"A thousand years, in Your eyes," says the Psalmist, "is like yesterday's day." The Kabbalists explain that the seven days of creation are replayed, on the macro-historical level, in the seven-millennia course of human history, which also consists of six workdays followed by a seventh millennium that is "wholly Shabbat and rest, for life everlasting"--the age of Moshiach.
The seven days of creation embody the seven divine attributes (sefirot) through which G‑d defines His relationship with His creation. The first sefirah is chessed, the attribute of love; thus the first day of creation saw the creation of light, which represents the giving and bestowing elements of the created reality. On the second day, G‑d created the firmament which divided between the waters that are above the heavens, and the waters that are beneath the heavens (i.e., between the spiritual and the physical realms); this was the day of gevurah, the attribute of rigor, restraint, judgment and delimitation. The third attribute, tiferet (harmony), is a synthesis of chessed and gevurah, reflected in the fact that G‑d's work on the third day also included the setting of boundaries (of land and sea), but also the spawning of plant life on the face of the earth.
The same is true of the corresponding millennia of history. The first millennium was the millennium of chessed--an era of divine generosity and benevolence. In the second thousand years of history, G‑d's relationship with His world was characterized by the rigor and judgment of gevurah. These were followed by the tiferet millennium--the age of synthesis and harmony.
This explains a puzzling thing about the structure of the first three sections of the Torah--Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), Noach (ibid. 6:9-11:32) and Lech-Lecha (12:1-17:27).
The Torah is divided into 54 sections or Parshiot, each of which is studied and publicly read in the synagogue in the course of one week of the year. In this way, the Jew lives with the times (as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi expressed it), finding guidance and inspiration in the Torah-section that pertains to the specific segment of time which he occupies.
On the face of it, the Parshiot seem a rather arbitrary division of Torah. They vary greatly in length (from as few as 30 to as many as 176 verses) and do not conform to the Torah's logical division into chapters (which is of non-Jewish origin); many of them seem to include a number of unconnected events and laws, or to begin or end in mid-narrative. But a deeper examination always reveals the Parshah to be an integral unit of Torah, with a distinct theme and context of its own.
Such is the case with the sections of Bereishit, Noach and Lech-Lecha. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneeerson, told about an exchange he had when he was ten years old with his father, Rabbi Sholom DovBer:
When I entered my father's room in the early morning of Shabbat Lech-Lecha of 5651 (1891), I found him sitting at his table, reviewing the Torah-section of the week. Father was in very high spirits, yet tears were streaming from his eyes. I was very confused, for I was unable to understand this combination of elation and tears; but I did not dare to ask him about it.
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 disciples: "One must live with the times..." What the Rebbe meant to say was that one should live with and experience, each day of ones' life, the Torah-section of the week and the specific portion of the weeks' section which belongs to that day...
"The section of Bereishit," continued father, "is a happy section: G‑d is creating worlds and creatures and is satisfied that it is good. Its ending, however, is not so pleasant... In the section of Noach 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..."
Rabbi Shalom DovBer's description of the Torah's first three sections raises the obvious question of why are they in fact structured this way? Why mar the happy section of Bereishit with its not so pleasant ending describing the corruption of humanity and G‑d's regret of His creation, especially since these last few verses (Genesis 6:1-8) actually begin the story of the Flood, the central theme of the section of Noach? A similar thing occurs at the end of Noach: after a detailed description of Noah's life and the events of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, the section closes with a brief account of the birth and early life of Abraham, whose life is to fill, with rich detail, the next three sections (Lech-Lecha, Vayeira and Chayei-Sarah). Surely, a far more natural division would have been for Noach to begin with the last eight verses of Bereishit, and for Lech-Lecha to open with Abraham's birth, a mere seven verses before the end of Noach!
But if we calculate the years given in the Torah's account of these events, we find that the section of Bereishit corresponds with the first millennium of history; that Noach chronicles the major events of 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), and the birth (1948) and early years of Abraham; and that Lech-Lecha opens with G‑d's call to Abraham to leave his birthplace and journey to the Holy Land--a call which came in Abrahams 75th year, in the year 2023 from creation.
