Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thoughts on Breishit

Last year (Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah), for the first time I read Rashi's commentary on chumash from start to finish. It was maddening at times (Siftei Hachamim only sometimes gave background for Rashi's more "totally out of the blue" comments), but in the end much worth it.

My overall impression: When Rashi does "pshat", as he does for long segments of Shemot and Devarim, he does an incredible job - similar in style and usefulness to his commentary on the gemara. When Rashi quotes "midrash", whether aggadic or halachic, it's often hard to figure out the logic and reasons for the interpretation (because midrash rarely explains itself the way we'd like it to). The first step towards understanding a given Rashi is decide whether it belongs in the "pshat" or "midrash" category. Then you can analyze it with the methods appropriate for that category. If you analyze the midrash as if it were pshat, you'll quickly get confused and/or lose all respect for Rashi. So don't try it.

This year I decided to learn the Ramban instead of Rashi.

One thought after studying a parsha's worth of Ramban: It's interesting how much effort he spends working on a reconciliation between Breishit and science, much as we do nowadays. The only problem is - the science he talks about is medieval, and now outdated. For example, he reads Breishit 1:2 as a description of how the four basic elements (earth, water, air, fire) were formed, immediately after the creation of the world. It's a clever explanation - much cooler than any explanation I'd ever seen for that verse. But since we don't believe in four basic elements any more, we can no longer accept the explanation.

Anyway, now some thoughts on specific verses, formatted in my usual style.

- These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that Hashem God made earth and heaven. No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up;
- for Hashem God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
- But a mist rose from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then Hashem God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
- And Hashem God planted a garden eastward, in Eden...

Let me rephrase these lines in a way which makes their point clear, keeping in mind that "shrub of the field" and "herb of the field" likely refer to plants in cultivated fields, not wild plants.

"- This is the story of the world. At first, no agriculture was taking place.
- This was because: 1) there was no rain, 2) there were no people to do farming.
- God fixed these problems by: 1) making rain, 2) making people.
- The people's first task was to farm the Garden of Eden..."

Of course, the people failed do perform this task correctly. And Adam's punishment is that he continue to farm - but under much harsher conditions. Throughout the chapter, it seems, the central focus is on agriculture.

There are two lines of thought I want to develop starting with this insight.

1. Men and Women: There are significant implications for the chapter's portrayal of the relationship between men and women. (In the following discussion I take the following psychological statement as a premise: Women tend to be better than men at interpersonal relationships, while men tend do be better than women at most functional tasks.)

The relationship between earth and man is parallel to that between man and woman. Earth is incomplete without man (no agriculture), so man must be created from the earth. Man is incomplete without woman (alone), so woman must be created from man. The parallel is strengthened by the fact that as punishment for the sin, man reverts to the control of the earth, while woman reverts to the control of man. One might conclude from all this that women are inherently better than men, just as men are inherently better than earth.

At the same time, there an undeniable aspect of the chapter which seems to privilege men. It is Adam who gives names to the animals, and Adam who God approaches first after the sin.

So which is it, is the chapter biased in favor of women, or in favor of men?

I think the answer is that man and woman are each favored in one sphere of life. When it comes to human relationships, woman is privileged. When it comes to confronting the difficulties of the surrounding world, man is privileged. There is no value judgment, just an acknowledgment of psychological facts that hold true for most of the world's population.

2. Human frailty: Perhaps the centrality of agriculture in this chapter is designed to teach us humility. Not only are humans originally created from the earth, and destined to return to the earth, but they are continually dependent on the earth for sustenance. As the focus of Sefer Breishit shifts* from nature (creation) to human relationships (beginning with Adam and Eve), the character of the relationship between nature and human beings must be made clear.

* The first chapter, dealing with creation, calls God "Elokim". The third and fourth chapters (and most of the rest of the Torah) which deal with human destiny, call God "Hashem". Since this chapter is a transition between the two, both names are used: "Hashem Elokim".

And Hashem God said: "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." (3:22)

Here one asks: God is just now realizing the danger of this? Shouldn't God have foreseen that this might be a problem and, say, located the Tree of Life ahead of time in a more secure location? And did God simply get lucky that Adam and Eve never ate from the Tree of Life at some previous time?

I think the answers are no, no, and no, for the following reason.

In my opinion, Adam and Eve were eating from the Tree of Life the entire time they were living in the garden. After all, verse 2:16 says they were allowed to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, Adam and Eve's immortality in the garden was a result of continually eating from the Tree of Life! Their punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was to die. And being distanced from the Tree of Life is the very means by which this punishment was carried out.

God could not have "planned ahead" by putting the Tree of Life elsewhere, because then Adam and Eve would have died, rather than living forever (were it not for their sin).

Kayin said to Hashem: "My sin is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have expelled me today from the face of the land; and from Your face I will be hidden; and I will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will happen that whoever finds me will kill me." ...And Hashem set a sign for Kayin, lest anyone finding him should strike him. (4:13-15)

The usual Biblical punishment for murder is death. Yet here, after murdering his brother Hevel, Kayin is punished with exile rather than death. Why doesn't Kayin get the death penalty for his deed? And why does he get the punishment he does get?

I think the answer is that originally, Kayin was given the death penalty. Yet before it could be carried out, he repented from his sin and the punishment was commuted.

Kayin's complaint to God is that wandering the earth alone is dangerous and is likely to get him killed. But he starts off by mentioning not the danger, but his sin. A moment beforehand he had told God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" - implying that yes, his brother was dead, but that he didn't care. Now he tries to repair the damage from that ill-advised comment. The very first thing he says is that, yes, killing Hevel was a sin - a great sin. The first step in repentance is confession and acknowledgment of the sin, and here Kayin takes that step. Only after that does he say that he would like the punishment changed.

It seems that if Kayin had not approached God in this way, then the sentence would not have been commuted. Kayin would have remained without his "sign", and at some point he would have been killed, and the death penalty for murder would have been carried out. This punishment would not be immediate, but Divine punishments often are not immediate.

How then do we explain the lesser punishment which Kayin gets in response to his request?

If we remember from the the recently occurring Yamim Noraim, there are two kinds of repentance: teshuva me-yirah, and teshuva me-ahavah. The gemara (Yoma 86b) explains the differing Divine responses to these kinds of repentance. If you repent out of fear of punishment, then your intentional sins are treated like unintentional sins. But if you repent out of love for God and the Torah and the moral life you're capable of living, then your intentional sins are treated like merits.

Kayin's repentance, coming only after he receives a punishment he cannot deal with, falls squarely into the category of repentance out of fear. It should therefore be sufficient to transform his intentional sin (murder) into an unintentional sin (manslaughter) for purposes of punishment. In fact, the Torah's punishment for manslaughter is exile (to a city of refuge). Kayin's post-repentance punishment is exile as well (though not to a city of refuge; none existed at the time).

It follows that Kayin received the same punishment he would have deserved as an unintentional murderer. And before his repentance, his punishment was that of an intentional murderer. Both punishments are exactly what you would expect, given the nature of his crime, and given the degree of repentance evident from his statement to God.

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