B’reishit, Chapter 13: Avram and Lot part ways

Avram, Sarai, and Lot returned from Egypt to the place where they had been before.  Since there is not enough space for both Avram and Lot and their belongings, and also there was a quarrel between Avram’s herdsmen and Lot’s, Avram informed Lot that they would have to part ways.  Lot chose the city of S’dom, so Avram went the other way and settled in Canaan.  God promises all the land to Avram and his descendants.

Ovadia HaGeir, or Obadiah the Proselyte, was a Catholic nobleman from either Italy or Normandy who converted to Judaism in 1102.  We know about him mostly from fragments of his manuscript found at the Cairo Geniza; interestingly, he wrote out the musical notation a number of medieval piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems).

After converting, he sent Maimonides a question about how he should pray.  Many Jewish prayers refer to “our father Avraham,” or the “God of our forefathers.”  Should Obadiah use these phrases, or should he change them?  After all, Avraham was not one of his forefathers in a literal sense.

Maimonides replied that Obadiah could absolutely recite the blessings using the traditional formulations.  After all, he reasoned, Avraham brought under his wing so many new people and they certainly were not his children.  Therefore, anyone who chooses to convert becomes a full Jew, and it becomes as though Avraham was indeed one of their ancestors.  And so, they may even say, “You Who has given our ancestors the land;” Maimonides quotes a verse from our chapter in support of that:

 קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ, לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּהּ:  כִּי לְךָ, אֶתְּנֶנָּה.

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it.’

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 13: Avram and Lot part ways

B’reishit, Chapter 12: Avram’s Journey Begins

God commanded Avram to leave his homeland; God promised to make him into a great nation.  Avram, his wife Sarai, and his brother Lot left Haran for Canaan, which God promised to give to Avram’s progeny.  Due to the famine, they all go to Egypt.  In order to save Avram’s life, Sarai pretends to be his sister.  The pharaoh took Sarai, realized she was Avram’s wife, and returned her to him and compensate him with gifts.

It is with this story that the Bible switches from a universal perspective to a particular one.  Until now, all of humanity was our concern.  From here onward, our only concern is Avram (soon to be Avraham) and his descendants.  It is fascinating that in our Holy Book, only eleven chapters are devoted to the entire world– the other 918 chapters concern the people who ultimately become the Jewish people.  It is consistent with the fact that in our liturgy, God is not usually referred to as “God, Creator of the world,” but rather, “the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.”

While there are certainly universal aspects to the Jewish religion, the vast majority of it is particular to the Jewish people, and that begins here with our chapter.  Judaism is not just a set of beliefs and practices that anyone can take on.  Rather, it is a religion for the people who descend from Avraham and for those who wish to join that people through conversion.  A testament to that fact is that one of the questions traditionally asked of candidates for conversion on the day that they officially convert is, “Do you wish to become a full member of the Jewish people even though you will face adversity, antisemitism, and hate just because you belong to the Jewish people?”  This question has nothing to do with religious beliefs and practices and everything to do with belonging to a nation– to the Jewish family.

This chapter calls upon the Jewish people to celebrate their difference.  Though many of us have a tendency to favor universal ideas and ideals and to minimize differences between groups, we cannot forget those ideas and ideals unique to Judaism and to the Jewish people.  We must proudly carry the torch of Avraham.

B’reishit, Chapter 12: Avram’s Journey Begins

B’reishit, Chapter 11: The Tower of Bavel

All the world spoke one language.  The people decided to build a great tower ascending to the heavens.  God scatters them and gives them different languages so that they will not be able to understand each other and complete such a tower.  We learn of the generations from Shem through Avram and Sarai.

What drives the people in Shinnar to build such a tower?  The Bible says:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.

And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’

While sometimes we value unity among people and coming together, in this case it was unity toward an unholy end.  There were two sins committed by this union of people to build a tower.

1. “Let us make us a name.”  “Name” in the Bible refers to a reputation (Thus the phrases “kiddush Hashem” and “chillul Hashem” mean sanctifying or desecrating God’s reputation in this world, respectively).  That’s the stated purpose of the people in Shinnar: to build their own reputation – to compete with God’s reputation.  Unity towards a positive, productive end is admirable.  Unions formed only for self-aggrandizement of the group, simply to boost the group’s reputation, is a terrible thing which is ultimately destructive.

2. “Lest we be scattered…”  God had commanded people on two occasions, both with Adam and with Noah, to “be fruitful and multiply; to fill the earth and to conquer it.”  The people’s desire to remain in one place was a sin in the most literal sense.  God said fill the earth; the people do not want to fill the earth but rather to stay in Shinnar.  While it is normal to struggle with God and with what God wants of us, in this case the people held and maintained a value that was wholly contradictory of the basic core value God had given them; it’s a value that some say is the very purpose of humanity.  This was the other sin.  We may debate the parameters and specific manifestations of certain values, but directly contradicting the basic components of a core value is not something God or, frankly, any society would accept.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 11: The Tower of Bavel

B’reishit, Chapter 10: The descendants of Noah

This chapter tells us the children of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Yafet, as well as their grandchildren.  

