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Parashat Bereishit, Shabbat 17 October 2020

By Nahum Gordon

Have you ever wondered how long Jews have been listening to the reading of the Torah? How about the scribe and priest Ezra? He read the scroll of the “Torah of Moses” on both days of Rosh HaShanah and every day of Succot to all the people who had assembled in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8). The proceedings concluded with a solemn gathering on the following day – Shemini Atzeret. More of that anon. 

We can go back even further. King Josiah summoned all the people to the Temple where he read the entire text of a scroll of the Torah found by High Priest Hilkiah (2 Kings 23). Tradition says it was the Book of Devarim. At a special ceremony convened at Shechem, Joshua read every word of the “Book of the Torah of Moses”, the blessing and the curse, to all Israel, including women, children and strangers (Joshua 8). That sounds like Devarim. Finally, Moses wrote down the Torah, and instructed the priests to read it aloud every seven years on Succot to all the people – men, women, children and strangers (Deut. 31:11). Devarim again (Etz Hayim, p.1174).

So, we can trace Kriat HaTorah, or at least the recital of the Book of Devarim, to 622 BCE, the 18th year of Josiah’s reign. If Moses and Joshua were historical figures, we could go back to c.1250 BCE. We are preserving a practice that is 2,600 – 3,200 years old. And this Shabbat, we kick off the never-ending cycle of Torah readings. Come to think of it, a circle has no start or finish point. The beginning is the end. A mite too mathematical for me. So, before I jump into Bereishit, I just want to look back to a specific reading from last Shabbat.

On Shemini Atzeret we were treated to a devastating exposition on the futility of life – Kohelet. I found 37 occurrences of the word, hevel–breath, which has acquired the status of something ephemeral and worthless. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” All human enterprise is inconsequential. That would include this D’var Torah, but please don’t give up on me quite yet.

If you haven’t already guessed, hevel is my launching platform into Bereishit, because it is also the Hebrew name for Abel. He appears in Genesis 4:2 and six verses later he is dead. Truly a transient figure. Yet, unlike his brother Cain, we must intuit the reason for his name. You will find explanations for the naming of Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Perez, Manasseh, Ephraim, Moses, Gershom and Eliezer, but not for Abel, Dinah and Zerah.     

What crime did Abel commit to deserve such a short life? Did God not prefer his sacrifice to that of Cain’s? Again, the text is enigmatic. We are not told why God favoured Abel or how that was communicated. We must work it out for ourselves. Did Abel know instinctively to bring the choicest firstborn of his flock (Exodus 13:2) and the fattest (Leviticus 3 and 4)? Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Radak suggest that fire descended from heaven, consumed Abel’s offering, and left Cain’s untouched. Were they inspired by Elijah’s offering on Mt Carmel when he challenged the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:38)?

One Bible commentator that I enjoy reading, Professor Donald E. Gowan, addresses my mystification over Abel’s fate by suggesting that the story is about “unexplainable inequality” and more importantly, how we respond to life’s inequalities. We must resist “environmental determinism”, i.e., “it is not what happens to us but how we react to what happens to us that determines the kind of people we become.” Easier said than done.

Currently, this problematic story is exercising the brains of the participants in Torah Chat, the Bible study group hosted by Kol Nefesh. We have been meeting every week on Wednesday evenings for about 15 years. In March, we transferred to Zoom because of the COVID-19 outbreak and started all over again – Bereishit Chapter 1, verse 1. Twenty-six sessions later, we have reached Chapter 4. I have been writing up and disseminating the discussions, after adding ancient, medieval and modern commentaries. 42,000 words and counting. Sometimes, we will spend an entire session discussing one verse.

I think our group has refuted Kohelet’s pessimistic outlook. Going on to Zoom has demonstrated that the COVID cloud can have a silver lining. We have shul members and non-members connecting from the USA and our Rabbi, Joel Levy, joins us from Israel. Judging from the articles in the shul’s magazine for Rosh HaShanah, people look forward to the conversations.

Engaging with our literary heritage can be meaningful. But our lives are relatively short. So we better make the most of each opportunity. Assuming we do not venture beyond the book of Devarim, it will be 29 years before we discuss Cain and Abel again.

Dedicated to Rabbi Joel, Chazan Jacky and all the contributors to Torah Chat.  

Nahum Gordon

Member of Kol Nefesh and founder of Torah Chat

Posted on 15 October 2020