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"For Instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the L-rd from Jerusalem." -- Isaiah 2:3


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GENESIS — 1:31 good

With the French Revolution at the end of the 18th-century, the emancipation of the Jews of western and central Europe began. Equality and citizenship came slowly and grudgingly, but the fact that they took place at all seemed almost miraculous to the Jews of the period.  Wherever freedom was made available, Jews avidly took advantage of it. In the process, Jews radically transformed their view of human nature and its battle between good and evil. The society in which Jews enthusiastically immersed themselves was one of extraordinary economic expansion and cultural creativity, of scientific and technological triumph, and thus, of apparently well-founded optimism. Human initiative, not tradition or revelation, was credited for making all this possible. Human reason was viewed as the engine that empowered longer, fuller lives; if applied to great social problems, it was believed that reason would soon eliminate many of humankind’s ancient ills.  This certainly affected society’s understanding of the evil that people did to each other.  The problems we for so long blamed on the devil were really our own inability to shake our outmoded, self-imposed superstition and dimwittedness.  Now that human progress had finally begun to show its genius, we saw evidence of its benefits everywhere. Modern Jewry had special reasons to espouse the optimism embraced by the general society. In this new freedom we personally experienced the benefits of reason; we perceived our emancipation as a modern-day reenactment of that classic redemptive experience of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt. Only this time the mighty hand and the outstretched arm were not G-d’s but humanity’s, acting through the new political and social order. Disproportionately, Jews became the prophets of education, culture and social betterment. The yetzer ha-ra now seemed a nightmare of an impoverished premodern imagination; the yetzer ha-tov was seen as a primal aspect of modern rationality, as championed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. From early in the 19th century until the second half of the 20th century, Jewish teachers proclaimed the essential goodness of human nature and the benevolent power of human reasoning. They seized whatever rabbinic evidence they could find to convince those few who still doubted that we ourselves have the means to overcome the evil urge. For instance, “R. Samuel b. Nahman said: The words ‘Behold, it was good’ refer to the impulse to good, and the words “Behold, it was very good” [this verse] refer to the impulse to evil. But how can the impulse to evil be termed ‘very good’? Extraordinary! However, were it not for the impulse to evil, a man would not build a house, take a wife, or beget children. As Solomon said, ‘Again I considered all the labor and excellent work and found them to be the result of man’s rivalry with his neighbor’ [Ecclesiastes 4:4] Genesis Rabbah 9:5-11.  Judaism now taught that by using our G-d-given human intelligence, we could harness even the evil urge in the service of the good. BOROJMV 178-9

GENESIS — 2:15 till

A Jew is supposed to stay usefully busy.  Our legendary first ancestors weren’t plopped down in paradise to develop the perfect suntan or watch the fruit ripen: “Adonai Elohim took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and tend it [this verse].  He and Eve were expected to plant and to reap, to sow and to harvest—how else could they feed themselves? And then their apple-eating caused G-d to make the ground difficult to till, prone to thorns and thistles, so that “the sweat of your brow” became the only way to get bread from the earth. Genesis 3:17-19. As the Yiddish proverb puts it: “Roasted chicken doesn’t simply fly into your mouth.” Our sages, who deemed very little to be more valuable than study, knew that only a concentrated amount of labor makes learning possible. “Rava said to the rabbis: don’t come to me to study during the month of Nisan [harvest time] or the month of Tishei [when the grapes and olives are ready for pressing]. Do your work then so you won’t be threatened by poverty” Berachot 35b. The rabbis believe diligence arises not simply from nature or from our personal needs, but from G-d’s very purpose in creating the world. Isaiah 45:18 provides the critical phrase: “Adonai, the Creator of heaven, the only real G-d, the one who formed the earth, said this, Adonai set up the land and made it as it is. But Adonai but did not create it to be a waste, but lashevet, for habitation.”  When the rabbis want to say that we have a religious obligation to be constructively busy, they simply say, lashevet.  We are G-d’s partners by working on concrete projects that create decent places to live and raise families. This carries through from an individual to a communal activity. Midrash describes this spirited model for Jewish zeal: “Israel entered into the work of building the Tabernacle with zest, doing it joyfully and enthusiastically” Exodus Rabbah 48:16: BOROJMV 82