In other words, all the events of Bereishit, including its uncharacteristic ending, belong to the age of chessed; all of Noach, including its account of the early years of Abraham, belongs to the age of gevurah; and the events of Lech-Lecha describe the first generation of the age of tiferet, whose story unfolds in the next 50 sections of the Torah: the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the descent into Egypt and the Exodus; and the highlight of the millennium, the revelation at Sinai where G‑d communicated His Torah to man.
Chassidic teaching defines the differences between these three phases of human history by employing the model of the relationship between a teacher and his pupil.
A great master wishes to impart wisdom to a vastly inferior pupil. One approach is to go ahead and communicate his ideas to the pupil: if the teacher is wise enough, patient enough and resourceful enough, he will find the words and analogies with which to convey the loftiest of concepts even to a most mediocre mind.
A second approach is for the teacher to compel the pupil to conceive, analyze and comprehend the ideas on his own. The teacher will withhold the knowledge from the pupil and provide him only with the pertinent rules and the methodology; the teacher will then stand by as the pupil struggles on his own, intervening only to rebuke his blunders and prod his achievements. By this method, the pupil will learn to use his own faculties to arrive at his own insights.
Each of these two approaches has its advantages and shortcomings. In the case of the benevolent master, the pupil benefits from a level of understanding that is vastly 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 ideas which have been inserted into his brain; on his own, he cannot repeat the process by which they were conceived, nor can he expand upon them or apply them to other areas and dimensions of knowledge.
The withholding master has a more meaningful effect on his pupil. His restraint and ingenerosity pay off: by refusing to reveal anything which lies beyond the students intellectual range, the teacher unearths his students 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, whatever understanding the student can attain on his own will always be greatly inferior to what the teacher could confer upon him as a gift.
There is, however, a third approach which combines the virtues of the first two. A truly great teacher will integrate both these methods in his teaching, stimulating the pupil's mind to overreach itself by feeding it with thoughts and insights that lie just beyond its capacity, yet never revealing enough to allow him to become a passive recipient. The teacher then repeats the process with successively more profound ideas, which, when digested by the pupil's mind, nourish it and expand it from within. Ultimately, the teachers' blend of benevolence and restraint will elevate his pupil's mind to the level on which it not only comprehends the most sublime thoughts the teacher has to offer, but also assimilates them into its own thought-process and intellectual self.
For the first thousand years of history, G‑d was a benevolent teacher who indulged 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 G‑d's original act of creation: in its initial state of non-existence, the world obviously did not deserve to be created; its creation was an act of pure charity on the part of G‑d, who granted 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 in accordance with His plan.
Thus, the corrupt world described in the last verses of Bereishit represents not the beginning of the age of rigor, but the closing years of the age of benevolence. They describe a morally immature 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, for humanity is yet to be weaned from an infantile dependence upon its Creator.
After a thousand years of unilateral bestowal, the era of chessed came to a close. In the second thousand years of creation, G‑d challenged man to make it on his own. On the surface, the second millennium 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, and the rest of humanity perished in the Flood. At another point, the misguided building of the Tower of Babel resulted in the dispersion of the human race and its disintegration into nations separated by walls of incommunicativity and xenophobia. But this exacting justice on the part of G‑d is what allowed the world to develop from within--to become a vital, productive world whose deeds have consequence and significance, instead of a world that is the passive recipient of divine charity.
The last 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 guide him. 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 the Abraham (or rather the Abram, as he was then called) of his first 75 years is very much a part of the Noach era; indeed, he represents its culminating and finest expression. If there is a single point to Abrahams early years it is that yes, man can make it on his own.
Then, upon the onset of the third millennium, Abraham heard the voice of G‑d. Go, was the divine call, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your fathers house, to the land which I will show you. Now that you have obtained the utmost of your own, inborn potentials (your land, your birthplace, your father's house), you must reach beyond yourself, for the land that I will show you.
Thus began the journey into the millennium of tiferet, the millennium which saw the synthesis of the divinely bestowed and the humanly earned. A millennium which reached its climax at Mount Sinai, where G‑d communicated to man His wisdom and will enclothed in the garments of human reason and human endeavor. A millennium in which the Torah breached 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.