Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat B'reishitGenesis 1:1 - 6:8
October 25, 2003 29 Tishrei 5764
When Franz Rosenzweig published his unconventional German translation of ninety-two Hebrew poems by Judah Halevi, he headed his afterword self-effacingly with a plea from a German translator of The Iliad: "Oh dear reader, learn Greek and throw my translation into the fire."
My determined effort to convey a sense of the vast storehouse of creative Torah interpretation amassed by Jews through the ages carries the same fervent plea. Without some knowledge of Hebrew, it is nearly impossible to appreciate the inventive use of the language by Jewish exegetes as a tool to preserve the fluidity and fruitfulness of the biblical text. Faith in the godliness of the text transmuted its words and letters into materials almost infinitely malleable. Midrash ends up being the polar opposite of a fundamentalist worldview.
My example to illustrate this spiritual ferment is a single verse in this week's parashah, a telling detail in a gripping narrative that proved to be a deadend for the rationalists but a font of inspiration for the mystics. The change of a single Hebrew letter rendered the inert fecund. Before Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden for having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God provided them with clothing: "And the Lord God made garments of skin ('or with an 'ayin) for Adam and his wife and clothed them" (3:21).
In the narrative, this sudden display of divine tenderness follows directly upon the harsh punishments meted out by God to Adam and Eve and the snake for their failure to heed the one explicit prohibition that governed human life in the Garden. What is more, Adam and Eve were no longer naked. Immediately after their sin "they perceived that they were naked and sewed together fig leaves, making themselves loincloths" (3:7). Hence, God's solicitous gesture seems both unexpected and unnecessary: a fleeting expression of sorrow over the fate that awaits humanity outside the Garden.
In the twelfth century, Abraham Ibn Ezra, a major Spanish biblical commentator of a decidedly rationalistic bent, tried to fathom what actually happened in this gross instance of anthropomorphism. He came up with three possible explanations. First, Adam and Eve had been created without an exterior layer of skin. Anatomically, they consisted wholly of flesh and bones. Perhaps that was all they needed in the protective environment of Eden. Now, out of concern, God girded them with an epidermis.
Second, the phrase "garments of skin" could simply be understood as garments to cover their skin. And finally, Ibn Ezra quotes yet another opinion to the effect that, back then an animal lived that bore the shape of a human which God had skinned for human benefit. But after that farfetched conjecture, there were no more. Ibn Ezra's rationalism could take him no further. With an undertone of skepticism, he uncharacteristically avows his faith in the credibility of the text: "This is the end of our investigation. Let us simply believe that God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin. For who can recount God's mighty acts, and who can relate God's deeds and wonders? God's greatness brooks no scrutiny!" (ad loc. 3:21)
A century later, by the change of a single letter, the classic work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, a biblical commentary also authored in Spain, managed to spring the deadend into which Ibn Ezra had stumbled. The context for this exegetical move was a discussion of the special vestments worn by Aaron when officiating in the wilderness sanctuary, the Tabernacle. Because of the holiness of the place, his garments were actually akin to those used in the supernal world, made of remnants of pure light. The Zohar interpreted the rare and opaque noun seradin bigdei serad(garments of serad- Exodus 39:1, 41) to come from the verb saradmeaning to survive or be left over, that is remnants. Given that the Tabernacle was an island of heaven on earth, the priestly garment consisted of remnants from above. The sanctity of the site determined the ethereal nature of the garb.
Similarly holy, according to the Zohar, was the Garden of Eden. We are not to imagine that prior to the "garments of skin" made by God for Adam and Eve, they were utterly naked. On the contrary, their original garb, like that of Aaron in the Tabernacle, consisted of light, in consonance with the purity of their earthly paradise. In Hebrew the words for light and skin are homonyms, both pronounced 'or but spelled differently, light with an alef and skin with an ayin. That linguistic kinship enabled the Zohar to soar: by sinning, Adam and Eve had their garments of celestial light replaced by "garments of skin," which merely protected but no longer illuminated. Indeed, it was not their exterior but their interior which had mutated. Beyond paradise, there was neither comfort nor security nor wisdom (Zohar, II, 229a-b). The ethereal light that made everything humanly comprehendible had dimmed.
Some three-and-a-half centuries later, another kabbalist, Isaiah Horowitz, the author of a meta-halakhic work of grand scope and power, made the Zohar's explosive distinction between garments of light and garments of skin the linchpin of his mystical worldview. Our garments are our cognitive limitations. Bereft of the light of Eden, we no longer see the interconnectedness of heaven and earth or spirit and matter. Even the perfection of the Torah eludes us. In Eden, for example, we would have instantaneously recognized the Oral Law (the Talmud et al.) to be an integral part of the Written Law, and never needed to extract it through painstaking study and interpretation or to preserve it in written form. The expulsion made everything so much more obscure and impenetrable. Of all human beings since, only Moses attained the spiritual and intellectual powers that were once destined to be our common endowment. (Shenei Luhot Ha-brit, Israel 1997, Pesahim 348-355).
In retrospect, then, Ibn Ezra's profession of faith was a statement of rationalistic poverty, while the spiritual ardor of the mystics turned clay into gold.