Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Textual analysis of the Torah
Age of the universe
Creation of universe in six days; on the seventh day God rested
Creation of Man and Woman (Adam and Eve)
Establishment of Garden of Eden including the “tree of life” and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”
A talking, scheming Serpent; Eve’s decision to eat fruit from the prohibited “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”; guilt and punishment
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Kayin and Hevel saga of sibling rivalry, jealousy, fratricide and guilt
Generations of Man
Growing moral corruption of Man
Birth of Noah
An introduction to textual analysis of the Torah
I. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag defines the Torah as a book of Nevu’a (prophecy), and not a book of history, or philosophy or science or architecture. The root word (niv=lips) relates to speech and spokesmen. The Torah presents a message from God to Man, delivered by His spokesman, the Navi. But the message is often not explicitly stated and requires a critical reading of the text, an understanding of rules of analysis and tools to determine and define the flow of themes.
One important way that the Torah conveys its message is through the structure of paragraphs (“Parshios”).There are two types of Parshios:
Ptuchot (open) when a gap of blank spaces exists to the end of the column on the final line of the paragraph. The next paragraph starts at the beginning of the next line
Stumot (closed) when there is a gap of at least nine spaces after which the next Parsha starts on the same line
Generally speaking, a Ptucha indicates a major change of topic while a Stumah suggests a more subtle change.
II. Building on the shoulders of their predecessors, modern scholars are using expanded and new tools including:
• Archaeology/history /secular ideas
• Continued emphasis on words and their location, recurrence, juxtaposition and multiple meanings
• Thematic analysis
• Translations using modern concepts (e.g., lama naflu panecha, literally means “why has your face fallen?” but is translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan as “why are you depressed?”)
• Leitwort—repeating word root in a section suggests the theme of that section. This is a term introduced by Martin Buber
III. How to approach learning Torah
Clear your mind of previous notions and read it as if it is the first time. (Unfortunately, notes Rabbi Leibtag, too often it is!)
Recognize that Torah is poetry to be read aloud to appreciate the imagery and soaring emotions that the words can evoke. Poetry (from the ancient Greek word “to create”) is an art of rhythmical composition that through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language evokes pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differing interpretations, or to evoke emotive responses; assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm to achieve musical effects; ambiguity, symbolism, irony to create multiple interpretations; and metaphor and simile to create a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin ("the Netziv," 1816-1893), dean of the eminent Volozhin yeshiva and author of Ha'amek Davar (A Matter Profound) thinks that the Torah possesses "both the nature and singularity of poetry [shira], which is to speak in lyrical language". Because the essential quality of poetry is its compressed nature and its allusiveness--a kind of symbolic language -- the so-called hidden meaning of the Biblical text is its real meaning!
Knowledge of trup and grammar facilitates feeling the rhythm, the drama, and the flow of the words.
Make a conscious effort to analyze as you read…
Is there a theme that connects seemingly disparate topics within the Parsha?
Is there any relevance to the preceding or following Parsha?
Be on the lookout for the appearance of these words, root words and phrases in other locations; consider the connection
IV. Some recurring themes and ideas
The critical importance in our national and personal lives of the Mt. Sinai experience; Mishkan as portable Sinai
Always remembering the Exodus experience
Having a homeland in which to observe our religion
Mitzvos as educational tool
Mitzvos as embodiments of social ideals
Interrelationship between the multiple uses of the number seven:
o Yovayl and Sfira (7 X 7)
o Need for one seventh of our lives to be spent in introspection and self- development
Desert wandering necessary to build independence and self-confidence
Israelites’ rebellious nature in the desert reflected their slave mentality
Kedusha is holiness or separation or designation--something being set aside for special purpose in our lives (in time: Shabbos/Festivals; in place: Beit Hamikdash/ Eretz Yisroel; in person: behavior towards others/avoidance of dead)…Book of Vayikra is a “how to” manual to live a life of Kedusha
Festivals are times of Kedusha; are times of recognition of God as the ultimate source of our prosperity; and are times of recognition of our common Jewish heritage
How old is the universe?
