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Home » Bereishit Parshah

Bereishit: The Constructive No

Submitted by on October 10, 2012 – 3:55 amNo Comment | 2,181 views

Obsessed with Prohibitions

The Torah is obsessed with the word No; don’t do this, refrain from that, this is negative and that is dangerous. For every one “do” there are ten “don’ts.” Take Shabbat for example. Its only positive commandment is to sanctify the day; all others are negative. Don’t drive, don’t cook, don’t shower and don’t garden. Why are we so focused on the don’ts, can’t we be a little more open-minded?

This challenge was recently issued to me by a Jew who describes himself as positively oriented. The G-d of Torah he maintains is one of wrath and vengeance whereas his G-d is filled with love and nurture. He teaches his children the beauty of Judaism and celebrates the rich tapestry of our culture, but doesn’t bother much with the prohibitions. “Anything goes, he says, “so long as the children learn to cherish our traditions.”

In typical Jewish fashion, I replied with a question. ‘How many wives do you have, I asked?’
‘One,’ he replied.
‘And how many women are you not married to?’
‘All the other women in the world.’
‘So how would you describe yourself, as a married man or as a not married man? After all, for every woman to whom you are married there are about four and a half billion to whom you are not married.’

You cannot be married to one person unless you are not married to everyone else; by definition the no’s outnumber the yes. Does this mean that you are defined by the women you are not married to? (1)

When Shabbat Becomes Holy

Shabbat is a day of celebration; not self denial. True, we don’t shop and cook on this day, but that is because it is too special a day to be wasted in so prosaic a manner; these trivialities can wait for Monday. Shabbat is not Monday. It is holy. It is special. It is Shabbat.

A friend told me that when his children were younger he and his wife always made sure to have Shabbat dinner at home with the children. Neighbors and friends were allowed to go to parties, but his daughters remained at home. The children, he told me, never felt deprived. On the contrary, they felt that Friday night was holy, too holy for mundane parties – those were for weekdays.

Not being married to four a half billion women does not define you as single. On the contrary it defines you as a person committed exclusively to one woman. Similarly, saying no to the weekday activities doesn’t define Shabbat as a negative day. On the contrary, it defines Shabbat as a holy day. A day that stands alone; apart and exalted. Saying yes to Shabbat issues a constructive no to all weekday activities.

The Map

Think of a map. The first step in map reading is selecting a destination. the constructive no - innerstreamOnce the destination is selected only a limited number of the map’s routes can be used. There might five or ten roads that lead to your destination without costly maneuvers or wasteful detours. There are hundreds of other roads on the map, but they are not for you; they don’t lead to your destination.

If you map out directions for your son, you will likely show him the roads to take and exhort him not to take any other road. That is not focusing on the negative; that is showing him the way. If you merely show him how to cherish the route that leads to his destination, but tell him to select any route he likes, so long as he cherishes the value of your route, he will likely never reach his destination.

Now suppose your son has no particular destination in mind. In that case you can encourage him to explore all the roads on the map. You might point out the roads with scenic views or the routes that resonate with a particular family tradition, but you would not confine him to the roads of your childhood. You would encourage him to explore the entire map and chart his own course.

Until you choose a destination, you can travel any road on the map, but when your intention is to reach a particular destination, you must confine yourself to the few roads that lead to your destination. Forays into offshoots and side paths are counter productive.

Torah leads us to a relationship with G-d. There are multiple roads that lead to G-d; these roads are reflected in the mosaic of customs and traditions that exist within the framework of authentic Torah Judaism. Any path beyond this framework leads to a pleasant journey, but not necessarily to G-d. If G-d is your destination then this is not the path for you.

This is why the history of humanity begins with a prohibition. G-d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and commanded them to eat of all the fruits in the garden and then immediately added a prohibition, not to eat from the tree of knowledge. G-d added that prohibition because the fruit of that tree would lead Adam and Eve away from G-d. The fruit was delicious and tempting, eating it would be enjoyable and delectable, but it would lead to the wrong destination. (2)

Prohibitions serve as landmarks that guide us to holy and G-dly destinations. They are marked by the Torah to help us avoid the paths that lead astray. So long as we avoid them we are making progress; once we indulge them we begin to wander. Those who tread the paths that lead to G-d and avoid paths that lead from G-d are, in fact, positively oriented; they are moving forward. Those who follow the path of whim flounder in the open minded sea; they ride its precarious waves, but rise and fall at their peril.

Footnotes

  1. A similar example: You cannot have a home unless its walls exclude the rest of the city. If one home in the city belongs to you then by definition all others do not. Are you therefore a person with a home or are you largely without a home?
  2. You might be wondering why Adam and Eve were permitted every tree in the garden, but one whereas we are forbidden almost every route in the map and are only permitted one or two.
    This is because Adam and Eve were already in the garden; they were at their destination. Once you are at your destination there is only one wrong way to go and that is backwards. Every other path is permissible because they are all part of the Garden; all part of the destination.
    Let us return to our earlier example of marriage. Once married, husband and wife are permitted many forms of interaction that were forbidden before marriage. However, the one area of danger they must studiously avoid is curiosity about what life might be like if they were married to someone else. There is no way to pose that question without compromising the purity and integrity of their marriage; innocent as these musings seem they are ruinous to a marriage.
    The Tree of Knowledge represents the mind’s innate curiosity. Adam and Eve could converse with G-d and intuit His existence on a deep level. But even in the Garden they could stray along the path of curiosity by wondering whether it could be proved that G-d exists beyond the garden or beyond the realm of holiness. Is there room for G-d in the mundane? Is the prosaic intrinsically holy?
    This intellectual curiosity would prove their undoing for it would entice them to toy with the forbidden in their ultimate quest for an answer. This curiosity, said G-d, represents the only path out of the Garden and away from the destination; don’t take it. Not if you like it here; not if this is your chosen destination.
    Once Adam and Eve were rejected from Eden they found themselves at the bottom of the map. From that starting point there are an almost unlimited number of wrong paths and very few right paths that lead back to Eden. This is why we have so many prohibitions today compared to the single prohibition in Eden.

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