Friday, June 27, 2008


Many theories have been offered as to The Thing which separates man from animals. Perhaps this is just an example that proves that what most makes us human is our ability to disagree. Animals may oppose what you want but it seems to be based on a pre-programmed instinct. Man is able to say, “I heard what you said, I realize you’re very bright and all…I’ve decided to go with a different approach” or,”Based on what I’ve been hearing and seeing I’m going to have to decline your advice...” Or there's a whole differet style one can adapt to convey disagreement.

The urge to say this is strong, so when there was no-one else to say it to, man and woman said this to G-d Himself. We’ve all heard the story as a kids’ story: “There’s one magic tree that’s going to make you like G-d if you eat from it.” Hmmm. They eat from it. Why? Because the snake told them to.

The Abarbanel makes a cogent argument for the idea that the snake did not speak. In this understanding, Chavah had an inkling, an urge, the urge to use her own judgement. She intellectualized G-d’s command, proudly theorized that it made sense for health reasons. Then she saw the snake rubbing up against the tree – and he didn’t die, his health wasn't hurt in any way, he didn’t even develop a rash. In her mind she dialogues with the snake; his actions are tantamount to his telling her that if he can touch it then it goes to show that the tree is safe. So it must be OK to eat. Makes sense, except that G-d said not to do it.

The prohibition of eating from the tree was not due to any power of the tree itself, but rooted in the power of disobedience. Once you disobey G-d based on your own opinion, then you start to think that you’re like G-d and that you can choose freely based on what you think. In the end Adam and Chava had to be reminded that mankind is unique in that we are given commands by G-d. The snake wasn’t punished, Adam and Chava were. And as part of what they needed, the snake was made to be more clearly different than man. (Note that in the list of what changes for the snake there is no mention of his not being able to speak in the future – a strong indication that he never spoke at all).

Since I learned this approach from Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky, I think about it a lot. It comes up all the time, that in subtle and not so subtle ways we ( I ) choose our (my) own judgement and suggest that we (I) know better thanG-d. Rabbi Twersky often applies this concept to later chapters in the Torah.

Breishit is not only the Torah’s beginning, but the Torah’s foundation. The Ramban suggests that the theme of Breishit is responsibility, thus there are several stories of getting a place in this world and then losing that place as a result of disobedience. In slightly different terminology from the Ramban, Rabbi Twersky suggests the theme which teaches us that if we know what’s good for us (literally) then we’ll listen to G-d. And that we must resist the temptation of our basic instincts that tell us that we know better.

When Korach and company challenge Moshe, Moshe replies that the proof that these men have rebelled against G-d will be that the earth will open its mouth and swallow them. The Medrash Lekach Tov comments that the earth will open it’s mouth “in the same way that it opened its mouth in the days of Kayin and Hevel.” These are the only two contexts in the Torah in which the phrase “patzta et piha” is used in regard to the “adama.” Both Kayin and Korach challenge the spiritual leadership role of another. In both stories jealousy leads to anger, then death. Also, in both cases (as is often so throughout Tanach) there is a tension between the one chosen as the bechor with seniority, and the one chosen by G-d.

The end of perek yud chet of Korach deals with the gifts allotted to the chosen kohanim. The words mincha, cheilev and bechor combine and form a motif. These three words constitute the bulk of the simple statement describing Hevel's action: VeHevel Heivi gam Hu MiBechorot Tzono UMeiChelbeihen, VaYisha Hashem El Hevel Ve'El Minchato. Hevel's was ahead of his time, foreshadowing the Mishkan and its Reiach Nichoach - ever pleasant scent - with his offering. Kayin destroyed Hevel's potential and promise.

The Mishkan was another chance at setting things right. Once again there is an attempt to block the opportunity: Korach threatens the make-up of the Jewish People with the Mishkan and the Kohein at its center. The Torah refers to Korach's group as Mishkan Kohein, because he had a plan to usurp not only Moshe, but the holiness of the Jewish People as exemplified by the Mishkan. Finally, it is made clear that Hevel's profound understanding of a korban is entrusted to the Aharon and his descendants.

May we all be blessed to trust G-d and to respect and embrace holiness.


rr said...

Beautiful. Thanks, I've been missing these!

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thank you.

rr said...

btw, your timing is off here. i would hate for anyone to think that i was mchalel shabbos. can you fix it?

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

oy, just noticed this - i really have no clue. miriam helps me with my other blog, maybe i'll ask her, but i don't like to burden her...maybe she'll see this... i for one pay no attention to date and time and realize that these things are often off.