Moshe Rabbeinu instituted that a portion of the Torah be read every Shabbat. He divided the Torah up into 54 portions, so that one portion could be read on each Shabbat including a leap year, which has 13 months. This practice has been going on since Moshe instituted it many years ago, and the weekly portion has been the topic of many a sermon and dvar for thousands of years.
The celebration of Simchat Torah marks the completion of the latest cycle of reading all 54 portions, from the beginning of the Torah to its end. On Simchat Torah itself, we read the very last portion of the Torah, וזאת הברכה – Vezot Haberacha – and immediately began the new cycle by reading the beginning of the first portion in the Torah, בראשית – Bereshit. Hence, the name – “שבת בראשית “ Shabbat Bereishit – for this, the first Shabbat after Sukkot, which marks the beginning of the new cycle.
An interesting law regards the reading of the Torah in Shul: There needs to be at least three people standing at the bima – (the platform for the Torah)- when the Torah is read, viz, the reader, the gabbai, (the one who calls the people up to the Torah), and the person receiving the Aliyah. These three people represent the three participants present at the giving of the Torah on Sinai: (1) Hashem the Giver of the Torah, represented by the reader, (2) Moshe, the “delivery” man, represented by the gabbai, and (3) the entire Jewish Nation, the recipients, represented by the one receiving the Aliyah. Our sages derive from this that the weekly Torah reading in Shul on Shabbat is really a mini Torah giving, and it is as if Hashem is giving us this portion right now, straight from Sinai.
This fits very well with the concluding blessing on the Torah, נותן התורה – The One who gives the Torah -in the present tense. Hashem’s voice that announced the Torah on Sinai never stopped speaking the Torah to the Jewish Nation, and therefore the Torah is being given each moment anew. We reenact this each week as we read the weekly portion, which is why we see the weekly portion as so relevant to events happening in the world at large and in our personal lives. This is the portion of the Torah being given this week, and this is Hashem’s message to us right now.
As we listen to the Torah’s initial verses, we hear the Torah describe how Hashem created the world in six days. There are countless examples of Hashem’s brilliance and ingenuity in every creation and creature on the Earth. The staggering array of plants, vegetables, fruits, insects, fish, and animals, boggles the mind. Just trying to contemplate the sheer size of our universe, billions of light years large, in every direction, is impossible.
As we follow the description of creation, a clear and logical pattern emerges. On day one, Hashem created the universe; on day two, the water on earth and in the heavens; on day three, the land appeared and was immediately covered with vegetation; day four – the sun, moon, and the stars; day five – the fish and birds, and the insects both flying and crawling; on day six, all the animals, wild and domesticated, and, after all of that, man –אדם Adam. It seems very clear from the progression that the purpose of all that preceded man was to prepare a suitable environment for him to live in. Indeed, man uses all of the above for his existence.
But is humanity permitted to do this, to exploit the Earth and everything in it? Absolutely! Hashem instructed him to. Hashem told Adam (Genesis 1:28).
(כח) וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל הָאָרֶץ:
28) Hashem blessed them and Hashem said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Hashem created everything in the world for man to use. Indeed, man uses his intellect to take advantage of all the resources that Hashem placed in the world for him.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 14:1), however, presents a different scenario.
על דעתיה דר”ל … אם זכה אדם אומרים לו אתה קדמת לכל מעשה בראשית ואם לאו אומרי’ לו יתוש קדמך שלשול קדמך
Reish Lakish says, “If man is meritorious, we say to him, ‘you were the purpose of all creation,’ but, on the other hand, if he is not meritorious, we say to him, ’Even this gnat was created before you, even this worm was created before you!’”
A different Midrash (ילקוט שמעוני תורה ילקוט שמעוני על בראשית פרק א רמז טו) uses the same argument to keep man humble.
ד”א שאם תזוח דעתו עליו אומרים לו יתוש קדמך
You think you are so great? “Even the mosquito preceded you in creation!”
What does it take to be meritorious and receive Hashem’s praise, and what constitutes not being meritorious where we say “the gnat is better than you”?
The Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:19) relates:
בשעה שברא הקב”ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי
When Hashem created Adam, He took him around and showed him all the trees of the garden, and said to him, “Take note of how beautiful and beneficial my creations are; everything that I created, I created just for you. Make sure you don’t ruin and destroy my world!”
Man was created to serve Hashem, to earn his reward in the world to come.
The Torah tells us:
ספר בראשית פרק ב
(טו) וַיִּקַּח יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ:
- Hashem God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it.
Our sages ask the question: What need was there to work and guard the Garden of Eden? The Torah just told us that the trees grew on their own accord, and a river flowing through the garden provided the necessary irrigation. The answer is, Adam was to work the garden through the study of Torah, and the performance of the positive commandments, and to guard it and thus preserve it, by refraining from the forbidden activities.
