An Ancient Word Scramble by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar


As the Torah transitions from its opening narratives concerning creation, re-creation, and various generational sins to the individual lives of the Avot, the relationship between the different components of Sefer BeReishit is brought into focus.  On one level, the Sefer’s debated title spotlights the tension regarding the relative primacy of the Sefer’s various units.  Colloquially, the opening book of Chumash is referred to as Sefer BeReishit or by the name Genesis, as it is titled in the Septuagint and the Vulgate.  This title certainly speaks to the Sefer’s opening which centers around the universe’s creation.  Chazal (Avodah Zarah 25a), however, also attribute a second name to the Sefer, Sefer HaYashar, on account of the Avot’s appellation as Yesharim in the Pasuk – Tamot Nafshi Mot Yesharim (BeMidbar 23:10).  The Sefer’s debated title raises question as to the relative primacy of the creation narrative as compared to the personal lives of the Avot. 

The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 12:9) weighs in on this broad question in addressing an awkwardly formulated passive description of the world’s creation – Eileh Toledot HaShamayim VeHa’aretz BeHibare’am (BeReishit 2:4).  The Midrash notes that the letters in the word BeHibare’am are identical to the letters that comprise Avraham’s name, and, therefore reads the pasuk BeAvraham, meaning for Avraham Avinu’s sake.  According to this presentation, the opening creation narrative serves as background and prelude to the primary storyline that begins in Parashat Lech Lecha with Avraham assuming his position on center stage.  The Anaf Yosef illustrates the progression in Sefer BeReishit with the image of a fruit tree whose growth of its trunk, branches, leaves, and budding flowers serve as mere forerunning stages to the tree’s primary development, its production of fruit.  Avraham Avinu’s recognition of God and the broadcast of his discovery represent the fruit and culmination of the creative process.

The Netziv (introduction to Sefer BeReishit) wonders why the Avot are referred to as Yesharim rather than by the terms Tzaddikim or Chassidim.  His answer sheds light on both the meaning of the quality of Yashrut as well as the interrelationship between Sefer BeReishit’s various subunits.  In his opinion, the Avot’s distinguishing characteristic of Yashrut was manifest in their care, treatment of, and interest in all of humanity – Hayu Imam BeAhavah ViChashu LeTovatam, even individuals toward whom they were ideologically opposed.  This attitude earned Avraham the title of Av Hamon Goyim and was displayed in Avraham Avinu’s impassioned plea with Hashem to save the people of Sedom.  Furthermore, the Avot’s distinctive quality of Yashrut upheld the entire purpose of creation – Ka’asher Hi Kiyum HaBeri’ah.  According to the Netziv’s perspective, the creation narrative is not merely necessary background for the Avot stories; rather, the lives of the Avot fulfill the very purpose of creation.

This theme is echoed by Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 5:2) in explaining why the actions of Tzaddikim maintain an entire world that was created through ten utterances.  Rabbeinu Yonah explains – She’lo Nivra Ha’olam Ela La’asot HaYashar Be’Einei Hashem, the world was created only so as to do that which is Yashar in the eyes of Hashem.  Consequently, the lives of the Yesharim, the Avot, fulfill the very telos of creation. 

Against this backdrop, new light may be shed on Rashi’s celebrated opening comments on Chumash.Rashi (BeReishit 1:1, s.v. BeReishit) cites R. Yitzchak’s question in the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Bo, no. 187) as to why the Torah begins with the creation narrative rather than the first collective mitzvah that was issued to the Jewish people, HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem.R. Yitzchak answers based on the Pasuk – Ko’ach Ma’asav Higid Le’Amo Lateit Lahem Nachalat Goyim (Tehillim 111:6), that it is to teach that the land belongs to God, and He may choose to give it to whomever is Yashar in His eyes.On the surface, R. Yitzchak’s claim provides a legal right for the Jewish people’s claim to the land of Israel.Hashem has control to grant the land to whomever He chooses; however, Rashi’s usage of the term Yashar may connote a moral expectation that is a prerequisite for our deservedness of the land.Only those who emulate the lives and attributes of the Yesharim are deserving recipients of the land created and promised to them.In fact, the ensuing Pesukim in Tehillim describe the Ma’asei Hashem that reflect the purpose of creation and serve as preconditional qualities for receiving the land – Ma’asei Hashem Emet U’Mishpat, Ne’emanim…Asuyim Be’Emet VeYashar (Tehillim 111:7-8).

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