Dr. Gerald Schroeder, the noted physicist, helps us understand how the universe may be simultaneously young (according to Jewish tradition, 5700+ years and created in six days, as described in the Torah) and old (15 billion years, based on data from the Hubble telescope).
Words appearing in the Torah can have a multitude of meanings. The Talmud explains that the Hebrew word choshech usually means darkness (absence of light) but can also mean black fire, a kind of energy that is so powerful that one cannot see it. Maimonides notes that mayim, whose usual definition is water, can also refer to building blocks of the universe.
Ramban observes that the word erev, evening, also can mean mixture/disorder/lack of clarity and the word boker (morning) also is related to bikoret which means orderly and able to be discerned. Erev and boker are opposites, the former meaning chaos and the latter meaning order. “Vayehi Erev, Vayehi Boker Yom Echad” (“there was evening and there was morning day one”) means there was a cosmic change underway on Day One, a flow from disorder to order, that was precipitated by some form of guiding system(God) because without an exogenous force, order always degrades into chaos. Ramban explained further that on Day One, time itself was created—a theory that some 800 years later was validated by Albert Einstein in his Theory of Relativity.
Einstein postulated that time is a dimension and the flow of time is relative to location. A minute on the moon goes faster than a minute on the earth; a minute on the sun goes slower. Our biology is in synch with local time so on the moon our hearts would beat faster, and oranges would take a shorter time to ripen. Time on far off planets goes by much faster than on Earth so that if one were looking down from a planet to Earth, the perception of time would be that everything was moving rapidly (because in one of the planet-minutes hundreds of thousands of earth-minutes would pass). If one is looking up from Earth it takes hundreds of thousands of Earth-minutes for a few planet-minutes to pass, giving the perception that planet time is moving slowly.
Ramban, clearly ahead of his time, believed that before the physical universe came into existence there was nothingness until suddenly, Berashis, there appeared a tiny speck the size of a grain of mustard. That minuscule “substance-less substance” was the raw material that expanded out into matter that condensed, congealed, coalesced and expanded to the size of the Solar System. Einstein explained that energy (Ramban’s “substance-less substance”) is the force that can change into matter (Big Bang Theory). Once changed into matter, time “grabbed hold” (i.e., was created).
The Torah describes creation as Day One (rather than the First Day) because it is looking forward from the beginning. By the time Adam was created six days had passed. Dr. Schroeder reconciles this with scientific measurements of the universe being some 15 billion years old by analyzing how the 15 billion years would be perceived from the beginning looking forward. Imagine that at the beginning of time there was a force at the outer end of the universe that sent a blast of light (pulse) to Earth every second. Light travels 300 million meters per second so these pulses arrived on Earth some billions of years later. As the universe stretches, the space between pulses is stretching and it is taking these light blasts longer to reach Earth.
Modern science has calculated that there is a million million (1 with 12 zeros after it) relationship between time as it existed near its beginning and time today. The information about the universe’s creation in six days as presented in the Torah (“in the beginning”) and emanating from just outside the universe (before it was created) would be received on Earth after six million million days. The age of the universe can be calculated by dividing these six million million days by 365. Every time the universe doubles, the perception of time is cut in half but as the universe gets bigger the doubling time gets longer.
The first Biblical day that lasted 24 hours from the “beginning of time” perspective lasted eight billion years from “our” perspective. The second Biblical day lasted half the previous day from our perspective, or two billion years. Day three of 24 hours equates to two billion years (half the previous day); the fourth day equates to one billion years and the fifth and sixth days equate to one-half and one quarter billion years, respectively. The six days of creation from God’s “beginning of time” perspective together equate to an age for the universe of 15 and ¾ billion years from our perspective!
