24 Tishre 5768
October 6, 2007
Parshat Bereshit offers the Torah\’s account of the creation of world. It establishes God\’s role as the sole Creator of the world and, as a consequence, God\’s position as the Ruler of the world. The haftarah for this Shabbat, taken from Isaiah, was chosen because its opening verse offers this very same message: \”Thus said God the Lord: who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what it brings forth, who gave breath (neshamah) to the people upon it and life (ruah) to those who walk thereon.\” (verse 5)
The following midrash relates the story of a king who desired to usurp God\’s position. The king, as related in this story, is Hadrian. In the historical sense, this midrash has the facts wrong, since Hadrian was not the king who destroyed the Temple. He was the king who put down the Bar Kochba rebellion This 7th or 8th century midrash was instead interested in relating an important truth about powerful human beings who sometimes try to overstep their capacities as human beings and vie with God for the position of the true ruler of the world. As you will see at the end of this story, it is based on word plays using the Hebrew words \’nefesh\’ which can mean \’breath\’ or \’life\’ and \’ruah\’ which can mean \’breath\’ or \’wind\’.
After he had conquered the entire world, Hadrian, the king of Rome, went to Rome. He said to the members of his royal household: \’ I request from you to declare me a god.\’ They replied: \’You still do not rule over His (God\’s) city (Jerusalem), nor do you rule over His house (the Temple).\’ He went to Jerusalem and managed to destroy the Temple and exile the Jews. He then returned to Rome. He said to the members of his household: \’I have burnt His House and exiled His people. Declare me a god!\’
Rabbi Berechiah related: Hadrian had three philosophers (advisors). One said to him: \’One cannot rebel against the king (God) in his own palace. In order to rebel against the king, you must do it outside of his palace and then you can become god. Since God created the heavens and the earth, you must leave them (the heavens and the earth) in order to become god.\’ The second advisor said: \’You can never become a god, for God has already said to His prophets: Thus shall you say to them: Let the gods who did not make heaven and earth, perish from under the earth and from under the heavens. (Jeremiah 10:11)\’ The third advisor said to him: \’I have a request for you. Help me in my hour of need.\’ Hadrian asked: \’What can I do for you?\’ The advisor answered: \’I have a ship three miles from the shore that is being tossed about by a storm. All that I own is found on that ship.\’ Hadrian said to him: \’I will send my soldiers and my ships there to save it.\’ The advisor answered: \’My master, why should you bother sending you soldiers and your ship to save my ship? Send instead a little wind there and that is how you can save my ship.\’ Hadrian asked: \’Where can I get a wind to send?\’ The advisor answered: \’Well, if you do not have a wind to send, how can you expect to be considered a god? Scripture relates: \’Thus said God the Lord: who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what it brings forth, who gave breath (nefesh) to the people upon it and wind (ruah) to those who traverse it.\’ Hadrian went back to his house in anger. His wife said to him: \’These advisors have surely misled you. You most certainly can declare yourself a god, for you are a great king and warrior and the fate of everything is in your hands. I have one suggestion for you. Give God back His pledge and you will become a god.\’ Hadrian asked her: \’What is His pledge?\’ She answered: \’Your nefesh (the life force – here a play on the word \’ruah\’ which also means life force).\’ [Hadrian was confounded and so] he retorted: \’If my nefesh departs, how will I live?\’ She said to him: \’If you have no control over your nefesh, how can you be a god. I guess you are a man and not a god.\’ (Adapted from Tanhuma Bereishit 7)
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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