According to this chapter, Noah’s grandchildren and great grandchildren were the parents of the different nations of the world.  They each had their own land and culture and they spoke different languages.  In fact, the names of Noah’s sons were used by early historians and linguists to label the peoples of the world: Shem became the father of the Semitic people, Ham became the father of the Afro-Asiatic, and Yafet became the father of Eurasians.  For example, we know that there are groups of languages that are related to one another — English is related both to German languages and to Romance languages in different ways.  Most linguists accept the idea that most European and some Asian languages are related to one another, called Indo-European languages.  The earliest term for those languages, however, was the Japhetic languages, coming from Noah’s son Yafet.  We still call “Semitic” languages by a name originating from the name Shem.  Linguists do not know if there was ever an original language which served as the parent of all the language in a family, so the original Indo-European language is known simply as “proto Indo-European.”  It is fascinating that the Bible makes note that cultures and languages are related to one another and divides the nations of the world into such groups.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 10: The descendants of Noah

B’reishit, Chapter 9: God’s covenant

God blessed Noah and his sons upon their exit from the ark that they be fruitful and multiply.  God informed them that they are permitted to eat flesh of animals.  They were given a few commandments, like not to shed the blood of other humans. God promised never to destroy the earth again and created a rainbow as the sign of His covenant.  Noah then planted a vineyard, drank from his wine, and became drunk.  His youngest son, Ham, saw that Noah was lying naked.  He told his two brothers, Shem and Yefet, and they covered their father.  When Noah awoke, he cursed Ham and blessed Shem and Yefet.

The chapter speaks for itself.  Even the most righteous in every generation face the risk of foundering.  While earlier Noah was described as “Noah, the righteous man,” in our chapter he is described as “Noah, the man of the field.”  He ends his life a drunkard, naked in his tent.  What happened to Noah?  Perhaps it was the constant attention from God, or the loneliness on the ark all those years.  Maybe it was the need to provide sustenance for himself after years of having it all ready for him in the ark.  The Ramban comments that Noah is called “the man of the field” because he gave his whole heart to work in the vineyard; it consumed him.

My friend, Rabbi Noah Leavitt, suggested that the pivotal point is the sacrifice Noah (the Biblical one, not my friend) gave immediately after leaving the ark (this was in Chapter 8).  By giving this sacrifice, Noah felt he has exhausted his religious duties and can move onto worldly things.  He gave his sacrifice, and now he can become a “man of the field.”  Planting a vineyard, according to a midrash, was the wrong thing to plant.  Morally, Noah ought to have planted food, something that would have provided sustenance to his family and the world.  Instead, he planted grapes for wine, for his own pleasure.  In the words of Rabbi Leavitt,

[Noah’s religious sensibilities] failed to penetrate or even influence his work life. When Noah went out into the field he failed to realize that even this activity could be in the service of God. This is why the Torah labels him simply as an “ish adamah.” It is easy focus on our religious lives when we are in shul, however, the challenge God placed before Noah and in fact before all of us is to integrate the spiritual and mundane elements of our lives so that all of our activities can be counted be as avodat Hashem, service of God. 

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 9: God’s covenant

B’reishit, Chapter 8: The flood ends

The rains came to a stop, and the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat.  To test whether the land had dried, up, Noah sent out a dove.  The first time, the land was still wet.  The second time, however, the dove brought back an olive leaf showing that the land was dry.  God commanded Noah to leave the ark with all the animals, and to be fruitful and multiply.  Noah made an alter and gave a sacrifice to God, and God promised never to destroy the earth again.  

Where, exactly, did the ark rest?  According to Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 3:

5. When God gave the signal, and it began to rain … After this, the ark rested on the top of a certain mountain in Armenia; which, when Noah understood, he opened it; and seeing a small piece of land about it, he continued quiet, and conceived some cheerful hopes of deliverance. … However, the Armenians call this place, (Greek for) The Place of Descent; for the ark being saved in that place, its remains are shown there by the inhabitants to this day.

6. Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood, and of this ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean. For when he is describing the circumstances of the flood, he goes on thus: “It is said there is still some part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the Cordyaeans; and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away, and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs.” Hieronymus the Egyptian also, who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same. Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them; where he speaks thus: “There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses the legislator of the Jews wrote.”

Marco Polo wrote about the location of the ark in his famous travelogue, as did Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World.  The search continues to this day.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 8: The flood ends

B’reishit, Chapter 7: God destroys the world

God commanded Noah to take his family on the ark, along with 7 pairs of each of the “clean” species and one pair of all the other species.  When it began to rain, they all embarked.  Indeed, the flood that God brought about killed every living thing and lasted one hundred fifty days.

Our chapter includes a verse that sounds shocking:

כב כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁמַת-רוּחַ חַיִּים בְּאַפָּיו, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בֶּחָרָבָה–מֵתוּ.

22 all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.

Why did God feel the need to take such drastic measures?  This question plagues me every time I read this chapter.  Of course, we cannot guess why God does what He does.  However, what have we to learn from His actions in this episode?  The answer lies in a central theme in how teshuva, or penitence, works.  According to Maimonides in the Laws of Penitence, the way to true teshuva is only through becoming a new individual.  We must see ourselves as different people, not the same person who previously had sinned, but a new person who would not act in the same way in a similar situation.  Rabbi Soloveitchik in On Repentance elaborated on this point.  When teshuva me’ahava, repentance through love of God, takes place, then the one who has sinned is no longer the one standing before God now.  Rather, it is a new individual.  That is, the mere act of thinking through our actions regarding our previous sin, and resolving not to act in a similar way again, is such a significant act that it deems us new individuals.  The previous individual had to be, so to speak, destroyed, in order for the new one to arise.

The story of Noah and the flood offers a very literal incarnation of this principle.  The world is God’s great creation; in some way, it is a part of Him (so to speak).  When the world turns so sinful, so evil, He realizes that in order to truly reform the world, He must first destroy its earlier identity.  A new world must be one free of former evils.  I still don’t know what to make of it the story in the literal sense.  However, at some level, we understand that before we can rebuild ourselves (or the world) in a positive way, the first step is to rid ourselves of our earlier evils.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 7: God destroys the world