Each day begins with the expression “and God [Elokem] said” and each day something new was created that did not exist the day earlier. The Torah’s message is that Nature is a willful creation by God.
o Light is created amidst the prevailing chaos, desolation and darkness
o Separation of Light [order] and Darkness [turmoil]
o Naming Light day and naming Darkness night
o Separation of waters
o Creation of rakiya [firmament] to divide water above from water below
o Rakiya is named shamayim [sky]
o Waters below the sky gather and are called seas
o Dry land named eretz
o Vegetation sprouts
Creation of sun, moon, stars “…for signs and appointed times…to give light on the land…and to rule over day and night”
o Creation of all living things that creep in water or fly
o First-time-ever blessing to fish and fowl to be fruitful and multiply
o Creation of animals and creeping creatures
o Creation of Man, intellectually endowed in the mold of God [b’tzelem elokim]
o Blessings to Man to be fruitful, to multiply, and to dominate the Earth
o Man to eat vegetation and fruit; animals can only eat vegetation/grass
o God completes Creation and
o Rests from His Work
A Preview of History
The Parsha begins with creation, hope and optimism but ends with despair, hope¬lessness and gloom. The creation of the world and Mankind is followed by Man's early life experiences and conflicts and concludes with the rise (and then fall) of civilization.
Nechama Leibowitz comments that “The Torah is concerned with the prototype of Mankind; the workings of sin, the temptation leading thereto, and consequences proceeding therefrom recorded here, have a universal timeless application… The Torah shows us how civiliza¬tion and economic progress brought with them four-step erosion in human behavior to the point where Mankind's very existence was endangered.”
Step #1: Adam, the first man, is also the first sinner. He was commanded,
“… Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die."
The Midrash elaborates: "Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair stated: Before Adam partook of this tree it was simply called 'tree' just like the others. But as soon as he ate, thereby transgressing the decree of THE HOLY ONE BLESSED BE HE, it was called the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. Why did God command Adam to eat of all the trees of the garden except one? So that Adam should constantly remember his Creator and be conscious of the yolk of God who created him.” The one commandment that Adam received was designed to help him maintain a perspective on his position in the world when he was the only human being. Adam needed to know that there was a master over him. Adam's sin, therefore, was a private matter between himself and God wherein he acted as if he were the master of the universe and could do whatever he wanted without limitations or restrictions.
Step #2: One human's cold-blooded murder of another. The Torah states “...Kayin brought an offering to God of the fruit of the ground... and Hevel also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from the choicest. And the God had respect unto Hevel and to his offering; but unto Kayin and his offering He showed no respect. And Kayin became very angry and depressed. And God said to Cain, 'Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself you will be forgiven. Kayin spoke with his brother, Hevel (when they were in the field) then rose up against his brother, Hevel and killed him."
According to some, Hevel's offerings were accepted by God because they were brought from the best and finest. This contrasts with Kayin who brought crops that grew on public land and, according to Rashi, were of an inferior quality. Kayin became enraged when his offering was rejected. God tried telling him not to indulge in self-pity and reminding him that his situation could be changed dramatically for the better if he would only improve his attitude and behavior. His-- and all Mankind's-- salvation comes from within. But Kayin was not to be placated. Instead, he strikes up a conversation with his brother, Hevel, out in the fields, away from home and kills him in cold blood.
The story of Cain and Hevel can be viewed as the story of Mankind and civilization. It is Man's underlying (sometimes unconscious) aggressive drives and conflicts that precipitate wars and bloodshed.
Step #3: Advances in technology bring violence. Lemech, a direct
descendant of Kayin, sires a son, Tuval-Kayin, who becomes a forger of brass and iron armaments. Lemech boasts of his ability to employ these deadly weapons to lord over his fellow man and to commit indiscriminate murder.
While Kayin's behavior was dictated by sibling rivalry and jealously the transgressions of Lemech are rooted in the sinister attitude that
absolute power makes right and that one tyrant can bully Society.
