LTTN med xp logoFrom the Riches of the Oral Tradition

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1995 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, September, 1995 (Tishrei, 5756)

Secrets from the Book of Genesis - Part 3


Secret Meanings on the First Verse of the Torah -

“B’reishith,” In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth”

The Reward for a Life of Holiness

In the first article on Secrets from the Book of Genesis, we mentioned the concept of subjugating the spiritual over the physical. For we are taught that the true purpose of life is to obey the will of G-d, even - and especially - if it does not agree, or ‘jive,’ with our own will - for just as our goal in life is for our spiritual side to win out over the physical, so too, we must learn to subjugate our own will to His. This is a lifelong struggle; those who persevere and truly “want G-d” with all their heart and soul, will win the battle... guaranteed! The only question is, are we really trying...

The Fear of G-d:

The Key to Winning the Battle

What is the ingredient necessary for the upkeep of the Torah and its observance? The fear of G-d, which is called “the beginning of all wisdom” (Psalms 111). For this is the very foundation of Torah; without wisdom, there can be no fear, and without the fear of G-d, there can be no Torah. And since this ‘fear’ is called ‘the beginning,’ the very first verse of Genesis can thus be read: ‘B’reishith’ - “In the beginning,” or rather, “on account of that which is called ‘the beginning’ - the fear of G-d - G-d created the heavens and the earth.

G-d Created Two Worlds

The place designated by the Holy One for this struggle to take place is this world - our present one. However, the “place” set aside for the eternal reward given to those who keep G-d’s commandments is the next world.

What do we mean, “the place for the eternal reward is the next world?”

It’s quite possible that in the case of a ‘tzaddik,’ a righteous, just individual who does many good deeds, that G-d may decide to partially reward him in this world as well. But ultimately, the reward for Torah and good deeds which one may receive in this world is never more than nominal... periphery... a modicum, a fraction of the great and lasting reward which awaits him in the future world. It could not be any other way. Why?

Because the reward for a life of holiness and devotion to G-d cannot be a physical reward. In His perfect wisdom, G-d devised a program wherein a man can strive to perfect himself and his fellow man in this lowly, mundane world, through careful and sincere observance of the Torah... and receive eternal life in return.

The only real and lasting reward must be spiritual in nature

The soul of a man is forever. The body dies, but the soul is indestructible. After physical death, it goes on to take its portion in the next world. As a spiritual entity, its ultimate reward is also a completely spiritual reward... namely, inseparable closeness to G-d Himself. Not only can this type of reward not be translated in physical terms; any effort to do so - to postulate that adherance to G-d’s commandments can be properly rewarded in our physical world - only serves to undermine and understate the sublime status of eternity in the next world. Reward in this world, as expressed in terms of life as we know it, may be sweet... but as the rabbis teach, “This world is nothing but a corridor before the next world” (Chapters of the Fathers). After all, the next world is forever. Whatever reward does reach a righteous person in this world is nothing more than a hint, an allusion of that which is in store.

For G-d, who desires to give the righteous the most perfect reward possible, a mere “pay-off” in physical terms would be nothing more than second best. Obviously, this would never do for Him.

Therefore, the Holy One’s primary concern is for the welfare of that which will last forever... the soul. Only after He has seen to it that a proper portion, commensurate to its good deeds, is set aside for the soul in the next world, will He possibly allocate to it some of the ‘leftovers’ in this world as well.

Everything which we have discussed here is alluded to in the words “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens...”

First, G-d creates the ‘heavens,’ the world of souls. Only afterwards, ‘and the earth...’ then, if there is anything left, it can be rationed out down in this lowly world... once the eternal portion is seen to and secured. But if G-d rewards the righteous in this world, it is only after they have merited their eternal portion - in the world to come.

Within every human being, two potential levels exist

Man has a staggering capacity for greatness and achievement. For since he is the handiwork of G-d Himself, his Creator endowed him with the ability to reach celestial heights, to soar above the mundane and earthly concerns of existence, and to transform himself - through the commandments of the Torah - into a veritable spiritual giant.

But within this same man, G-d planted other seeds as well... the potential to ‘achieve’ the opposite extreme.

The choice is left up to him. If he excels, he will be uplifted to such an extent that he could be compared to the heavens themselves. This is alluded to in the verse (Psalms 82), “I said, you are all G-ds...”

