Finite beings that we are, our perceptions are hemmed in by finitude.
Even as we complete another cycle of Torah with dance and song, proclaiming “Moshe emes v’soraso emes,” and begin the next cycle with eagerness and exuberance, somewhere in the recesses of our minds, we wonder if, after all this, there can be anything new in Bereishis?
We certainly don’t say it out loud, perhaps don’t even admit it to ourselves, but as we read those renowned phrases from Maaseh Bereishis, along with the words of Rashi familiar to us from childhood — the question arises inside us: Is there anything left to add? After all the generations of talmidei chachamim who have delved into the Torah, both written and oral, what can we possibly discover that could add to their great commentaries? Will we find anything to inspire or shake us that hasn’t in the past?
It is in our nature to ask such questions, and that explains the surprise and delight when we find it is not so. That, however limited we may be, we have been granted a Torah which is infinite in its depths of wisdom.
For example, in a current Torah journal we encountered no less than 59 answers to a single question posed on a Midrash in Parashas Bereishis!
On the passuk, “Vayar Elokim es ha’or ki tov,” the Midrash says that Hashem surveyed the deeds of the wicked (tohu vavohu) and the deeds of the righteous (yehi ohr), “but I don’t know which He desires. When it says, vayar Elokim es ha’or ki tov, behold He desires the deeds of the righteous and not those of the wicked.”
What was bothering Chazal here? How could it enter their minds that Hashem might prefer the deeds of the wicked to those of the righteous?
We will not attempt to list here all the answers given to the question. From the Baal Shem Tov — who said that one might have thought to take inspiration from the relentlessness of the wicked in pursuing their objectives, despite all obstacles — to that of Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, who answered that Hashem might have preferred the deeds of the wicked “so that they would be punished, and the tzaddikim would tell of it to their children.” (From Iyun HaParashah, Bereishis, 5776, Gilyon 126, Kuntres HaTeshuvos)
We discovered, though, that the topic has not been exhausted. We can add to it. For example, Harav Reuven Katz, in Dudaei Reuven, asked the same question and gave yet another answer. The wicked, he writes, are not satisfied with mere “pursuit of their happiness,” of gain or pleasure for its own sake. They go further, by deceiving themselves and others into thinking that they are really acting in the interest of truth and justice. When the Midrash says, “I don’t know which he desires,” it is the average person speaking, who has difficulty discerning between right and wrong, good and evil. Accordingly, the deeds of the wicked are called tohu vavohu, a confusion of light and darkness, truth and falsehood.
To this, the Midrash answers, vayar Elokim es ha’or ki tov. Hashem wants the deeds of the righteous; meaning that He has bestowed upon us the capacity to tell the difference between truth and that which is falsehood masquerading as truth. The very existence of that capacity indicates that Hashem wants us to identify the righteous and emulate them, and not be fooled by the wicked.
At first, the premise might seem tenuous. After all, who can’t tell right from wrong? Don’t we know who belongs to “the axis of evil?” and which side Islamic State is on?
Yes, but it’s not always so black and white. Communism won the most fervent adherents all over the world. They believed completely that it would eradicate poverty and oppression, and that those who opposed it were on the side of evil. It attracted a generation of intellectuals and idealists. Some people saw through it from the beginning; for others it took the crimes of Stalin and the cynicism of Brezhnev to shatter the illusion.
Nor is America immune to such tohu vavohu. We live in a time when the highest court in the land endorses the basest immoralities.
Even within our own communities there is some confusion about the legitimacy of violent language and violent acts, what is a chilul Hashem and what is a kiddush Hashem.
At the conclusion of Sukkos, we have Shemini Atzeres. Rashi (Vayikra 23:36) informs us that Hashem asks us, as it were, to remain with Him one more day, for our departure is hard for Him.
It’s not clear how an extra day together would help. When that day is over, the separation will still come. The delay may make the separation even more difficult.
The answer lies in the word atzeres itself, which denotes klitah, a gathering in. On Shemini Atzeres, we gather in, we internalize, the insights and inspiration from the sukkah. We bring into our homes from that temporary dwelling the emunah and bitachon taught by the mitzvah of sukkah; the national unity taught by the arbaah minim; the levels of faith and purity we achieved during the Yamim Nora’im. We return to the routine of life with a clearer picture of Who rules the world, and of the difference between the Malchus of Hashem and the memsheles zadon. We are better able to tell the difference between the deeds of the wicked and the deeds of the righteous. Thus, we remain connected to Hashem and the separation is less painful. (See Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos 72:6; Harav Dovid Cohen, Zeman Simchaseinu, Sukkos-Shemini Atzeres, pp. 480-1)
To be sure, there are other answers to the question on the Midrash. We have one or two of our own. But while the Torah is infinite, space in Hamodia is not. …