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Rabbi Simcha Weinberg –Genesis-The First Verse (Part II)

Recorded 19 October 1999 at the home of Ms. Nora Shaykin-Copyright, © 1999 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg-Transcribed by Daniel Goldman:“In the beginning, the Lord created the Heavens and the Earth.” We will begin by defining what barah means.  We have said that, in general, barah is understood to mean to make something out of nothing.  Ibn Ezra says that this is impossible, and whoever translates barah as ex nihilo obviously forgot any of the Chumash he ever learnt.  As proof, he explains that there are many times we find the word, Va’yivra and in those places it doesn’t mean creating something from nothing.  For example, we will learn that on the Fifth day, God the Taninim, or the sea monsters.  There it is impossible to understand it as creation of something from nothing.  Likewise, the words, Va’yivra Adam don’t describe the creation of Man.  Rather, God formed Man.


The Vilna Gaon also says that barah cannot mean created ex nihilo.  That is because of the concept of Darkness as described in our morning prayers.  The first blessing before the morning Shma is “He who forms light, creates darkness, who makes peace, and creates everything.”  This blessing is based on a verse in Isaiah.  In the verse, however, it doesn’t read “and creates everything.” Rather, it reads, “and creates evil.” The Sages changed it because it would be too confusing to confront the fact that God created Evil.  This is another discussion that we will get into another time.

Moreover, if Evil is the absence of God’s presence, then it’s not a creation, it’s God’s withdrawal.  We will have to discuss that, too.  Also understand that whenever we discuss light and dark, these are usually the symbols for Good and Evil.  So the Vilna Gaon, like Ibn Ezra, says that barah cannot mean ‘create,’ because of the way we understand the concept of Darkness.  If it is the absence of light, then you can’t say that it is created.  So what do we mean when we say in the morning blessing, “…He who creates darkness?” If we look at that blessing, the form is ‘forms light,’ ‘creates darkness,’ and ‘makes peace.’ These first three set a pattern.   This pattern relates to the three blessings before the Shma as a whole.  First we have yetzirah, to form.  This is followed by beriah, to create, and then by asiah, to make.  We’ll get to that Vilna Gaon when we get to the next verse. 

Mrs. Sonnenberg: The fact that the verse says Eit, and not Et, does that has any significance?

RSW: It’s really grammatical.  If you look under the word Eit, you have a musical note.  Whenever you have the woird Et, it’s because there is no musical note.  The segol is what you call a Tenuah Ketanah, or a light vowel.  Therefore, it must be connected to the next word.  It can’t stand by itself.  The tzereh, on the other hand, is a Tenuah Gedolah.

Barah can therefore mean several things. Most of us understand it as ex nihilo but Ibn Ezra sees it as making something important, or to express a thought and have it come into being.  The Ketava Hakabbalah holds that the word barah is derived from the word meaning to choose.   Or, in other words, barah is a decision that something must be brought into existance.

MB: What is the Ketava Hakabbalah?

RSW: German Jewry followed Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who used an older grammatical system using root words comprised of two letters, as opposed to the more common system using three letter roots. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, has a short essay discussing the principles of the letters, vowels, and the musical notes.  In addition, he explains that if one letter follows another letter it expresses a particular idea.  If a different letter follows that letter, it express an entirely different idea.  The Ketava Hakabbalah was written by Rabbi Yaakov Mekenberg.  As a German Jew, he was greatly influenced by Rav Hirsch.

Ted Cohen: Then what two letters are the root of barah?

RSW: The kaf and the bet. The meanings behind the letters are all based on a Gemara in Shabbat in which the Sages walked into a kindergarten and asked the children the reasons why they thought this or that letter was named like it is.  The kids gave a long discourse on it.  In any case, it is important to know that barah is not universally understood to mean ex nihilo.

