Tanakh – Torah (1) – Genesis

Question:  I am working on a project and I need to find life lessons in the Torah that are not actually stated directly, like “you are what you eat,” for example, which comes from the Kashrut Laws.  Can you tell me some of these values or point me in a direction where I can find them (like a book or something)?

Answer: I have had trouble answering your question.  On the one hand, there are any number of books which derive life lessons from Torah.  On the other hand, I could not come up with a source for the specific type of lessons you are seeking (e.g., Kashrut).

What you want to do, I think, is study various commentaries on Torah.  Choose a particular Mitzvah, research it, and perhaps you will come up with the kind of lessons you seek.  The Torah commentaries by the Jewish Publication Society, G. Plaut, Hertz, or any other that you might find in a good Jewish library, such as in a synagogue, would help.

You might also try browsing through books such as Swimming in the Sea of Talmud, by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, or Biblical Literacy, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

Question: I am a Jewish student in the 12th grade.  I consider myself a rather observant Jew and feel that I know what I am talking about when asked about my beliefs but, throughout my readings of the Torah, many questions have arisen.  I constantly find myself re-reading certain chapters because I have trouble getting “the point.”  In Genesis, besides the creation what was the main idea?  This is to say, what laws were put forth?  I am reading a book called “The Handmaids Tale” in which I was told that they follow the laws set in Genesis to the letter.  As I have read, I am sorry to say that it seems I do not know my religion as well as I had thought.   Can you help me understand what was really said in Genesis?

Answer: There are many lessons that come from the creation story of Genesis, other than the obvious lesson that God created the entire world.  It teaches us that the most important thing created was Shabbat.  It is the pinnacle of creation, the very last thing created.  It teaches us that every human being was created in the image of God, and that we all stem from the same original couple.  This means that no person, regardless of ethnicity, has more inherent value than any other person.  This also means that when we hurt another person, we are also hurting God, because each one of us is a representation of God.  Genesis also teaches us an environmental message, that we have the responsibility to be good caretakers for the earth and animals that populate it.

There is not very much “law” per se in Genesis.  Most of the laws are found in next four books of the Torah.  Genesis is a kind of mythic history of Israel, defining our place in the world.  It has been some time since I read “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and I cannot recall what laws in that society might be related to Genesis.

I cannot explain the entire book, in this venue, but I can recommend some reading that might help.  First, the Jewish Publication Society published an excellent commentary on Genesis by Nahum Sarna.  Second, Herman Gunkel wrote a fine book called “The Legends of Genesis.”  These books can probably be found in your local synagogue library.

Question:  You speculate that the wife of Cain was his twin sister. Isn’t incest detestable to God?  You then speculate about it perhaps just a great story and not to be taken literally. Where do we stop taking the bible literally and where do we take it as fact?

I notice with great interest that it states in Genesis 1 that God created man and made “them” rulers over the birds of the air and animals of the earth and fish of the sea. Why is it worded as though there was more than one?  Then in chapter 2 it states the account of Adam. Then it’s stated that God searched for a wife for Adam. He couldn’t find one so he made one from her rib. Why did God search for a wife when there was only Adam? or did God actually create many men and woman?

Answer: There is a Midrash that Cain married his twin sister.  Don’t blame me – it came out of an academy of rabbis 1600 – 1900 years ago.  How else can you explain Cain getting married, when God had only created one man and one woman?  Cain had no singles bar to hang out in to search for a wife!

I take the Bible literally — but I do not take it as historical fact unless it is clearly trying to teach history, and even then I keep in mind that not all writers of history are unbiased.  Generally, the literally true meaning of the stories of Genesis is what the Author or editors of the story intended to teach.

In chapter one of Genesis, the word ‘Adam’ means humanity, not man – plural, more than one.  In chapter two, God searches for a companion for Adam by making the animals.  None were a suitable mate, so God created Eve from Adam’s side or rib.

Question: As a student, I was assigned a  research paper based on the tree of knowledge, either in the old or new testaments.  Although, I know the tree of knowledge is mentioned in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  I need to find one to two more stories in which the tree of knowledge is  a symbol or major aspect mentioned in the Bible.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be the tree of knowledge, it can be a significant tree, such as the burning bush (also if possible give me cross references).

Answer: You have already found the one and only occurrence of the tree of knowledge in the Hebrew Bible, and you have found a story about another significant tree in the burning bush.  It seems to me that you are asking me to do your research to find information about other trees in the Bible.  My policy in AskaRabbi is to answer all questions, but I also have a policy not to do research for student who should be doing their own research.  Go to a good library, and find a Biblical Concordance.  You will be able to find Biblical trees to your heart’s content!

