Parashat Bereisheet 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Bereisheet
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

As we once again begin our annual reading of the Torah, we anticipate the many rich stories that pervade the first book of the Bible. The narratives remain the same year after year, despite our hopes that perhaps this time our ancestors might not make the same mistakes that they did in the last Torah reading cycle. The first mistake that we encounter is of course the decision to eat from the forbidden fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden. The snake encourages Havah (a.k.a Eve) to have a taste and that fateful choice ultimately leads to the expulsion of humanity from that prehistoric paradise.

Narrowing in on the dialogue between the snake and Havah, we find that the primordial mother of humanity does not articulate the prohibition as God initially instructed. In contrast to God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17), Havah says, “It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die’” (Gen. 3:3). Havah adds the prohibition on touching the tree to the original directive.

Following the arc of the narrative, we see that according to Genesis 2 God issued the prohibition against eating from the tree directly to Adam, before Havah herself was actually created. Thus, Havah was either informed about this rule by God or by Adam at an unspecified point in the text. So whence this additional level of prohibition? According to Rashi, Havah introduced this addition to the core rule. According to a different version of the midrash, it was Adam who added this extra prohibition when informing Havah of God’s command. Either way, rabbinic tradition points to Proverbs 30:6, which forbids adding on to the Divine command. Yet, this additional prohibition against touching the tree was merely a fence around the law to prevent a real violation – if you avoid touching the tree you will not come to eat its fruit. This first sin thus seems to suggest that adding a protective fence around Jewish law is forbidden and ultimately can lead to transgression. How curious given that halakhah is full of rabbinically introduced rules and guidelines and the first mishnah in Pirkei Avot has the people of the Great Assembly instructing us to “make a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1). Given the symbolic association between Torah and trees (Prov. 3:18), the clash between the Genesis narrative and the instruction of those of the Great Assembly is particularly acute. Moreover, as Bartenura explains the first mishnah in Pirkei Avot, the purpose of making a fence is to prevent people from “touching” (לִגַּע) a Torah prohibition.

Ultimately, the tension between the message of the Genesis narrative, which denounces the addition of protective laws, and the mishnah in Avot, which lauds them, comes down to the shared question of the best way to protect our core principles. According to Genesis, the accretion of extra rules, particularly when the consequences for violating these augmentations is minor, can lead to a weaking of the Torah-level taboo itself. By contrast, according to Avot, putting safeguards in place is vital for reinforcing the distance between a person and the possibility of violating the primary principle itself. So how are we to navigate these two conflicting poles?

One possible answer emerges from the discussion of the Genesis narrative in Genesis Rabbah, in which Rabbi Hiyya suggests that one should not make the fence more than the core principle (שֶׁלֹא תַעֲשֶׂה אֶת הַגָּדֵר יוֹתֵר מִן הָעִקָּר). When protective accretions overwhelm the primary concern, then people lose sight of what is actually important (Rabbi Hiyya uses the language of cutting shoots, וְיִקְצֹץ הַנְּטִיעוֹת, which is reminiscent of the story of the four rabbis who entered Pardes, with Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah cutting shoots, i.e., becoming an apostate). When the fence is too high, people can no longer see over it to realize what it is protecting.

As a new parent (our daughter is currently five months old) I have been looking into installing safety gates in our home. The gates are necessary to keep our daughter out of danger, whether it be from falling down the stairs or getting access to sharp implements in the kitchen. The gates for these purposes are tall enough to keep toddlers from getting through, but short enough, and accessible enough, for most adults to see over and cross over when needed. This is the lens through which I read the resolution to the tension between Genesis and Pirkei Avot – fences are sometimes necessary to protect us but those of us tasked with putting them up also have a responsibility for determining where and when they are needed, and for helping those who are protected by the fences understand what they are and why they are in place.

When it comes to the adult Jewish community, obviously more nuance is necessary. But there are many in the contemporary Jewish community whose background is limited and who appreciate guidance in recognizing the different dimensions of value within our inherited tradition. There is also plenty of disagreement over what constitutes a fence and which, if any, are necessary. At AJR we stive to foster greater understanding of the diverse expressions of Judaism’s values and fences, and to appreciate how these elements manifest in unique ways within different Jewish communities. My hope for us as we begin this new Torah cycle is that we have the wisdom to distinguish between what is core and what is peripheral, and what is needed and when, for our own respective communities.
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Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.