But if he neglects his duties to G-d, himself and his fellow man as spelled out in the Torah, he will plummet earthward - until he is as lowly as the ground underfoot. It is all up to him... ‘b’reshith,’ through reshith, by the proper fear of G-d - all depending on whether or not it is utilized - the Holy One has prepared two possible outcomes for a man... either to be like ‘heaven,’ or like the ‘earth.’

Indeed, like ‘heaven’ or like ‘earth’...

In this same regard, the entire narrative of creation can be seen as an allegory referring to the creation of man - the central reason for creation itself.

In our previous article, it was stated that man’s life is a tightrope walk, for he is constantly being pulled between two strong opposing forces - the physical and the spiritual...

This is another secret of the first word of creation, B’reshith. For G-d created man from two elements; the spiritual, represented by ‘the heavens,’ and the physical, alluded to by ‘the earth.’

In a way, it can be said that the universe is unfinished. G-d made man a full partner in the constant, ongoing process of creation which renews itself each day and hour - and the key to this partnership lies in his actions.

The Torah teaches us that the entire universe is anthrocentrific - meaning, man is at the center. G-d desires that man’s actions be decisive ones, actions which will influence all of creation... and they are, whether man is aware of it or not, and whether he happens to like it - or not. For a man’s actions have power; first and foremost, the power to change himself.

The Creator desires that a man’s actions be positive. If his deeds are pure and good, he will succeed in turning his lower, physical nature into a spiritual vehicle. His very body itself will be considered as spirit, for he will have subjugated it totally. This is the meaning of the Talmud’s teaching (BT Shabbat 152:B), “The righteous do not return to dust.” This simply means that their physicality has actually been transformed into spirituality - therefore there is nothing to return to dust; no vestige of the physical remains behind.

This is also the meaning of another important Talmudic teaching: “The righteous in death are called ‘alive,’ while the wicked - even while alive are called ‘dead’ ” (BT Berachot 18:A).

This is because the righteous individual, in his lifetime, attaches himself to the side of life - eternal life. In his case, the physical has itself become spiritual, and the spiritual is forever. The wicked, on the other hand, have crushed their chances for eternal life by destroying their pure essence... and in so doing, have already attached themselves in this world to the side of death.

In a sense, we could say that ‘the heavens and the earth’ refers to these two human characteristics. The wicked relate not to the ‘heavens,’ spirit - but to ‘earth’ - inanimate and dead. But the righteous literally shed their bodily aspect, alluded to by ‘earth’, and become harmonious with heaven.

Now that we have established these principles of understanding, we can continue to study the narrative of creation, pursuing our anthrocentrific interpretation:

“And the earth was empty and void...”

The ‘tightrope battle’ is a difficult one to win, and many times it seems that all is lost... that darkness is the victor...

The earth becomes empty and void; man’s physicality wins over, and he is emptied of his spiritual contents... and left as a lifeless shell.

“And darkness covered the depths...”

For the evil inclination within each person is called darkness (Zohar I 63:A)... it spreads over the depths, the abyss of the body - which, devoid of spiritual hope, is a bottomless pit of despair. The darkness of the evil inclination is so great that it prevents G-d’s Divine spark from entering within -

“And the spirit of G-d hovered above the waters...”

- this evil so totally holds the body prisoner in its clutches that it ‘vanquishes’ the Divine light of the Holy One, and prevents it from dwelling within man. And so the G-dly light, the soul, has no alternative but to remain outside, to ‘hover above’ the murky waters of evil - the body, which has become the seat of the powers of impurity...

...but did we think that the Holy One would allow this situation to go unchecked?

- “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light...’ ”

...this is a reference to the Divine aid which the compassionate Creator sends to help a person navigate through the treacherous waters of his own evil inclination; the light of the pure and holy Divine soul, a part of G-d Himself, hewn from underneath the Throne of Glory, designed to dwell within every person. The Holy One dispatches her to earth as the sole antidote to the poison of the evil inclination; to illuminate man’s path.

“And G-d saw that the light...”

...which he placed within man - “was good” - for it enables him to walk the straight path.