Question: I have a question that maybe a Rabbi can help me with.  I would like to know why God told Adam not to eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but did not tell him not to eat from the tree of Life.

Answer: When Adam and Eve were first created, they were immortal.  Since eating from the tree of life would have no effect on a person who is already immortal, there was nso need for God to command them not to eat it.  However, one of the punishments for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was that they would eventually die.    So after they had become mortal, God needed to expel them from the garden before they could eat from the tree of life and become immortal again.

Question: What language did Adam and Eve speak?  Who were the mother’s of Cain and Abel’s children?

Answer: According to Louis Ginzberg in The Legends of the Jews, (a wonderful reference of midrash for obscure questions like yours!), the view that Hebrew was the original language of humankind is widespread in Rabbinic literature.  The word puns in the beginning of the Torah regarding the derivision of Adam’s name from the word adamah for ground, and word “isha” for woman from the word “ish” for man only make sense if Adam and Eve were Hebrew speakers.

The traditional answer to your second question, given by various Midrashim, is that Cain and Abel were each born with a twin, whom they were destined to marry (actually, Abel had two twin sisters – he was one of triplets!).  Clearly, if you take the creation story literally, that all humanity stems from this first couple, then they must have had other children (daughters) that are not explicitly mentioned, and Cain must have married his sister.

If this is true, then why does Genesis not mention the birth of Cain’s wife, his sister?  The answer is that the creation story of Genesis does not really care where Cain’s wife came from – it is irrelevant to the main point of the story.  The point of the story is that all human beings can trace their ancestry back to the same first human beings, teaching us that:

1)  We are all created equal – no one can claim a superior ancestry.

2)  We are all created in the image of God.

3)  Since we are all family, we are all responsible for each other.

I would also argue that the author/editor of Genesis (Divine or human) did not intend for the creation narrative to be read literally, so if a certain detail – like the origin of Cain’s wife – is not important, it is simply left out.

Question:  If Adam and Eve were the first born how did there become lots of other last names and who did their children marry?

Answer: You ask a very good question.  The traditional answer, given by various Midrashim, is that Cain and Abel were each born with a twin, whom they were destined to marry (actually, Abel had two twin sisters – he was one of triplets!).  Clearly, if you take the creation story literally, that all humanity stems from this first couple, then they must have had other children (daughters) that are not explicitly mentioned, and Cain must have married his sister.

If this is true, then why does Genesis not mention the birth of Cain’s wife, his sister?  The answer is that the creation story of Genesis does not really care where Cain’s wife came from – it is irrelevant to the main point of the story.  The point of the story is that all human beings can trace their ancestry back to the same first human beings, teaching us that:

1)  We are all created equal – no one can claim a superior ancestry.

2)  We are all created in the image of God.

3)  Since we are all family, we are all responsible for each other.

I would also argue that the author/editor of Genesis (Divine or human) did not intend for the creation narrative to be read literally, so if a certain detail – like the origin of Cain’s wife – is not important, it is simply left out.

Last names, historically, are a relatively late invention – I believe they began to be commonplace in the 17th/18th century.  Prior to that, Jews were known by their name and son/daughter of their father – the same we we are called to the Torah today.  For example, Isaac ben Abraham.

Question: How does the Jewish religion see Eve in relation to man troubles?

Answer: I do not understand your question as written.  If you are asking about original sin, the answer is that Judaism does not believe that children are born with sin.  If you are asking about something else, please write back and help me understand your question.

Question:  In parashat Lekh Lekha, what is Abraham’s part of the covenant with God?

Answer: Abraham’s responsibility towards God is twofold.

First, Abraham is apparently chosen by God because he recognizes the truth of monotheism; he recognized God for whom God is, rather than as one within a pantheon.  This is not stated explicitly, but we do see that when God issues a command, Abraham obeys, and God rewards.  Chapter 15:9 of Genesis indicates that because Abraham trusted God, God rewarded him.

Second, Abraham agrees to circumcise his children, and to ensure that the mitzvah of circumcision continues throughout the ages.  Such will be the sign of an ongoing commitment to God’s covenant.

Response:  Thank you so much for your help.  That is my bat mitzvah portion.

