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Understanding the Simple Text is No Simple Task.

Intro; Bereshit

I decided that, with G-d's help, this year I want to give expression to my destructive instincts.

One of the great challenges I faced when I arrived in Uruguay is how do you sell religion to a secular-minded person?

It would seem more difficult than lighting a match under water...

Today I understand that you can't "sell" anything to anyone in this regard. What you can and should do is show, expose things properly and trust that they are attractive enough to sell themselves.

In practice it is not so easy, since the cultural barrier between the secular and the religious —at least in the Uruguayan version I know— is so strong, people are so "religiously" secular, more secularist than secular, that they don't even listen to what the religious person is saying, even if he is saying 2+2=4.

It's that barrier that I set out to demolish, at least to put up some cracks in it.

How do I plan to accomplish it?

In this weekly space I plan to examine a text from the Bible reading of that week with emphasis on Rashi's commentary and the Rebbe's—may his merit shield us from— analysis of it.

What does all this have to do with my destructive instinct?

I will explain.

The greatest barrier that the Jew who "believes that he does not believe" has with regard to the study of biblical sources is that he feels that it is necessary to be religious or a believer in order to find it interesting or relevant. "If I'm not a believer, why would I want to study religious texts that talk about subjects that don't interest me," he reasons.

I can understand that.

—OK, then, Mr. Secular, so you're not interested in religion and irrational beliefs; are you interested in logical puzzles?

—Yes, of course!

Now we have a starting point.

Biblical texts contain multidimensional structures, starting with the five most known dimensions of Peshat, Remez, Derush, Sod and Chasidut. In each dimension one can find an infinite number of expressions; in fact, the study of the Torah consists not only of learning what has already been discovered but also of contributing something that until now has perhaps gone unnoticed. It is a never-ending task, to be sure. But, before entering into the analysis of advanced and more sophisticated levels as to what the text wants to and can say, it is necessary to understand what it is saying in the most basic sense, the level known as Peshat or Peshuto shel mikra.

Now, it is not always an easy task to discern the Peshat of a biblical text. Many times there is information that to the untrained eye seems to be lacking, although to the experienced eye it is more than evident. A good example to understand that dynamic is the game of Sudoku. You have to fill the squares with the missing numbers. If only one number is missing it would be quite evident to realize which one it is. The great challenge is when many numbers are missing and the solution is not so evident. It is clear that the degree of difficulty depends on the capacity and the experience of the one that looks at it. The Master will see the solution right away and will be able to give you some elements that will help solve the rest. Perhaps the clues that are so obvious to him will still be insufficient for others of lesser training and it will be necessary that another Master come show you how to identify the missing links, based on the information that the first Master provided.

As for the biblical texts, the first Master was Rashi, who in his commentary always keeps to the Peshat level of the texts. Everything Rashi brings in his commentary is in order to help us understand what the text is saying, why it says what it says and why it does not say what it does not say. His goal is not to interpret the texts but to help us understand them.

But, for most of us, the subtleties of Rashi's commentaries on the biblical texts elude us. We are very fortunate that the second Master came in 1964, the year of mourning for his mother, Rebetzin Chana Schneerson, A "H, and in a systematic way began to shed light on this fascinating world of Pirush Rashi. The Rebbe introduced us to that world by analyzing each Shabbat before the audience that participated in the weekly Farbrengen, Rashi's commentary on the first and last verses of that week's Bible reading. After the conclusion of the year of mourning, the Rebbe would select a verse from the parashah with Rashi's commentary to be analyzed every time there was a Farbrengen on Shabbat. Over the years the Rebbe identified and articulated a whole sophisticated system with hundreds of rules as to what can and cannot fall within the "Peshat" criteria. One thing is clear: simplicity is not so simple.

You don't have to be a believer in order to enjoy the intellectual and logical challenge that each approach by the Rebbe to Rashi's commentary presents; you have to be —or believe that you are— intelligent and be willing to have your intelligence challenged.

(The Akshn who resists even a proposal of this nature reminds me of the applicant for an accounting position who, upon learning that it was for a dairy exporter, says: sorry, I can't take the job; I'm lactose intolerant...)

In my opinion, this proposal is a very effective tool to be able to break the barrier that prevents the Jew who believes that he doesn't believe from having and enjoying a contact with the biblical texts.

According to the great Chasidic masters, within the sophisticated simplicity of Rashi's commentary there is also embedded a "wine" dimension —sod or secret— of the text. Through a thorough understanding of Rashi's commentary one can succeed in shedding light not only on the texts, but also on other dimensions of the Torah, on life and its challenges. Usually, after explaining what the text is saying the Rebbe goes on to share some of the broader themes to be extracted from the text, in addition to what it is saying explicitly.

* * *

So let's start with a verse from this week's reading, Bereshit [1].