But do not make the mistake of thinking that simply by the power of the divine soul within man, or by Torah study, that a man has gained immunity from the evil inclination, and is no longer subject to his advances and attacks... that perhaps he has won respite from his crafty and sinful devices. If this were so, there would surely be no reward or punishment in this world... rather, darkness has not been banished, but still exists - but man has sufficient armament to protect himself in the struggle, to divorce himself from evil’s influence and to be forewarned of its counsel...

“And G-d separated between the light and the darkness...”

G-d separated between the light of the soul and the darkness of the evil inclination, as Scripture testifies, (Ecc. 10:2), “A wise man’s understanding is at his right hand...” - the right side, signifying holiness and goodness... the place of light, the ‘location’ of the soul - “but a fool’s understanding is at his left” - he is under the influence of the evil inclination.

Thus the Holy One called the light, ‘day’ - and the darkness ‘night.’ And thus King David prayed for Divine protection from “the terrors of the night” (Psalms 91)... for there is no greater dread than the realm of the evil inclination.

“And there was evening and there was morning, one day...”

...for one can only understand the brilliant luminance of the soul when it stands at opposites with the murky darkness of the evil inclination. Only one who has experienced the latter can truly appreciate the former, as the sages teach, “in the place where penitents stand, even the perfect saints cannot stand...”

This is the greatness of man: His ability to choose good over evil, and excel... turning darkness itself into light. If not for this aspect of man’s makeup, he would be no different than the administering angels, who have no capacity for evil - and thus, he would have no cause to receive either reward or punishment.

This is the true meaning of the expression “one day”...

- for a unit of ‘one day’ is made up of two opposite components: morning/evening, light/darkness. The welcome brightness of morning would not even be recognizable were it not juxtaposed with evening... together, “and it was evening, and it was morning” forms the Divine word of G-d.

So, the very concept of ‘one day’ is a union of opposites, coming together to fulfill the word of G-d. What vast implications this has for everyday life! Each day that we live, our true challenge is to live it fully for Hashem... to rise to the challenge of all the seemingly opposing forces in our lives, all the energies that pull at us in different directions - and to unify them all within ourselves, just as day and night unite together to form ‘one day.’

Indeed, this is the life of the tzaddikim, those truly righteous individuals in every generation. They have such power that they themselves can bring these opposing forces together.

The ultimate goal is for ‘day’ and ‘night’ to blend together to such an extent they transcend from being two separate components to become one and the same. It was the Holy One’s intention that this achievement should be the end result of human experience, and that it should be reflected in the quality of the human soul at the close of life, when the time comes to return her to G-d. For the soul of every man is but a deposit which must be returned upon demand, as the verse in Ecclesiastes states: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to G-d who gave it.”

If one has truly synthesized the qualities of ‘day’ and ‘night’ within the context of his own life, then when the sun begins to set and the evening of his life arrives, he can return his soul to heaven as bright and shining as the height of day... like the ‘morning’ of his creation. This thought follows the advice of our sages who taught, based on the verse mentioned above, “return your soul to Him in the same condition you received it - in purity” (BT Shabbat 152:B). In doing so, the day of one’s departure will be equal in stature to the day of his arrival.

Secrets of the Book of Genesis, Part II

Note: We have learned of the “connection” between the Biblical portions which are read every week in the synagogue, and the events which transpire in our lives. Since the Biblical portion of the story of Noah is read shortly after the beginning of each new year, and all of humanity are his descendants - indeed, G-d entered into a covenant with him for the sake of his descendants until the end of time, and charged all mankind with the observance of the Seven Noahide Laws - it would be fitting for us to study the person of Noah, to learn who he was. (According to Jewish tradition, the Great Flood began on Oct. 27, 2106). The following is an in-depth study of just one Biblical verse: Gen. 6:9

“These are the generations of Noah...”

By bringing children into the world, we perpetuate our own lives, and actually bring about major changes in the world. Some of these changes are immediately discernible, and some will only be known in the future. When an individual dies, the children he leaves behind already make a visible difference to the world, and in the realm of potential, the difference which they may make in the future is even greater. Hopefully, they will carry on with their father’s good work and perpetuate his name. In this manner, through the emulation of his children, a man is considered to be living on even after he dies.