Answer: You’re welcome.  But if I had known it was your Bat Mitzvah portion, I would have asked you to read the Parasha yourself one more time, and try to find the answer without my help.  That’s what I ask my own Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to do.  If you use what I wrote in your Bat Mitzvah d’var Torah, I hope that you will quote me by name.

Seriously, whatever you say for your speech on your Bat Mitzvah, it should be something original that you wrote.  I, and I’m sure you rabbi as well, want you to do a bit more study and research by yourself.  That’s one of the responsibilities of Bat Mitzvah – doing things yourself, rather than relying on others.

Question:  Why is Abraham called the first Jew?  What criteria was used and by whom? The book of Genesis states that Enoch walked with God.  Wasn’t he the first Jew? Also, Aaron was not the first Priest.  He was the first priest of the new nation but not the first to serve God.  That person lived way before Aaron was born.

Answer: Abraham was the first Jew because he was the first person with whom God made a specific covenant.  That covenant was renewed with his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, and later with the entire Israelite people at Mount Sinai.

The Torah never says that only priests can serve God.  Aaron was the first cohen, priest, of the Israelite structure of worship, which gave cohanim special responsibilities regarding the sacrificial offerings.

Response:  The first Jew was the first to acknowledge God and follow God’s path. That personage in genesis was Enoch. The line of Noah precedes that of Abraham in the following of God’s laws as Abraham was from that line, the line of Shem.

The first covenant between God and man was that between God and Noah. Genesis 9:9. The first priest was Melchizedek, king of Salem who brought forth bread and wine to Abram “and he was priest of God the Most High” Genesis 14:18.

Answer: Enoch was not the first Jew.  The verse “Enoch walked with God” is very cryptic, and apparently has very little lasting significance in the Torah.  If it was important, the Torah would have described his relationship with God in greater detail.

The covenant with Noah had a much lesser degree of obligation than the later covenant with Abraham.  God promised not to destroy the earth again with a flood, and Noah and his descendants were given 5-6 instructions (enumerated by later Jewish tradition).

The first specifically Jewish covenant (which includes a promise of great numbers and the gift of the land) was between God and Abraham (and his descendants).

I do not disagree with you that non-Jews may be priests.  I wrote that Aaron was the first Israelite priest.

Response:  The fact that Enoch walked with God is cryptic only to those who give it little significance. Its true import lies with the importance of others that walked with God.  Its fleeting insignificance sends a message also.  The covenant with Noah affected all of mankind and all of God’s creation.  Not only that but the rainbow shall remind God of the vow he made with Noah.  There was a promise of great numbers and the gift of all the land.

The first Jew really was Moses who received the commandments from God personally. Abraham followed the same laws as did Noah. There is only conjecture that he did not.  Both sacrificed to the lord.

Answer: According to the Bible, Enoch is not a terribly important Biblical character.  Do what you want with him in midrash – the rabbis certainly do – but a claim that the Torah believes that he has tremendous importance because his appearance is fleeting is insupportable.

There was no promise to Noah that he would become the ancestor of a numerous or great people, and Noah was not promised a specific land.  In addition, the Torah is ambivalent about Noah’s righteousness – he is only “righteous in his generation,” implying that if he had lived in another generation, he may have been only average.

All Jews trace their ancestry back to Abraham.  Even those who convert are given Abraham and Sarah as parents.

Since most Jews are not of the tribe of Levi, thus cannot be descendants of Moses.  That is why he is not known as the “first Jew.”

This whole discussion is really academic.  It makes no practical difference who the first Jew was.

Question:  Who appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18?

Answer: Abraham’s visitors in Genesis 18 present themselves as men, and are perceived as such both by Abraham and by the people of Sodom in chapter 19.  However, in 19:1 and 15 they are also called angels/messengers.  According to Midrash, they were angels of God, each with a specific task.  One was sent to tell Abraham and Sarah that they were to have a child; and the other two were sent to warn the people of Sodom and Gemorrah about the impending destruction.

Question: How is it possible that a Hittite trader and a Canaanite man (Abraham) had contact with each other at that time period (when Abraham purchased the cave at Machpelah as a burial place)?  Weren’t these two groups of people too distant or wasn’t there some opposing factor that would have stopped any interaction between them?

Answer: Without doing extensive research into the history of the ancient Near East, all I can say is that according to the narrative of the Torah, Abraham did have contact with a Hittite.  As far as I know, Hittites were present in Canaan, so it would not be odd for Abraham to have contact with them.  Some aspects of your question puzzle me, however.

