JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2002 / 28 Tishrei, 5763

The book of "Bereishis" ( Genesis): The book of mankind

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | The first book of the Torah, which will begin to be read publicly in synagogues the world over on Saturday morning, is a perplexing compilation of stories about people. No apparent master plan or blueprint of morality is readily discernable from its contents. It does not prescribe a set of rules to live by, there are no "Ten Commandments" within its pages, it is almost completely devoid of mitzvos -- divine ritual commandments -- and the narrative details of the lives of its heroes are incomplete and sometimes cryptic.

As such, who needs the book? What does it come to teach us? What is its purpose? Rashi, the foremost biblical commentator, raises all of these questions in the opening paragraph to his immortal commentary on Torah.

He presents the answer that the Torah begins with creation in order to impress upon us G-d's control over the world's events and property and that He parcels out land to whomever He desires and has assigned the Land of Israel to the people of Israel.

But that does not answer why all of the other narratives and stories appear in this holy book. In fact, the entire book of Genesis is an enigma. It tells us much but not all about the founders of our people; it records historical events that shape world civilization, but does not really place them in a true historical perspective; and it certainly reveals almost nothing to us about the nature of the G-d of creation and Israel. So, why the book?

My rabbinic teachers taught me over a half-century ago that the secret of the entire book of Genesis lay in the simple understanding of the verse: "This is the book of the generations of mankind." The Torah does not come to define G-d; it leaves that to the theologians. The Torah does not explain creation; it leaves that to the astrophysicists and geneticists. The Torah comes to direct, counsel, guide and strengthen each and every individual human being in that person's journey through life and its vicissitudes.

Therefore, the Torah is devoted to personal detail about people's lives. It tells of human heroism and greatness, as well as to record the petty, violent and dark side of our nature. But most importantly, it provides us with role models, real heroes who inspire and challenge us to live up to our humanity and to the service of our Creator. Each of the heroes, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Josef, Judah, etc., illustrates for us the unique path in life that a Torah believer should follow.

We become aware how to overcome adversity, how to accept defeat and even tragedy, how to be positive in a negative society, how to be G-d-centered in an earth-bound mortal body.

It is no wonder that the rabbis of the Talmud demanded that Jews ask of themselves: "When will my actions in life reach the level of faith and performance of my original (Book of Genesis) forbearers?" I may never be able to achieve or accomplish what Abraham and Sarah did, but I am duty bound to measure my goals and attitudes in life according to the goals and standards that they established for their descendants --- the people of Israel, many millennia ago. And the establishment and explanation of those attitudes and standards, as actually lived by these heroes, is the basic message of the Book of Genesis.

In a world where standards and morality change swiftly, where there are no fixed definitions of right and wrong behavior, the example of the people of Genesis remains vital, perhaps even more vital in than in previous eras.

The evil people bring destruction to civilization, no matter how enticing the momentary enjoyment of that evil appears to society. The righteous person preserves all humanity and brings eternal blessing to generations yet unborn. Therefore each of us should write our own book of Genesis, through our behavior, our loyalty to Torah and its standards, our learning the lessons of the original book of Genesis. Then we will appreciate the true greatness of this first book of the Torah.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com. Comment by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2002, Rabbi Berel Wein