Weekly Letter: Bereshis

The article we are sharing this week about Bereshis, was written by Rabbi Nissan Mindel and reviewed and noted by the Rebbe – as was done with most of Rabbi Mindel’s writings (which he wrote for his monthly children’s magazine Talks and Tales and other publications). The Rebbe’s corrections and notations are included in this final draft. Rabbi Mindel wrote other articles of this nature, about other parshios as well. This very basic piece gives us an overview and clear understand of what the Torah and its specific parshios is all about, and goes more specifically into Parshas Bereishis.

With the month of Tishrei our New Year begins. Since every year we complete the reading of the entire Torah (the Five Books), through the weekly readings of the sedrah in which the Torah is divided, it is fitting that we should conclude the Torah and begin it again in the auspicious month of Tishrei. Thus, the last sedrah – Brachah – is read on Simchas Torah and the first sedrah – Bereishis – is read on the following Shabbos, last Shabbos of the month of Tishrei.

The sedrah Bereishisis is, of course, not only the first sedrah of the Book of Bereishis, but also the first sedrah of the Five Books of the Torah. As such, it is an “introduction” to the whole Torah. In this connection, some general remarks about the Torah will be in order.

The word Torah has as its root in the Hebrew word meaning “to teach” “instruct.” (from the same root comes the Hebrew word moreh, fem. morah, meaning “teacher.”) Thus, the very name Torah indicates that its purpose is to teach: to teach us what we should know about G-d, our Creator and to instruct us in our daily conduct so that it should be in full accord with the way G-d has ordered us and desires us to live in our everyday life, for our own good.

How does the Torah teach us? It teaches us in three general ways: by example, by precept and by intensive study. Let us examine each of these three ways.

A considerable part of Torah consists of narratives, or stories. Thus the Torah begins with the story of the Creation of the world and of the first human beings, Adam and Chava and their children Cain and Abel and Sheth and what happened to the first ten generations of the human race. These are the highlights of the first sedrah, Bereishis. In the next sedrah the Torah tells us about Noah and the flood and about the Tower of Babel – the next ten generations.

It should be noted here in passing, that these first twenty generations of the human race span a period of more than 2000 years. Yet the Torah devotes to them only two sedrahs, while all the rest of the Torah covers a period of about 500 years. The reason for this extraordinary disproportion is that in the year 1948 (after Creation) Abraham was born and 52 years later, in the year 2000, the world entered a new phase. This was the year when Abraham began to spread the knowledge of One G-d and soon G-d made a special Covenant with him, by which G-d promised to make him the father of a special nation among the nations of the world – the Chosen, Holy Nation that would receive G-d’s Torah and the Holy Land; the nation that would spread the light of the Torah throughout the world and by its exemplary way of life, a life of holiness in keeping with the Holy Torah and mitzvos, would serve as a model and blessing of all mankind.

Therefore, beginning with the time when Abraham began to spread the faith in One G-d, the Torah tells us in great detail all that happened to him and his wife Sarah and to their son and heir Isaac, and to Isaac’s son Jacob – the father of our Jewish nation – and to the twelve sons of Jacob, Israel. It goes on to tell us how Jacob and his family – seventy souls in all – came down to Egypt where, despite the oppression and enslavement, they grew into a united people; and how G-d delivered them from Egypt through Mosheh and Aharon in order to give them the Torah at Sinai; and what happened to them in the forty years of their wandering through the desert, until they reached the border of the Promised Land, where Mosheh died (in the year 2488 after Creation).

Now it should be clearly understood that the Torah is not a book of science nor a book of history, nor is it a book of literature or poetry – although it is all of that and more, because of its Divine nature and truth. The main purpose of the Torah as mentioned is to teach and instruct us how to live. This, therefore, it is also the main purpose of the narrative and sorties of the Torah.

By telling us how G-d created the world in six days – the heavens and the earth and all the hosts, the heavenly bodies and the trees, birds, fishes, land and sea animals and finally Man – the Torah teaches us, among many other things, that the whole world was created for the sake of mankind; that every human being has been given the privilege and responsibility to be a “partner” with G-d in ruling over the world. Following the example of G-d, metaphorically speaking, a human being must be “creative”, for G-d created man “in His image,” giving him something in the nature of G-d-like qualities – a divine soul, intellect, speech, the knowledge of what is good and what is evil. Man too, must do all his work in six days and rest from work on the seventh day, devoting it entirely to spiritual activities.

The story of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden, of Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and the other events related in the Torah, teach us that G-d takes account of every human action and although He is patient and compassionate with wrongdoers, no person is free from responsibility of his actions and sooner or later, must suffer the consequences of his wrongdoing if he does not change his ways and repents and makes amends. The few highlights if the early history of mankind, as related in the Torah, are sufficient in themselves to teach the said basic truths.

But when it comes to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Fathers of our people – here the Torah is not short on detail, for every detail of their lives has an important and always timely lesson for us, their descendants, for they set the true example and paved the way for everyone of us to follow.

So much for the “narrative” part of the Torah.

After describing the event of G-d’s Revelation at Mount Sinai and the Giving of the Torah to our people, the Torah goes on to spell out the various precepts, mitzvos, that we observe – the do’s and the don’t’s , 613 Divine commandment in all. These, like the Ten Commandments which we received from G-d at Sinai, are short and direct orders as to what our duties are to G-d and to fellow man. The details of the mitzvos were given by G-d to Mosheh Rabbeinu, to be transmitted orally (not in written form) from generation to generation and from the so-called Oral Torah, which was not written down by Mosheh as in the case of the Five books, but which was committed to writing many generations later. However, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah are of course one and the same Torah. For example, when the Torah says: “Remember the Shabbos day to keep it holy” and “not work shall be done on Shabbos,” it does not explain how we are to keep the Shabbos holy and what manner of work is forbidden on Shabbos. These explanations and details were given to Mosheh Rabbeinu, who taught them in precise detail to the leaders and the people of his generation and they, in turn, passed them on to the next generation and so on, until they were finally recorded in a code of Jewish law called the Shulchan Aruch.
This part of the Torah – the actual mitzvos – is the practical part, since it tells us explicitly what we must or must not do, in actual practice in our everyday life. This is what is meant by living the Jewish way of life – a life in keeping with the Divine commandments, mitzvos of the Torah.

In addition, there is the third aspect of the Torah in that it contains profound truths about the nature of G-d’s Divine Providence and how He deals with nations and individuals and also about the deeper meaning of His mitzvos and the like. To understand these deeper aspects requires a great deal of intensive study. And while every Jew is commanded to study the Torah over and over again and must have at least some periods of study every day, not everybody can become a great Torah scholar like the Rabbis and scholars who dedicated all their lives to the study of Torah and mitzvos. But insofar as actually performing mitzvos, all Jews are equally obligated and able to do them, for they involve action preceded by a blessing, which everyone can easily learn.

And so on Shabbos Bereishis, we begin reading and learning the Torah all over again and though we have done it year after year, it always seems like new to us and we can always find something new in it to learn and think about, to make everyday life even better and nobler. For the Torah is G-d’s Book; it is eternal and boundless.

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