One of the first documented episodes in human history is that of Cain's envy following G-d's favorable reaction to the offering of fat sheep brought by his brother Abel and the lack of reaction to the offering Cain had brought from his harvest. As a consequence, he ended up killing his brother Abel [2].

In verse 4:3 it says, "And Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the land". Rashi quotes the words "from the fruit of the land" and comments: "from the worst. And there is an Aggadah (Midrash) that says it was flax seed."

How does Rashi know that "from the fruit" means that it was from the worst? And why is it so relevant to the understanding of the text —to the point of quoting a Midrash— to know that it was flax seed that he offered up?


Why is it that G-d was pleased with Abel's offering and not with Cain's? Are there any clues in the text in this regard?

With his commentary Rashi points out that the explanation is hinted at in the way the Torah describes what each one of them brought: As for Abel's offering, the verse says [3]: "And Abel also brought of the best of his sheep and of their fat..." unlike the description of the offering of his older brother, Cain: "And Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the land. The implication, then, is that he brought not the best of his fruit, but the worst.

The question then arises: Why would it occur to Cain to bring as an offering, to thank and please G-d, from the worst of his harvest? Would it not be an offense?

That is why Rashi quotes the Midrash that says it was flax seeds. In other words, Cain's offering consisted of a product that was highly valued at that time, to the point that the first of the four rivers that came out of the Garden of Eden was called Pishon [4] because of the flax "Pishtan" that grew on its banks.

With this we understand that Cain considered that it was enough to bring the best product that he had, albeit not the best quality within that product. Abel, on the other hand, brought the best that he had within his flock.

Once the analysis of Rashi's commentary on the text of the verse is concluded, the Rebbe points out that from this we can learn three lessons beyond and based on the meaning of the text: one regarding a halacha (law) referring to the sacrifices brought in the Temple, one regarding the mystical/philosophical ideas and a third lesson regarding behavior in general.

Halacha: Maimonides brings in his code: "if one wants to generate a merit for himself, when he offers a sacrifice he must bring for it the best within that species" and quotes as a source two verses: 1) Leviticus 3:16 that says that one must destine "all the choicest for G-d" and 2) our verse that describes the sacrifice that Abel brought and G-d's reaction as a result of it. How do we know that "all the choicest" means the best within the class from which one brings the sacrifice and not that one must always bring from the best class that one has? That's why Maimonides quotes the verse that speaks of Abel's sacrifice: we see that even though he didn't bring an animal from the very best that he had —he brought his sacrifice from the flocks and not from the herds— the fact that he brought from the best he had within that class is what caused G-d's pleasure, unlike Cain's offering that even though he brought his offering from the best class within his crop, since what he brought was from the worst quality within that class, G-d didn't accept it.

Mysticism/philosophy: Why is it that it is more important to bring as a sacrifice the best within the species and not necessarily from the best species? It is because the reason that we need to use the best of each species is in order to demonstrate that everything, every kind of existence, belongs to G-d. Based on this, we can understand why it was that Cain brought his offering from the best species —flax— but not of the best quality within it. The sacrifices are meant to express the absolute truth of G-d, that G-d is the only true existence. That condition of unity and uniqueness is manifested in two ways: 1) by transcending diversity and 2) by expressing Himself through all kinds of differences, uniting them. Flax represents —by the way it grows (a single stem of each seed)— G-d's unity that transcends differences. Cain wanted to activate and connect with that dimension of G-d's absolute truth. That's why he didn't focus on quality, since different categories of quality imply diversity and he was aiming for unity that transcends diversity. The reason G-d did not accept his noble intentions is because the ultimate goal is not to escape from diversity but to find unity within it. He should have also brought the best within the species itself, thus expressing that each expression of diversity is nothing more than a manifestation of one and the same truth. In terms of Jewish mysticism: the ultimate goal is to manifest the unity of Echad rather than Yachid.

Practical life: From Cain's way of thinking and acting we learn that it is not enough to have high ideals; one must also have a lofty kind of behavior. The fact that Cain was satisfied with having very high spiritual aspirations, far from the earthly reality, led to his eventual fall and eventually to kill his own brother. You cannot ignore the physical reality; you need to conquer and sublimate it. The aim in life is not only to aspire to the highest levels of understanding; it is to do your best within each reality in which you find yourself. The reality in which you find yourself does not depend on you; what does depend on you is what you decide to do with it.

Dear reader, the development of the theme in its original is much broader, more complex and richer. What you see here is only a brief summary.

Source: Likutei Sijot Vol. 15, pp. 20-26.


1. Genesis 1:1-6:5

2. Genesis 4:1-8

3. 4:4

4. Genesis 2:1. See Rashi's commentary on this verse.

5. End of Hilchot Isurei Mizbeach

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