If it really meant what the translators say, it would not have had the vowel sh’va but different vowels.
The way it stands it might be a similar form to what we find in Gen. 5:1, B’yom b’ro Elokim – “on the day of God’s (act of) creation”, and so Rashi and Ibn Ezra render our verse, “At the beginning of God’s (act of) creation”.
Others, like Saadya Ga’on, think it is an independent statement and the first word is to be read as if it had the vowel kamatz. Hence we are being told, “First of all, God created…”. Ramban and Sforno note that the verb b-r-a, “created”, is used in a more precise sense than the vague word “made”. It indicates bringing something into being out of nothing – “Creatio Ex Nihilo”. This is the way God works. Man, by contrast, cannot create out of nothing, but needs raw material of some kind onto which to impose shape, form and potential function.
It is no contradiction to see the Midrash telling us that God created earlier worlds and discarded them (Gen. R. 9:2). It is not only that this is the world in which we are interested, but God as Creator has the logical right to create whatever He wishes whenever He wishes it.
Were the earlier worlds “heavens and earth” like ours? What does the text say in relation to our world? “In the beginning (if that is the translation you want to use), God created the heavens and the earth (i.e. our world).”
October 6th, 2015
The human being whose creation is described in this sidra is not a perfect paragon. Just as he can do good, so can he do evil. He has an evil inclination (a yetzer ha-ra) just as he has a good inclination (a yetzer ha-tov).
Would he have been better off to have been created as an angel?
The sages say no. The evil inclination is actually regarded as good for him and it can be used to serve God (Deut. 6:5, Rashi’s commentary, and Mishnah B’rachot 9:5).
One way of understanding this statement is that in bringing the evil inclination under control, a person is serving the Creator. On the Mishnah in B’rachot, the M’lechet Shlomo says that conquering the evil inclination is a means of service of God. As an example, the evil inclination is a source of cruelty, and by being compassionate instead of cruel, one is defeating this inclination and serving the purposes of the Almighty.
Another view is that it is because of this inclination that one is moved by the drive for sexual gratification (which is one reason for marriage), building a house and pursuing an occupation, so the stimulus of the yetzer ha-ra leads one to actions that enhance the world (Gen. R. 9:7).
October 6th, 2015
Q. Why do we need the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah when we already have the Ten Commandments?
A. The Seven Noachide Laws came first. Rabbinic discussion even includes the view that six of the seven were given to Adam in the first instance, making this a universal code meant from the moment of Creation for all mankind (Gen. R. 16:6, 24:5).
A great deal of attention is given to whether there are differences in applicability between Jews and gentiles. One opinion is that ancient pre-Sinaitic commandments which are not repeated at Mount Sinai apply only to Jews. Some post-Sinai commandments also devolve only upon Jews, such as, for example, laws that arose out of Israelite history (such as eating matzah on Pesach and blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah) which are not obligatory on gentiles.
It should be noted that the Sinai versions of laws which are repeated in the Revelation are generally much more extensive than the Noachide versions.
September 29th, 2015
Sh’mini Atzeret is the day when we pray for rain. The chazan wears the white garments that characterize the Yom Kippur supplications. The poems written by El’azar Kalir acknowledge that life depends on whether we get enough rain.
The rain prayers go back to the time of the Mishnah. Rabbi Abbahu actually says in the Talmud, “Rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, since that is only for the righteous whilst rain is for everybody” (Ta’anit 7a). Another rabbi says in the Midrash, “Rain is greater than the Revelation, since that day brought joy to Israel, whilst rain brings joy to all humanity” (Midrash Tehillim 117:1).
Old-time siddurim recognized that sometimes there is too much rain and sometimes too little, and they have a special prayer for each possibility. The lesson we learn is that the best blessings are those when we have just enough, not too much or too little.
Why the emphasis on Israel in the prayer for rain? Because when Israel is blessed, so is the whole world.
The verbissener nations that traduce Israel should stop and think once in a while about how much benefit the entire human race has received from the land and people of Israel – and from Israel’s God too.
September 29th, 2015
The Sh’mini Atzeret liturgy includes Yizkor, the memorial prayers. Many Holocaust survivors used to appear in the synagogue in time for Yizkor and then just as suddenly vanish until next time. The influx was noticeable and predictable, and I could never bring myself to denigrate it.
A large number of those who came and went, had their faith in God knocked out of them. They didn’t want to know about prayers and synagogues any more. What they came to the synagogue to do at Yizkor time was to ritualise the pain by giving it a day and a moment.
It was also a tribute to the religious Jews who had been martyred – and to the religious communities, institutions, books and practices which the Nazis, cursed be their memory, had targeted for destruction.
How to approach the Yizkor moment was taught to me by a dear colleague in Sydney, who served the same synagogue as I and lived in the flat upstairs from ours. On Shabbat we would walk home together through Kings Cross, where a corner shop was doing a brisk trade in cooked (t’refah) chickens.
My colleague told me, “You see the owner of that shop? Before the Sho’ah he was a talmid chacham and even now when he goes home on a Saturday afternoon he smokes a cigar and studies Gemara.”
“So what happened to him? The shop open on Shabbat? The non-kosher food?” I asked.
“You forget,” said my colleague, “he went through the Holocaust”…
The evanescent crowds don’t come to the synagogues for Yizkor any more: is it the passing of time (and of the survivors)? The passing of the rebellion? Who knows?