In this context, this world’s material blessings are the tools that Hashem has given man to use to fulfill the mitzvot and to fulfill the Torah’s commandments. All of the mitzvot in the Torah require us to use the material elements of the earth to perform the mitzvah. We just celebrated the holiday of Sukkot for which we needed wood or canvas to build the sukkah walls, and plants that grow from the ground for its covering. To fulfill the mitzvah of the four species, we needed a palm branch, a citron, 3 myrtle branches and 2 brook willow branches.
But Hashem did not put the world at man’s disposal to use for his own pleasure and enjoyment. He gave him control of the world so that he could use it in his service to Hashem.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato says this clearly in his great work, The Path of the Just, chapter 1.
ספר מסילת ישרים – פרק א
ואם תעמיק עוד בענין תראה כי העולם נברא לשמוש האדם, אמנם הנה הוא עומד בשקול גדול, כי אם האדם נמשך אחר העולם ומתרחק מבוראו, הנה הוא מתקלקל ומקלקל העולם עמו, ואם הוא שולט בעצמו ונדבק בבוראו ומשתמש מן העולם רק להיות לו לסיוע לעבד בוראו, הוא מתעלה והעולם עצמו מתעלה עמו. כי הנה עלוי גדול הוא לבריות כלם בהיותם משמשי האדם השלם המקדש בקדשתו יתברך,
If you look into this deeply you will see that the entire world was created for man’s use. However, it stands in a delicate balance. If man pursues the pleasures of this world as an end unto themselves, taking himself far away from Hashem, he ruins himself and the world with him. If, however, he controls himself, and clings to Hashem, using the resources of the world only as tools to serve Hashem, he elevates himself and the entire world with him. Because it is a great merit for the resources in the world to serve the human being who is sanctified with Hashem’s holiness.
This was Hashem’s instructions to Adam when he showed him around the garden: Be sure to use of My world only as tools to serve Me, not for your own personal pleasures.
This is what makes man meritorious and worthy of all that preceded him in creation. Since he is using it as the means to fulfill Hashem’s commandments, Hashem gives it to him with His blessing of “and conquer it!” But if man uses the world for his own selfish desires, even the gnat and the worm are better than he. At least they are faithfully doing what they were put here to do!
There is yet a deeper level of understanding to this Midrash.
Environmentalists warn us of the many problems that man has caused to the environment through his careless use of the world’s natural resources, and through the pollution coming from his inventions. When man leaves nature alone, it operates perfectly; there is a perfect balance between the various forces and counterforces that keep the habitat optimal for all of the many and varied species that live there. In this magnificent world that Hashem created, there are billions of creatures large and small. The large eat the small, and the small eat the smaller, and with this, the balance in nature is maintained. In all pristine natural habitats, each creature has its prey and its predator. No predator proliferates enough to make its prey extinct.
Man is the Earth’s only creature that does not contribute to the balance in nature. On the contrary, he upsets it through his endeavors. If man uses the resources of the world to serve Hashem, he is granted permission to do so. But, if he uses the world for his own personal selfish desires, even the gnat and the worm are doing more for the world than he is. At least they are contributing to the balance in nature and keeping the world running properly. Man, on the other hand, is only depleting its resources and ruining it in the process.
This concept that the material world was put here as a tool for man’s use in his service to Hashem strikes the perfect balance between the physical and spiritual worlds. Many people do not subscribe to a spiritual purpose to man at all, maintaining that Man is here strictly to taste and enjoy the different types of pleasure to be had in the world. They spend their time and money in pursuit of new pleasures to experience.
Others view materialism as the ultimate evil. It feeds the physical self and thereby impedes all spiritual ambitions. According to them, one must abstain from all physical pleasures if he expects to achieve any spiritual level at all.
When Hashem came to create man, He was faced with a dilemma. Rashi (Genesis 2:7) quotes the Midrash:
ויפח באפיו – עשאו מן התחתונים ומן העליונים גוף מן התחתונים ונשמה מן העליונים. לפי שביום ראשון נבראו שמים וארץ. בשני ברא רקיע לעליונים. בשלישי תראה היבשה לתחתונים. ברביעי ברא מאורות לעליונים. בחמישי ישרצו המים לתחתונים. הוזקק בששי לבראות בו מעליונים ומתחתונים ואם לאו יש קנאה במעשה בראשית שיהיו אלו רבים על אלו בבריאת יום אחד
(7) And Hashem blew into his (Adam’s) nostrils the breath of life – Hashem made man from the lower realms and from the upper realms; the body from the lower realms and the soul from the upper realms. Because on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day, he created the sky for the upper realms, and on the third day He created the land for the lower realms. On the fourth day he created the lights for the upper realms, and on the fifth day he created the fish for the lower realms. On the six-day He needed to create something of the upper realms and the lower realms, for if he did not there would be an imbalance in nature.
Hashem, our Creator, gave us the Torah, which strikes the perfect balance between these two worlds. It says, “enjoy my world as much as you please, but do so in a way that complies with the parameters and guidelines I have laid out for you.” There is no pleasure forbidden in the Torah, it just needs to be enjoyed in a controlled and precise way.
When a person keeps the Torah’s laws, he lives the best life in this world and prepares himself for the best life in the world to come.