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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 — 1:3 light

Midrash Rabbah Genesis 4:6 … tells us that Ben Zoma threw everyone into a state of extreme excitement because of the text in Genesis which reads “And G-d made the sky,” “Made” – exclaimed Ben Zoma. How could that be? For there is another verse which contradicts this idea: “By word of G-d were the heavens made and by the breath of His mouth all of their host.” Psalms 33:6  It is inconceivable, Ben Zoma seems to day, that the creation of the heavens – these most exalted spiritual, immaterial regions – should have occurred through a process of making. It is only appropriate for the heaven to have been brought into existence through the agency of speech, the truly sublime motive force of the universe. And may we not interpret Ben Zoma’s words to mean that man transcends this physical world primarily through speech rather than through action? If speech has a function it also has a purpose. Where shall we look for that purpose if not in the Torah itself? The initial exercise of speech in the Torah occurs on the first day when G-d says, “Let there be light.” [this verse]. One can genuinely infer, it would seem that the very first words spoken in the history of the universe give us not only the message which they contain but also a clue to the purpose of all speech: that is, to bring light to the world. Speech can be said to possess value only to the extent that it is instrumental in illuminating the world with the reality of G-d’s existence.  If we regard speech from this standpoint, then the prohibition against certain types of speech which are enumerated in the Torah emerge naturally from this original definition. Slander, malicious talk, obscene language, idle chatter –all these activities introduce darkness into G-d’s universe. The most subtle and complex products of the human mind do not partake of the particular quality of speech if their object is not the establishment of another beacon of truth.  Hence we gain additional insight into the meaning of the Midrosh Rabboh, Genesis 2:4 which tells us that the word choshech – darkness – which appears in the second verse of Genesis is an allusion to the Greek dominion over Israel. The reason given in the Midrash is that the kingdom of Greece “Made dark the eyes of Israel by their decrees, saying to them, ‘Write on the horn of an ox that you have no share in the G-d of Israel.’” Greek culture, for all of its genius in art, science, philosophy and literature, is seen as “darkness” because of its tyrants, who insisted that Jews repudiate their belief in G-d. Among the Greeks language became a highly developed skill, to the extent that it was permissible to write sacred texts in that tongue. At the same time, the linguistic producers of this superb civilization possessed no intrinsic value because they were devoid of the purpose inherent in the first words of the Creator: ‘Let there be light.” BUILD 217-8 ft. 10

GENESIS — 2:7 breathed

A man labors long, with the sweat of his brow, and only to provide for and to honor his father as befits a good and devoted son. Is it conceivable that he will even for one moment entertain the possibility that this man is not his father? … there is a feeling in a man’s heart  - a firm, steadfast, crystal-clear feeling – that his father is indeed his father, without the slightest shadow of a doubt. … And this, too, leads to an inexorable conclusion. If the Holy One Blessed be He has implanted it within the nature of a son to feel and to recognized that he is the son and that this is his father, how much more so must it reside within the feelings of a man’s soul to know, understand and acknowledge what is implicit in [this verse] – concerning which our sages of blessed memory say, “One who blows does so from within himself.” How much less, then, is it conceivable that a Jew, who is called a “son” of G-d, would not feel this and would not know his Father in heaven! And this is what underlies the prophet’s plaint, “Children I have made great and raised up and they have rebelled against Me.” Is this conceivable? Can it not be seen and understood that even an ox knows his owner and an ass his master’s crib through the nature that I have given him? How is it possible, then, that Israel does not know? BUILD 196-7

GENESIS — 2:7 speaking

Whereas we have seen that the power of speech may act in the capacity of an indicator to other mitzvos, it obviously cannot act as an indicator for itself. When a transgression is committed with the power of speech itself, when the indicator itself has been corrupted there is a need for an external revelation of the crime which has been performed. Consequently, the person who speaks evil against his neighbor is afflicted with tsora’as, a disease which serves as an open demonstration of the nature of the sin of which he is guilty. Perhaps this is the spirit behind the law which states, “All plagues may a person inspect, except his own plague,” thereby implying that the victim of tsora’as is no longer sensitive to his own defects. The additional restrictions on the m’tsoroh which isolate him from human contact and oblige him to go about with his hair wild and his lips covered further serve to impress upon him the character of his transgression. His enforced loneliness reminds him of the social nature of his crime; the wild hair signifies his inhumanity; and the lips covered to conceal the instrument of his misdeed. Finally, the m’tsorah must cry tomai – unclean – and then again tomai; the first time because his entire being has been defiled by evil speech, and the second time because the very organ which is proclaiming the person’s crime must be purged by declaring its own unworthiness for having been the cause which brought about his degradation. Post –Biblical sources abound in reference to the primacy of speech. Perhaps the one most often quoted is Onkelos’ translation of a passage which appears in Genesis [this verse].  Where the text reads “and man became a living soul,” Onkelos translates “and man became a speaking spirit.” The obvious inference from this nuance in meaning is that man’s faculty of speech is the very essence of his being.  Another indication of the master-role that speech plays is in the early Jewish philosophical writings where we find that reason, which in the word for Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher Rabbeinu bachaye Al Hatorah Exodus 2:14 is the life of the body, is denoted as “the speaking soul.” Reason, generally regarded as man’s supreme endowment, could not be conceived independently without relationship to man’s ability to speak. BUILD 216-7

