Other Torah Learning and Personal Thoughts

Becoming Partners in Creation
October 17, 2021

After Simchat Torah, there are no Jewish holidays for two months, the longest such desert of elevating occasions in the yearly calendar. At the same time, we begin the cycle of Torah study once again. The story of Creation in the opening chapters of the Torah provides clues to help us to carry our gains from the intensity of the holidays into everyday life.

A pair of somewhat cryptic midrashim about Creation and our role in its continuing unfolding provides some surprising guidance. The Talmud (Chullin 60A) notes an apparent contradiction in the Torah’s description of the creation of the Sun and Moon in Genesis 1:16. The account begins with an even-handed, symmetrical description of these two bright orbs: “And God made the two great lights …,” but then emphasizes their inequality: “… the great light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.” In the midrash, the Moon appeals to God, “How can two kings wear the same crown?” “Make yourself smaller, then,” replies God. “Master of the universe,” the Moon complains, “should I make myself smaller because I spoke the truth before you?” God then tries to assuage the Moon’s sense of injustice: “Then go and rule both the day and the night.”

“But my light is as negligible as a candle flame at noon. What use will it be then?”

“Then know that the people of Israel will rely on you to calculate the days and years of their calendar.”

“But it is the Sun that is essential for that, and for determining the dates of the festivals and seasons.”

Recognizing that the Moon needed to find some pride in its smaller size, God advises, “Know that the nation of Israel will recall its righteous heroes as ‘the small,’ as in ‘Jacob the small’ (Amos 7:2, 5), ‘Samuel the small’ (possibly a reference to Rabbi Shmuel HaKatan, cited, for example, in Pirkei Avot 4:24), and ‘David the small’ (I Samuel 17:14).”

Seeing that the Moon was not consoled by this, God concedes, “Then let them bring an atonement on my behalf for diminishing the Moon.” The midrash then points out that this is what Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish alluded to when he said, “What is unique about the goat [sin offering] of Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month)? The fact that it is described as ‘for God’ (Numbers 28:15). God said, ‘Let this goat be my atonement for making the Moon smaller.’” (The Torah refers to other sin offerings as “a sin offering for you.”)

In a seemingly abrupt change of topic, Rav Assi then introduces the second midrash by pointing out a second apparent contradiction in the Creation story: Genesis 1:11 states that on the third day, “the Earth brought forth vegetation.” Genesis 2:5, however, describes a time, apparently on the sixth day, “before any plants of the field were present on the land.” Rav Assi reconciles the two verses by explaining that seeds began to sprout on the third day, but the seedlings did not emerge from the soil until the sixth day, when Adam was created and prayed for God’s mercy to favor their growth. God answered this prayer with rain that enabled the plants to grow (Genesis 2:6), to teach that God desires the prayers of the righteous.

What can this all mean? Midrashim are not meant to be taken literally, but as homilies that resolve textual difficulties or use Scriptural passages to teach a concept. Genesis begins with a vision of a harmonious world with all of its elements in perfect, stable balance: “And God made the two great lights …” However, the first midrash points out that reducing this elegant symmetry to physical form requires compromise, contradiction, and asymmetry. There must be day and night, life and death, struggle and the potential for failure: “… the great light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.” Creation introduces imbalance, imperfection, and at times, even injustices as the pure, perfect, undifferentiated light of Creation becomes matter, stars, planets, and eventually, life and self-aware humanity.

This truth is also reflected in our individual lives as a basic dilemma that we all face, especially at times such as the end of the holidays of Tishrei when we must leave behind a period of intense personal growth and inspiration and resume our workaday lives. If we want to preserve these gains and infuse them into our lives, then we will also have to make compromises to give this aspiration tangible form. Railing at the world’s flaws, daily injustices, and the concessions it demands of us will not help. What will, then?

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish shows us how to begin by drawing out the meaning of the first midrash. He was ideally situated to teach this lesson by his own example. During his youth, he was a highwayman and a gladiator. To grow into a Talmudic sage from this background is impressive and unusual, but it is not superhuman. He faced the same trials and temptations as everyone else, and understood from his own experience how frail, imperfect humanity can progress and improve. God created an astounding world that we should wonder at every day, but acknowledged its imperfections with the sin offering of Rosh Chodesh.

