Hamaayan / The Torah Spring
Edited by Shlomo Katz
Parashat Bereishit - Why Tell Stories?
Volume XVIII, No. 1:
29 Tishrei 5764
October 25, 2003
The Parness family,
in memory of Anna Parness a"h
Arline Katz and family,
in honor of the 70th birthday of
husband, father & grandfather Irving Katz
Daf Yomi (Bavli): Menachot 19
Daf Yomi (Yerushalmi): Moed Kattan 1
Rabbeinu Yonah z"l (Spain; died 8 Marcheshvan 5024 / 1263)
writes: The Torah is made up primarily of three types of
material. One type consists of the mitzvot aseh / affirmative
commandments and the mitzvot lo ta'aseh / negative commandments.
The second type of material includes the Torah's promises of
reward and punishment. Finally, the third type of material in
the Torah is historical. [The Book of Bereishit is made up
almost entirely of this third type.]
To what may the historical portion of the Torah be likened? R'
Yonah continues: When a doctor advises a patient how to treat a
particular illness, he often will tell the patient to eat (or not
eat) certain foods and to take certain medications. However,
what will be even more useful is for the doctor to add, "Don't do
what your friend so-and-so did, for he caused his own death."
The Torah, too, commands us to keep the 613 mitzvot, and it adds
stories about people who behaved properly and people who did not
behave properly so that we may learn from their successes and
The historical portion of the Torah also teaches us to acquire
good character traits and to avoid bad traits. And, R' Yonah
writes, they teach us the value of work. For example, the Torah
tells us that Yaakov and Moshe were shepherds. In this week's
parashah the Torah tells us about the first shepherd (4:20) and
about the inventor of bronze and iron farm implements (4:22).
Most importantly, this week's parashah tells us no fewer than
three times that Hashem himself "worked" (2:2-3). The Book of
Bereishit also teaches about the importance of marriage.
(Derashot U'Peirushei Rabbeinu Yonah pp. 16-17)
"Bereishit . . ." (1:1)
R' Eliezer Landau z"l, a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, related
that his distinguished ancestor passed through Berlin in his
travels. With him he carried many notebooks and papers on which
he had recorded his novel Torah insights.
While staying in another Jew's house, the Vilna Gaon dropped a
piece of paper on which he had written: "The entire Talmud Bavli
and Talmud Yerushalmi and all midrashim are alluded to in the
written Torah, the entire written Torah is alluded to in Parashat
Bereishit, and all of Parashat Bereishit is alluded to in the
word `Bereishit'." The sage's host was incredulous. "Is that
really so?" he asked. "I have just had my first born son and
will soon have to redeem him. Where is that mitzvah alluded to
in the word Bereishit?"
Without a moment's hesitation, the Vilna Gaon responded:
"Breishit" ("bet-reish-aleph-shin-yud-tav") is an acronym for the
phrase, "Bincha Rishon Achar Sheloshim Yom Tifdeh" / "Your first
born son you shall redeem after thirty days."
(Quoted in Otzrot Tzaddikei U'geonei Ha'dorot)
"G-d made the two great luminaries, the great luminary to
dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the
night; and the stars." (1:16)
Rashi quotes the Gemara which notes the seeming inconsistency
in this verse. On the one hand, the sun and the moon are both
called "great luminaries." On the other hand, the sun is called
the "great" luminary and the moon is called the "lesser"
luminary. In answer, the Gemara explains that the sun and moon
were created equal, but after the moon complained that two kings
cannot share a crown, G-d diminished the moon's size.
R' Aryeh Zvi Frumer z"l (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chachmei
Lublin and founder of the Mishnah Yomit program; killed in the
Holocaust) asked in his Shabbat Hagadol Derashah in 1930: How can
this Gemara, which implies that the moon gives off light like the
sun, be reconciled with our knowledge about the heavenly bodies?
After all, the moon is not only smaller than the sun, it gives
off no light of its own.
He answered: The Mishnah (Bava Metzia 12a) teaches that an
object found by a "kattan" belongs to his or her father (if it
does not otherwise have to be returned to its owner), while an
object found by a "gadol" belongs to the finder (again, if it
does not have to be returned). Ordinarily, the term "kattan"
refers to a pre-bar or bat mitzvah age child and "gadol" refers
to a boy over the age of 13 and a girl over the age of 12. Not
here, says the Gemara. Here, "gadol" means a child who is
financially self-sufficient and "kattan" means one who is still
supported by his or her parents, regardless of age.
This is also the meaning of Chazal's teaching about the moon.
It does not mean that the moon was once as big as the sun.
