Email Shiur – Parshat Bereishit – Rav Milston
The days immediately following Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah, often seem to be much of an anti-climax. Having spent the month of Ellul, preparing oneself for the Yamim Noraim, followed by the intensive Asseret Yemai Teshuva, and simcha filled Sukkot, we suddenly find ourselves not just at the start of the seasonal winter, but also seemingly at the start of a spiritual winter.
Yet, with a little perspective, we can see our current predicament from a totally different viewpoint.
The first three weeks of Tishrei are essentially part of a joint program in preparation for the forthcoming year. We start by establishing our principles of faith, by accepting G-d as the King of Kings. Having done so we begin the delicate and difficult process of self-analysis. The days leading up to and climatically including Yom Hakipurim, are days of review. These are days where we remove ourselves from our bad deeds, where we accept our mistakes, where we objectively criticize ourselves, with the clear aim for improvement.
We end our days of Awe with the sincere proclamation that “G-d is the L-rd”. The past is the past, but from henceforth we have every intention to better our ways, refine our lives, and surge forward.
However, our period of preparation for the coming year is only partly over. Having separated ourselves from our bad deeds – “Sur Meirah”, we consolidate our preparations with a period of total immersion in Mitzvot, in positive spirituality – “Aseih Tov”.
By the time that we have reached Isru chag, we have confirmed our honest intent of the days of Awe, by actual deeds, by a week of spiritual action – even whilst we slept in our sukkot we were doing mitzvot.
This week we find ourselves as new people. The greeting of Shana Tova is never more relevant than this week. It is specifically this week that we approach the New Year. Contrary to the often-felt anti-climax, we begin our new year with all of the spiritual elevation that we have gained over the past month. To my mind nothing can be more indicative of this message than Simchat Torah. It is surely of no coincidence that our Rabbis fixed Simchat Torah at the end of our Tishrei celebrations. For me the message is clear:
For the last months we have used every means possible to infuse ourselves with the strength needed to go forward. Yet, we cannot live in the Sukkah for the whole year, the period was indeed meant for preparation, but now we must re-enter the day-to-day routine form of life. It is a routine that cannot involve all of the extra curricula events of the past month, but one thing must go with us as we enter the battlefield of the New Year. One tool must be with us at all times, as we face each and every dilemma, as each challenge is approached we look to the Torah.
Simchat Torah is the dividing line between the period of preparation and the beginning of the year. The message is clear, you cannot take your Arbah Minim into the frontline, but you must take the Torah with you, wherever you may go, whatever you may be doing.
It is during the months of the winter that the tree gains its inner strength, we only see the results of that growth in the spring, but the essence of that growth really occurred during the months of the winter. We are now entering a period of “routine”, a period of close to six months until Pessach, until the spring. But this is the period where we can really grow, this is the time when we can take all that we have gained from the previous weeks, and march forward into the New Year. The Torah will accompany us, we will utilize our wonderful gift from Hashem to ensure our growth, and when we reach our next chag, when we reach Pessach, when we reach the spring, we will surely see the fruits of our work.
We start the New Year with Bereishit. As our Chassidic scholars have beautifully said: “Bereishit Barah Elokim” – G-d created beginnings. We have been given the greatest gift of all – the gift to start the year anew. We start from the very beginning, the past has past, we must learn from our mistakes, but as long as we have done so, they are a thing of the past. Yet in order to fulfill ourselves our goals as human beings in this world must be clearly defined for us.
There can be no better guideline, no better definition of our role as human beings in this world, than in this week’s parasha.
When Hashem created man (Bereishit chapter 1 verse 26) we are told: “And G-d said; ‘ Let us make man’”. The plural form “Let us” perplexed many of our commentators; surely G-d is the soul creator?
The Ramban comments:
“There was a special command dedicated to the making of man because of his great superiority, since his nature is unlike that of beasts and cattle which were created with the preceding command.
The correct explanation of “naaseh” (let us make) is as follows: It has been shown to you that G-d created something from nothing only on the first day, and afterwards He formed and made things from those created elements. Thus when He gave the waters the power of bringing forth a living soul, the command concerning them was ‘Let the waters swarm’. The command concerning cattle was ‘Let the earth bring forth’. But in the case of man He said, ‘Let us make’, that is, the aforementioned earth, and I – let us make man. The earth to bring forth the body from its elements as it did with cattle and beasts, as it is written, ‘And the Eternal G-d formed man from the dust of the ground’, and He, blessed be He, to give the spirit from His mouth, the Supreme One, as it is written, ‘And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And He said, ‘In our image, and after our likeness’, as man will be similar to both. In the capacity of his body, he will be similar to th.
From the Ramban we see that man is a combination of both body and soul. To my mind this exceptional insight also defines for us our role in this world. These two elements of man have needs of their own, as the soul fights to develop, and the body pulls towards its desires – choice is created.
Man is different from any other being in that man has free choice. The choice is created by the “clash” between the two elements of man, body and soul. Our aim is not for one element to destroy the other, but for one element to succeed in influencing and directing, in effect controlling the other. Our success will be when the soul directs the body, our failure when the soul becomes subservient to the body.
If as human beings we can live in this world, developing our physical acts into spiritual realities, then our souls will be elevated. However, if during our time in this world we fall prey to the animal needs of our body at all costs, our soul will become diminished even “physical” to a degree.
Many of our Halachot are essentially guidelines to enable us to take what appears to be a physical act and adapt it into a spiritual reality:
The human body needs food. Eating is a physical requirement. If we do not eat our bodies cannot exist. However, we can turn this basic act into a spiritual experience. From the moment that we buy the food in the store, checking the hechsherim, the preparation of that food in accordance with Halacha, the berachot, the divrei Torah. All of these halachik requirements come together in order to transform a basic physical need into a spiritual action.
Our souls were brought to this world to develop, through the constant “clashes” with the pull of our physical needs. By overcoming our desires, by controlling, and transforming our physicality we become progressively holier.
Our objective is clear. We are living in an extremely physical world, and the battle for control is twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Our aim must be to take that breath of Hashem that is in every one of us and elevate ourselves. There are no vacations from this battle – there are no breaks. We were not placed in this world to rest; we must be on guard day and night. As Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky says so beautifully, it is only when someone dies that his or her soul rests – (Nach Nafshei). For every living moment we are at battle. Our objective for the year is therefore clear. Bezrat Hashem we will have a year of spirituality, a year of progress, a year where we get better all of the time, constantly closer to Hashem.
Shana Tova, VeShabbat Bereishit Shalom.