Bereishis: Roadmap to Kabbalas HaTorah 1
While the Torah most definitely moves beyond the “beginning” in its first
verse, Rashi’s explanation of that beginning seems to end before its time.
Rashi introduces us to R. Yitzchok’s question about where we would have
expected the Torah to begin. Since it is first and foremost a law book, a
set of instructions on how to act, the predicted place to begin would be
in the middle of Shemos, with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people
as a group. R. Yitzchok explains that the Creation story provides the
ultimate rejoinder to critics from among the nations who point an accusing
finger at us. “Thieves! Usurpers! We know that you were not the original
inhabitants of the land you now call Israel. Why should we acknowledge
your stake in this land?” Our answer takes us back to prehistory. At one
point, none of those “original” inhabitants dwelled there either. The
world was created by G-d. He is its original Title Holder, in its
totality. He may suffer the presence of one group, move it out in favor
of a second, and decide to award it to any other at will. He promised it
to us. Without this understanding, we will have a hard time justifying our
claim to ourselves. With it, the nations can appreciate the other pieces
that go into the argument for Jewish ownership of sovereignty in Eretz
People have pondered and debated R. Yitzchok’s words for centuries. Even
if we fully fathomed what he meant, however, we would understand only the
insertion of the Creation story as a must-have foundational preamble to
the rest of the Torah, which remains nonetheless a law book. Rashi’s
citation of R. Yitzchok begins the explanation of the long run-up to
hachodesh hazeh lachem, but then leaves us hanging. How are we to explain
all the other stories that the Torah included between Creation and the
Exodus, and which are equally not of a legal nature? Why were they
included as well?
The answer may be that Torah requires a second essential introduction.
Midos, says R. Chaim Vital 2, are not
among the 613 mitzvos. They are a prerequisite for mitzvah observance;
they are crucial to their performance and to their negation. Deficiencies
in them are more serious, therefore, than lapses in performance of
Midos, therefore, are not – and really could not – be included in the
system of mitzvos. They operate on a different plane. They precede any
discussion of observance. Without purifying his character first, Torah is
simply not going to work within him. It will not accomplish what it was
designed to do.
Surely this is an important matter to consider, but it, too, leaves us
hanging. Midos cannot be considered within the same system as the mitzvos
themselves, but neither, it would seem, could the Torah remain silent
about them. From where are we to take instruction and inspiration about
them if not from the Torah?
With this we have discovered the purpose of all the stories subsequent to
the first episode of Creation and prior to the first mitzvah. All of them
teach us about the importance and nature of midos. (Chazal choose a single
word to characterize the shared essence of all the avos. They called3 Bereishis “Sefer HaYashar,” using a word
that refers to purity of midos.)
The opening episodes of Bereishis showcase bad midos and their
consequences. Chazal4 tell us about
three midos which mire us in unwanted after-effects that they drive us
from this world. Jealousy, lust and honor are the major rubrics under
which fall many other character flaws. Each of them is represented in
Kayin observed as Hashem responded favorably to his brother’s offering,
while his own failed. He was so stricken with jealousy, that he brutally
murdered Hevel. The Torah graphically demonstrates how low kinah can
The generation of the Flood lost themselves to their desires. Pursuing
them, they transgressed all recognized boundaries, and theft and
licentiousness became commonplace. So thorough was their corruption, that
the Torah testifies that the world around them became suffused with that
corruption, to the point that it had to be destroyed along with them.
Underlying the project to erect the famed Tower was the pursuit of honor.
The builders sought recognition for their ingenuity and organizational
skills. Their vaunted unity crumbled into disarray and dispersion,
resulting in the birth of scores of smaller groups.
In each of these episodes, the Torah shows us the root cause of the
problem – and the price that people pay when they do not deal with the
flaws that so frequently plague so many of us.
Having come to this point, the Torah does an about-face, and describes the
beginnings and roots of the tikkun, the long process of reversing the sin
of Adam and the undoing of its myriad consequences. Evil had become far
more closely bound with the world, rather than the sidebar it was when Man
was first created. The world would not truly get back on its feet without
a program to rid the world of its essential problem (the presence of
evil), not just the unhappy circumstances that often accompany human
That program was begun by the avos, and continued by the remaining Seven
Avraham began the tikkun with chesed, the first of the seven. Chesed, of
course, is the foundation of the world, and the aspect from which all the
other sefiros derive. The stories about Avraham overflow not only with
extraordinary hospitality towards guests (at enormous personal expensed),
but with chesed in general – as well as with a demeanor of ahavah, which
is so closely related.
