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The Third Millennium

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At a chassidic gathering in 1941, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch related an exchange he had with his father, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, over fifty years earlier, when he was a child of ten:

When I entered my father’s room in the early morning of Shabbos Lech-Lecha[1] of 5651 [1891], I found him sitting at his table in very high spirits, reviewing the Torah reading of the week. Tears were streaming from his eyes. I was very confused, for I was unable to understand how the two – an elated mood and tears – came together; but I did not dare to ask him.

That evening, father noticed that I very much wanted to say something and encouraged me to speak my mind. So I asked him about what I had seen that morning.
Father explained: “Those were tears of joy.”
“Once, in the early years of his leadership,” he continued, “Our ancestor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, told his chassidim: ‘One must live with the times.’ The younger chassidim asked their elders to explain the Rebbe’s statement, but they, too, had failed to grasp its significance. Finally, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s brother, our [great-great-great] uncle Rabbi Yehudah Leib, explained what the Rebbe had meant: ‘One must live with the times’ means that one should ‘live with’ and experience, each day of one’s life, the Torah portion of the week and the specific section of the week’s portion which is connected to that day.
“The Rebbe’s chassidim,” explained father, “young and old alike, would study the daily section of the Chumash with Rashi’s commentary. The Rebbe was telling them: One must live with the times. One should not only learn the daily portion, but actually experience it in one’s own life.
“The portion of Bereishit,” continued father, “is a happy portion. G-d is creating universes and creatures and is satisfied that ‘it is good.’ Its ending, however, [which describes the corruption of humanity and G-d’s ‘regret’ at its creation] is not so pleasant. Still in all, it is generally a happy Torah portion and in all Jewish communities there is joy and delight – we have begun the Torah anew. With the next week’s reading, Noah, comes the Flood. It is a depressing week, but with a happy ending – Abraham our father is born. “But the truly joyous week,” father concluded, explaining his mood that morning “is Lech-Lecha. Every day of the week we live with Abraham Our Father. Together with Abraham, the first to sacrifice himself to bring G-dliness to the world. Together with Abraham, who bequeathed his self-sacrifice for Torah and mitzvos as an inheritance to each and every Jew.”

Reading the above description of the first three Torah sections, Bereishit, Noah and Lech Lecha, an obvious question comes to mind: indeed, why are these weekly readings so divided? Why mar the “happy portion” of Bereishit with its depressing ending, especially since these last few verses (Genesis 6:1-8) actually begin the story of the Flood, the central theme of the next week’s reading? A similar thing happens at the end of Noah: after a detailed description of Noah’s life and the events of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, the portion concludes with a brief account of the birth and early life of Abraham, whose life is to fill, with rich detail, the next three Torah portions (Lech Lecha, Veyeirah and Chayei Sara).

Surely, a far more natural division would have been for Noah to begin with the final eight verses of Bereishit, and for Lech Lecha to open with Abraham’s birth, a scant seven verses before the end of Noah!

A World Made of Days

Six days, G-d created the heavens and the earth
(Exodus 31:17).

The Zohar (1:247a) points out that the above verse does not say that G-d created the world in six days, but that “six days, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” For the six days of creation are more than the time-span in which G-d created the world; they are creation, the six elements of which all existence is comprised. These six “days,” explains the Zohar, are the six middot or Divine attributes which the Creator invested in His work. In other words, they represent the various ways in which G-d chooses to relate to the world, and it is these relationships themselves that form the soul and essence of the created reality.

While the six middot are the spiritual ingredients of each and every created thing, a different one of them dominated in each day’s creation: light, created on the first day, is an incarnation of the attribute of chessed, “giving” or “bestowal”; the second day’s creation, the “firmament” which establishes the division between the spiritual and the physical, is a product of gevurah, “severity” or “restraint”; the creations of the third day are paradigms of tifferet, “harmony,” and so on. On a broader level, these six “days” are reflected in the six millennia of our present-day existence.[2] Thus, the first thousand years of the world’s existence were characterized by a giving and charitable relationship on the part of G-d toward His creation, in the second millennium the severity and exactness of gevurah dominated, and so on.

Three Teachers

The first Torah reading, Bereishit, describes the first millennium of human history. Noah deals with its second millennium: the Flood (in the year 1656 from creation), the breakup of mankind into nations in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel (1996 from creation), the birth (1948) and early years of Abraham. Lech Lecha opens with G-d’s call to Abraham – “Go to you, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s home, to the land which I shall show you.” Abraham was 75 years old at the time; the year: 2023 from creation. Lech Lecha thus begins the story of the third millennium, a story that continues through the rest of the Chumash: the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, founding fathers of the Jewish people; the descent into Egypt and the Exodus; and the highlight of the millennium, the revelation at Sinai and G-d’s communication of His Torah to man. The difference between these three eras can best be understood via the model of the relationship between a teacher and a student.

A great master wishes to impart of his wisdom to his vastly inferior pupil. One approach would be to explain the idea to the pupil: if the teacher is wise enough, patient enough, and resourceful enough, he will find the words and illustrations by which to convey even the loftiest of concepts to the most mediocre of minds.

