These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Bereishit – The Beginning of My Chumash Project

Posted on January 12, 2011 by Barer

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Since I was inspired to undertake this project due in large part to being at Pardes, I thought I would post this here too.

My ‘Chumash Project’: My plan is to tackle one commentary a year, Rashi this year, reading Chumash with that commentary in line with the weekly parsha.  Given certain circumstances largely out of my control, I am nearly a month late in posting this summary of Bereishit, but better late than never.  A caution: this is for the most part a technical overview of a lot of Jewish text, and a lot of work could be done to make it more literarily appealing (which I hope to do next time).  So here is a list of 9 noteworthy questions/thoughts/issues that I had with Bereishit:

  1. First off, the textual impetus to bring the project from an idea to a reality was my sitting in shul and following along as Bereishitwas read only to come to the realization that, on the face of it, the first thing Hashem ever says to humans is a lie.  Bereishit 2:17: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Artscroll translation).  So this issue seemed too pressing to restrict myself to Rashi, who doesn’t address the issue.  The Ramban does address the issue, but not satisfactorily in my opinion.  He says that the verse means that from that day forward Adam (and Chavah) becomes liable for the death penalty, to be exacted at Hashem’s discretion.  Since the verse explicitly says that they will die “on the day [they] eat of it” this explanation doesn’t cut it.  And so, since I was at Pardes, I did the sensible thing and asked someone much wiser than me.  Baruch put it this way: the creation story is a metaphor, and so no actual death is being referenced here.  Rather, Hashem is saying that by going down this path of disobeying the divine vision for humanity, one will inevitable come into contact with death – i.e. such a path leads to death.
  2. Another early point that caught my attention was the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28).  I devoted a blog post to my reading of this verse back when it came up, and so rather than re-hash it all here, I will point you to it – though feel free to leave comments here.
  3. This comes up all the time later on, and so it is worth mentioning that Rashi posits that the Torah is not written chronologically in 6:3 for the first time
  4. A few other points about the form that Rashi’s commentary takes
    1. In 3:8 Rashi sets out his goal in his commentary of providing the pshat interpretation of the text (echoed in 3:22, 24, 4:8, 6:3)
    2. However, beginning (I think) in 7:17 Rashi begins using what becomes a common formula where he offers an interpretation followed by a second interpretation which he calls the pshat, implying that the first interpretation is not pshat – while it may not contradict what he said earlier about providing the pshat, it would hardly be considered ‘good literary form’ to do so without at least mentioning that drash (interpretation of a ‘deeper’ sort) will be a major part of his translation, especially when the drash seems to precede the pshatinterpretation in many places
      1. i.     And in certain verses the goal of giving a simple reading has clearly left Rashi’s mind, e.g. 17:5
    3. Rashi, especially in Bereishit, has a fascination with squaring all the events in the text chronologically, the first example of which is how much time Rashi spends elaborating the dates of the flood (beginning with 7:11)
    4. Very rarely, but noticeable if you are looking, Rashi notes that his own commentary is not as airtight as usual, first noting that it is kashah lee (difficult for me) in 13:14, and noting that he simply does not know why the text is so repetitive in 28:5
  5. The theme of buying and selling runs right through Bereishit, from Avraham buying the cave of Machpelah (23:16) to Yaakov buying Eisav’s birthright (and then tricking Yitzchak to receive the blessing, 25:33 and 27:19 respectively), to Lavan ‘selling’ Leah to Yaakov when Rachel was promised (29:23), to Leah selling Rachel the du’daim for a night with Yaakov (30:16), to the brothers selling Yosef (37:28), Yosef depositing the goblet in Binyamin’s sack (44:2), etc. And it is not coincidental that so much deceit appears in connection with these early monetary transactions
  6. Names also carry a deep meaning, from the naming of the animals and Chava by Adam in the Garden, to the naming of the wells, to the naming of children (especially the tribes)
  7. Reading the way that Rashi sees the Patriarchs, and the protagonists generally, throughout Bereishit (too many examples to mention) has forced me to look at Rashi’s social situation as charitably as possible in order to understand what drove him to go to the extreme lengths that he did.  The simplest way I can understand this is by saying that Rashi lived at a time when Judaism’s validity was being questioned, and his way of countering that movement was to interpret the Torah in such a way where the ‘Jews’ (i.e. the Patriarchs and those that eventually became called Jews) were near-perfect humans.  And so the reason why modern readers have trouble with this way of reading it can be seen as a reflection of the culture we live in where Judaism is not being challenged in the same way
  8. However unusual it may be, every once in a while I come across a midrash brought by Rashi that I like, e.g. 43:30, where Rashi explains why all of a sudden Yosef has to run out of the room where his brothers are – the prompting question being what exactly made Yosef lose his composure.  Rashi brings the Gemarah in Sotah that says that the following conversation occurred: Yosef asked Binyamin: “do you have a brother from your mother?”  He replied, “I did, but I do not know what happened to him.”  Yosef then asked: “do you have sons?” and Binyamin replied: “I have ten…their names are [46:21]” Yosef asked: “what is the meaning of those names?”  And Binyamin then answered that each one of his children was named in memory of some lost part of the life Yosef would have had or the part Yosef would have played in Binyamin’s life.
  9. The final motif that I want to draw attention to is the giving of blessings.  You could really start with Hashem, but the ones that deserve the most reflection, and a detailed analysis side-by-side, are Yitzchak’s blessings to Yaakov and Eisav and Yaakov’s blessings to Ephraim and Mennashe, and the rest of the Tribes (where blindness figures in as well)
And as a bonus for anyone who is still reading, here’s a picture of what it looks like outside my house right now, (so much for me trying to convince you that Vancouver isn’t cold like the rest of Canada):