The Other Side  

Posted by inkstainedhands in , , ,

There is usually more than one way of interpreting a person's actions or words, and depending on what you want to see or hear or believe of the person, you will understand these things in different ways.

Two people can have completely different interpretations of a single action or speech, and these understandings sometimes form a full contrast to each other. They are total opposites. The same action can be either praised or condemned, depending on how you look at it.

The Torah illustrates this point repeatedly, but I want to specifically mention two instances in Bereishit (Genesis) in which the commentaries on the Torah had opposing understandings of somebody's actions.

1. 4:13 -- ויאמר קין אל ה' גדול עוני מנשוא

After Cain's murder of his brother Abel, G-d punished him by cursing him through the ground and condemns him to a life as a wanderer, unable to settle in one place. Here, Cain asks G-d whether his iniquity is too great to bear. Or at least that is what it means according to the simple explanation of the verse -- the pshat. But according to other explanations, Cain was not asking a question. Rather, he was admitting the severity of his sin.

Rashi writes, based on Bereishit Rabbah:

בתמיה, אתה טוען עליונים ותחתונים, ועוני אי אפשר לטעון
According to Rashi, Cain was asking a question; he said that G-d is able to bear the upper and lower worlds, and yet it is impossible for Him to bear Cain's sin? If G-d is so mighty, why can He not bear a simple human's action? After all, compared to supporting the entire world, it seems almost like nothing. Cain was questioning G-d's decree and trying to get more mercy and a lighter sentence, even though G-d was kind enough to him in allowing him to continue living. So according to Rashi, Cain was claiming that his sin was not too great to bear.

Ramban, on the other hand, says something completely different. First he quotes Rashi, and then he proceeds to disagree with him by saying:
והנכון בפשט שהוא וידוי אמר אמת כי עוני גדול מלסלוח וצדיק אתה ה' וישר משפטיך
Cain was in reality saying viduy -- he was confessing his sin and admitting that his sin was too great to bear or forgive, and that G-d was the righteous one and made a fair decree. According to Ramban, Cain was also saying to G-d that he is being thrown off the face of the earth and that G-d is hiding His face from him because Cain will no longer be able to pray or bring sacrifices, but nevertheless, Cain admits that he fully deserves the punishment and that G-d acted fairly with him.

Now that is quite a difference! If you look at Rashi, you see Cain as someone who does not want to admit his guilt or repent of the crime, but who only wants G-d to be more lenient with him, while if you look at Ramban, you see a fragile human being who confesses the severity of his sin and mourns that he is being sent away from G-d's presence and will no longer be able to pray to him or bring sacrifices. He sees that he will be all alone in the world from that time, and that without G-d's protection, he is vulnerable and will inevitably be killed. Rashi and Ramban paint two completely different portraits of Cain, and that is what makes it fascinating to read and learn all the different outlooks. It seems that Judaism is very much about being able to see one thing multiple ways. That's the beauty of it.

2. 4:26 -- ולשת גם הוא ילד בן ויקרא את שמו אנוש אז הוכל לקרא בשם השם

Adam's third son, Seth, had a son named Enosh, and then it became common to call by the name of G-d.

And once again we have two commentaries whose interpretations of this verse are nothing alike. One commentary says that this refers to the beginning of idol worship, while the other commentary says that calling out G-d's name was to counteract the forces of avoda zara. But either way, it seems that idol worship began in the time of Enosh.

Rashi interprets the word "huchal" as the following:
לשון חולין. לקרא את שמות האדם ואת שמות העצבים בשמו של הקב"ה לעשותן עבודה זרה ולקרותן אלהות

It is an expression of profaneness, of cheapness -- to call people and idols with the name of the Holy One in order to make them idols and call them gods.

People cheapened G-d's name and made it mundane by using it for inanimate objects and creating gods for themselves. So the fact that it became common to call by the name of G-d refers to idol worship, according to Rashi.

Sforno also draws a connection to idol worship, but he takes this verse in a totally different direction. He writes:
אז התחילו צדיקי הדור לדרוש לרבים את שם ה' כענין ויקרא שם בשם ה' אל עולם כי הוצרכו לסתור דעות עובדי כוכבים וגלולים שהתחילו אז כדברי רז"ל

The righteous people of that generation then began to publicly call out in the name of G-d in order to counteract the forces of avoda zara that began at that time.

So the same word -- huchal -- can be used to refer to either idol worshippers or to those who fought against it, depending on how you understand the verse!

Life works the same way. Many things depend on your outlook and your understanding of them -- if you choose to see it one way, that is how it will be to you. But there is always another way to look at it that is equally correct and equally reasonable to believe.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at Tuesday, January 12, 2010 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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