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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 said

What exactly is being said in the first chapter of the Torah? The first thing to note is that it is not a standalone utterance, an account without a context. It is in fact a polemic, a protest, against a certain way of understanding the universe. In all ancient myths the world was explained in terms of battles of the gods and their struggle for dominance. The Torah dismisses this way of thinking totally and utterly. G-d speaks and the universe comes into being. This, according to the great 19th-Century sociologist Max Weber, was the end of myth and the birth of Western rationalism. More significantly, it created a new way of thinking about the universe. Central to both the ancient world of myth and the modern world of science is the idea of power, force, energy. That is what is significantly absent from Genesis 1. G-d says, “Let there be,” and there is. There is nothing here about power, resistance, conquest, or the play of forces. Instead, the keyword of the narrative, appearing seven times, is utterly unexpected. It is the word tov, good. Tov is a moral word. The Torah in Genesis 1 is telling us something radical. The reality to which Torah is a guide (the word “Torah” itself means guide, construction, or law) is moral and ethical. The question Genesis seeks to answer is not “How did the universe come into being?” but “How then shall we live?”  This is the Torah’s most significant paradigm shift. The universe that G-d made and that we inhabit is not about power or dominance but about tov and ra, good and evil. For the first time, religion was ethicized. G-d cares about justice, compassion, faithfulness, loving–kindness, the dignity of individual, and the sanctity of life. This same principle, that Genesis 1 is a polemic, part of an argument with a background, is essential to understanding the idea that G-d created humanity in His image, in His likeness. This language would not have been unfamiliar to the first readers of the Torah. It was a language they knew well. It was commonplace in the first civilizations, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Certain people were said to be in the image of G-d. They were the kings of the Mesopotamian city– states and the pharaohs of Egypt. Nothing could have been more radical than to say that not just kings and rulers are G-d’s image. We all are. Today the idea is still daring; how much more so it must have been an age of absolute rulers with absolute power.  SACKS 4

GENESIS — 1:26 image

[One of] the features of the ethic of Torah that make it transformative and uniquely sustainable over time … was the unprecedented dignity of the individual, signaled in the statement of the Torah’s first chapter: [This verse] … The idea that a human being could be in the image of G-d was not new to the ancient Near East. That is what Mesopotamian Kings, Assyrian emperors, and Egyptian pharaohs were believed to be: the children of the gods, or the chief intermediaries with the gods. What was revolutionary to the Bible was the proposition that this applies equally to all of us. The concept of human rights was not born until the 17th century, yet it is fair to say that its possibility was created in those words. The rabbis spelled out some of the implications. A Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) states that humans were created singly (the Torah speaks of the creation of the first man and woman) to teach that a single life is like the universe. When a person destroys a life, it is as if he destroyed the universe. When a person saves a life, it is as if he saved the universe. They were also created singly for the sake of peace so that no one could say to others, “My ancestor was greater than yours.” Lastly, the Mishnah concludes, it was to show the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, for when humans make many coins from one mold, they all emerge alike, but G-d makes each person in the same image, His image, and they are all different. Therefore we are each obligated to say, “For my sake the world was created.” There is an important point worth noting here. Monotheism is not just a set of beliefs about G-d. It has deep implications for our understanding of humanity as well. Discovering G-d, singular and alone, humans discovered the significance of the individual, singular and alone. Hence remarks like that of Moses, “Shall one man sin and will You be angry with the whole congregation?” Numbers 16:22.  Hence also the appearance for the first time in literature of sharply individuated characters like Moses, David, Elijah, and Jeremiah alongside women like Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, and Hannah. These are not the two-dimensional representational figures but rather, complex individuals who think and act as individuals.  SACKS xx-xxi

GENESIS — 1:26 rule

[This verse] Note that there is no suggestion that anyone has the right to have dominion over any other human being. In Paradise Lost, Milton, like the Midrash, states that this was the sin of Nimrod, the first great ruler of Assyria and by implication the builder of the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 10:8–11).,” He was horrified: “O execrable son so to aspire above his Brethren, to himself assuming Authority usurped, from G-d not given: He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl Dominion absolute; that right we hold by his donation; but man over men He made not lord; such title to himself Reserving, human left from human free.” Paradise Lost, 12.64 – 71.  To question the right of humans to rule over other humans without their consent was at that time utterly unthinkable.  All advanced societies were like this. How could they be otherwise? Was this not the very structure of the universe? Did the sun not rule the day? Did the moon not rule the night? Was there not a hierarchy of the gods in heaven itself? Already implicit here is the deep ambivalence the Torah would ultimately show towards the very institution of kingship, the rule of man over men.” SACKS 6-7

