• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About
  •  

    The beginnings of humanity – B’reshit

    October 3rd, 2018

    Adam & Eve under the Tree of Knowledge, Charles Foster, 1897

    The Book of B’reshit leads us through four stages – man (and woman), family, tribe and people.

    Each stage fascinated our ancient ancestors.

    The stage we will concern ourselves with here is the first, depicting not just how humanity began but what the rabbinic age of Midrash and Talmud read into and out of the Biblical story.

    There were two major ideas in particular:

    1. Adam as the ideal prototype, the acme of beauty, dignity, goodness and intelligence – in the Psalmist’s words (8:6), “little lower than the angels”.

    What shattered the dream? Adam was not certain of himself – was he more like an angel or more like a beast?

    When he was captured and captivated by the second option and could not master his desires, he no longer deserved to live forever or to inhabit the garden of paradise.

    2. The emergence of the basic marks and ideas of civilisation. Cultural characteristics – speech, gender, food, clothing, work, skill, counting time, music. Ideas – morality, equality, love, community, compassion.

    Every problem that confronted later generations was discovered as prefigured in the Creation story – problems such as marital dysfunction, sibling rivalry, wounding with words (“death and life are in the power of the tongue”: Proverbs 18:21), the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked.


    The Garden of Eden – B’reshit

    October 3rd, 2018

    “The Garden of Eden” by Thomas Cole, c.1828

    The opening chapters of B’reshit see the creation of the first man and woman with God planting a garden for them to inhabit (Gen 2:8).

    The text says, “God planted a garden in Eden”, indicating that Eden was a place. The name means “delight”. Its situation seems to be near the beginning of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

    It is not certain what is meant by the garden being there mikedem. The Hebrew could mean “from of old”, which is the interpretation of the Targum based on the Midrash. Ibn Ezra says that God planted the garden there before creating man.

    Another possibility is that it means “in the east”, which suggests that Eden was somewhere to the east of Eretz Yisra’el.

    In Jewish theology “Garden of Eden” is one of the names of the World to Come, indicating that after the storm and stress of earthly living the soul will find eternal pleasure in the presence of God.

    Of course this is poetic language which does not literally mean physical delight but spiritual perfection.


    To soul the world – B’reshit

    October 3rd, 2018

    What did God do when He had finished creating?

    The Torah says vayinafash, which is connected with nefesh, a soul. Pinhas Peli says in one of his essays on the Bible that what God did was that He souled the world, He gave the world a soul.

    There are three possibilities when it comes to interpreting the Creation story: one, it is a scientific study of origins; two, it is a set of fairy tales; three, it was neither scientific or magical but spiritual.

    Because of the word vayinafash, we are not dealing with inanimate wood and stones, nor with poetical Dreamtime hymns, but with spiritual principle. Because the world now had a soul it began to function, move and pulsate.

    A simple analogy: when man turns on the switch, the machinery begins to operate. Because God instilled a soul into His world, it became a living thing.


    The Jewish Literacy Day

    September 26th, 2018

    The light of Torah, painting by Alex Levin

    Simchat Torah is probably the only religious festival anywhere that celebrates a book.

    Most religions – Judaism too – make grand occasions out of historical anniversaries. Many celebrate great thinkers, mentors, martyrs and spiritual leaders. Many have times of supreme joy interspersed with times of supreme tragedy.

    But no other religion makes such a great event out of opening a book, reading it and reaching its close.

    The book is of course the Torah. We give the day a name – Simchat Torah: our rejoicing over the Torah and the Torah’s rejoicing over us.

    Imagine, a people with all its gamut of tzaddikim and sinners, deniers and doubters, that has added to its scriptures by creating its own Literacy Day and making it a great popular festival.

    Whatever criticisms can be voiced about the Jewish people, no-one can ever say that we had no interest in education, no love of books, no way with words.

    No other religion has given a bookcase such pride of place in its place of worship.


    Simchah is a Mitzvah

    September 26th, 2018

    Painting by Emmanuel Levy

    There is a well known idea of simchah shel mitzvah, “the joy of the mitzvah”.

    It tells us that when we do a mitzvah we should enjoy what we’re doing.

    To perform a mitzvah with a sour face, even to carry out the mitzvah perfunctorily, might have its value, but it lacks something extremely important.

    There is a companion idea which says that simchah itself is a mitzvah, not just enjoying the fulfilment of a Divine command, but enjoying life as a whole and all its blessings.

    Pinhas Peli commends this idea and finds it grounded in teachings of the classical Jewish thinkers.

    Yehudah HaLevi says there are three ways to God, joy, love and fear (Kuzari 2:50).

    The Rambam says joy is “a supreme act of Divine worship”.

    Not that joy is defined as going berserk, getting on an artificial high, over-indulging in drink or going wild. Joy is the quiet feeling that life is wonderful even if we have problems.

    I had a colleague whose wife told me, “My husband is never happy unless he’s miserable”. Whether she was right, and what the words meant, the fact is that even if a person is miserable they can still feel joy.

    Joy comes from a Shehecheyanu-type feeling of gratitude that God has “given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time”.