But there are two types of offspring, or ‘children,’ that a person can leave behind in this world... for in addition to one’s physical, biological progeny, there is another sort of ‘offspring’ which will represent him long after he is gone... his deeds. As theMidrash teaches, “The main offspring of the righteous are their good deeds.”

When a righteous person dies, in addition to his children he leaves behind him the legacy of his mitzvot, his good deeds and positive actions. These leave an indelible impression on the face of the universe. Thus the Talmud teaches that the tzaddikim, the truly righteous, are still considered to be alive even after they have died... for the positive impression that their presence has made on the world continues to linger on and exert an influence for the better. The wicked, on the other hand, do not favorably affect the universe, but rather pollute it through their negativity and sinful actions which disconnect themselves and others from the Divine... therefore they are considered as if dead, even while yet alive. As the Torah states, “The fruit of the righteous is the tree of life...” (Proverbs 11:30), meaning, the true fruit which the ‘tree’ of the righteous bears is theirmitzvot and good deeds. The Torah informs us that “these are the generations of Noah...” - revealing to us that these are the generations which deserve mention and will live on, and that there are also others which do not... these are positive, as opposed to those others which are disqualified by the process of elimination.

Which are those other ‘generations,’ the offspring which were disqualified from honorable mention? It would have been logical to assume that perhaps the Torah simply means Noah’s contemporaries, the rest of the world, the members of the society in which he lived... except that we already know what was to become of them; G-d sealed their fate and decreed destruction for them all. Therefore this must be a reference to something else...

But as the Midrash which we quoted mentioned, “the main offspring... is their good deeds” - So too: “these are the generations of Noah...” as the verse continues, “Noah was a tzaddik...” the main ‘generations’ which will be ascribed to a tzaddik and for which he will be remembered - are his good deeds. Through these mitzvot he will be identified and remembered; they take on such importance and meaning that by comparison, they eclipse the significance of his actual children. And so perhaps it is actually Noah’s own children that the Torah is specifically not referring to as being his generations. Towards the end of Parshat B’reshith, the Torah records the birth of Noah’s three sons (Genesis 5:32) - yet now, in this verse, which acts as the final synopsis of “the generations of Noah” - they are not even mentioned.

Yet we also know that Noah’s righteousness was not complete, but ‘qualified’. He was certainly righteous, as the Torah itself testifies; but in a specific, limited, personal sense. Not in a community sense. In considering his personality in the context of someone such as Moses, the Midrash concludes that Noah managed to save only himself from the wrath of G-d and the waters of the flood - although he was fully aware of what was in store for humanity, he did not have the power to save anyone else. Therefore Moses, who was community-minded, was certainly much greater than him...

This is also reflected in the Hebrew words “these are the generations of Noah - Noah...” Noah alone came through, excluding everyone else (together with his sons, who are not considered by the Torah to have been saved by him, but rather as an actual extention or part of him). For his merit was only strong enough to save himself; it was of no avail to his contemporaries, and he was unable to influence even one single soul to rectify his deeds and repent. This self-contained style of righteousness was the opposite of the sort which Noah’s society so desperately needed; in the end, because he was unable to exert a positive influence on others, he alone survived the flood.

But one should not think that the Torah has only criticism for this great man. In truth, in spite of all his limitations and failings in comparison to a leader of Moses’s stature, whatever level of tzaddik is ascribed to Noah is to his own great credit - and even more importantly, his level of righteousness was entirely of his own doing.

For Noah lived in a spiritual vacuum. Unlike the tzaddikim of previous generations, who had role models to learn from, he had no one... no positive influences whom he could emulate. But even so, living in the midst of a wicked generation, he was still able to maintain his own level of righteousness... again, “these are the generations of Noah: Noah...” - Noah alone, all by himself. He provided his own inspiration. He lived as a self-propelled unit of righteousness, and the life he led was like an island of tranquility in the stormy and chaotic sea of spiritual and moral bankruptcy for which the people of his era were destroyed.

In this context, the use here of the words “these are the generations of Noah” is in no way derogatory, but on the contrary, a testimonial to the strength of his character - for he alone was able to lead a life of attachment to G-d while surrounded completely by licentiousness and folly; in this light even the tzaddikim of previous generations cannot be compared to the level of Noah. In fact, according to the Midrash (B’reshith Rabbah 25:2), the world owes Noah a great deal. But not only because it is he who is responsible for the continuation of life after the flood; even before this, it was his merit which straightened the world out and undid much of the damage caused by Adam’s sin.

