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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Bereshit - 101

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This week, we begin the study of the Torah anew.  Each year, at the chag or yom tov (holiday) of Simchat Torah, we roll the Torah scroll back from Its end to Its beginning.  The word “b’ereshit” means “In the beginning…”

I am reminded of something I learned a few years ago when I first participated in Chumash classes.  The word Chumash is from the root of chamesh meaning five, as in the Five Books of the Torah.  Rabbi Yohushuah Harlig of Chabad of Las Vegas mentioned that in the first three Parashot (weekly readings - plural) of the Torah, the entire foundation is set.  In this first Parashah (weekly reading – singular), Bereshit, God attempts to establish a link with mankind through a couple – Adam and Chava (Eve).  As we know, this didn’t quite work out.  In the second Parashah, Noach, God attempts to once again establish a link through a family, the family of Noach.  We also see that this doesn’t seem to have the desired results.  Then, as we see in the third Parashah Lech Lecha, God tries to generate this link through a people, a Nation founded through the Patriarchs of Klal Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) – Avraham, Yitzchak (Isaac), Yaakov (Jacob), and the 12 sons of Yaakov who were the 12 Tribes.  With this relationship came the rest of the story that is found in the Torah and which we will study over the next twelve months.

For the newcomer, I would like to explain that the study of Torah is so complex, it is impossible in these weekly thoughts and commentaries to do more than focus on points of interest.  For example, the focus for this week’s Parashah will be on the serpent.  I heartily recommend purchasing a Chumash in order to learn more on one’s own.  The three Chumashim (plural) that I would recommend are The Stone Edition Chumash or the Chumash with Rashi – both published by Art Scroll, or The Pentateuch – Translation and Commentary by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch published by Judaica Press. 

So let’s begin… 

Parashat Bereshit begins in Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis) at Perek Aleph (Chapter One) and continues through and includes Perek Vav, pasuk zayin (Chapter Six, verse 7).  For those who don’t know the story, this covers the steps involved when God created the world and everything in it through the introduction of Noach (Noah) into history.  In particular, this week I will discuss a key point of the story namely when Chava ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, an act that God had specifically forbidden, and then induced Adam to eat as well.  The third character in this little piece of the drama was the serpent who told Chava that this really wasn’t a problem. 

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch translates the key verses in Perek Gimel (Chapter Three) as follows: 

  1. Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which God had made and it said unto the woman:  Even if God hath said it, should you not eat from all the trees of the garden?

  2. And the woman said unto the serpent:  Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat;

  3. but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden God hath said:  Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.

  4. And the serpent said unto the woman:  Ye shall not die immediately.

  5. For God knows quite well that on the day ye eat thereof, your eyes will be opened and ye will become as gods, knowing what is good and what is evil.

  6. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was tempting to the sight and appealing to the understanding, she took of its fruit and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her, and he did eat.

  7. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew – that they were naked.  Then the sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.

  8. And they heard the voice of God withdrawing itself in the garden at the breeze of the day, then the man and his wife hid themselves from the Presence of God, amongst the tree of the garden.

  9. Then God called unto the man, and said unto him:  Where art thou?

  10. And he answered:  Thy Voice did I hear in the garden and I was afraid because I am naked, and I hid myself.

  11. And He said:  Who made thee conscious that thou art naked?  Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?

  12. And the man said:  The woman, whom Thou have gavest to be at my side, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.

  13. Then God said unto the woman:  What is this that thou hast done?  And the woman answered:  The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

  14. Then God said unto the serpent:  Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all the animals of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

  15. And enmity will I put between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.  He shall hit thee on the head, and thou shalt hit him on his heel.

Rav Hirsch makes some truly beautiful points in all of this and draws a wonderful conclusion.  First, he points out that animals are, by acting through the nature given them by God, good.  They do not have the capacity for evil in and of themselves.  This includes the serpent.  The serpent was merely acting in its nature.  The word that Rav Hirsch translates as subtle in the first pasuk can also be translated as cunning or devious.  In any event, the serpent was merely acting within the parameters of its nature as God established that nature.  Man, on the other hand, has the capability of acting with choice, in most cases knowing that there can be positive or unpleasant consequences to those choices.  Such was the case here.  Chava and Adam were called upon to use their higher nature to respect God and what they had been told to do.  Instead they chose to ignore that higher nature which led, in this case and in many cases for all of us, to disastrous consequences. 

Rav Hirsch points out that originally the serpent did not crawl upon its belly – that God altered its form following this episode.  As well, He altered its nature.

Rav Hirsch goes on to explain that these last two pasukim (14 and 15) tell far more than appears at a glance.  These two points also establish our situation with the Yetzher HaTov (the Good Inclination) and Yetzher HaRa (the Evil Inclination).  The words that are used in these commentaries are lust and passion.  In this instance, the intention is not sexual although that may form a part of the picture.  Rather, lusts and passions can focus on many levels – money, power, honor, possessions, or position.  The point that is made is two fold.  First, it is up to us to recognize when we are lusting for something and that so long as we do not become passionate in that lust, we are in control of the situation and can still “stamp out” the lusts.  The analogy used is that the serpent has not awakened.  Second, however, the moment we become passionate in our lusts and arouse the Yetzher HaRa, arouse the serpent, we can no longer so easily stamp out the danger and protect ourselves from peril.


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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