Friday, January 16, 2009

Shemos: Syllabi

The question is asked in the very first Rashi in Bereishis why the Torah doesn’t start from “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim”, in Bo. The answer there is given that its to teach the lesson that, b’kitzur, G-d giveth and taketh away—-or, more poignantly, G-d taketh away and giveth to someone else you may not at all like—-at his leisure and convenience, because everything belongs to Him.

Jump to the beginning of Sefer Vayikra and from the outset we are referred back to Bereishis, when the posuk says “Adam ki yakriv mi-kem”: your sacrificial offerings msut be as free from the taint of gezel as if from “Adam”, i.e. the categorical impossibility of Adam HaRishon stealing anything, because everything in the world belonged to him.

(I’m not sure whether Tony Montana had this Rashi in mind when he adopted “The World Is Yours" as his motto. However, he knew when someone was a "chazzar": "the guy, he wants more than what he needs.")

This provides another one of the classical midrashic-haskafic conundra that pop up from time to time (e.g., the free will mishna in Avos, “hakol tzafui he-hasreshut nitnah”), but I propose that the apparent tension inherent in these two Rashis—everything is G-d’s vs. everything is Adam’s—can be used to illustrate the links between what might be termed the central theme of S'farim Bereishis and Vayikra, how Shemos serves as the bridge between the two, and how the "bridging" is the theme of Shemos itself.

Once at a (mighta been an UWS) shabbos meal I mused aloud that Sefer Bereshis was, when you got down to it, all about…relationships. Specifically, relationships involving…relations; especially, inappropriate relations, ones that ran the gamut in levels of impropriety.

(What I’m obviously circumlocuting here is that I said Bereishis was all about sex. It got everyones attention but ultimately detracted from what I was trying to point out. Occupational hazard.)

One way to illustrate this—-and, tangentially, the tension between a universal G-d- given absolute morality yet one reliant to some degree of human intuition—-is the fact that ostensibly, the 7 mitzvos benei noach weren’t given until after the Flood, leaving the dor hamabul with a possible ex-post facto defense. Obviously, since it didn’t hold up in Court, there must have been a reason for its rejection. The Gemara in Sanhedrin details that, really, the 7 mitzvot are couched in various remazim from psukim in Bereishis when G-d talks to Adam, so the law was, as it were, already “on the books”.

Yet the fact that it wasn’t truly codified until after the mabul (hence “mitvzos benei Noach”) indicates that G-d was, to some extent, relying upon humankind to, as it were, almost intuit morality on their own (this may be one way to explain the tzelem elokim). G-d almost allowed there to be a moral laboratory, with very little constraint upon experimentation; witness the description of how idolatry began and proliferated, and the concomitant widespread explosion of sexual practices (which, Rashi and the medrash intimate, involved serious issues of lack of consent in many cases). Yet G-d didn’t close the lab until it became clear that there were no rules anymore whatsoever and the everyone’s aim was to just hurt one another. Post-flood, G-d steps in and makes the rules a bit more clear; its obvious that people needed to be pointed in the right direction.

Despite the Divine input and legislation, these themes obviously recur in a loop throughout Sefer Bereishis: both in terms of arayot (two examples: Avraham having to fight two monarchs to keep them off his wife, and the whole episode with Er and Onan and Yehuda and Tamar; see my Tznius series) and damim (for an “international” example, see Nimrod and Avraham; for an internecine example, see Yosef and his brothers).

By the time we get to the end of Sefer Bereishis, it seems that some lessons have been learned the hard way. This is indicated at the beginning of this weeks parsha: “shivim nefesh ve-yosef haya be-mitzrayim:” some semblance of a family unit with a set of stable relations between persons and sexes had been established, as a result of the travails involving Yosef.

Shemos indicates that some of the lessons of Bereishis have been learned—witness Shifra and Puah’s defiance of Pharaoh and the culture of life promulgated by the Jewish women in the direst of circumstances (“shesh be-keres echad”; “ken yirbeh”).

Then again, it indicates that there is much to be learned, both on an international level (the first recorded instance of the imposition of a specifically racio-ethno-nationally based enslavement, the Curse of Canaan notwithstanding) and internecine (Moshe, “refing” the Datan-Aviram bout, realizing that the lessons are obviously not yet learned. “Achen noda ha-davar”, indeed).

Sefer Shemos, then, links the “kol ha-aretz shel hakadosh baruch hu hi” of Bereishis 1:1 and the “Adam ha-Rishon lo hikriv min ha-gezel” of Vayikra 1:2, the bridge between the true ben Adam le-chavero: the Genesis Syllabus, if you will--and, the ultimate ben Adam la-Makom: the Vayikra Syllabus.

In truth, the syllabi aren’t all that different. Which may explain why is isn’t until Kedoshim that we will see “Ve-ahavta la-re’acha kamocha.

Somewhere after the Vayikra midterms.

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