October 16, 2009


The Profound Word

Howard S. Joseph

I have chosen this title as a reflection of the very difficult name to translate Ha’amek Davar by the great sage Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Yehudah Berlin known as the Neziv. I will try each week to discuss some idea from his commentary to the Parashah: there will materials both from Ha’amek Davar [HD] and Harhev Davar [HRD].

Parashat Bereishit

Gen 1:1 Bereishit barah Elohim- In the beginning, Elohim created….
Elohim signifies a judge [dayyan]. However, just as the laws of the Torah are called judgement [din], so too are the laws of nature that the Blessed Holy One [HKBH] planted in his world, as explained in Shabbat 155 on the verse ‘the righteous knows the din of the poor’ as meaning that the Blessed Holy One knows that a dog has need for little food. This is not a punishment but its nature is such; this is called judgement [din].
Now the simple meaning of the name Elohim is that He guides the world in justice, here it means that He creates His world in din….[HD]

[HRD] This is also the meaning of the blessing (before entering a cemetery) “who created you in din and caused you to die in din…. It is all the natural creation as God said to Adam: you are dust and to dust you will return…. I will explain further in Numbers 16:16 according to a statement of our Sages that the laws of the Torah are the nature that were imprinted in the world and by which the nature of the world is sustained. Therefore, both (Torah laws and natural law) are called din.
This is also the intention of our Sages in Bereishit Rabbah: In the beginning the Holy Blessed One created the world in din and saw that the world could not be sustained only with din so He joined mercy [rahamim] with din. This does not mean that there was a retraction from what He first planned, has veshalom. It means that the creation was completely according to din but the management and sustenance of the world cannot be solely through judgement according to Torah laws, – to punish for every sin – unless mercy is joined with judgement. The Holy Blessed One knew this prior to creation: that after creation it would be necessary to add mercy.
We have here quite a complex of ideas based on the connection between the name Elohim that is used both for God and judges in the Torah; the notion that the Torah laws are the foundation of creation, they are embedded in the structure of the universe; and the necessity for mercy with judgement in order for the world to be sustained. One could add the oft-quoted test that ‘God looked in the Torah and then created the world’ as another support for some of these ideas.
This leads Neziv to conclude that life and death are normal phases of nature built in to the structure. Even without sin, humans would die. Human action may certainly affect life and death moments depending on how these actions conform to or violate the Torah laws. But there will be birth and death as part of the natural order of things.
But it is not all mechanical. In the running of the world judgement must sometimes give way to mercy, din to rahamim. This opens up the areas of repentance and prayer to be effective.
So we humans really live as part of a natural order as well as part of a meta or super-natural order. Where the lines are drawn and where they meet is a difficult matter to calculate. But we must do so.
Neziv cites the cemetery blessing as an example of his thesis. He could also apply this to the blessing recited when confronted with bad news of a death or otherwise: barukh dayyan ha-emet. He might have cited the cemetery blessing because it includes ‘created you in din’ which is clearly not a punishment issue. So death too is a natural occurrence and the blessing means we accept death as part of God’s world, God the dayyan, who created the world in the balanced way of a judge.
This complex approach leaves room for humans to function in a natural way in this world as well as to relate to the Creator on through a mature appreciation of what the world is and how it is managed by God. We have to know what to expect from nature and how what we do affects the world. We have to try to act with Yirat Shamayim and Yirat Het, that is, not to act in such a way that violates the way of the Creator.

Shabbat Shalom