Bereshit: Scary but Special

hero image
Hands holding the earth on a black background
15 Oct 2009

Scary but Special

Bereshit is the scariest parsha in the Torah. It creates responsibility and frames our life’s mission. God’s world is pregnant with purpose and demands accountability; a notion so overwhelmingly transformative that Rav Elchanan Wasserman profoundly suggested, it spurs the mind to conjure a world without Him; hence the pull of the agnostic/atheist; for at the end of the day, there is a part of us that detests accountability and craves freedom.

The flip side of the coin is even more compelling, for in the cosmos, we ostensibly feel so insignificant, a theme we constantly evoke in our liturgy:

Mah enosh ki tizkirenu u’ven adam ki tifkienu. Mah anu, Meh chayeinu ..Who are we? What are we? U’mosar ha’ada min habeheima ayin …

So frail and yet: [Yom Kippur Neilah]

Ata hivdalta enosh mirosh, vatakireihu la’amod lefanecha.. You set aside man from the beginning and recognized him to stand before You

You set us apart and elevated us to in order to have a relationship with You. Man is dear and Bnei Yisrael even more so! We can and thus must have a relationship with Hashem. He wants it and we need it!


Of Fruit Trees and Rebellious Man

It is Tuesday and God commands the trees to produce [Bereishit, 1:11]

Elokim said, “Let the earth sprout grass, seed-yielding herbs, fruit trees bearing fruit of its own kind, with its seed within it, upon the earth.” And it was so.

The text delineates the results:

The earth brought forth grass, .. and trees bearing fruit which has in it seeds of its kind…

Note the change in wording from fruit trees [eitz peri] to trees [eitz].

Rashi presents a famous midrashic approach:

This implies that the taste of the tree should be the same as the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth] did not do this, but rather: “The earth sprouted forth… a tree producing a fruit,” but the tree itself was not a fruit. Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, it, [the earth] too, was punished for its sin and was [also] cursed.

For those possessors of a formal Jewish education, it is a midrash that we imbibed with our mother’s milk. But what does it really mean? Consider: Why would the earth disobey in this manner?! How can the inanimate ground disobey the will of God?! Why wait to punish it until man comes along? These are famous questions:

Chizkuni tackles our first question: The ground had a gutte tayne – a great argument: were it to produce fruit-like bark, it would be risking its very existence, exposing itself to human consumption. The ground thus produced a bland bark with delicious fruit in order to preserve its own fruit. It’s a great argument – with one problem: God disagrees!

In classic Talmudic language, such grounded logos was impeccable save for the reality that it meddled in God’s secrets [cf. Brachot 10]. Man is entitled and compelled to follow his logic; that’s why God gave him a brain. When the mind arrives at a different conclusion from its Creator however, it must obey the Divine yield sign and surrender to Hashem.

Years ago, a student tried to argue it was better for her to “do” college on a Jew-forsaken campus, for in the challenge her Judaism will be accentuated and enhanced – as opposed to a Jewful campus [Touro, Stern, Queens, etc. ] where her Judaism would be too easy and taken for granted. It’s a great and compelling argument, I told her that it derives from ancient wisdom; Adam HaRishon 1 also reasoned that his loyalty to Hashem would be so much greater were he only to internalize the yetzer hara and still transcend. To fight an external yetzer hara is kindershpiel! There was only one problem with the logic – it was contra God. Adam’s sin and the ground’s sin coalesce – for they both derive from compelling logic that will surely promote personal greatness. The only catch is that we don’t know better.

But can the inanimate really rebel? Thus we need Maharal who finds here the very notion that rebellion and separation is rooted in the Creation of the lower worlds. It is natural to want to be independent. The ground “wanted” to disobey! Indeed, consider that even the fruit was separate and distinct from its source. Man is a tree is a fruit! Our natural predilection towards independence is not a product of sinful urging – it is nature itself. It could be that there will be a time that children will be happy to clean their rooms and spouses [gender neutral on purpose] will desire to take out the garbage while students will willingly do their homework – but it will only be before they are asked. A metuzveh v’oseh – a commanded being must transcend to comply. The moment anything on earth is commanded, it feels the desire to deviate. That is natural and creative. What we do with that creative, independent spirit makes all the difference in the world!


Kayin, Hevel and Us

Kayin and Hevel bring sacrifices. Kayin brings from the ground while Hevel sheep. Kayin is angry; God regards Hevel’s offering and disregards his. Kayin then says something to his brother and kills hims:

And it happened when they were in the field Kayin said to his brother Hevel, that Kayin rose up against his brother, Hevel, and killed him.

What did he say? – the text skips the meat: Three midrashic interpretations fill it in: [Bereishit Rabah, 22:7]

They said: “Lets divide up the world Kayin said, “You take the movable property and I will take the immovable property. Kayin said, “The land that you are standing on is mine, go fly away.” Hevel said, “The clothing that you are wearing is mine.” Kayin tried to chase Hevel off of his property and ultimately killed him.

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sachnin .. they were fighting concerning the sadeh, field, [Beit Hamikdash] One said “On my land the Beit Hamikdash will be built” and the other said “On my land the Beit Hamikdash will be built.” Their argument continued until Kayin finally killed Hevel.

.. Yehudah Bar Ami .. they were fighting over Chava 2.

Note that not much has changed: In man’s lust for unbridled materialism, inappropriate sexuality and misguided religious fervor, can be found the overwhelming amount of the world’s bloodshed.

In the 1st approach, they argue over ownership of olam hazeh – the material world 3. This seems counter to the reality that they each brought sacrifices to a world which belongs to God? Perhaps they were willing to cede to God – but neither Hevel [Kayin, take off your clothing] nor Kayin [Hevel: get off my land] were willing to give to man. Recognition that this world belongs to Hashem requires one to enjoy, delight and help others. Do Not Covet, says Ibn Ezra begins with the recognition that the world is God’s and plenty big enough for all of us!

The 2nd approach sees their dispute rooted in spirituality. They were fighting over where the Beit Hamikdash shall be. Kayin kills Hevel. Yoma [23] records a Kohein so incensed by his losing out on the avodah that he killed the victor – in the Beit HaMikdash! In the end, even God’s service can be ego-centric. As the ba’alei mussar teach, we must be wary of our sins and more wary of our mitzvos.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Asher Brander

1 According to the standard understanding of Rambam. Cf. Rav Dessler Michtav M’Eliyahu on this topic.

2 Women: a person is referred to in the chumash as a field (Dvarim 20:19: Ki HaAdam etz Hasadeh).

3 The pasuk mentions that they were in the field – so their conversation must have had something to do with a field or land.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.