Was Ephraim the Hittite a trader, as you mention?  He seemed to have owned land in the area, to live there, rather than being a trader passing through.  Remember too that Abraham was not a Canaanite man – he was a foreigner from Padan Aram.  Also, remember that he was not yet a group – he was just one individual family.  I doubt that there was a third party that would have deliberately tried to limit contact between Hittites and Abraham’s family.

Question: What was Lot’s wife’s name?

Answer: The Torah does not tell us the name of Lot’s wife.

Question:  I was watching WEST WING last night which leads me to my question.  When Sarah couldn’t have children and she let Abraham sleep with the servant and the servant had Ishmael then Sarah was able to have Isaac and made Abraham send the servant away with Ishmael because Sarah didn’t want Ishmael to have anything from Abraham.  On West Wing they said that this is what first started the Arab/Jewish conflict so many thousands of years ago.  If this is true, (which I am not sure of) then why do we revere Sarah in prayers and think so highly of her.  As you can see I am a bit confused here.  I hope you can help me to understand this.

Answer: First off, I want you to realize that the Bible does not present us with perfect models of behavior to emulate. Every major character, including Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, are flawed. These flaws are clearly part of the Biblical story. While Jewish liturgy may refer to the covenent that God made with each of these people, it never asks us to revere them in any way approaching the model of sainthood in the Catholic Church. With respect to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, there is a hint in the Biblical narrative that there was conflict between the two brothers. One Rabbinic midrash creates a dialogue between the two of them that suggests that Ishmael was vying with Isaac for the right to inherit Abraham’s estate. The specific covenant of the Torah was destined to pass through Isaac, so Ishmael had to be sent away, but you might notice that later on Ishmael has 12 sons (just like Jacob), and goes on to become the progenitor of a great people. So God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would become as numerous as the stars was actually fulfilled through both sons.  Also notice that the president’s wife mentioned that Isaac and Ishmael did come together to bury their father — so any animosity that existed did not preclude a peaceful coexistence.  Contrast this with the relationship between Jacob and his twin brother Esau, who reunited once in a tension filled story, clearly not able to coexist in peace.

Question:  Who is Ishmael? Why did God bless him with the 12 Arab nations? Was it a punishment towards Isaac for not showing Ishmael the same love as he did for his first born son, Jacob, whom Rachel had borne before passing away.

Answer: Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, with his concubine Hagar.  Abraham’s covenant with God included a blessing of being the progenitor of a great people.  That covenant was passed down to both of Abraham’s children — Ishmael and Isaac.  The number 12 seems to be a number symbolizing the fulfillment of God’s promise of great fertility.  For Ishmael, then, the promise of the covenant was fulfilled immediately.  For the Isaac’s branch of the family the promise was not fulfilled until his son Jacob had 12 sons one generation later.

Question:  Does the Number 12 usually symbolize all fertility? So, can I conclude that Ishmael’s blessing was a punishment to Isaac for, I think I recall once being told by an elementary school Rabbi, choosing a favorite child? Others have suffered the same, I am sorry, I don’t recall whom.

Answer: I don’t believe that Ishmael’s blessing was a punishment, either for Abraham or for Isaac.  It was a sign that the covenant was to be fulfilled through both of Abraham’s children.  The number 12 seems to symbolize the critical number for nation-building, and I learn that through the coincidence of Jacob, Ishmael, and Esau all having 12 children.

Question: Isaac did not come down from the mountain with Abraham.  Where did he go?

Answer: You are clearly a very careful reader of Torah.  Indeed, after the Akedah (binding of Isaac), at the end of Chapter 22, the Torah tells us that Abraham returned to his servants and they went to Beersheba – but Isaac does not reappear until the end of chapter 24, when he meets Rebecca.

Midrash fills in the gap in Isaac’s life.  He was taken by angels up to Paradise to study in the academy of Shem and Eber, Noah’s sons, where he remained for three years.

What is the “real” reason Isaac is not mentioned?  There is no way of knowing for sure, other than the fact that the story of the Akedah is primarily a story of Abraham, and not Isaac.  Isaac is, strangely enough, incidental to the story.  The missing Isaac is our hint that Isaac is destined to be a passive character – so passive that he disappears from our view at a critical juncture in the story.

Question:  I am studying Jacob and Esau.  What are some reasons that Esau deserves Isaac’s birthright over Jacob.

Answer: Esau should have been given the birthright because he was the first born.