Both midrashim emphasize human partnership with God. The first shows that God relies on us to acknowledge and try to compensate for the deficiencies of Creation. The second teaches that completing God’s Creation requires our participation. Like Adam, we can partner with God to cultivate the seeds of a better future, finding small, incomplete ways to nurture improvement in ourselves and our surroundings. and to pray for God’s help in our efforts. It won’t be perfect, but it can be better.

These ideas are developed more fully in Fruits of Freedom, the Torah Flora Hagadah.

Yahrtzeit Siyum on Mishnah Seder Zeraim
June 14, 2020
I am starting this new page with a video recording of a siyum, the celebration of concluding the study of a book of Torah. I presented this siyum via Zoom on June 14, 2020 as a belated conclusion to the year of mourning for my father, Rabbi Ephraim S. Greenberg. You can view the video of this siyum and some family reminiscences that followed at this link on Vimeo.

I would like to add a few memories and thoughts about my father here.

This siyum had three parts. The first dealt with the two Biblical commandments of giving honor and respect to one’s parents. The latter term (yir’ah in Hebrew) is also often translated as fear or awe. Ironically, this was probably the last thing that my father ever wanted or expected from his family. He wanted our love, appreciation, and esteem, but he never expected us to treat him as an authority to be feared and obeyed. He was always kind and eager to help his children and his extended family. I did not fully recognize or appreciate until my conversations with his many cousins before and after the siyum that as a second-generation oldest child and one of the first college-educated members of the family, he often filled the role of the wise, older friend and advisor to his cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. I remember that when my children and cousin Joel’s were young, they spoke about him almost like a magical fairy tale character who would often appear (or more mysteriously, send packages) with delightful gifts, stories, and visits. Whenever I or my children encountered any problem or obstacle, my father was always quick to offer his advice and help. Even when the problem was not one that he was knowledgeable about or able to solve, his love and desire to help us were so strong that he would try anyway. It didn’t always help us with these challenges, but his care and concern for us were always clear. There was never any doubt that we were the most important part of his life.

The theme of the second part of the siyum was legacy. I think that the story that I told in the siyum of my grandmother demanding that my father surpass her represents one of the major forces that drove his life and his accomplishments — His education, his rabbinic and business careers, the demands and rewards of his struggle as a single parent to provide for and nurture the growth of two children, and his investment of so much of himself in his children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments and happiness. The story also highlights another aspect of my father’s pride and pleasure in our successes — that he always saw them in relation to family. A graduate degree, a new job, a raise, or promotion was not just good news for a child or grandchild. It was also a building block in the structure that would help to protect and support his family in the future. This, I think, is why he startled his then childless and mostly single grandchildren at his ninetieth birthday party with the wish that he be able to meet at least of some of his great-grandchildren. He was able to meet two of them, to his great delight. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than seeing the continuity of his and his ancestors’ legacy in a new grandchild or great-grandchild. As I write this, I am in the process of preparing a book for publication. When I look at my own words in the manuscript or learn about yet another of my children’s accomplishments and life milestones — a major publication, an award, a wedding, the birth of a child — I see the spirit of thoughtful creativity and the drive for accomplishments of lasting value that my father exemplified and transmitted to us.

The third and final part of the siyum was about ambiguity. My father experienced, and in some ways, embodied a good deal of ambiguity. He lived for many years as a single custodial father, never a common experience, but one that was nearly unknown at that time. Like many rabbis of his generation with Orthodox ordination, he often stood and mediated between traditional and liberal Judaism. In many ways, the years of his marriage to Dahlia later in his life seemed like a reward and respite from the struggles of his earlier years that enabled him to live at peace with the ambiguities and uncertainties that life presented. In facing these challenges, he encouraged us to face them with prudence, perseverance, and patience, and showed us how, a wise example that has served us all well, and for which I am grateful.

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