If at the very beginning of Creation you don’t have a word to create something from nothing, at which stage do we begin our understanding of Creation?  This thought suggests that something was already there.  This, in turn, would answer Rashi’s question.  Rashi asks how can you say that at the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth, when the creation of the Heavens (Sha-mayim) necessitates having esh and mayim (fire and water)? On top of that, you have Darkness.  Where did Darkness come from?  Moreover, on the same day, you have the ‘face of the depths.’ Where did the ‘depths’ come from?  You have Light being created, but you don’t have Darkness being created!  Ramban explains that the first thing that was created was what he calls ‘heliyoni,’ or helium.  God then used that gas to create everything else.  Similarly, Ibn Ezra and Ketava Hakabbalah say that barah doesn’t mean ex nihilo, because at some point in the narrative you realize that there are many, many steps missing.

The next word is Elokim, which means Lord or Master.  Generally, we associate Elokim with the attribute of Judge, or judgement.  But there’s a problem.  Why is Elokim written in the plural?  If you recall, Luzzato cites three different purposes for Creation. They are: to do good for another; to find expression for all the attributes of G-d; and so that all the attributes of G-d could be expressed as a unity.  In this case, Luzzato’s second purpose could explain this.  Ibn Ezra says that any thinking person would understand that this is ridiculous.  Ibn Ezra would consider Rashi and Ramban ignoramuses.  Ibn Ezra sticks closely to the simple meaning of the text.  He doesn’t accept Midrashim at all.  He was one of the first Rishonim, the generation following the Geonim.   The Geonic era ended after pirates took the group of four Geonim captive. 

Remember the story?  This is important history.  The generation of Rabbis who immediately followed the closing of the Gemara included Saadiah Gaon, Amram Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon.  These were the heads of yeshivot in Iraq, Iran, and Egypt, which were the major centers of Torah study.   But there is an abrupt switch from the Geonic period to that of the Rishonim.  The period of the Rishonim included Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Rashba, and Chizkuni. 

There were four Geonim that were traveling on a boat leaving from Egypt.  Even though their respective yeshivot were in Iraq, they were on a tour in the greater civilized world so that they could raise money for their schools.  On the way, however, pirates took them captive.  Since the four of them were the greatest rabbis of their generation, they agreed amongst themselves that they wouldn’t tell the pirates who they were.  Were they to find out, the pirates would ransom the four for a lot of money.   In fact, pirates would specifically kidnap Jews because they knew that wherever they would go, there would be a nearby Jewish community that would ransom their captives to fulfill the mitzvah of Pidyon Shivuyim, or ‘Redeeming the Captives.’

The pirates who kidnapped these Geonim knew that if they took all four into one port, they would get less money.   Consequently, they brought each one to a different port.  One was let off in Spain, another in North Africa, another in Egypt, etc.  The local Jewish communities paid huge sums to redeem they because they were able find out who these great men were.  But since these Jews shelled out so much for them, they couldn’t leave.  So they opened up new yeshivot in the places that they settled, and there they began to train new students.  Ibn Ezra was a student of one of those four.  While the Geonim were on the pirates’ ship, they composed a prayer that is the extra Tachanun we say on Mondays and Thursdays.

Steve Brodsky: When did this event take place?

RSW: In the 10th century.

Dr. Sonnenberg: I just find it strange that these four Rabbis just happened to be together at the same time, and that this kind of thing would happen to them.

RSW: Why not?  Do you remember when the Arabs took Rabbi Yitzchak Klippner hostage during that hijacking in Jordan in 1970?  Rabbi Klippner was a Gadol Hador.  I remember flying to Israel with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, and my grandfather.  I was the gopher for the three of them.  I went primarily to look after my grandfather’s health.  When we got off the plane we couldn’t move.  There were thousands and thousands of people waiting to greet us.  In fact, the plane parked in a separate place on the tarmac.  People knew that the “Big Three” were coming. Some of them were upset that all three traveled on the same plane, because if something bad happened, what would the Jewish people do?  It’s interesting because all three died in the same year.  Rav Yaakov and Rav Moshe were a week apart, and my grandfather died a couple of months later.

