002 The Surprising Reason Sefer Bereishis was Written

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Morals and Middos – Where do they come from?

A Straight Line Back to Sinai

In our last video, The Amazing Chiddush of the Chayei Adam, we were left with a mystery. The Chayei Adam posited that if one must choose between having yiras shomayim, or being a talmid chochom, one should choose the former over the latter. Our simple question was, why? What source does the Chayei Adam have for such a statement?

To start our investigation, it would be worthwhile to understand some background. All of our halachah comes from the Torah. You can trace all 613 mitzvos to specific pesukim in the Torah. What about the idea of coming close to Hashem, to follow in His ways regarding our character traits? Do we have a source for that? And if we do, what makes it so important that the Chayei Adam singles it out, over any other mitzvah?

Our investigation begins with the Bartenura’s (R’ Ovadiah Bartenurah, 1445–1515) commentary on Mishnayos. The first mishnah in Pirkei Avos gives the succession of Torah leaders, from Sinai until the Mishnah was written. The Bartenura questions why this Mishnah states this accounting — why give any accounting at all, if it is necessary, shouldn’t this be in the beginning of Berachos, the first Masechta of Mishnayos?

The Bartenura explains that Pirkei Avos is focused on ethical dealings between one another, and between man and Hashem. Many cultures have maxims and sayings that speak of ethical conduct. One, therefore, may have thought that the sayings in Pirkei Avos are no different; just wise sayings from wise people.

This, says the Bartenura, is simply not true. Our understanding of middos and avodas Hashem comes from the Torah, they are no different than any other area of halachah. For this reason, explains the Bartenura, the first mishna in Pirkei Avos hearkens back to Har Sinai. Not only were the laws of Pesach, Shabbos and tefillin given at Har Sinai, but so were the rules governing our arrogance, humility, and gratitude.

This source starts to give us some sort of inkling where the Chayei Adam finds his basis. According to the Bartenura, middos and yiras shomayim are sourced in the Torah. But where?

Bible Stories – Not Just For Bedtime

Rabbeinu Levi ben Gershon, known as the Ralbag (1288–1344), gives us another clue in our search. In his introduction to Chumash, he explains why there are so many stories written in the Torah. After all, if the purpose of the Torah is to give over the mitzvos, why do we find story after story? In fact, the entire Sefer Bereishis contains three mitzvos, total!

He explains that the purpose of these stories is to inspire one to do better. We learn from the examples that we see, both on the positive and the negative. We are to follow in the ways of our forefathers, adhering to the exemplary middos that they exhibited.

These words are astounding! The Torah is truly full of stories, perhaps one third, or even one half! That would mean that half the Torah is devoted to teaching us proper conduct in our relationships to others and to Hashem! That being the case, it is clear that growth in middos and yiras shomayim is an integral part of our avodas Hashem.

This is a good first step, but it doesn’t truly explain the Chayei Adam. Yes, our ethical conduct comes from the Torah, and yes, a large part of the Torah is devoted to middos and yiras shamayim. But what source does the Chayei Adam have that tells him that, if given the choice, one should choose yiras shomayim over knowledge of Torah?

The search continues! Let’s explore further in our next video, The Rambam’s Understanding of Good Middos.