Question: I have a question after watching a film where a rabbi mentioned that the Jewish people were given the blessing Isaac – Ishmael and Esau – Jacob.  What is your opinion of the way Jacob got his blessing? And was it right for Isaac to get the blessing even though he was not the oldest of Abraham’s sons?

Answer: There is a consistent theme running through Genesis of the younger child supplanting the older.  Theologically, it teaches us that the potential to inherit God’s promise is chosen deliberately by God, rather than being an accident of birth.  In other words, God is ultimately in control of our lives.

If Jacob was destined by God to receive the blessing, then the way he got it is less relevant.  One might argue that Jacob was deceptive; one might also argue that Isaac was blind to God’s intent.  In any case, even in Genesis Ishmael does receive a covenant from God, parallel to the one given to Isaac.  Also, keep in mind that Jewish tradition generally does not look at every aspect of the behavior of the Biblical figures as absolute role models for our own behavior.

Question:  The biblical character Reuven.  What does his name mean? Are there any good stories about him?

Answer: Reuven, the first born son of Jacob and Leah, is first mentioned in the Torah in Genesis 29:32, where his name, which literally means “See, a son!” is explained as “Adonai has seen (ra’ah) my affliction (b’onyee).”

Other incidents involving Reuven are found in Genesis 30:14 and 35:21-22, and he is mentioned in chapter 37 in the story of Joseph’s sale into slavery.

Question:  In Genesis 35.16, Rachel gave birth to Benjamin and then died in childbirth.  In the most recent Jewish Bible Quarterly Vol. XXII, No. 1 Jan-Mar 1999, Menahem Blondheim and S.H. Blondheim have an article, “Obstetrical and Lexicographical Complications : The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel.  For backgrounds, Menahem teaches history at Hebrew University and S.H. is emeritus prof of Medicine at Hebrew University Hadassah school of medicine.

They claim that Benjamin was a breech birth enabling the midwife to tell Rachel that she had a son.  The breech birth probably caused her death.  Rachel was thus able to name him before her death.  She named him Ben-oni.

In the gospel of Mark 11.1 Jesus goes to Bethany.  I understand that the origin of the name Beth-ani  is house of death.  Could Rachel have named her son – son of death?  Of course Jacob named him Benjamin.  What does Benjamin mean?  I have a grandson named Benjamin and the the source of the name is of interest to me.

Answer: I believe that Bethany comes from the words Bet-oni/”house of affliction or death,” rather than Bet-ani/”house of poverty.”

Rachel named the child Ben-oni/”son of my affliction” because she knew she was dying.

Jacob named him Binyamim, meaning either “son of the right hand,” a symbol of power and protection; or “son of old age,” named because Jacob was old, as Benjamin is called in Genesis 44:20.

Question:  Is Joseph considered to be a prophet?  If so, why?

Answer: The stories of Joseph are not found in the section of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) known as the Nevi’im, or Prophets; however, that does not automatically exclude him from being a prophet.  Moses is certainly one of our greatest prophets.  I define a prophet as someone who communicates with God and either gives moral exhortations or foretells future events; therefore, Joseph certainly qualifies as a prophet, based on his dreams as a youth which eventually came true.

Question:  Since Manassah means thank you for allowing me to forget my past and my roots and Ephraim means thank you for allowing me to be fertile in the land of my affliction why do we bless the children with such seemingly unimportant people that suggest negative qualities to Joseph rather than the older patriarchs as we do for the girls?  When Jacob crossed his wrists at the blessing, M and E were “equal” did M really live without jealousy toward E?

Answer: When Jacob blessed Menashe and Efrayim, he said (Genesis 48:20), “By you shall Israel give blessings.”  Because of this, every subsequent generation used the same language for blessing male children, “May God make you like Efrayim and Menashe.”  The fact is that Joseph did not forget his heritage, and raised two wonderful children under difficult circumstances.  This is, I believe, what makes Jacob’s blessing so powerful.

Jacob put his right hand (the more important hand) on Efrayim’s head rather than first born Menashe’s head because Efrayim was destined to become the more  powerful and influential of the two.  The Torah and Tanakh are silent, as far as I know, on the issue of jealousy between the two siblings, so all we can conclude is that this was not a significant issue between them.

Since there is no verse from the Torah which directs us to bless our daughters, the rabbis had more freedom to be creative in the language of blessing.  The most logical “role models” for blessing girls would be our matriarchs, who were blessed by God with fertility, goodness, and participated in the covenantal promise of being the ancestors of a great nation.