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Commentary on the Torah : With a New English Translation
Richard Elliott Friedman
Excerpt from Commentary on the Torah : With a New English Translation
At the beginning of this commentary, I emphasized the point that the Bible is rich in background, that the events in the first reading, Parashat Bereshit, remain as an essential substratum in all that follows in the Bible's story. Every biblical scene will be laden-artistically, theologically, psychologically, spiritually-with all that has come before. The broad concern with the earth that is established in the first parashah remains. So when the story narrows to the divine relationship with Abraham, it is still with the ultimate aim that this will be "a blessing to all the families of the earth." Now I want to add the opposite point: that one also has a finer sense of what is happening in each biblical episode, starting with the creation, if one reads it with consciousness of what is coming.
For example: the Sabbath is set in the very structure of the universe, but for most readers the Sabbath draws its significance in Genesis 2:1-3 not only from its being a feature of the creation but from the readers' knowledge that it is to be a prime commandment later, one of the Ten Commandments, and will be identified as the sign of the relationship between God and the Israelites (Exod 31:16-17). Just try to read about the seventh day in Genesis 2 without thinking about what Shabbat comes to mean later.
Some things change dramatically over the course of the Hebrew Bible's story: from an undefined divine-human relationship in Parashat Bereshit to a series of covenants in the books that follow; from a depiction of all humankind in Genesis 1-11 to a focus specifically through Israel for many books thereafter; from explicit depiction of divine power in Genesis 1 to divine hiddenness in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther; and as the face of God becomes more hidden through the course of the narrative, humans grow up and must take ever more responsibility for their world.
When I go to a movie or play, I prefer to know as little as possible about its story in advance. Few of us are able to come to the Bible that way. It is too well-known. But few of us experience our knowledge of things that come later in the Bible as spoiling Bereshit for us the way it might spoil a mystery story to know "who done it." When we read the difficult account of the divine beings and the human women in Genesis 6, which results in the deity's setting a 120-year limit on human life (6:3), we gain rather than lose something by knowing that the Torah will end with an announcement that Moses lives the maximum and dies at the age of 120 (Deut 34:7).
Likewise, we can have a richer appreciation of the story of Cain and Abel if we know that fratricide will become a recurring theme-Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Abimelek and his brothers, Absalom and Amnon, the woman of Tekoa's story of two brothers-culminating in Solomon's executing his brother Adonijah and thus establishing the stability of the Davidic line on the throne of Israel. It is no longer just a tale of Cain's fate; it is rather an introduction and first installment in an ongoing, agonizing biblical treatment of the envies, rivalries, and affections of siblings.
And we can better understand humankind's loss of the tree of life as the price of gaining knowledge of good and bad if we know that life and death, and good and bad, will become crucial themes in Moses' last speech in Deuteronomy. And we understand it better still if we know that later, in the book of Proverbs, the highest form of knowledge of good and bad in the Bible -- wisdom -- will be characterized this way: "It is a tree of life!" (Prov 3:18). And so Jews sing this passage from Proverbs when they return the Torah to the ark after reading it each week. The Garden of Eden and the tree of life are not destroyed in Genesis; they are rendered inaccessible. The initial divine-human alienation that is marked by the eviction from paradise, therefore, is not necessarily to be understood as final. The possibility of human return to a condition in which the creator is so close as to be perceived as walking among humans in the breeze of the day (Gen 3:8) is left open, Cherubs guard the path back to the tree of life, but this, too, can be understood better if one knows what is coming: golden cherubs will spread their wings over the ark and its contents inside the Temple. The cherubs keep watch over the path to the tree of life, and their images symbolically keep watch over the keys to the path back: covenant, Torah, knowledge, wisdom.
How does the end of the Torah indeed lead us back to the beginning (as well as on to Joshua)?
At the beginning of the Torah, the tree of life is lost, and death becomes the fate of all humans. Now the Torah ends with the death of Moses. At the beginning, Cain worries that "I'll be hidden from your presence" (literally, from your face). Now God tells Moses, "Let me hide my face from them; I'll see what their future will be." Back in Genesis, God promises a land to Abraham for his descendants. Now God shows Moses the land that God promised. In Genesis, Abraham "passes" through the land. Now God tells Moses: you won't "pass" there (34:4). In Genesis, Isaac's eyes were dim. Now we are told that Moses' eye was not dim. Genesis ends with Jacob's blessing of twelve sons (The Blessing of Jacob, Genesis 49). Now the Torah ends with Moses' blessing of twelve tribes (The Blessing of Moses, Deuteronomy 33). Genesis recounts the first merging of "spirit" and "wisdom" in a man: Joseph (Gen 41:38-39). Now these two words are applied to Joshua (Deut 34:9); and Joshua, coming from the tribe of Ephraim, is a descendant of Joseph.
We find all of these (and many more) reminiscences and denouements at the end of the Torah that remind us of things we found at the beginning. But this look backward is only half of what we get-because our custom is to start over immediately, going back to Genesis. So we begin the Torah looking forward. Now when we go back to Genesis and read about the 120-year limit on human life, we will think of how Moses arrived at it, Now when we read about the divine promise of the land to Abraham in Genesis, we may think of Moses' reminder to the people that this promise is about to come true at the end of Deuteronomy.
And note: the promise to Abraham is not fulfilled at the end of the Torah. It is fulfilled in Joshua. So the last chapter of the Torah invites us to do both: to turn back to Genesis and to read on in Joshua.
The Torah thus involves a looking forward and a looking back, a linking of past and future. It is a strange concept of time: linear and cyclical at the same time, historical and timeless at the same time. It is the first known work of history on earth: telling a record of events through a progression of time on a line. Yet we read that record in a cyclical manner, always returning to the beginning. And so Returning becomes one of the central concepts of Judaism.
--From Commentary on the Torah : With a New English Translation, by Richard Elliott Friedman. © February 5, 2001, Harper San Francisco used by permission.
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