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The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba, 22:13) relates that after Kayin’s exchange with God following his murder of Hevel, he met his father, Adam. Adam inquired about Kayin’s sentence for killing his brother, and Kayin replied that he was forgiven and granted a reprieve. Adam then exclaimed with frustration, “Such is the power of repentance – and I was not aware!” The Midrash concludes that Adam immediately proceeded to compose a hymn which was later incorporated into Tehillim – the Psalm of “Mizmor shir le-yom ha-Shabbat” (Tehillim 92).
This account gives rise to several questions, including the question of how this chapter of Tehillim relates to teshuva. The chapter of “Mizmor shir le-yom ha-Shabbat” speaks of the need to thank and praise God even during dark times, when evil people prosper. Ultimately, the Psalmist promises, evil will be defeated and the righteous will blossom and flourish, and it will then become clear to one and all that God is just and gives all people what they deserve. Why would Adam compose this text in response to discovering the power of teshuva?
This chapter of Tehillim conveys the message that the circumstances we observe at the present do not tell the whole story. The story is still being written, and thus we cannot reach definitive conclusions based on the events we currently witness. When we see wicked people flourish, the Psalmist tells us, we must remember that “le-hishamdam adei ad” – they will ultimately be eradicated, and their success is only temporary. The fact that they enjoy prosperity now does not mean that this will always be the case; indeed, the end will be far different from the present.
The Midrash perhaps teaches us that this is true of teshuva, as well. The reason why repentance is effective is because as long as we are alive, our “story” is still being written. Through repentance, we have the capacity to determine that our missteps were just bumps along the road, or necessary detours which somehow helped us reach our desired destination. As in the case with the prosperity of the wicked, our misdeeds do not necessarily reflect the final outcome. If we capitalize on healthy feelings of regret and shame, and learn from our mistakes rather than despair because of them, then we can become better and nobler people, and thereby end our story on a more positive note. Psalm 91, then, is an appropriate and powerful reaction to the great gift of teshuva, as it expresses the need to recognize that until the final chapter is written, situations can be changed and a positive outcome can be achieved.
We read in Parashat Bereishit that after Adam and Chava’s sin, God prepared for them “kotnot or” – leather tunics as clothing (3:21).
The Midrash, in a surprising passage (Bereishit Rabba 20:12), comments that Rabbi Meir, in his Torah scroll, spelled the word “or” with an “alef” instead of an “ayin,” such that the phrase “kotnot or” means not “leather tunics,” but rather “tunics of light.” The obvious question arises as to how Rabbi Meir could advocate a deviant spelling of a word in the Torah, and what the significance of this deviant spelling might be.
The Tolna Rebbe suggested a symbolic approach to the Gemara’s remark, by examining other comments made by Chazal concerning Rabbi Meir. In Masekhet Eiruvin (13b), the Gemara cites Rabbi Acha bar Chanina as stating that Rabbi Meir had no equal among the scholars of his time. The reason why Halakha does not follow Rabbi Meir’s rulings, Rabbi Acha said, is specifically because of his superior stature: “It is known and revealed before He who proclaimed that the world should exist that there was no one like Rabbi Meir in his time. So why does Halakha not follow him? Because his colleagues could not properly grasp his thinking…” Rabbi Meir’s analytical skills were so advanced that the other Sages could not accept his conclusions. Elsewhere, in Masekhet Megila (18b), the Gemara notes Rabbi Meir’s unparalleled memory, which allowed him to write a Torah scroll from memory, which is normally forbidden.
And yet, despite Rabbi Meir’s superior stature, Rabbi Meir devoted himself to teaching even the simplest Jews. In Masekhet Sanhedrin (38b), the Gemara describes Rabbi Meir as a master storyteller, who would create fables to stir his audiences. In fact, in Masekhet Sota (49a), the Gemara comments that nobody was ever able to tell stories like Rabbi Meir: “Once Rabbi Meir died, there were no longer any tellers of fables.” Telling fables is an art generally practiced by those who teach simple, unlearned people. It appears that Rabbi Meir, who stood head-and-shoulders above the other scholars of his time, did not deem himself too learned or too accomplished to teach uneducated laymen.
