Parshat Bereishit

Torah Reading for Week of September 22-28, 2013

 

“Re-Reading Genesis”
By Rabbi Michael Menitoff, Dean, AJRCA Rabbinical School  

 

It has not always been that Jews around the world read the Torah on an annual cycle, as we do today, even if it is abbreviated in some communities. In Israel of old, for instance, there existed a triennial cycle in which Torah portions were divided differently from today. The Torah was completed every three or three-and-a-half years, rather than annually. You may ask: What about the annual festival of Simchat Torah, the ninth day of the Sukkot season, commemorating the joy of completing the Torah and beginning it anew? Does this observance not indicate the universality of an annual cycle? It does for us today. But it should be noted that Simchat Torah is relatively late in origin. It is mentioned neither in the Bible nor in the Talmud.  

So, we now return to many of the same themes as in prior years at this time. We are back to the beginning, the portion of Bereishit, Genesis. It contains the story of the creation of the world by an omnipotent and beneficent G-d. The apex and pinnacle of the saga is the creation of the human being.  

How striking that, while created in the image of G-d, human beings are given the choice of comporting themselves according to His will, or not. They are neither puppets nor robots, but rather human beings who make choices. Adam and Eve choose to eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Of their own free will, they make a choice and are forced to suffer its consequences. Later on in the portion, Cain makes a much more tragic choice, that of taking the life of his younger brother, Abel. Cain too had to suffer the consequences of his horrendous deed. Making a choice between alternative courses of action is a person’s prerogative. The Biblical author sees reward potentially attaching itself to the one and punishment to the other. It will be useful to examine Cain’s nefarious deed even more carefully.  

While Abel works as a shepherd, Cain is said to be a tiller of the soil. Each preemptively brings an offering to G-d in order to express gratitude for His manifold blessings. Cain brings the fruit of the soil, while Abel brings the choicest of his flock. G-d’s overt preference for Abel’s offering apparently distresses Cain. It is unclear from the text as whether Abel’s offering is indeed a better, more generous one. On the one hand, there is great specificity as to the high-mindedness of Abel’s offering. On the other hand, the absence of such a superlative characterization of Cain’s may be seen as damning, in spite of the fact that the description of the two offerings are joined by the expression “he too,” conceivably indicating an equality. It should be emphasized neither offering is commanded or solicited by G-d. They are both free-will offerings. Once Cain shows his distress, G-d offers what are intended to be words of comfort and solace, as well as instruction as how best to live one’s life.  

Unhappily, the teaching falls on deaf ears. Cain initiates a verbal encounter with Abel. “Cain said to his brother Abel…” (Gen. 4:8). No indication is given as to what the content of the conversation was. However, the result of the rivalry and the altercation were unambiguous: “Cain set upon his brother, Abel, and killed him.” (4:8).Cain willfully takes his brother’s life and is condemned to be a wanderer. In addition, the earth which he tills will no longer yield its produce.  

As indicated above, the doctrine of free will is unequivocally enunciated. The first human beings are allowed to do what they choose, even if it is contrary to G-d’s will. Alongside free will, the Biblical notions that punishment is meted out to those who behave improperly and reward to those who observe G-d’s law are clearly articulated.  

“Hafoch ba v’hafoch ba, d’ kula ba.” “Turn and turn it, for everything is in it.'(Ethics of the Fathers 5:6). As we renew our ongoing Torah study, we are as keenly aware as ever of its richness and its glory.

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