This week’s Torah reading is from the beginning of the Torah — The Book of Genesis. On Simchat Torah, just celebrated on Monday evening, we concluded the final paragraphs of the Book of Deuteronomy which noted the death of Moses on the border of the Land of Israel. Our Torah reading concludes at that point. Curiously, we never get to read about the conquest of the Land in the Torah. We read about this in the Book of Joshua, which is part of the section of scriptures known as The Prophets. Instead of moving forward we wind backward, both figuratively and literally. We roll the Torah scroll back to the Story of Creation, and begin our yearly Torah cycle again.
“In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth”. In some ways it is fascinating that we begin the Torah in the beginning! Let me explain. If the Torah is meant to teach us how we ought to live our lives, why does it begin with the creation of the universe? If the Torah is primarily designed to teach us the proper way to live, why does the Torah not begin with LAWS? The Torah could simply begin with the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, then follow up with the commandment to circumcise our sons. It could move on to the commandment to observe the Sabbath. Then it could tell us to observe our Festivals. It could lay out the laws of keeping kosher. It could tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It could command us to give charity the poor, and to protect the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Of course, the Torah does tell us all of these but as we know, in addition the Torah tells us much more.
In other words, I dare say, perhaps G-d could have used a good editor when G-d wrote the Torah. Perhaps G-d should not have been so convinced of His own perfection, and let an angel read what He wrote before publication. I am not the only one to think this. The very first comment in the Torah by the great commentator Rashi poses this very question. Of what use is the entire book of Genesis, which is basically a book of stories about our ancestors, in helping us to lead our lives? Why didn’t G-d just start with the commandments?
One answer is that we can learn a great deal from examining the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs about how we should conduct our own lives. From reading about the life of Abraham we learn about what a life of righteousness and justice looks like. We can see how a man with unshakable faith in the One G-d lives out his life in that faith. From looking at the life of Rivka we can learn about how a strong woman can shape the destiny of her family and the Jewish people. From the life of Jacob we can see someone who struggles with his own inner demons and overcomes them. From the story of Joseph we learn about how repentance and forgiveness play themselves out in the life of an individual and a family. We learn best not by following a set of rules laid down to us by an authority. We learn best by modeling ourselves after the behavior of those who live out those rules in their own lives. By studying their lives, we come to love these holy ancestors and want to follow their example.
A few weeks ago, footage was released containing lewd remarks about women made by one of our Presidential candidates back in 2005. Much of the condemnation by public figures that followed these remarks noted the status of the speaker as a father of daughters. For example, Mitch McConnell identified himself as “the father of three daughters” in condemning the remarks. John McCain mentioned his daughters. Mitt Romney was outraged on behalf of his mother, wife and daughter. Texas senator John Cornyn, North Carolina senator Thom Tillis, New Jersey House representative Scott Garrett, and Florida representative Carlos Curbelo all condemned the lewd comments by invoking their status as a “father of daughters”.
I wondered about the fathers of sons! One columnist who addressed this issue wrote that men would not have to worry so much about defending the honor of their daughters if more men taught their sons to respect women! He advised men to sit down and talk to their sons about proper behavior toward women in light of the candidate’s comments. I think men have to do that, and much more! More than talking to our sons, we need to model for our sons the proper way to treat women and talk about women. Our children, who area astute observers, notice what we do. Our children are carefully watching how we behave. Just as the Torah gives us role models to emulate, to show us how to live our lives, we need to live out our values in our lives in order to teach our children the proper way to live. We cannot simply lay down the laws and expect them to be followed – especially when our children can see that our behavior is at odds with our words.
We have just concluded the Festival of Sukkot. The Torah commands us in Leviticus 23: “You shall sit in sukkos … so that your children will know”. The Chofetz Chaim derives a lesson from this verse about Jewish education that is applicable to all our efforts to educate our children. He notes that the Torah first tells a parent to sit in a sukkah. Only then does it say, “so that your children will know”. The lesson – Only by sitting in the sukkah ourselves will we be able to teach our children. If we fail to sit in the sukkah first, then all attempts to teach our children will be wasted.
Our children learn primarily by example. Our children are watching us, for better or worse. We may think they are not looking, but they are soaking up everything we do. I leave you with this poem by an unknown author:
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you hang my first painting on the refrigerator, and I wanted to paint another one.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you feed a stray cat, and I thought it was good to be kind to animals.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you make my favorite cake just for me, and I knew that little things are special things.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I heard you say a prayer, and I believed there is a God I could always talk to.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I felt you kiss me good night, and I felt loved.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw tears come from your eyes, and I learned that sometimes things hurt, but it’s all right to cry.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw that you cared, and I wanted to be everything that I could be.
When you thought I wasn’t looking, I looked…and wanted to say thanks for all the things I saw when you thought I wasn’t looking.