Another approach would be for the master to teach the pupil how to solve the problem. He will withhold the knowledge from his student and confine himself to providing him with the guidance and methodology as to how he, the student, can apply his own reasoning – no matter how tempting it may be to simply provide him with the answer. He will force the student to struggle and blunder on his own, compelling him to use his own limited faculties to arrive at his own insights – however meager they may be when compared to what he, the teacher, can give him.

Each of these two approaches has its advantages and shortcomings. In the case of the first approach, the student benefits from a level of understanding that is greatly superior to anything he is capable of attaining on his own. But such intellectual charity does little to develop the mind of the pupil. The pupil has gained only the specific concept that has been inserted into his brain; on his own, he could never repeat the exercise, never apply the basis, the reasoning and the process by which this idea was arrived at to another problem.

With the second approach, the master has a more meaningful effect on his pupil. His restraint pays off: by refusing to reveal anything which lies beyond the student’s intellectual range, by insisting that the student earn his every insight with his own mind’s toil, the teacher unearths his student’s true abilities, bringing to light potential powers which would never have been realized under the tutelage of a more benevolent master. On the other hand, however, the highest potentials of the pupil fall far short of the master’s; whatever understanding the student can attain on his own will always be but a shallow fraction of what the teacher could confer upon him as an “underserved” gift. There is, however, a third approach which combines the virtues of the first two. A truly great teacher can do more – more than communicate his superior wisdom to his pupil, more than develop the potential of his pupil’s lesser mind. A truly great teacher can change the mind of his pupil, stimulate it to overreach itself and make more of itself than it is. He can, by employing a combination of both the above approaches, feed the student’s mind with successively more profound ideas – ideas which will, in turn, nourish it and expand it from within. Ultimately, with his unique blend of benevolence and demanding exactness, he can elevate his pupil’s mind to the level of his own – at which point it will fully grasp and assimilate the most sublime thoughts its teacher has to offer.

Benevolence, Severity…

For the first thousand years of history G-d was a benevolent teacher who indulges the shortcomings of his pupil. Life was a free lunch. Righteous and wicked alike enjoyed long and prosperous lives. In a sense, this era was an extension of the original nature of creation: obviously, the world did not “deserve” to be created – its creation was an act of pure charity on the part of G-d, who gave it existence, purpose, and the potential for deservingness. Likewise, in the first millennia G-d gave indiscriminately, in order to provide humanity with the basis upon which to build and develop the world He had entrusted to their care. Then, after a thousand years of unilateral bestowal, the era of chessed closed.

In the second millennium G-d challenged man to make it on his own. On the surface, it was a harsh, even tragic, era, for everything, including life itself, was earned solely by merit. At one point, there were only eight deserving human beings. But this uncompromising severity on the part of G-d is what allowed the world to develop from within. To become a vital, productive world, a world whose deeds have consequence and significance, instead of a world that is the passive recipient of Divine charity. This was the era in which Noah and his descendents struggled (and often blundered) about, building a new self-made world on the foundation of the old bequeathed one. Thus, the closing verses of Bereishit describe not the beginning of the age of severity, but the closing years of the age of benevolence. They describe a morally immature world, a world in which all blessing, material or spiritual, is taken for granted. Indeed, it is the natural end of an era in which responsibility is neither assumed nor exacted, in which man has yet to be weaned from the apron-strings of creation.

…and Harmony

The final generation of the second millennium yielded Abraham, the ultimate spiritually self-made-man: the son of a Mesopotamian idol-maker, he came to recognize the truth of a One G-d with nothing but the majesty of the universe and his own inquisitive mind to go on. Single-handedly, he battled the entrenched paganism of his native land and won over a large following to the monotheistic faith and ethos he espoused. So Abraham – or rather the Abram of his first 75 years – is very much a part of the Noah era – indeed, he represents its culmination and redeeming element. If there is a single point to Abraham’s early years it is that yes, man can make it on his own.

But then came the Divine call: “Lech Lecha! Go to you… that I will show you!” After attaining the utmost in human potential, go on. Go on, to the place which I will show you, to a Divine you which I will show you how to attain.

In Abraham’s 75th year, a new era opened – the era of Torah. The era of tifferet, of the harmony and synthesis of the Divinely bestowed and humanly earned. The era in which G-d is to communicate to man His wisdom and will, enclothed in the garments of human reason and human endeavor. The era in which the Almighty is to breach the barrier between the G-dly and the terrestrial, allowing a Divine gift to become a human achievement, and a human effort to touch the Divine.

Based on an address by the Rebbe on Shabbos Noach of 1963.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1] The Shabbat on which the Torah section Lech Lecha (Gen. 12-17) is read.

[2] A 7th millennium, the age of Moshiach, will follow the 6,000 years of contemporary history, corresponding to the 7th element of creation – the Divine attribute of malchut, embodied in the tranquility and perfection of Shabbat.

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