Leon Sutton: They were all born around the same time?

RSW: Yes, they all went to yeshiva together.

When Rav Yaakov and my grandfather saw each other for what would be the last time, they held each other tight and were staring at each other.  They weren’t saying a word.  There were tears coming down from their faces.  Neither one was sick yet, but we knew that they had no doubt that this was the last time they would see each other alive.

To return to our discussion, Ibn Ezra has an interesting explanation of Elokim. He says that whenever you speak of someone who has greater power, or is more important, you refer to him Elokim. In other words, Elokim is written in the plural as a sign of respect.  ”Don’t pay attention to the words of the Gaon who says that a person is more honored than an angel,” writes Ibn Ezra, criticizing the view of Saadia Gaon.   “Don’t we know that the greatest and honored people are the prophets?”  When Joshua met an angel, he bowed down to it and then, Joshua says to the angel, “What does my master say to his servant?”  We also use the word Elokim as another word for a Jewish court because the people on the court have more honor.  In fact, Ibn Ezra writes that the Arabs of his time, used to speak to royalty in the plural.

Rambam writes in the Guide for the Perplexed that Elokim means ‘The Master of all Strengths.’  Abarbanel says that Elokim isn’t that God possesses these different strengths, as much as His strengths are expressed in different ways.  This is because God interacts with us in different ways. 

LS: If so, how does Rambam understand Bnei Elokim that we find at the end of the parsha?

RSW: We’re going to get to that.  That’s a doozy.  If you look at Ramban at the end of the parsha, he explains that the Bnei Elokim are, in fact, Adam and Eve.  They are the children who went bad, or the ones who were born without free choice.  It’s pretty clear from the verses that human beings were at first born without it.  This will change our whole reading of the Garden of Eden.

The reason I’m going into all these different commentaries is so that we are clear that no one agrees how to read the first chapter of Genesis.  Even though it is the basis for everything that follows, there is no consistent reading of any one part of the first chapter. This raises another important concept that is worth going into here.  Rashba, one of the early Rishonim, and lived a couple of generations after Rashi, wrote a responsum regarding the many ways it is possible to read any given verse in the Torah.  In the question, he was asked if it were permissible to read Philo.  If you read it, you’ll find that it is essentially an exposition of Greek philosophy superimposed onto the words of the Torah.  If you are not allowed to, then how come so many Rishonim were reading it?  If you aren’t, what is the difference between reading Philo and our reading of the Chumash?  All of us superimpose our feelings and our convictions on the Torah, and it’s OK.  Why is it OK?  If you are reading the Torah, you understand that you couldn’t possibly understand what really happened.  There is the recognition that “this is my reading of it.”

So why does the Torah begin with a chapter that is impossible to understand? – To make sure that we understand that chumash in general is impossible to understand.  Therefore, whichever way we read it, we will be imposing our own opinions onto it.  The question is whether they are consistent with basic Jewish philosophy or not.  That’s the key.  But if a new idea is developed from the Bible that contradicts basic Jewish philosophy, then you know it’s not true.  The Torah has to be true. 

That is also why rabbis are allowed to give drashot.  In a drasha, you play with the word and you learn out from the words a new meaning.  You know that’s not what the words mean.  Rashba says that no one reads the chumash honestly anyway.  And this is an early Rishon speaking.  Chasidic Torah never reads the verse literally.  There is always a twist to it.  You know it’s not really true.  You’re reading your thought into the verse.

Do you realize how fundamental this is to the reading of the Torah?  I’m not making this up on my own.  This level of honesty is absolutely necessary to learning chumash, especially when studying the first chapter of Genesis.  Remember, it is IMPOSSIBLE for a human being to understand it.  This is why I have been spending so much time on just one word.  After all, Ibn Ezra calls Saadia Gaon an idiot!  Do you really believe Saadia Gaon was a fool?  Or do you really believe Ibn Ezra when he says that anyone who reads it any other way never studied chumash?  Obviously, what they are doing is staking out their positions.  The way you read the first chapter of Genesis will have a deep impact on how you will read the rest of the Torah.

