Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Vayechi
I go myself
Two years ago I shifted from columns on political and general Jewish topics to a weekly exploration of the Hebrew Biblical portion of the week. Can I sustain this?
I actually began to review Torah portions sporadically about three years ago. Then I was completing a book on Genesis (Illuminating the Generations: From the Middot (Character Traits) of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to the Musar Thinkers of Our Time). I thought: Why not give all five books of the Hebrew Bible equal time? So I wrote a column on the weekly Torah portion and then, this past year, switched to the weekly Haftorah portion.
Encouraged by the positive feedback from readers, I return this year to the Torah portion. But I offer a word of caution.
The late Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner was a brilliant Talmudic scholar and profound commentator on the Biblical text. He devised his own, unique style of commentary. His writings originated in oral "statements," which he delivered only a few times a year, in advance of Jewish holidays. He would put much thought into these discourses of Jewish law, philosophy and mysticism. Rabbi Hutner once half-seriously told his students who had become pulpit rabbis: "I don't understand you. How do you give sermons weekly? I can't do it! It's enough for me to devise something original a few times a year."
Of course, Rabbi Hutner's originality was far beyond his students', and mine. But his point remains valid. Can a person actually think deeply enough to say something new each week? Nonetheless, I take Rabbi Hutner's word of caution as he no doubt wanted his students to take it: not to stop delivering sermons, but to be very careful in doing so.
Cain killed Abel, the first murder in history. Why? The Biblical text seems to make it clear. Cain brought an offering to G-d. Abel noticed. It looked like a proper and pious thing to do. So Abel brought an offering, too.
He seemed to do it more sincerely than Cain. Abel brought his offering "from the fat" -- i.e., the best -- of his sheep. G-d heeded Abel's offering, acknowledging Abel's superior sincerity. G-d did not heed Cain's offering, but did explain to Cain how to improve himself and earn G-d's favor. No matter. By then Cain was already jealous. He rose and killed his brother Abel. The first murder in history.
Let's look deeper.
And let's introduce a term, "Chazal." It's an acronym for "Chachamenu Zichronam Li-veracha," "Our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing." The reference is to the sages of the Mishna, Talmud and midrash, that is, the formative expositors of the "oral Torah," of that intricate side of the Torah revealed to Moses, or imbedded into the written text of the Torah latently. The oral Torah gives the written text of Hebrew Scripture its interpretive vitality, its applicability to circumstances not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Chazal, then, are the most authoritative teachers of Judaism next to the Prophets. Chazal comment on the conflict between Cain and Abel:
G-d always takes the side of the persecuted. For example, Abel, who was persecuted by Cain, as it is said, "And G-d turned to Abel and his offering" (Vayikra Rabbah 27:5).
There's a logic chop here. When G-d turned to Abel and his offering, Abel had not yet been persecuted by Cain. Cain was just watching Abel make his offering and G-d make His gesture of acceptance. The persecution came later -- when Cain killed Abel. But then, of course, Abel was no underdog under the special protection of G-d. Abel was dead.
So what do these words of Chazal mean?
My late, sainted teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Zion Bruk, noticed this chronological problem in the text of Chazal and asked the question I've just recorded. Rabbi Bruk answered as follows:
The text that Chazal cite for G-d taking the side of the persecuted is not Cain's murder of Abel. It is this: "And G-d turned to Abel and his offering." Abel's status as the persecuted is related to his offering. The context of Abel's offering is Cain's. The idea of bringing an offering to G-d originated with Cain. Cain discovered this way of serving G-d, not Abel. Abel noticed Cain bringing an offering, but Cain did not share his spiritual discovery with Abel. This is the persecution, said Rabbi Bruk.
When you know or discover a path to G-d, when you open a way to a spiritual secret, and you keep it a secret, this is persecution. You know the truth, but hoard it.
You possess a key to spiritual healing, but take no time or trouble to share it.
You know how to bring others closer to G-d, but do not reach out.
This is the persecution of Abel by Cain.
Rabbi Bruk's teacher's teacher, the Elder of Novorodock, said: "When it is necessary to send a letter, I send a telegram; when it is necessary to send a telegram, I send an emissary; when it is necessary to send an emissary, I go myself."
This is the spirit. In a period of Jewish illiteracy and breakdown, the knowledgeable and committed need to go the extra mile, to reach out, to share their Jewish knowledge. It's not enough to wait for the untutored to come and learn. Judaism must be brought to the masses.
There is persecution of commission, and of omission. Cain's persecution was omission.
He didn't share.
He ended up a murderer.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.