Bereishis: Roadmap to Kabbalas HaTorah 1
While the Torah most definitely moves beyond the “beginning” in its first verse, Rashi’s explanation of that beginning seems to end before its time.
Rashi introduces us to R. Yitzchok’s question about where we would have expected the Torah to begin. Since it is first and foremost a law book, a set of instructions on how to act, the predicted place to begin would be in the middle of Shemos, with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a group. R. Yitzchok explains that the Creation story provides the ultimate rejoinder to critics from among the nations who point an accusing finger at us. “Thieves! Usurpers! We know that you were not the original inhabitants of the land you now call Israel. Why should we acknowledge your stake in this land?” Our answer takes us back to prehistory. At one point, none of those “original” inhabitants dwelled there either. The world was created by G-d. He is its original Title Holder, in its totality. He may suffer the presence of one group, move it out in favor of a second, and decide to award it to any other at will. He promised it to us. Without this understanding, we will have a hard time justifying our claim to ourselves. With it, the nations can appreciate the other pieces that go into the argument for Jewish ownership of sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.
People have pondered and debated R. Yitzchok’s words for centuries. Even if we fully fathomed what he meant, however, we would understand only the insertion of the Creation story as a must-have foundational preamble to the rest of the Torah, which remains nonetheless a law book. Rashi’s citation of R. Yitzchok begins the explanation of the long run-up to hachodesh hazeh lachem, but then leaves us hanging. How are we to explain all the other stories that the Torah included between Creation and the Exodus, and which are equally not of a legal nature? Why were they included as well?
The answer may be that Torah requires a second essential introduction. Midos, says R. Chaim Vital 2, are not among the 613 mitzvos. They are a prerequisite for mitzvah observance; they are crucial to their performance and to their negation. Deficiencies in them are more serious, therefore, than lapses in performance of particular mitzvos.
Midos, therefore, are not – and really could not – be included in the system of mitzvos. They operate on a different plane. They precede any discussion of observance. Without purifying his character first, Torah is simply not going to work within him. It will not accomplish what it was designed to do.
Surely this is an important matter to consider, but it, too, leaves us hanging. Midos cannot be considered within the same system as the mitzvos themselves, but neither, it would seem, could the Torah remain silent about them. From where are we to take instruction and inspiration about them if not from the Torah?
With this we have discovered the purpose of all the stories subsequent to the first episode of Creation and prior to the first mitzvah. All of them teach us about the importance and nature of midos. (Chazal choose a single word to characterize the shared essence of all the avos. They called3 Bereishis “Sefer HaYashar,” using a word that refers to purity of midos.)
The opening episodes of Bereishis showcase bad midos and their consequences. Chazal4 tell us about three midos which mire us in unwanted after-effects that they drive us from this world. Jealousy, lust and honor are the major rubrics under which fall many other character flaws. Each of them is represented in Bereishis.
Kayin observed as Hashem responded favorably to his brother’s offering, while his own failed. He was so stricken with jealousy, that he brutally murdered Hevel. The Torah graphically demonstrates how low kinah can bring us.
The generation of the Flood lost themselves to their desires. Pursuing them, they transgressed all recognized boundaries, and theft and licentiousness became commonplace. So thorough was their corruption, that the Torah testifies that the world around them became suffused with that corruption, to the point that it had to be destroyed along with them.
Underlying the project to erect the famed Tower was the pursuit of honor. The builders sought recognition for their ingenuity and organizational skills. Their vaunted unity crumbled into disarray and dispersion, resulting in the birth of scores of smaller groups.
In each of these episodes, the Torah shows us the root cause of the problem – and the price that people pay when they do not deal with the flaws that so frequently plague so many of us.
Having come to this point, the Torah does an about-face, and describes the beginnings and roots of the tikkun, the long process of reversing the sin of Adam and the undoing of its myriad consequences. Evil had become far more closely bound with the world, rather than the sidebar it was when Man was first created. The world would not truly get back on its feet without a program to rid the world of its essential problem (the presence of evil), not just the unhappy circumstances that often accompany human civilization.5
That program was begun by the avos, and continued by the remaining Seven Shepherds. 6
Avraham began the tikkun with chesed, the first of the seven. Chesed, of course, is the foundation of the world, and the aspect from which all the other sefiros derive. The stories about Avraham overflow not only with extraordinary hospitality towards guests (at enormous personal expensed), but with chesed in general – as well as with a demeanor of ahavah, which is so closely related.