GENESIS — 1:26 us

Samson Rafael Hirsch in the 19th century gave the most forcible interpretation of biblical law. The statutes relating to environmental protection, he said, represent the principle that “The same regard which you show to man you must also demonstrate to every lower creature, to the earth which bears and sustains all, and to the world of plants and animals.” They are a kind of social justice applied to the natural world: “They ask you to regard all living things as G-d’s property. Destroy none; abuse none; waste nothing; employ all things wisely… look upon all creatures as servants in the household of creation.” S. R. Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, letter 11. Hirsch also gave a novel interpretation to the phrase in Genesis 1, “Let us make mankind in our image, and our likeness.” The passage is puzzling, for at that stage, prior to the creation of man, G-d was alone.  The “us,” says Hirsch, refers to the rest of creation.  Because man alone would develop the capacity to change and possibly endanger the natural world, nature itself was consulted as to whether it approved of such a being. The implied condition is that man may use nature only in such a way as to enhance it, not put it at risk. Anything else is ultra vires, outside the remit of our stewardship of the planet. SACKS 303

GENESIS — 1:27 image

[This verse and Genesis 1:26 are] not so much a metaphysical statement about the nature of the human person as it is a political protest against the very basis of hierarchical, class-or caste-based societies, whether in ancient or modern times.  That is what makes it the most incendiary idea in the Torah.  In some fundamental sense we are all equal in dignity and ultimate worth, for we are all in G-d’s image regardless of colour, culture, or creed. A similar idea appears later in the Torah, in relation to the Jewish people, when G–d invites them to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. All nations in the ancient world had priests, but none was “a kingdom of priests” Exodus 19:6.  All religions have holy individuals—but none claim that every one of their members is holy. This too took time to materialize. During the entire biblical era there were hierarchies. There were priests and high priest, a holy elite. But after the destruction of the Second Temple, every prayer became a sacrifice, every leader of prayer a priest, and every synagogue a fragment of the Temple.  A profound egalitarianism is at work just below the surface of the Torah, and the rabbis knew and lived it.  SACKS 5-6

GENESIS — 1:27 image

The idea set forth [in this and the preceding verse] is perhaps the most transformative in the entire history of moral and political thought. It is the basis of the civilization of the West with its unique emphasis on the individual and on equality. It lies behind Thomas Jefferson’s words in the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” These truths are anything but self-evident. They would have been regarded as absurd by Plato, who held that society should be based on the myth that humans are divided into people of gold, silver, and bronze and it is this that determines their status in society. Aristotle believed that some are born to rule and others to be ruled. Revolutionary utterances do not work their magic overnight. As Rambam (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides; 1135 – 1204) explained in The Guide for the Perplexed, it takes people a long time to change. The Torah functions in the medium of time. It did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a series of developments--most notably Shabbat, when all hierarchies of power are suspended and slaves had a day a week of freedom--that were bound to lead to its abolition in the course of time. People are slow to understand the implications of ideas. Thomas Jefferson, champion of equality, was a slave owner. Slavery was not abolished in the United States until the 1860s and not without a Civil War. And as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, slavery’s defenders as well as its critics cited the Bible when discussing their cause. But eventually people change, and they do so because of the power of ideas, planted long ago in the Western mind.  SACKS 3-4

GENESIS — 2:15 tend

Man was set in the garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” [this verse]. The two Hebrew verbs are significant. The first - le’avda – literally means “to serve it.” Man is not just a master but also a servant of nature. The second double -- leshamra – means “to guard it.” This is the verb used in later Torah legislation to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that does not belong to him. He must exercise vigilance in his protection and is liable for loss through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of man’s responsibility for nature as the Bible conceives it. Man’s domination over nature is thus limited by the requirement to serve and conserve. The famous story of Genesis 2 – 3—eating the forbidden fruit and the subsequent exile from Eden—makes just this point.  Not everything that we can do, may we do. Transgress the limits, and disaster follows. All this is summed up by simple midrash: “When G– d made man, He showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: ‘See all My works, how beautiful they are. All I have made, I have made for you. Take care, therefore that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one left to mend what you have destroyed.’” Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13. We know much more than we once did about the dangers to the Earth’s ecology by the ceaseless pursuit of economic gain. The guidance of the Oral Tradition interpreting “do not destroy” expansively, not restrictively, should inspire us now. We should expand our horizons of environmental responsibility for the sake of generations not yet born, and for the sake of G-d whose guests on earth we are.  SACKS 303-4

GENESIS — 2:18 alone

The Torah suggests we are both destructive and constructive, and evolutionary psychology tells us why. We are born to compete and cooperate. On the one hand, life is a competitive struggle for scarce resources—so we fight and kill. On the other hand, we survive only within groups. Without habits of cooperation, altruism, and trust, we would have no groups and we would not survive. That is part of what the Torah means when it says, It is not good for man to be alone” [this verse].  SACKS 10-11

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