Lech Lecha: “The Book of the Upright”

Regular readers of this column are familiar with my dear grandfathers, both of whom passed away more than fifty years ago, may their memories be a blessing. Although they were quite a different from each other, they both taught me lessons that have lasted throughout the years.

Reb Chaim Yitzchak, my father’s father, taught me about the great figures of Jewish history. He encouraged me to read their biographies and even supplied me with specific books. That way, he introduced me to a wide range of historical personalities, ranging from rabbinic sages such as Rashi and Maharshal, and especially to the Maharsham, Rabbi of Berzhan, under whom he studied before leaving Poland for America in the early twentieth century. He had no problem with my reading biographies of distinctly secular individuals such as Franz Kafka and Dr. Janusz Korczak.

I vividly recall the day he gifted me with a three-volume set entitled Makor Baruch. This was the first time that he presented me with a book written in Hebrew. Up until that time, he understood my Hebrew reading skills were limited, and he found English language books for me to peruse.

Although I was initially intimidated by three thick volumes of Hebrew text, I quickly came to realize that the author, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, had written a masterwork with which I was familiar, Torah Temimah, and had a very clear and simple Hebrew style. Rabbi Epstein was a nephew of the great Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the dean of the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin in late nineteenth-century Lithuania. Rabbi Epstein devoted several sections of his three-volume work to his famous uncle. This was my introduction to this unique rabbinic scholar and prolific writer, and Rabbi Berlin, known as Netziv, has remained one of my favorite heroes to this day.

I am occasionally asked to identify a passage from Netziv’s vast oeuvre which typifies his religious ideology. I have no difficulty in doing so. Netziv wrote a comprehensive commentary on the entire Pentateuch or Chumash. There, we find his brilliant and particularly relevant introduction to the book of Bereshit, Genesis, which we are now reading in the synagogue every Shabbat. That introduction is the gem which displays his central teaching.

The Bible, in at least two places, refers to a mysterious work known Sefer HaYashar, the “Book of the Upright.” The Talmud, Avodah Zara 25a, suggests that this work is the Book of Genesis, Bereshit. There Rabbi Yochanan explains that Bereshit be known as the “Book of the Upright” because its major characters, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, were upright individuals par excellence.

Netziv accepts this explanation but wonders why the term “upright,” yashar, is used rather than terms such as tzaddik, righteous, or chassid, pious. Netziv explains that there were periods in Jewish history where there were individuals who were righteous and pious, but not quite upright. They were not upright in their relationships with others, often to the extent that they were guilty of sinat chinam, of vain hatred of their fellows. He goes so far as to say that by not being upright, they were even capable of murder.

He writes: “The Holy One, Blessed Is He is yashar, upright. He cannot tolerate those who are merely “righteous” in their religious practices but cannot get along with others, and commit deeds done for the “sake of heaven” which lead to the ruin of creation and the destruction of society.” The Patriarchs, particularly Abraham, were yesharim, upright souls, who “conducted themselves well even with decadent pagans, and live with them with love and concern for their well-being.” 

As we read the weekly Torah portions at this time of year, we can study just how resoundingly Netziv’s words ring true.

One wonders about the origins of upright behavior. How did Abraham, for example, learn to be yashar? How can we, his descendants, instill yashrut, uprightness, in ourselves and in our children?

I propose that the answer lies in a verse in the Book of Ecclesiates, Kohelet. The verse appears at the very end of chapter 7. It reads, “The Almighty made men yashar, upright, but they sought out many schemes.”

The Book of Kohelet is often read as a pessimistic work. But this verse implies an alternative to pessimism. Humans are not stained by original sin. They are not evil from birth and therefore incorrigible. Quite the contrary. We are all created yashar. The word “yashar” literally means “straight.” We are all born straight, insists Kohelet. But somehow, we seek out crooked schemes which distort our straightness.

I cannot conclude this column without quoting from the wise Rabbi Shimon Schwab, of blessed memory. He diagnosed our Jewish society as placing our emphasis on kashrut but neglecting yashrut. We tend to be careful about kosher but need to do better with yosher.

Perhaps reflecting upon the narrative of the current weekly portions, the words of Netziv, and the verse in Kohelet will inspire us to be straight, upright, and yashar. We will thus conform to the Almighty’s intentions when He created us, and the world will be a better place.