GENESIS — 2:18 alone

Derekh eretz means respecting the social conventions of the community. As. R. Meir taught: “When you enter a town, follow its customs” Genesis Rabbah 48:14.  Thus, the sage Samuel counseled Jews some 1,500 years ago to refrain from spitting in another’s presence Haggigah 5a.  That’s still proper etiquette today, and we extend it by showering regularly and using deodorant as part of our hygiene regiment. Our desire not to offend those with whom we come in contact in the community continues to rule our bathroom behavior, establishing standards of simple decency that our ancestors would find quite foreign. Let’s face it. With the exception of those few who seek solace in a solitary existence, all of us echo the teaching of Genesis: “It is not good for people to live alone” [this verse]. Judaism has long taught that humans were created as social beings. Hillel’s statement that we should not separate ourselves from the community Avot 2:4 still rings true.  Our generation, for all its privatism, knows well that it is psychologically unsound to spend too much time isolated from others. So the current rage to commune profoundly with our computers, substituting a screen for the bodily presence of a co-worker or friend, is troubling. The virtual reality of e-mail and chat-room conversations cannot match meeting people face to face, when body language, gestures, and silences are often more significant than the words we swap. BOROJMV 55

GENESIS — 3:16 pain

Despite its bookish content, Torah is more a dynamic than a literature.  It is the understanding that the Jewish people has chosen to carry forward in its ongoing covenant relationship with G-d. Newly 2,000 years ago Ben Azzai so described Torah’s continued vibrancy: “Torah is not even as old as a decree issued two or three days ago, but is as a decree issued this very day…” Pesikta de Rabbi Kahana 12. New challenges make a new Torah. For example, early in the 20th century anesthesia became generally available to lessen women’s pain during childbirth. Pious women wondered whether they could conscientiously use it, for did not G-d say to Eve, and thus to every female thereafter: “I will intensify your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bear children” [this verse]?  It did not take long for rabbinic authorities to permit its use, since they knew that the severe pain that women experience at this time could endanger their lives. Today a host of such bioethical issues has introduced a vast literature on Jewish medical ethics. And this is only one field in which contemporary grappling with various interpretations of Torah continues. Major differences between Orthodox and various non-Orthodox groups center around just how this Torah process should most authentically proceed. Yet for all that diversity divides us, it validates Torah, agreeing with the ancient words: “The words of Torah are life to the one who finds them” Proverbs 4:22.  BOROJMV 253-4

GENESIS — 3:19 sweat

To our sages, the best of all possible worlds would be one in which we did not have to support ourselves and our loved ones, but could devote our lives to the study of Torah. Jewish folklore similarly fantasizes about studying with Moshe Rabbenu, Moses, our Teacher, in the world to come. Yet in this world, where we must produce our bread "with the sweat of our brows" [this verse], most of us are able to devote only a few precious moments in our hectic schedules to a little Torah. Apparently that is not a new problem. A custom arose among eleveth-century French Jews of Rashi's time to include a "bare-bones" minimum of study text that each Jew would recite at the start of the daily early morning service. One's obligation to fulfill the commandment of Torah study is thus satisfied with three verses from the Torah and two rabbinic passages (T. Ber. 11b). Let us see how even this pittance of education helps to shape our lives. (Continued at Numbers 6:24 L-rd BOROJMV 255). 

GENESIS — 3:21 clothed

Jewish teachers have realized that, though we humans are only one more creature created by G-d, how are unique likeness to G-d requires us to hold our bodies in special regard. After all, before the expulsion from the Garden of Eden it was G-d, no less, who made the first clothes for Adam and Eve [this verse]. The rabbis so prize modesty that they imaginatively find it in the conduct of our “cousins,” the animals.  “The dove is modest in its conduct and graceful in its movements” Song of Songs Rabbah 1:15, 2, and reputedly, “camels are modest [private] about their copulation” Genesis Rabbah 76:7. “Standing around naked in inevitably decreases a person’s dignity” Berachot 2:14 The medieval Roman commentator Yehiel b. Yekutiel agrees: “It is great immodesty in a man to go about naked, even in his own home. He therefore demeans himself by behaving like an animal” Sefer Maalot Hamiddot. So most of us put clothes on even if we don’t expect visitors. BOROJMV 153