Yitzchok continued with gevurah – strength in judgment, particularly the
self-judgment needed to meet exacting and rigorous demands. Gevurah is
the next of the seven, and is closely related to Yitzchok’s unflinching
submission to the demands of the Akedah, and the life of a consecrated
offering he lived thereafter.
Yaakov’s contribution came through the next of the sefiros, tifferes. The
resultant of combining chesed and gevurah, it offers the greatest utility
in dealing with everyday affairs. Yaakov’s avodah was one of raising up
the ordinary, taking family and commercial life and turning it into
spiritual value, and even converting it into Torah, as did the events of
Yosef HaTzadik is associated with yesod. 7 Yosef’s spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife is one
example of his success in binding the power of yesod to the lower worlds.
Briefly put, each episode in the lives of the great personalities in
Bereishis is like a Talmudic tractate, full of instruction on the
acquisition of pure midos.
The Egyptian exile played a similar role in readying us for receiving the
Torah. The chief flaws in our midos usually stem from the physical,
material side of ourselves. Avraham was told in advance about the bitter
exile that his descendents would have to endure in Egypt. This exile was
unrelated to any sin on their part. Rather, the harshness of their
treatment in Egypt would purify their physical selves. It would tone down
the shrill call of the physical for more pampering and more recognition.
This, too, would help them in their struggle to improve their inner
selves, and was part of the necessary preparation for kabbalas haTorah.
This analysis yields an illuminating dividend. Before we could properly
receive the Torah, we needed to prepare ourselves by refining our midos.
The Torah’s implicit model of such refinement is the avos and their
connection with seven of the sefiros. We were also promised the lands of
seven peoples who lived in the Land before it was given to us.
This is no coincidence. Each tract of land, formerly in the hands of one
of the peoples who dwelled there, corresponded to one of the ten sefiros
that we had also been “acquired” in the centuries of preparation for
kabbalas haTorah. Interestingly, there are three sefiros so elevated that
they are not a main focus of our attention and energies. Keser, chochmah
and binah are not typically objects of our avodah. 8 Corresponding to them are the lands of three peoples –
the Keini, the Kenizi, and the Kadmoni - which never became ours in the
years of conquest.
The connection is unmistakable. While the avos had some grasp of the three
most elevated sefiros, it was not strong enough to blaze a trail to them
for the Jewish people. The tikkun in these sefiros would await the coming
of Moshiach. So would our acquisition of the final three portions of the
What was true for the Jewish people remains true for each individual. Each
of us is charged to perfect his or her midos before laying claim to our
individual portions of Torah. We must remember that at the beginning of
our individual journeys there is the recognition of shomayim v’aretz -
that within our personal universes there are heavenly elements, but there
are also some very earthly ones, from which spring forth al sorts of
deficiencies and weaknesses.
The beginning of the journey, the very first command, is that there should
be light. Where there is Divine illumination, all the darkness of the
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 13-15
2 Shaarei Kedushah Part 1 Shaar 2
3Avodah Zarah 25A
5It is more than unfortunate that non-traditional elements have
co-opted the word tikkun to mean the opposite of its intended usage. They
support all kinds of activities (many of them quite admirable!) under the
banner of tikkun olam. The teaching of so much of our mesorah is that
making the world a better place by addressing individual problems – which
must in fact be done – is only a small part of what is expected of us. As
Torah Jews, we are ultimately responsible for treating the illness, not
the symptoms, and that requires binding seven midos of Hashem Himself
through mitzvos, learning, and spreading full consciousness of an
undiluted Unity of G-d to the entire world.
6 Besides the avos, these are Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and
Dovid. Each is linked to one of the seven lower sefiros of the ten. A
full discussion of the nature of the sefiros – so important in the
vocabulary of both kabbalah and chassidus – is beyond the scope of this
essay. Suffice it for this piece to realize that some even
translate “sefiros” as “midos.” The ten sefiros are
midos/emanations/characteristics of G-d as discerned by Man. Making them
more fully part of this world banishes the existence of evil, and is a
core ingredient of tikkun.
7 Among other things, it is related to propagation.
8 Except, perhaps, in the thinking of Chabad chassidus
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org