Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Parshas Bereishis: Our Guide for the Year

A beautiful world awaits us. After the rigors of the Yomim Noraim, our introduction to the new year is creation. According to the Ramban, this is the place where we learn the basics of belief in Hashem and His limitless power. The Yomim Noraim were largely about us. We were being judged, hopefully made changes and adjustments, and emerged better and actually different than before. But Parshas Bereishis is about Hashem and the mystery of creation.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, often reminded us (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah 1:2; Chanukah 12, etc.) that the posuk (Mishlei 25:2) teaches that part of Hashem’s glory is in what He hides from us. This is what the Gemara (Chagigah 11b) calls Maaseh Bereishis, and the even more abstruse Maaseh Merkavah, which are both practically and halachically beyond us. Rashi therefore teaches that the Torah begins with Parshas Bereishis to give us a response to the complaint of some of the nations, when they claim that we stole their land.

However, we are not so clear about the purpose of Parshas Bereishis if we can’t really study it in depth, let alone understand the details of creation. Let us therefore explore some of the “down to earth” lessons of the creation of that earth and the rest of the universe.

Rain and the Power of Prayer

The posuk (2:5) famously reveals to us that “all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth…for Hashem had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” Rashi explains this to mean that since there was no one to appreciate the rain, it did not fall. However, once Adam was created and knew that the world needed rain, he prayed for it and it came, causing everything to grow.” The Gemara in Taanis is largely devoted to the importance of rain and our response when it is withheld. This leads to all the rules and regulations about fasting when anything is imperfect or worse, such as catastrophes, plagues and similar phenomena.

Yet, when it comes to the original subject – rain – the Gemara (Taanis 8b) seems to be somewhat ambivalent. Rain, it reminds us, is not quite always popular. It can cause muddy conditions, flooding and aggravation. In fact, one of the Amoraim, Ameimar, states that if not for the fact that rain is needed, mankind would invariably pray for it to go away.

The answer to this enigma, however, is not that rain is a necessity built into the universe. Chazal (Bava Metziah 85b) teach that during the thirteen years of Rav Yehudah Hanosi’s intense suffering, it never rained, but the earth was irrigated by the waters of the deep. In other words, just as Gan Eden itself grew from these waters (Bereishis 2:10), so did all of Eretz Yisroel for thirteen years. In other words, if Hashem so desired, we could get along without rain.

The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 13:9) makes clear that until the creation of man, all the earth needed was the mist (2:6) and the subterranean waters. The purpose of rain was, and is, concludes the Medrash, “to cause all to lift their eyes toward heaven.” Indeed, rain does also bring a certain amount of irritation and negativism. But it forces us to look heavenward, whereas without it we would look down to the earth itself or horizontally toward each other. Hashem therefore caused us to remember that there are forces that clearly only come from heaven. This, in turn, makes us pray to our Creator when it doesn’t come.

Seforim remind us that the Hebrew word for rain – geshem – also means all of gashmiyus, material things, so that we realize that all that we want and need ultimately must come from heaven.

Rav Yonasan David, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok in Yerushalayim, writes (Kuntrus Sukkos 35:7, 58:3) that he has a kabbolah (tradition) that the entity known as rain was created specifically to present the concept of tefillah (prayer). Rain itself was created as the prototypical vehicle for this prayer. It is for this reason that we are so strict about the fact that one who forgets to say morid hageshem must repeat the entire tefillah.

I would like to add that it is fitting that this preoccupation with rain, both seasonal and in prayer, comes immediately after the Yomim Noraim. We have been virtually immersed in various forms of prayer for 40 days, but it is rain that continues to remind us to look up to heaven for everything all year long.

That is but the first life’s lesson from Parshas Bereishis.

Chesed Must Be Exclusively Done for the Good of Another

The next one is the all-encompassing importance of chesed in the life of every Jew.

The Gemara (Sotah 14a) teaches: The Torah begins with gemillus chassodim when Hashem clothes Adam and Chava. It ends (Devorim 34:6) with Hashem tending to Moshe Rabbeinu in his death. The Gemara concludes that it is our common mandate to emulate Hashem in this middah.

Rav Eliav Edrey (Sefer Noam Siach) points out what seems to be a fascinating omission in this Gemara. The posuk (3:4) earlier had told us that Chavah desired the fruit of the tree and shared it with Adam. Was this not an act of chesed, and if it was, why didn’t the Gemara note it as well?

However, Rashi makes clear that this was not absolutely pure, unadulterated chesed. Once Chava realized that the inevitable result of that fruit was death, she didn’t want to die, leaving Adam to marry someone else. The lesson here seems to be that chesed, by definition, must be single-minded and limited only to helping another, with no ulterior motives at all.

An extraordinary example of this is the story of two giants of Chassidus. World War I had just broken out and there was a frightening shortage of matzos for Pesach. The Imrei Emes of Gur sent out his gabba’im to collect maos chittim or kimcha d’Pischa, so that everyone could have a minimal amount of matzah. However, the collection was not successful. Even the wealthy were worried about the future and could not see their way to contribute. The rebbe sent out a clarion call with the following options: “You can either be chassidim or resha’im.”

The gabba’im were aghast. “Rebbe,” they asked, “is there no middle level?”

He answered with a Gemara (Chulin 63a). There is a bird called a chassidah, which is explained by Rashi as defining “one who distributes food.” The rebbe raised an apparent contradiction. “Doesn’t another Gemara (Yerushalmi, Bava Metziah 4:5) also refer to mice as resha’im (wicked ones) who “not only eat but call to others to eat as well?” The rebbe concluded his teaching with the question, “So which is it? Are creatures who share righteous or wicked?”

The rebbe explained that the distinction is simple. The chassidah bird feeds everyone even as she eats as well. However, the mouse fills its stomach and realizes that there are leftovers, so it calls to others to eat as well. This makes the chassidah generous and the mouse evil.

This teaching was dramatically illustrated by the previous Skulener Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal. During World War I, he served as the rov of the city of Tshernovich and had amassed a large amount of wheat from which he baked matzos for all who needed. However, because there was still a serious shortage, every family was limited to one matzah. A delegation arrived from the rebbe of Seret-Vizhnitz, Rav Boruch, requesting three matzos, breaking the rationing rules. The rebbe attempted to explain the importance of maintaining the uniformity of the distribution, since there many distinguished recipients, but Rav Boruch’s son was adamant that his father had insisted. Finding no alternative, the Skulener sent three matzos.

On Erev Pesach, a package arrived at the home of the Skulener Rebbe with two matzos, with a note that one was for the rebbe and one for his married son. The Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe understood that the Skulener Rebbe’s level of chesed was such that he would give away every last matzah before Pesach, leaving himself with none. He therefore asked – practically demanded – three matzos, so that he could make sure that the Skulener Rebbe would also have the bare minimum, along with everyone else, for Pesach.

That is the chesed that the Torah teaches us at the very beginning of creation, so that we know that it must be done purely altruistically, with no thought of oneself whatsoever. We might add that the Ramchal (beginning of Derech Hashem) stresses that Hashem had no other motive for creating the world other than as a vehicle for performing chesed to others.

Of course, there are unlimited other lessons, but let us take these two with us into the new year. The lesson of tefillah and the lesson of chesed should help guide us into a hopefully wonderful year of accomplishment and closeness to Hashem, with the fulfillment of all of our prayers bemeheirah beyomeinu.



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