Rather, it means that the moon once was a star that gave off its
own light. This would explain the moon's referring to itself as
a "king," for kings also are self sufficient. After the moon
complained, however, Hashem made the moon "smaller" - i.e., not
(Quoted in Otzrot Tzaddikei U'geonei Ha'dorot)
"The days of Adam after fathering Seth were eight hundred
years, and he fathered sons and daughters. All the days
that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he
Why did the early generations live as long as they did? Did
every member of those generations live that long, or only the
people mentioned by name in the Torah? Below are some of the
answers given by early commentaries:
Rambam ("Maimonides"; Egypt; 1135-1204) writes: "Only the
people mentioned by name in the Torah lived such long lives.
Other people lived normal, natural lives. Those who lived
exceptionally long lives did so either through exceptional
attention to their diets and their health or through miracles.
It cannot be any other way." (Moreh Nevochim II 47)
R' David Kimchi z"l ("Radak"; Provence; 1160-1215) explains: It
may be that all people lived that long, or it may be that only
the named people did, while their contemporaries chased worldly
pleasures which shorten a person's life. It also may be that G-d
wanted these people to live exceptionally long lives so that they
would have time to discover the various branches of human
knowledge and record them for posterity. After all, there is no
way that a person can learn enough in a normal life time if he
does not have existing works on which to build. (Radak: Commentary on the Torah)
Ramban (Spain and Eretz Yisrael; 1194-1270) disagrees
vehemently. He writes in part: Why should the people mentioned
in our parashah have experienced such miracles? There is no
evidence that most of them were prophets or even particularly
righteous! And if you will attribute their longevity to their
diets, how can even the best diet cause a person to live more
than ten times the normal life span? Furthermore, if those
generations knew the secret of such longevity, would they not
have shared it with their contemporaries so that they too would
have lived such long lives? And, how was the secret lost after
the Flood, when life expectancy declined markedly?
Rather, Ramban explains, Adam lived as long as he did because
he was made by the Hand of G-d. Even after he sinned and death
was decreed on him, his nature (as the product of G-d's direct
handiwork) allowed him and his earliest descendants to live
superlatively long lives. All people before the Flood had
similar life spans.
Following the Flood, however, the world experienced atmospheric
changes which caused man's life expectancy to decline. Shem, the
son of Noach, was the last to live nearly as long as the early
generations (i.e., 600 years) because he was born before the
Flood, although he lived most of his life after the Flood. After
the generation of the Tower of Bavel, the atmosphere changed for
the worse again [apparently as a punishment for their sins] and
life expectancy became shorter still. In the time of the
Patriarchs, Ramban writes, the ordinary life span was similar to
our own. That is why Pharaoh was so amazed (47:8) when he met
Yaakov, who was then 130 years old. (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah)
Rabbeinu Yonah writes: The reason that the earliest generations
lived as long as they did was simply to give them a chance to
populate the world with numerous sons and daughters, for
otherwise the world would have remained desolate.
(Derashot U'Peirushei Rabbeinu Yonah p. 17)
R' Yaakov Yosef Katz z"l (late 1800s; known as the "Toldos"),
one of the leading disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was visited a
certain town when he was approached by an inhabitant of a
neighboring village and asked to attend the circumcision of the
man's son on that day. "I will even honor you to be the sandak /
godfather," the villager said.
The Toldos agreed, but only on the condition that he could sit
in another room and study Torah until all of the preparations had
been completed and he would not have to wait idly for the
ceremony to begin. The villager agreed.
When everything had been prepared and the baby had arrived, the
villager went to call R' Yaakov Yosef. However, when they
returned to the place where the brit milah was to be held, the
villager was chagrined to discover that one guest had left and
there was no longer a minyan. He quickly ran outside and pleaded
with the first Jew he saw: "Please come to my son's brit milah."
The man responded, "Zohl zein azoi" / "So be it!" "Can I offer
you an honor?" the villager inquired. "So be it!" the tenth man
responded. To every question he was asked, he answered: "So be
After the circumcision, the Toldos asked that this man be
brought to him, but the man had vanished. So the Toldos asked in
heaven who the man was, and he was told that it was Eliyahu
Hanavi, who had been sent to teach the assembled the importance
of accepting G-d's judgment in all circumstances. "So be it!"
should be a Jew's response to everything that he experiences in
As the Toldos was preparing to leave town, a stranger
approached him and asked if he could share the sage's carriage.
"Who are you?" the Toldos asked. "So be it!" the stranger
responded (apparently rebuking the sage for not agreeing
immediately to share his ride).
When the tzaddik R' Yitzchak Mattityahu Luria z"l heard this
story, he commented: On each day of Creation, the Torah says,
"And it was so!" But why does the Torah say, "And it was so!" at
the very end of creation when nothing new had been created?
That, answered R' Luria was Adam's statement, accepting that G-d
in His Wisdom had created the world exactly as He saw fit. "So
(Quoted in Otzrot Tzaddikei U'geonei Ha'dorot)
Copyright © 2003 by Shlomo Katz
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