Indeed, Rabbi Meir vigorously advocated the obligation to share one’s Torah knowledge with the masses. We read in Masekhet Sanhedrin (99a) that Rabbi Meir interpreted the verse in Sefer Bamidbar (15:31), “…for he has scorned the word of the Lord” as referring to one who has studied Torah but does not teach it.
The Tolna Rebbe suggests that this quality of Rabbi Meir underlies the switch from “or” with an ayin to “or” with an “alef.” Leather is generally used to cover and conceal. The Gemara is alluding to us that Rabbi Meir used his Torah to illuminate those who were “covered” and in the dark. He worked to bring Torah to even the darkest places, to those on the lowest levels of ignorance and indifference. His Torah differed from that of others who kept the light of Torah with themselves and their colleagues. His Torah was one which shed light upon all strata of Am Yisrael, as he worked to teach, inspire and guide all members of the nation, rather than focus his energies solely on the intellectual elite.
Rashi, commenting on the first verse of Sefer Bereishit, observes that the divine Name used in this account of creation is the Name of “Elokim,” which is often understood as a reference to middat ha-din – the divine attribute of justice. Later, however, in the beginning of the second chapter (2:4), the Torah speaks of “Hashem Elokim” creating the universe, combining the Name “Elokim” with the Name of “Havaya,” the Name which, as Rashi comments, denotes the divine attribute of compassion (middat ha-rachamim). Rashi explains, based on the Midrash, that God initially sought to create the world on the basis on middat ha-din, but then realized that the world could not endure if it had to adhere to this inflexible standard. He therefore had no choice, so-to-speak, but to “temper” the middat ha-din with a degree of mercy and compassion, which allows for the possibility of forgiveness of wrongdoing and the patient expectation of repentance.
The Sefat Emet (Bereishit, 5637) explains that the Midrash should not be understood as saying that God changed His mind, or was mistaken in His initial plan for the world and mankind. Rather, the Midrash seeks to express to us the tension that exists – or that must exist – between the realms of the ideal and the practical. By describing God as initially desiring a world that runs on the basis of middat ha-din, the Midrash seeks to challenge us to aspire to this standard, even as we are keenly aware of the need for middat ha-rachamim. In practice, we are not and will never be perfect, and we therefore constantly depend upon God’s kindness and compassion for our very lives and for all that we have. However, we must remain forever mindful of the ideal of middat ha-din, the desire we must have to strive for perfection, to inch closer to the level where we rightfully earn God’s care and protection without relying on the middat ha-rachamim. Even as we recognize the necessity of God’s compassion borne out of our humanity, which is inherently imperfect, we must never stop our fervent, unrelenting pursuit of excellence and the quest to constantly advance and draw ever closer to pristine perfection.
(See also Rav Ally Ehrman’s Orot Ha-giv’a, Parashat Bereishit 5755)
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba, 8:5) relates that before God created mankind, Truth objected, arguing that human beings, who are, by nature, dishonest and deceitful, should not be brought into existence. In order not to allow this compelling argument to disrupt His plans, God “cast Truth to the ground” and then proceeded to create Adam.
The standard explanation of this Midrashic passage is that the creation of human beings, who are inherently imperfect creatures, necessitated compromising the ideal of truth. Just as God found it necessary to combine His attribute of strict justice with His attribute of compassion, recognizing that the world could not survive if it is run on the basis of strict judgment (Rashi, Bereishit 1:1), similarly, the ideal of truth needed to be “cast to the ground.” All people, even the most honest among us, are forced to project an image that differs from our true essence. At some point, and in some way, we are all “deceitful,” but God nevertheless chose to create us and endow us with the potential to reach great spiritual heights despite our inevitable state of imperfection.
Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, however, in Kedushat Levi, suggests a fascinating, alternative reading of the Midrash’s comment. He explains that when the Midrash describes God as “casting Truth to the ground,” it means that God brought the necessity of truth to the entirety of human existence, including the “ground.” God created life in such a way that Truth is not just an ideal to which we must aspire, but also a necessity for basic human life. We human beings depend on one another, and we have no choice but to earn each other’s trust. Somebody who is found to be dishonest cannot build and maintain friendships or work partnerships. The ideal of truth thus exists not only in the “heavens,” as a spiritual value that we must work to cultivate, but also on the “ground,” as part of our effort to secure our basic needs such as friendship and sustenance. This, Rav Levi Yitzchak explains, was God’s response to the complaint voiced by Truth. Given the difficulty we human beings have being honest and truthful, God made truth a necessity of life. In order to succeed even in our mundane affairs, we need to overcome our deceitful instincts and earn people’s trust. This necessity was built into the human condition from the outset, Rav Levi Yitzchak explains, in order to ensure that we constantly work to be honest and forthright.
In a sense, Rav Levi Yitzchak’s novel (if somewhat strained) reading of the Midrash reflects the opposite but complementary message conveyed by the straightforward reading. Rav Levi Yitzchak reminds us that while our lives will always be fraught with some degree of “deceit,” as we will never appear precisely as we actually are, nevertheless, working and struggling to be truthful is a necessity of life. God needed to compromise the ideal of pristine truth in order to create human beings, but this does not absolve us of the need to try to be truthful. Rav Levi Yitzchak’s alternate reading teaches us that a delicate balance must be maintained between our acceptance of the imperfect nature of human beings and the need to work toward perfection; between recognizing our flawed nature and constantly struggling to improve.
We read in Parashat Bereishit of Kayin’s murder of his brother, Hevel. The Midrash embellishes the Biblical narrative by presenting several accounts of Kayin’s exchange with God after the crime. In these accounts, we read of how Kayin tried excusing his conduct and absolving himself of responsibility for his murder, as Chazal shed light on the natural human tendency to justify one’s conduct and refuse to accept accountability.
One such account is presented in reference to Kayin’s response to God, “Ha-shomer achi anokhi” – “Am I my brother’s guard?” (4:9). The Miidrash Tanchuma takes note of the word “anokhi,” and views it as a subtle allusion to the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “Anokhi Hashem Elokekha” – “I am the Lord your God.” Kayin, the Midrash relates, said to the Almighty, “You – the one who said, ‘Anokhi’ – are the one who killed him, for if you had accepted my offering like his, I would not have envied him.” In an attempt to absolve himself of guilt, Kayin casts the blame on God, who aroused Kayin’s difficult feelings of jealousy by accepting Hevel’s offering but not his. Kayin failed to recognize that we are capable of controlling hard feelings of anger and resentment, and are fully responsible for our reactions to and expressions of such feelings.
The question arises, however, why did Chazal introduce into this exchange the proclamation of “Anokhi Hashem Elokekha”? How does this pronouncement relate to Kayin’s effort to shirk responsibility for his actions?
The Rambam famously understood “Anokhi Hashem Elokekha” as introducing the obligation to believe in an omnipotent Creator, who brought the world into existence and continues to govern it with unlimited control and authority. The Midrash perhaps seeks to draw our attention to the tension that exists between this basic tenet of Jewish faith and our belief in human accountability. Kayin’s claim was that if God controls and governs every aspect of the world, then anything that happens is solely His responsibility. We cannot possibly bear accountability for our actions, Kayin contended, because God commanded us, “Anokhi Hashem Elokekha” – to acknowledge His unlimited power and authority. How, Kayin brazenly asked, can a human being be called to task for his criminal activity if God has unlimited control over the universe?
Our tradition, of course, rejects Kayin’s claim, and firmly accepts both tenets. God assuredly enjoys unlimited control over the universe, but He created human beings in “His image,” granting us the God-like power to choose between right and wrong and thereby take part, on some level, in His governance of the Earth. There is no conflict whatsoever between the belief in Providence and the belief in human accountability. We are to recognize the fact that God causes everything to happen, but to also accept full responsibility for our actions. Even as we believe in God’s unlimited control over the world, we must, at the same time, believe in our unlimited ability to choose between right and wrong.