GENESIS — 3:21 clothed

We usually think of “clothing the naked” as mere metaphor.  But for much of Jewish history this phrase had a far more literal meaning. Jews lived on poverty’s fringes; subject to rulers’ whims or mob violence, they easily found themselves stripped of their goods. The rabbis had no difficulty associating the duty to “clothe the naked” with G-d’s exemplary act in Eden.  For when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they knew that they were naked and needed makeshift clothes to cover themselves: “Adonai Elohim made tunics of skins for Adam and his wife, with which G-d then clothed them” [this verse]. Rabbinic preaching asks us to imitate G-d and care for the unfortunates among us. When disaster strikes, we take the duty to clothe the naked quite literally. Whether monsoons or earthquakes devastate communities thousands of miles away, or floods or hurricanes ravish areas closer to home, the losses are immense. For all that governments and private agencies do to help, they can’t completely carry the burden when many people lose just about everything. Then we also feel the imperative not to let those people go naked, but provide as best we can the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing. And even when nature is relatively benign, there are always those who, for whatever reason, can use what no longer suits us. But we cannot neglect saying a word about a far more pervasive problem: people who, one way or another, are stripped of their dignity. “Outsiders” of every variety are regularly degraded. And even those who seem integrated into the mainstream of their communities suffer at the hands of the many who debase others. Creating humane working conditions, respectful teacher-student relationships, sensitively egalitarian marriages, a politics of merit—these are the great challenges for gemilut hasadim today. BOROJMV 47-8

GENESIS — 4:7 rule

Why do human beings, uniquely equipped to do good, also do so much and such awful evil? We are badly conflicted: our angelic good impulse, our yetzer ha-tov, constantly tempted by a lusty urge to do evil, yetzer ha-ra.  Our spiritual sages reject a make-believe, everything-is-beautiful faith, insisting on a realistic understanding of human nature when they discuss the real traumas that people face. Yet as our hopeful … text [this verse] teaches, Jewish realism convinces us that G-d’s help makes our good inclination supreme.  Historically, few themes in Jewish belief have seen such extreme shifts of emphasis as this notion of the two inner urges. In some eras Jewish teachers verged on total pessimism; in other they enthusiastically embraced an optimistic view of human potential. In our time, with its terrible examples of social and individual perversity, we struggle to comprehend why some of our “best and brightest” also show a clear talent formalevolence. Some of us despair of the future, while others remain hopeful. Let us survey historical Jewish highlights that explore how our two yetzarim have influenced Jewish character.  The early chapters of Genesis deal with humanity’s formative experiences, laying the background for later biblical texts presenting the same theological viewpoint.  Cain discovers that merely offering a sacrifice will not assure him of G-d’s favor: “… if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you…” Genesis 4:7.  We might think that this somewhat stern admonition from G-d would resolve the good-versus-evil struggle so blatant in Cain.  But what does Adam and Eve’s oldest child do next? He suggests to his brother Abel that they go into the fields together, where “Cain rose up against his brother and killed Abel” Genesis 4:8.  At first Cain’s conscience must bother him, since he tries to evade G-d’s inquiry about Abel’s whereabouts.  Yet his evil urge immediately reasserts itself, so that he actually “sasses” the Eternal through his infamous taunt: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9  Thus, sin triumphantly drives in human history after Eden.  G-d does not punish Cain with death, but holds open the possibility that he may yet freely learn to control “that beast crouching at the door.”  What surprises us in this and other Genesis texts is that G-d, as well as humanity, needs to learn about freedom. The Torah dramatizes what G-d “discovers”: how we, G-d’s last created beings, will use our extraordinary potentials of self-consciousness and free will. Here are the “divine musings” imagined by biblical authors to explain the story of the flood: “Adonai saw how great was man’s wickedness on the earth and how every plan he devised… was nothing but evil all the time. So Adonai regretted creating humankind on the earth, and was sad at heart” Genesis 6:5-6 When the flood is over, G-d promises there will be no more catastrophes that destroy almost everyone and everything on earth.  For what would be the point, since “from a man’s youth all he does is think up evil” Genesis 8:21? BOROJMV 173-4

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