Yitzchok continued with gevurah – strength in judgment, particularly the self-judgment needed to meet exacting and rigorous demands. Gevurah is the next of the seven, and is closely related to Yitzchok’s unflinching submission to the demands of the Akedah, and the life of a consecrated offering he lived thereafter.
Yaakov’s contribution came through the next of the sefiros, tifferes. The resultant of combining chesed and gevurah, it offers the greatest utility in dealing with everyday affairs. Yaakov’s avodah was one of raising up the ordinary, taking family and commercial life and turning it into spiritual value, and even converting it into Torah, as did the events of his life!
Yosef HaTzadik is associated with yesod. 7 Yosef’s spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife is one example of his success in binding the power of yesod to the lower worlds.
Briefly put, each episode in the lives of the great personalities in Bereishis is like a Talmudic tractate, full of instruction on the acquisition of pure midos.
The Egyptian exile played a similar role in readying us for receiving the Torah. The chief flaws in our midos usually stem from the physical, material side of ourselves. Avraham was told in advance about the bitter exile that his descendents would have to endure in Egypt. This exile was unrelated to any sin on their part. Rather, the harshness of their treatment in Egypt would purify their physical selves. It would tone down the shrill call of the physical for more pampering and more recognition. This, too, would help them in their struggle to improve their inner selves, and was part of the necessary preparation for kabbalas haTorah.
This analysis yields an illuminating dividend. Before we could properly receive the Torah, we needed to prepare ourselves by refining our midos. The Torah’s implicit model of such refinement is the avos and their connection with seven of the sefiros. We were also promised the lands of seven peoples who lived in the Land before it was given to us.
This is no coincidence. Each tract of land, formerly in the hands of one of the peoples who dwelled there, corresponded to one of the ten sefiros that we had also been “acquired” in the centuries of preparation for kabbalas haTorah. Interestingly, there are three sefiros so elevated that they are not a main focus of our attention and energies. Keser, chochmah and binah are not typically objects of our avodah. 8 Corresponding to them are the lands of three peoples – the Keini, the Kenizi, and the Kadmoni – which never became ours in the years of conquest.
The connection is unmistakable. While the avos had some grasp of the three most elevated sefiros, it was not strong enough to blaze a trail to them for the Jewish people. The tikkun in these sefiros would await the coming of Moshiach. So would our acquisition of the final three portions of the Land.
What was true for the Jewish people remains true for each individual. Each of us is charged to perfect his or her midos before laying claim to our individual portions of Torah. We must remember that at the beginning of our individual journeys there is the recognition of shomayim v’aretz – that within our personal universes there are heavenly elements, but there are also some very earthly ones, from which spring forth al sorts of deficiencies and weaknesses.
The beginning of the journey, the very first command, is that there should be light. Where there is Divine illumination, all the darkness of the soul disappears.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 13-15
2 Shaarei Kedushah Part 1 Shaar 2
3Avodah Zarah 25A
5It is more than unfortunate that non-traditional elements have co-opted the word tikkun to mean the opposite of its intended usage. They support all kinds of activities (many of them quite admirable!) under the banner of tikkun olam. The teaching of so much of our mesorah is that making the world a better place by addressing individual problems – which must in fact be done – is only a small part of what is expected of us. As Torah Jews, we are ultimately responsible for treating the illness, not the symptoms, and that requires binding seven midos of Hashem Himself through mitzvos, learning, and spreading full consciousness of an undiluted Unity of G-d to the entire world.
6 Besides the avos, these are Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid. Each is linked to one of the seven lower sefiros of the ten. A full discussion of the nature of the sefiros – so important in the vocabulary of both kabbalah and chassidus – is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it for this piece to realize that some even translate “sefiros” as “midos.” The ten sefiros are midos/emanations/characteristics of G-d as discerned by Man. Making them more fully part of this world banishes the existence of evil, and is a core ingredient of tikkun.
7 Among other things, it is related to propagation.
8 Except, perhaps, in the thinking of Chabad chassidus
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org