Haftarah Parshat Bereshit (Isaiah 42:5-43:10)
October 10, 2015 / 27 Tishre 5776
The connection between Parshat Bereishit, which teaches of the creation of the world and of human beings, and the accompanying haftarah is obvious from the first verse: “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 (neshama) to the people upon it and life (v’ruah) to those who walk thereon.” (42:5) The last part of this verse serves as an excellent example of parallelism, a phenomenon common to biblical poetry, where the message of the first segment of the verse is synonymous with the second part of the verse. In both segments, the prophet expresses the idea that God has given life to His creatures, namely, human beings. The Hebrew words “neshama” and “ruah” are parallel and both mean “breath of life”.
Later commentators, however, operated under different rules of interpretations. They frequently did not read verses like this as examples of parallelism since intentional redundancy was already not an accepted manner of expression. Instead, where they saw what seemed redundant, for them, needed to be understood as expressing different ideas. In addition, we will see in the following interpretations that words have histories, namely, a word might mean one thing in one generation and something entirely different in another. So, while these words might refer to the “breath of life” in biblical times, in medieval times, these same words might mean something different.
And so, Rashi interprets this verse: “He (God) gives the breath of life (neshama) to everyone equally but His holy spirit (ruah) [He gives exclusively] to those who walk in His ways.” Here, Rashi distinguishes between the “breath of life” which is given to everyone and a spiritual life force which is meant only for those who follow God. What is the sense of this spiritual life force? Perhaps, Rashi intends it to refer to some sort of prophetic nature. Rashi was not alone in seeking separate meanings for these words. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Spanish contemporary of Rashi’s, offers this interpretation: “He (God) gives a soul to man, for they are the people [who dwell] upon it (the world) but [God simply gives] life to the [other] creatures who walk thereon.” Ibn Ezra understands the word “neshama” already in the post biblical sense where it means “soul”. Where Rashi distinguishes between people who are connected to God and those who are not; Ibn Ezra differentiates between people and other creatures.
This exercise serves as an important example of how the culture and history of the reader will influence how they understand a text. Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra read the text in a way which was different from the understanding of the author of the prophecy. This does not render their message irrelevant; it simply means that when we read a text and its commentators, we have to be aware that the ideas expressed are not necessarily the same. Knowing this allows us to experience the richness of our tradition throughout the generations
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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