Step #4: Crimes committed by groups of individuals in power ("the sons of the princes and judges") who enslave their fellow men. The Torah describes how “they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose” thereby destroying the social order. Their abuse of their power and position prompted God to re-examine His decision to create Man.
This Torah description of how history would be shaped by human
aggressiveness gives us a chance to look in the mirror and reflect on our behavior, frailties and conflicts. Understanding, self-examination and reflection provide the opportunity to change for the better.
“It is not good that Man should be alone”
Virtually every item in the step-by-step account of the Creation was deemed by God to be good. So was the totality of the Creation with its structural harmony, about which the Torah states “God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good”.
Only the creation of Man makes no mention of this Divine satisfaction because it is only Man that has the free choice to act in a way that is either good or is bad. Because human conduct is not preordained, God could not conclude in advance that Man was or would be good. (Later at the end of the parsha we read how God saw/perceived/realized that Man’s behavior and thoughts had turned evil.)
Immediately after Man’s creation God emphatically pronounced Man’s being alone as not at all a good state of affairs:
The Sages of the Talmud thought that loneliness is not good for one’s mental health, noting that “a life without a wife is devoid of joy, blessing and wellbeing”.
Other scholars thought that as a practical matter, a bachelor could not fend for himself. A division of labor and a partnership were necessary.
Sforno elaborates that without this division of labor Man would be so preoccupied with his daily physical needs that he would not be able to realize his full spiritual aspirations.
Rashi reasons that were man alone, it might be thought that two deities ruled the entire universe—partner-less Man in the “lower” world and partner- less God in the “upper” world (heavens).
Akedat Yitzchak thinks the introduction of a special relationship built on love and of helping one another further distinguishes the human couple from members of the animal kingdom not requiring companionship from each other.
Shadal’s view is that God purposely allowed Man to be alone for a short time so that once he would meet Woman he would be so connected to her and feel that something was lacking without her.
Because it was not His original purpose to allow Man to remain alone, God announces the urgent need to “eesa lo ayzer k’negdo” (“I will make a helper for him”). But, notes Nechama Leibowitz, the introduction of Woman with her opposite characteristics does not in and of itself guarantee a good situation, unless the two opposite personalities merge into a unified whole. “If they do not show themselves worthy the result will be disharmony—a clash of opposites.”
Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden
Mankind’s first directive from God was: “You may eat freely of every tree in the Garden but you shall not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Nechama Leibowitz comments that the doubling of the verb in Hebrew shows the wide freedom of choice given to Man.
“And the Serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts in the field…” This embodiment of the evil inclination instigates a magnification and exaggeration of the stringency of the prohibition aimed at convincing the listener to give in to temptation.
Using half-truths, the Serpent asks innocently, “af ki amar elokim lo souchlu mekol eitz hagan”--“Is it really true that God said that you should not eat from every tree in the Garden” [or “Even if God said such a thing, what of it?”]. Eve weakly protests that, “we may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden” in words that do not fully communicate the broad freedom God granted. She then explains “but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the Garden God has said you shall neither eat nor touch lest you die”. This statement makes it seem like this tree was the only one that mattered, located in the midst (middle) rather than simply a tree. Also, God never said the tree could not be touched. Furthermore, notes Benno Jacob, through her wording Eve transforms what was a moral connection between sin and punishment into a mechanical cause and effect.
The Serpent, casting doubts on the seriousness of God’s restriction, responds “you shall not surely die”; the threatened punishment will never come to pass. Furthermore, says the Serpent to Eve, the prohibition was not meant for your benefit, only for God’s because He knows that when you eat the fruit of this tree, “you will be like gods, knowing good and evil”. Eve had been avoiding this special tree. But now, seduced by the Serpent’s words, she becomes less fearful and begins to sense how pleasant and desirous the tree is. No inhibitions remain and she eats the fruit and also gives it to her husband Adam to eat. Even before God confronts them, the commission of the sin causes guilt and creates the urge to flee and to hide. States the Midrash, “Before a man sins, he inspires fear and awe and creatures are afraid of him. Once he has sinned he is given up to fear and awe and is frightened of others.” Such is the power of guilt that even the rustling of leaves reminds the sinner of his wrongdoings.
Kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara—the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.
Shadal thinks the serpent is really the thoughts in Eve’s mind after she saw the snake eat and not die.
Benno Jacob’s approach is that “thoughts of man are put in the mouth of an animal as they come from the beast in man”. The serpent is described as arum which means subtle or sly but also means naked. The snake always crawled but its punishment for tempting Eve is that its means of locomotion would be perceived as a curse. Because it committed such a low act it was now destined to slither in the dirt.
Some psychologists think that the Torah is describing the sexual awakening as two humans mature from childlike behavior to adults, a view reinforced by the talk about touching and eating words also associated with the sensual. [Note: The adjective arum used to describe the Serpent links to the immediately preceding verse which states that both Adam and Eve were naked (arumim) and were not ashamed].The woman tries to deny her sexuality but the natural urge embodied in phallic-like serpent is too overwhelming to ignore.
Benno Jacob thinks that God spares Eve any punishment for her actions because she already is “cursed” (menstruation?) with childbirth labor pains and with her strong attraction to Man who dominates her.
On Kayin and Hevel
In this story the Torah, for the first time, consistently employs the Essence name of God (the yud, hay, vav, hay) possibly because it stresses a core and essential Truth of human existence: how sibling rivalry and other (sometimes unconscious) aggressive emotions drive behavior.
Kayin’s name is based on Eve’s statement that "I have gained (kaneese—which sounds like Kayin) a male child (or man) with the help of God ”(or “from God”).
Regarding Eve’s second son the Torah merely states that "she then bore his brother Hevel” without offering any explanation for the name. It sounds like the name was already chosen by someone else even before the birth. Hevel means breath or vapor, something fleeting.
Did Eve favor her first born and ignore child number two? Did her enthusiasm and gratitude to God lessen once she gave birth a second time and realized that childbirth was not a Divine phenomenon but a natural event? Or is this the Torah's way of letting us know in advance that the second child's life would be like a fleeting breath (i.e., that he would die prematurely)?
The text does not state explicitly how the brothers knew who’s offering was favored (Rashi thinks that a fire came down from heaven and burned Hevel’s); or why it was favored; or the time gap between the offerings. It’s possible the offerings took place simultaneously. Kayin follows in the footsteps of his farmer father Adam--fully aware that farming would be hard and often unfruitful ("kotz vedardar tatzmeach lach") -- and decides to bring a Thanksgiving offering to God. But when he sees his younger brother not only copy but also outdo him (by bringing prime meat from the higher life form of animals), Kayin is enraged and imagines that God will not accept his offering. (Note: Hevel, by his display of one-upmanship, may be provoking Kayin, thereby fanning the flames of jealousy and rivalry.)This assumed conclusion amplifies Kayin's existing, already-intense sibling rivalry and brings on feelings of depression, inferiority, and hopelessness.
Kayin is deeply pained and embarrassed. God acknowledges the enormity of Kayin's rage--and confirms that these emotions could completely swallow him up and destroy him--but also informs Kayin that he [Mankind] has the ability to confront, and control these raging emotions. (Today this might involve undergoing psychoanalysis.)
“Kayin told it to his brother Hevel and when they were in the field Kayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him.” What were the brothers arguing about?
A Midrash cites three opinions:
One view is that they decided to divide the world with one taking the lands and the other taking the movables. Soon one said “You are standing on my land-- get off!” and the other responded “The clothes you are wearing are mine-- take them off!” During the course of this heated exchange an enraged Kayin rose up and killed his brother.
