Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan Torah Essay
Dr. Dodi Tobin
The Edythe Benjamin חיה בת שלמה beloved mother of Barbara Hanus
Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan Torah Essay
The holidays are now over, and we have begun to read the Book of Breishit, which instructs us regarding the beginning of the world, mankind and the Jewish people. The Torah portions in the month of Cheshvan deal primarily with the Avraham Avinu narratives. Avraham is chosen as the father of a great nation that will bring blessing to the world. In Breishit chapters 12-17, we find several accounts of G-d granting Avraham the covenantal blessings of offspring and the Land:
“I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.” (12:2-3)
“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted.” (13:14-16)
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your offspring be.”(15:5)
‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates;(15:18)
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous… You shall be the father of a multitude of nations…And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee…And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession…” (17: 1-4)
It is interesting to note that while the narratives in chapters 12-17 elucidate that G-d has chosen Avraham as His covenantal partner, as well as Avraham’s many virtues, such as lovingkindness, faith, alacrity, obedience and self-sacrifice, we do not find any explicit justification by G-d about why Avraham is worthy of the covenantal blessings.
That is, until Breishit chapter 18. Before G-d destroys the hopelessly corrupt and evil city of Sodom, He wishes to include Avraham in the decision:
יז וַיקוק, אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. יח וְאַבְרָהָם–הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ–כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. יט כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יקוק, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט–לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יקוק עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.
17 And Hashem said, “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do? 18 For Avraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. 19 For I have known him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, acting with righteousness and justness, in order that Hashem might then bring upon Avraham that which He had spoke of him.
I would suggest that these verses illuminate G-d’s reason for choosing Avraham. In the words of Rav S.R. Hirsch on verse 17:
I have chosen him not for his own sake… but to be the founder and educator of a nation charged with a noble mission. …I shall support and assist him in his mission as the educator of a people. This is the only reason I must reveal to him My plan and give him insight into My decisions. For he is to bring about the great and unique educational miracle of instilling in his beloved son…the guiding principles – spiritual and practical – of this future nation. Long after he…will have departed this world, his children and his house after him will still be standing strong on this firm foundation…
These words suggest that G-d chose Avraham because he exhibited the promise of a master pedagogue, a mentor upon whom G-d could depend to educate his descendants to live lives of holiness, righteousness and justice, thereby bringing Godliness and blessing to the world.
Moreover, Avraham’s role as teacher was not limited to his own progeny. At the end of his commentary to verse 17 (above), with regard to G-d’s wish to reveal to Avraham His plans for Sodom, Rashi makes the following statement:
I have called him Avraham – אב המון גויים – the father of many nations. Shall I destroy the children and not inform the father, who is someone who loves me?”
G-d’s changing Avram’s name to Avraham was meant to reflect a major aspect of Avraham’s mission in the world – to serve as father of many nations. Rabbanit Sharon Rimon explains that just as a father must concern himself with the education and well-being of his children, so too was Avraham bestowed with the responsibility for the education and well-being of the nations of the world. G-d informed Avraham of his plans to destroy Sodom, in anticipation that Avraham would fulfill his fatherly role – whether by influencing the Sodomites to become better people, or by praying to G-d to have mercy upon them. And so Avraham did, entreating to G-d to save Sodom, even for the sake of as few as ten righteous men.
To be sure, already at the outset of the Avraham narratives, Rashi hints that both Avraham and Sarah were promising charismatic Jewish educators:
וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived in the land of Canaan. (Breishit 12:5).
Rashi, citing the midrash, explains “the persons that they had acquired in Haran” as follows:
“The souls which he had brought beneath the sheltering wings of the Shechinah. Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women and Scripture accounts it unto them as if they had made them.”
In sum, I propose that G-d’s words in Breishit 18:17 elucidate the essence of what it means to be descendants of Avraham. We, the Jewish people, have the responsibility to educate the world. The Torah (which means “teaching”), is our G-d given pedagogical manual we use to fulfill our role. The role of Jewish educator applies to every one of us, whether we are formally working in the field of Jewish education or not. When we learn, love and live Torah, we become models of holiness, morality, compassion, and justice that serve to enlighten all of humanity.
Furthermore, I would suggest that the holidays of Tishrei are for us an extended and intensive “professional development seminar”, whereby we thoroughly assess our performance as the mentors of the world: Are our thoughts and actions in line with the Divine will? Is our awareness of G-d as Master of the Universe at its optimum? Do we pursue lovingkindness, righteousness and justice? Are we serving G-d בשמחה – with deep joy and gratitude?
As we leave the holiday-laden month Tishrei and enter the holiday-less month of Cheshvan, we may find returning to our regular routine challenging. Nevertheless, the month of Cheshvan provides us with an uninterrupted period of time to begin to actualize the spiritual insights and inner resources we have gained in Tishrei, rejuvenated and with renewed enthusiasm. Cheshvan is the time to implement Judaism’s best practices: to commit to a regular schedule of Torah study, to engage in good works, to pray regularly, and to strive to become the best Jewish educators we can be.