Now lets finish the last four words, “Eit ha’Shamayim, v’eit ha’Aretz.” I believe I explained a couple of classes ago that my understanding of these words refer to the dichotomy between the spiritual world and the physical world.  The Torah differentiates between the two so that we understand that God is not physical and God is not spiritual.  Since God created the spiritual world, then by definition, God is not a spiritual being.  God is in an entirely separate category.  That’s why this New Age stuff is really Avoda Zara.  If I say that God is a spiritual being, then I am limiting God as much as if I put God into physical form.  Angels are limited, as man is.  Therefore, we will approach Creation with the understanding that we are dealing with both worlds.  This is the same approach we spoke of couple of weeks ago when we spoke of the balance between the physical and spiritual worlds, and God’s discussions with the Angels.

However, Ibn Ezra argues that this is impossible.  He reasons that if God writes it in the Torah, which is for us to read, then it must be understandable to us.  When the Torah writes ‘heavens,’ then it has to mean the sky.  The Akeda (16th century) has a different idea.  He says that that shamayim refers to the spiritual world, and ha’aretz refers to the physical world.  Therefore, the Torah, too, exists in both worlds.  In other words, we are studying Torah tonight within the physical realm.  We have to be aware, though, that the Torah also exists on an entirely different level.

Do you know the famous story of the Ari Hakadosh?  The Ari was in the middle of giving a shiur.  All of a sudden, he dozed off.  He was still lecturing to his students, but they couldn’t understand him, even though it sounded very much like words of Torah, because he was speaking very fast.  Ten minutes later, when the Ari awoke, his face was aglow.  One of his students had the courage to ask him what their teacher was talking about when he was asleep.  The Ari responded that the class was at such a high level when he fell asleep, that the Angels took him into the heavens and taught him the very topic that they were learning now.  The students excitedly responded, “Great! Tell us!”  The Ari said, “You don’t understand. They were able to teach it to me in that world in only ten minutes. For me to teach you what they taught me, would take me 85 years!”

Q: Could you explain more about the two worlds?

RSW: Each part of those worlds has two different manifestations.  In the spiritual world you have the Angels, (which we have already spoken of with regard to Elokim) and the Kochot ha’Elyonot, the Transcendental Forces.  These are two different parts.  In the physical world you also have entirely different beings.  On the one hand you have animals and human beings which have a physical soul – ethereal but still physical, and then you have a physical being that can exist and connect, or bridge the two worlds, which is the human being, or the Jew.

Therefore, when we learn about Creation, we are not learning about the beginning of the world, we are speaking about the appearance of the human being with a higher level soul.  When we speak of the present Jewish calendar year, 5760, we are referring not to years since the world was created, but to the 5760 years since the appearance on earth of a human being with a higher level soul.  That’s why we have Eit Ha’shamayim v’eit ha’Aretz. These are two different stages of Creation.

Next week we will be studying the next verse.  We will discuss ‘darkness,’ ‘depths,’ and ‘spirit.’  But I want to point out one thing regarding that verse before we begin.  What are the basic elements in the world in Jewish thought?  Looking at the second verse, which one came first?  First, Earth, then Darkness, which equals Fire, then Wind, and then Water.  We’re going to have a long debate between Rabbeinu Bachaya, Ramban, and Rambam about the appearance of these four elements and why they appear in this order.  However, all the Rishonim agree on one thing: Darkness equals Fire.   We will elaborate, but I wanted to give you something to think about.  This is a very complex verse.  It is connected to the story of Purim, it is related to the idea of potential, and finds its way into the concept of Mashiach.  And, we can use it to explain the many issues that arise in connection with the Ark.

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