R. Joshua of Sakhnin in the name of R. Levi said that they agreed to divide material positions equally but argued about on whose property the Temple should be built. The ""field" referred to in “And when they were in the field " is the Temple, as it is written "Zion shall be plowed as a field”. In the heat of the argument, Kayin rose up and murdered Hevel.
Yehuda bar Ami said: They were arguing over Eve.
The first opinion maintains that killings and war are fought over economic issues, over material wealth. R' Joshua, holds that bloodshed is prompted by religious and ideological conflict. Rabbi Yehuda contends that deadly quarrels are rooted in sexual passion.
Some have speculated that Kayin was jealous of his younger brother’s financial success so decided to outdo him by publicly demonstrating his devotion to God. Perhaps his inner rage and resentment towards God for allowing this situation to exist manifest itself in his bringing an offering of lesser quality.
God attempts to soften Kayin’s feelings of rejection and embarrassment with the words “Lama Chara lach” (“why are you so upset?”) Sforno thinks this means that God is asking Kayin why he is dwelling on the past and not focusing on how to deal with his issues. Even if one errs, one needs to recognize the inner power to change, to be forgiven and to feel uplifted. One who does not make the effort, however, will be overwhelmed with a deadening existence.
Kayin never accepts responsibility for his action
God asks Kayin “Ayay Hevel acheycha” (where is your brother Hevel)? The use of the Hebrew word Ayay communicates an effort on God’s part to engage Kayin in conversation and give him a chance to confess his guilt. Using an alternate word for “where”, ayfo, would have communicated a harsh, demanding tone.
Kayin defiantly responds “Am I my brother’s keeper?” After God confronts Kayin with the horror of what he has done (“Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil”), He tells him that he “will be cursed by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood…the soil will no longer give you its strength…you will be a restless wanderer on the Earth.” Jack Sherman thinks that the negativity created by this act of murder poisoned the land for Kayin.
Kayin, likely racked with guilt, imagines that he is deserving of and/or
expecting even more suffering. He moans to God that “My punishment is too great to bear… I must hide from your presence… I will be a wanderer [depressed and alone] in the land [unable to settle or fearful of settling in any one place] and whoever finds me will kill me”. Kayin’s worry that whoever finds me will kill me suggests that there were many people alive. But according to the Torah’s account, only Adam, Eve and Kayin were alive then! Rabbi Joseph Telushkin considers the possibility that other humans were also created even though the Torah makes no mention of them. The Torah’s focus is on recounting the lineage from Adam to Noah to Avraham that led to the creation of the Jewish nation.
The Midrash illustrates Kayin’s [and Mankind’s] repudiation of responsibility and his attempt to shift the blame elsewhere. Following are some of Kayin’s words to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper…You are the keeper of all creatures yet you seek him at my hand…I slayed him because you created in me the evil inclination…It was You who killed him for had you accepted my sacrifice the same as his, I would not have been jealous of him.”
The Mark of Kayin
The Torah states that “Vaysem Hashem L’Kayin ous levelti hachos oso call motzo.” The Gutnick edition translation of this phrase is: “God placed His holy Name as a mark inscribed on Kayin’s forehead so that he should not be killed by anyone who would find him”. Robert Alter notes that this is a mark of protection, not a stigma as the expression “mark of Cain” suggests.
Shadal, perhaps bothered by the textual use of L’Kayin (FOR Kayin) and not B’Kayin (ON Kayin), concludes that God did not place a sign ON his body, but assured Kayin that no one would harm him.
Rav Sadya Gaon understands this to mean that God designated a restricted geographic area for Kayin where he would be protected from anyone seeking to harm him (similar to Cities of Refuge).
Benno Jacob argues that linguistically a “sign” indicates a foretold event. God informs Kayin that he will not be slain “but will eventually die only after seven generations or misfortunes”.
“Then Cain went away from the presence of God and dwelt in the land of Nod, East of Eden.” God told Kayin he would be a na vanad (wanderer) yet, ironically, he settles in a land with a similar sounding name.