For when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, the whole world went haywire. The natural order and system which governed over things was thrown off course. Everything became a difficult burden, and this was all part of the punishment of both man and the earth which was decreed by G-d.

In this Midrash, a discussion takes place relating to the significance of the name ‘Noah’ given to him by his father, Lemech. As the discussion progresses, the rabbis reflect that originally, when man was first created, G-d gave him absolute dominion over the earth - he veritably ruled the planet. All aspects of creation worked smoothly and in harmony together, under Adam’s supervision. For example, when it came time to work his field, the cow happily consented to pull the plow, the plow fully cooperated in furrowing the land... in short, every aspect of creation listened to the voice of Adam and followed his direction without question. There was no difficulty or pain involved.

But Adam’s sin interupted this harmony, and all at once, all of creation rebelled against him. The cow and plow no longer heeded man’s call; they begrudgingly participated in his efforts against their will. The simple activity of working the land, for example, became an anxiety-ridden and difficult experience, one associated with hardship, suffering and pain. Man sowed wheat but reaped thorns. He had to expend considerable exertion in order to eke out the most meager livelihood from the earth, which had likewise been cursed on his behalf...

As the Midrash continues, the picture becomes even more bleak: even after death, nature continued to rebel and act against man... for the waters of the deep would rise twice daily, morning and evening, and seep into the graves of these wicked men, giving them no rest, flooding them in their tombs and floating their corpses to the surface. This horrendous situation began in Adam’s time and continued for ten full generations. But when Noah was born, the original order was restored to man’s world, and his authority reinstated. The global rebellion ceased on account of Noah’s merit; when a man went to tend his field, he was met with success. The flooding of the graves ceased as well.

This, then, is another interpretation of the words “these are the generations of Noah...” - for as we clarified at the outset of our study, ‘offspring’ can mean more than one’s biological children... In this context, the “generations of Noah” which the Torah refers to here is the resumption of the original order of life on earth. “These... generations...” - all of nature’s bounty and goodness, and the entire scope of successful human endeavor and accomplishment - in fact, the entire natural balance of creation which was restored in this generation - all this is on account of the one called Noah, and are rightfully called after his name.

As we stated above, the main objective of this particular midrashic teaching is to ascertain the significance of Noah’s name. The name ‘Noah’ actually has a connotation of ‘resting’; however upon the occasion of his birth, when his father Lemech named him, he stated: “This one will comfort us from our deeds, and from our inability to work the land which G-d has cursed.” (Gen. 5:29)

The question is asked: Was Lemech in fact a prophet? How did he know that his son was destined to be such a blessing to mankind, that he should bestow upon him a name which promises so much to a weary world? - but Rabbi Shimon ben Y’hozedek said, “When he was born, he was already circumcised... this was the sign for which they waited. For when the Holy One, blessed be He, cursed the ground on account of Adam’s sin in Eden, Adam pleaded before Him: ‘Master of the Universe! How long shall this continue?’ And G-d answered him, ‘Until one who is circumcised is born.’ Being aware of this tradition, when Noah was born, they said: ‘This one will comfort us.’” Both nuances of his name, that of ‘rest’ and ‘comfort’, are equally apropos with regards to Noah.

The aspect of rest: for until his time, mankind had no peace - during his lifetime, all of creation rebelled against him as he struggled to work the land which G-d had cursed; after his death, the waters of the deep taunted his corpse and denied him even that rest... only on account of Noah did he gain back both the peace of life, and that of death.

And the aspect of comfort: he will comfort us from our own inability to work the land... for on account of the curse of Adam, although men planted wheat, all the earth brought forth was thorns and thistles; only in Noah’s time did the earth once again return to its pristine state, bringing forth to man that which he planted.

In this light, Noah was truly a “man of the earth.” For as we are taught in the Midrash Tanchuma (B’reshith 11), until Noah was born, mankind’s relationship with the earth was completely paralyzed, and he was totally unable to work the land successfully... for tools did not yet exist. It was none other than Noah who designed, created and introduced tools for tilling the soil and farming into the world, and bequeathed them as an inheritance to mankind.