GENESIS — 3:6 fruit

Since Jewish ethics find their source in G-d and are as infinite and eternal as G-d, they are to be practiced eternally. Not only may I, the person, not do anything unethical to another person or even to an inanimate object – for ethics come from G-d and are therefore eternal – but Jewish ethics are also subjective and reject the popular concept of “as long as I am not harming anyone what difference does it make what I do? Basically, however, ethical behavior is not governed by the object, the recipient, but rather by the subject, the doer. A person must act properly because proper behavior (ethics) is part of eternity. This reasoning gave rise to a great deal of seeming trivia or minutiae of Jewish halochoh whose underlying purpose is to stress some great moral concept. Thus, there is an halochoh regarding how one should treat the parts of his own body; One should favor the right half of the body over the left; he should shod his right foot before his left, wash his right hand before his left; and he should wash his head before the other pars of his body – and so on. All this because the right half of the body is to be honored more than the left and the head is to be honored before the lower extremities.  Are any parts of the body capable of understanding and appreciating this? And the answer is: Of course not! But the doer, the person, must act ethically not because of the recipient, the object, but because G-d is ethical always and infinite and man must emulate G-d and be ethical always whether the recipient appreciates the act or not. Ethics are for the doer, the person; they are subjective and not objective. G-d, too, is ethical to inanimate objects. For example, the Torah does not reveal the kind of fruit which Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden, because as Rashi says, “The Holy One, blessed be He, does not wish to grieve any creature; that people should not shame it and say this is the one through which the world was afflicted.” The world is hardly ready for ethical practice on this high a plane, namely: to be ethical to inanimate objects. But to a Jew this presents a ready kal vochomer (a fortiori). If one must be ethical to trees and limbs, how much more so must one respect the honor due to a human being? BUILD 206-7

GENESIS — 8:11 dove

The Chumash [Torah] relates that Noah sent forth a dove from the Ark to see if the waters of the flood had yet receded. When the dove returned, it carried an olive-branch in its mouth and Noah understood that indeed the waters had begun to disperse. The Talmud, Eruvin 18b (quoted there by Rashi) explains that the olive branch was symbolic, for when the dove returned to Noah, it said “Better that my food come from G-d, be it as bitter as this olive branch, than through the hands of flesh and blood, though it be as sweet as honey.” We may readily appreciate the sentiments expressed by this dove. Surely we are all aware of the humiliation of having to ask another person for help. Yet by analyzing this Midrash in context, the student of mussar finds a deeper meaning. This dove received is sustenance fro Noah. It is beyond our capacity to appreciate the hardships Noah must have face in caring for all the animals in the ark. Still, the Talmud Sanhedrin 108b relates that on one occasion Noah was struck by a lion for being late with his food. Though burdened beyond endurance, Noah accepted this lion’s unwarranted reproach and continued to be diligent in its service. Envision the care and dignity accorded his charges by this paragon of virtue. Envision the sincerity of a man who spared no effort in is kindness and yet evidence not a sign of superiority or condescension in his actions. Would we imagine that the recipient of a favor from so sincere a man would feel shamed? Would we think for an instant that the beneficiary of such genuine assistance would be humbled or hurt? Yet despite the heartfelt manner in which Noah exercised his duties, despite the warmth of his kindness, the dove felt pain at having had to come to flesh and blood for his food. This [teaches] Rashi broadens the dimension of our conception of chessed. It is not enough to engage in charity. We must be aware that another human is deeply hurt when even asking for our help, and we must strive to relieve him by acting as genuinely and sincerely as we can. And although the graciousness of Noah himself could not completely dispel this pain, we must do everything within our power to minimize its hurt. To do less would be to ignore the suffering of a fellow human being.  BUILD 57-8

GENESIS — 8:21 childhood

Our sages took pains to teach that character be implanted [in schools] along with responsibility for the social and the individual good since character education affects the individual as well as the group. Thus fear, love and reverence for the Almighty, blessed be He, are fundamental to the teachings of the Jewish religious school system. But equal stress has been placed on the inculcation, both in theory and in practice, of good character traits and behavior, factors that have helped us to find unity in dispersion. In our public school system, however, the teachings which would lead to worship of G-d, blessed be He, have been excluded and character education has been reduced to almost a theoretical requirement, with rather negative results. Suffice it to note, for example, that on subways school youngsters do not seem to think it worth their while to offer a seat to an older person.  Moreover, the failure to emphasize character education in practical behavior in many of our public schools has resulted directly in the unpleasant situation now prevailing in some of them, and indirectly in the increase of irresponsible acts among a large segment of the adult population.  Character education as well as love and reverence for the Almighty, blessed be He, required constant tending and attention. Just as one would take great care in the proper planning and developing of one’s shop or business, so must one be equally or even more careful in attending to the proper development of the mind of the human being, which is filled with evil ideas from early youth [this verse] and needs training to weather the stormy seas of life.  BUILD 221-2

