Sefer Hayashar, the other name to the book of Genesis
Having just got up from Shiva for my beloved father, of blessed memory, the one thing that sticks in my mind is the way in which he invariably led by example. He was a role model through and through, though he never forced Judaism upon us. He just lived Judaism in a manner that meant my siblings and I learning almost by osmosis and recognising its inherent beauty through his transparent ways. We can recognise similar role models in the portions of the Torah we are currently reading.
We are now well into the new annual cycle of reading the Torah, and I always find the Book of Bereshit (Genesis) so exciting and exhilarating, the narratives, the lessons and the characters all so enchanting that I almost wish we could linger for two weeks over each Sidra, as there is so much to learn!
The ‘Netziv’, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, was the Rosh Yeshivah of Volozhin, one of the greatest centres of learning in the Jewish world. He was born in Mir, Russia, in 1816, and died in Warsaw, Poland, in 1893. He was given an intense Jewish education but was considered quite a weak student. When the time came to decide whether to continue with his studies or learn a trade, the young Netziv’s parents thought he should become a shoemaker!
That night he went to sleep and dreamt that he had reached the gates of Heaven. Greeting him was a group of angels who announced that this was the great Netziv who had composed an outstanding Torah commentary, the ‘Ha’Emek Davar’, as well as a collection of halakhic Responsa dealing with several of the most difficult dilemmas in Jewish law (known as ‘Meishiv Davar’). He awoke and realised the clear message – he had to remain in Torah learning so that he could fulfil his potential. As a result of years of relentless study, he went on to become one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of modern times.
The Netziv offers a majestic insight into why the Book of Genesis is also known as ‘Sefer Hayashar’ – ‘The Book of the Upright’.
The second Temple was destroyed, he reminds us, because the Jewish people were not ‘yashar’, upright – they didn’t behave nicely towards one another. They may have been righteous and great people who loved G-d and were constantly involved in Torah study, but they were not upright in their mutual dealings. Worst of all, they harboured enmity for anyone who did not act like them and conducted himself a little differently. They would disdainfully declare: “He’s not a good Jew!” albeit they thought that they were acting for the sake of Heaven. Such actions ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple.
Herein, then, lies the unique greatness of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs: not only were they righteous and kind, loving G-d in the fullest measure, but they were also ‘yesharim’ – ‘upright’. They always treated others, even idolaters, and those of different habits, respectfully and lovingly, and were concerned for their welfare. They acknowledged that, after all, every human being constitutes a part of the Almighty’s creation.
Rabbi Isaac Breuer (1882 – 1980) was a communal leader in Germany who fled to America with the rise of the Nazis. In New York, he became rabbi of the Washington Heights German-Jewish community. He was famed for his Torah learning as well as for his ethical teachings on treating others fairly.
He explains that the word ‘Kosher’ is strongly connected to ‘yashar’ upright. The Torah not only demands that we keep kosher, it also insists that we need to treat others with respect. This means that Jews must practise justice and righteousness and avoid even the faintest trace of dishonesty in their business dealings and personal lives.
We find many examples of this in the Book of Bereshit, where Hashem demonstrates the degree to which one must behave with yashrut (steadfastness). Indeed, there are numerous instances of Hashem expressing His own yashrut. All the narratives in Sefer Bereishit teach us how our ancestors led by example – whether it be Abraham’s treatment of his guests, his valiant attempt to save the evil city of S’dom, Isaac’s devotion to his father, Jacob’s total honesty when working for Laban, Joseph’s forgiving attitude towards his brothers, and so forth.
I believe the message Hashem wants to instil in us is that if we wish our children to grow up in an upright manner, we need to lead by example, just as our ancestors did in Genesis.