Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat B'reishit 5759
Genesis 1:1 - 6:8
October 17, 1998 27 Tishre 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
For the rabbis, the gap between the death of Moses at the end of the Torah and the creation of Adam and Eve at the beginning is bridged by divine compassion. The Torah closes as it opens, with an act of kindness, in order to establish the doing of good deeds (gemilut hasadim) as the supreme value of Judaism. Our exemplar is none other than God, who in each instance is moved by human plight.
The final scene of the Torah depicts Moses alone atop Mount Nebo with a glorious view of the entire land of Israel from the eastern side of the Jordan River. It is there that Moses dies and is buried with no trace of his grave. But who buried him? The ambiguity of the verb - "He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6)" - with no obvious referent allows Rabbi Simlai to dare the thought that in the absence of human companions God attended to Moses' funeral.
An early scene in the Torah is more straightforward. Adam and Eve are about to be expelled from the Garden of Eden when God pauses in a tender impulse to make "for Adam and his wife garments of skins," thus giving them their first clothing (Genesis 3:21). Rabbi Simlai joined the two events to make the point that it is our encounter with the other that frames the Torah and defines the quality of our religious life (B.T. Sotah 14a).
The comment by Rabbi Simlai is part of a larger talmudic discussion (on the same page) about what constitutes proper human conduct. A perplexing biblical verse triggers the topic. We are instructed by Moses quite explicitly: "Follow none but the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:5)." Taken literally, the injunction does not make a lot of sense, because another verse advises us to keep our distance from God: "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)." Hence the injunction must be taken figuratively. What is to be pursued is not God's being but behavior. Like God, we are to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort those in mourning and bury the dead. The Torah abounds in divine acts of kindness that set the standard for human behavior. Morality is a matter of imitating our Maker, striving to become God-like in the manner in which we relate to our fellow humans.
Similarly, the verse in Moses' Song at the Sea - "This is my God and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2)" - prompts the question of how humans can ever do justice to the glory of God. Abba Shaul responds crisply: "Be like God. Aspire to God's level of mercy and compassion." It is not through art or architecture, through missionizing or martyrdom, but through the daily demands of moral living that we can most effectively bring credit to God. The challenge is to ennoble the ordinary, to turn our mundane existence into a work of art (Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael, ed. Horovitz, p. 127).With the thirteen attributes of God still ringing in our ears from the holiday season ("The Lord, the Lord God is gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon"), we should be mindful that they are not only a depiction of divine grace but also of divine expectation. Even as God overrides the dictates of justice with mercy to ameliorate our fate, we are expected to transcend our baser instincts to repair the world.
The concept of gemilut hasadim is positive rather than negative. Acts of kindness do not create civil society; they enhance the quality of life it is able to generate. They complement the prohibited crimes of violence that separate the social order from the jungle by diminishing the inevitable friction of living in community. One cannot be punished for refusing to do them. Compliance is voluntary, a habit of the heart. By striving to imitate God, we come to acknowledge the humanity in our neighbor. Acts of kindness have the power of triggering what Martin Buber described as an I-Thou relationship.
By making acts of kindness the very essence of Judaism, the Talmud expanded the category far beyond the scope of giving charity. Few opportunities to be of assistance were missed and no one was exempt. On the scale of merits, to act kindly outranks giving charity for three reasons. First, tzedaka requires money, while gemilut hasadim can be done either with money or in person. Second, the recipients of charity can only be the poor, while an act of kindness can be directed at either poor or rich. And thirdly, charity aids the living, while both the living and the dead may be the object of a spontaneous good deed. In short, vital as charity surely is, the generosity of spirit that prompts an act of kindness can soften the harshness of almost every area of human life (B.T. Sukka 49b).
The opening chapters of the Torah quickly introduce us to the darker side of human nature. Adam and Eve are unable to heed even a single divine restriction and in a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother. Through the artifice of midrash, the Rabbis allude to the concomitant human capacity to do good. Created in the image of God, we can attain moments of God-like transcendence by repudiating the sight of suffering and degradation. The mission of Judaism is to tame our hearts as it frees our minds.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,