GENESIS — 9:5 hand

… is [] it Halachically prohibited for one people to wage war against another people[?] The prohibition against murder is one of the seven Noachide laws; and Jews are obligated to coerce all of mankind to accept these laws if they have the power to do so. The Chasam Sofer … maintains that because of this prohibition against murder, it is not permitted for one nation to wage war against another. However, many authorities disagree with this position. Rav Yehuda Loewe of Prague, the Maharal, in his supercommentary to Rashi, considers the question of why Shimon and Levi annihilated the males of the city of Shechem when only Shechem ben Chamor had sinned (The translation is approximate): The above question is not difficult to answer since they (i.e., Israel and the people of Shechem) are two nations, as it is written: “And we shall be as one nation.” The implication is that until then they were not considered one nation. They were, therefore, permitted to make war, as the Torah permits one nation to battle with another. And although the Torah states, “When you will approach a city to make war against her, first call to her to make peace,” this is so only where they had not done anything against Israel. But, where they had, as in this case, committed a crime even though only one individual of them had done so – since he is of this nation and has instigated the action, it is permitted to take revenge. The same is true of all wars. Similarly, in the war against the Midianites, although there were many that had not sinned against Israel this was immaterial. Since they were of the nation that had harmed them, they were permitted to wage war against them. The same applies to all wars. Rav Naftoli Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin, the “N’tziv” in his classical commentary on Torah, states concerning the verse which prohibits murder [this verse] that the phrase “From the hand of man against his brother” connotes that “in the midst of war, when it is time to hate, it is permissible to kill.” This idea might be employed in exoneration of Lieutenant Calley and his men – although one can hardly nominate them for an award for exceptional humanitarian behavior [the reference is to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war -- AJL] – for even a King of Israel is permitted to wage an optional war (Milchemess Hor’shus) although may Jews will be killed. The “N’tziv” also permits one to volunteer for active duty during wartime although he endangers his life in doing so. One of the seven Noachide commandments is known as Dinim, “Laws,” the Rambam, in his mishnah Torah, defines this as the obligation of a gentile to enforce the Noachide Laws, stating that a gentile who fails to mete out capital punishment to one who transgresses any of the seven Noachide Laws is himself liable to such punishment. The action of Shimon and Levi against the city of Shechem was justified in that the men of that city, by not punishing Shechem ben Chamor for abducting Dinah, were guilty of transgressing the law of Dinim. The Rambam, although agreeing that gentiles are required to enforce these laws, maintains that failure to do so is not grounds for capital punishment. BUILD 49-51

GENESIS — 15:3 childless

… when Abraham took upon himself the mission of teaching mankind about the existence of G-d, he was not confident that his efforts would succeed until he had a natural son who, bound by the ethics of kibbud ov, [honor owed a father -AJL], would carry over his teachings to the later generations.  After years of childlessness, Abraham fully well realized that his disciples, Eliezer or Lot, would not be able to carry on after his death. Their resolve would not be able to withstand the pressures of the pagan culture. And so wearily and tragically Abraham complained to G-d, “What can you give me? For I go childless.” [this verse] It was only after a divine promise of a son that Abraham was consoled. And only after the birth of Isaac, G-d declared, “and Abraham will become a great and strong nation, all the nations of the world will praise themselves in him. For I know him, that which he will command his children and his family after him they shall keep the way of G-d to do righteousness and justice. Genesis 18:18-19.  Only the special authority which a father could expect from a son would assure the transmission of Abraham’s noble ideas for the coming generations.  BUILD 243-5

GENESIS — 18:1 Mamre

The Da’as Z’keinim explains that when G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise the men of his household, he sought advice from Mamre on how to convince those who were reluctant to comply. Mamre suggested he first circumcise himself and his son. Ismael, and the others would then emulate his example. True to his advice, after Abraham and his son were circumcised, the rest of his household were circumcised too.   … Could not Abraham have convinced his servants of the need to accept the command of G-d? Could not Abraham, a man of princely esteem and royal bearing, a man of dignity and persuasive eloquence, summon his powers of logic and elocution to sway the thinking of his servants? Has Jewish history ever witnessed a more articulate spokesman for the word of G-d? Apparently, we must conclude that here are times when the conviction of logic and the power of remonstration are not enough. There exists a more pressing argument than the finesse of eloquent rhetoric. And that is the power of example. … Too often e fail to appreciate how important a message this is. AS educators or as parents, we tend to think that words are the instrument which will inspire our youth and evoke the soundness of character we try to instill.   But from this Da’as Z’keinim, we now see that we have no more effective method of stimulating good conduct and inspiring our youth than through developing within ourselves the pattern of behavior we expect from our children. Regardless of the soundness of our beliefs, and irrespective of the elucidation of our thinking, there exists no more convincing logic than the argument of example.  BUILD 58-9

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