You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Bereishit.
A Pandemic of Polarization
A D’var Torah for Parshat Bereshit
We live amidst a pandemic of polarization. Highly contagious, the tendency to write off the moral capacity of people who think differently than us is destroying our social fabric.
Political difference has become the barrier we find most difficult to navigate.
Twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich had imagined that religious or spiritual convictions defined our “ultimate concern,” but political ideology now seems to occupy that place. We would never assume that someone of another religion is morally bankrupt — but someone who disagrees with our politics is often viewed as a monster.
What does this have to do with Parshat Bereshit? Ferreting out a difficulty in Genesis 2, Maimonides wondered why God wouldn’t want human beings to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What about the potential benefit, providing the necessary understanding to make moral choices?
Rambam suggested that we had a superior type of knowledge before eating from the tree — knowledge of truth and falsity. Violating the divine command and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil diluted this capacity with relative judgments. They are uncertainly grounded in personal feelings about right and wrong, contingent upon culture and context. When we say that the earth is spherical, we understand it to be true; we would not describe it as good. Similarly, “the earth is flat” is false rather than bad. (Guide for the Perplexed I:2) Imagine that everything we think we know could be verified through a shared search for knowledge.
If we could reason and feel our way from common truths, we might come to agreement or compromise on collective action. Unfortunately, these days our beliefs about right and wrong have become so dominant that they determine even the things we acknowledge to be factual.
You would think that questions of human rights would be exempt from this division. How can such things be up for debate? Where I see human rights issues around reproductive justice, however, my neighbor sees human rights violations of the “unborn.” While I want to protect the human rights of Palestinians and revoke 501c3 status for U.S. organizations that support Jewish terrorism in Israel, my landsmann believes he is protecting the Jewish people against annihilation. Immigration, mass incarceration, race, poverty — all have human rights implications, but people do not necessarily agree on what they are.
I struggle against the cynicism that suspects my adversaries simply have no capacity to see beyond their self-interest, or no empathy for people whose lives may be very different than their own. I wrestle with how to fight for my values in the world with clarity and passion — without the sense of absolute truth that renders the opposition as evil.
Of late, I have been trying to figure out what we can learn from people who see the issues so differently from us. Ben Zoma taught that the wise person learns something from everyone (Pirkei Avot 4:1). The sages lifted up the debates of Hillel and Shammai as an argument that was for the sake of Heaven, the only kind that can bear fruit (Pirkei Avot 5:17). Many things may make their example worthy of mention; the fact that they took each other’s arguments seriously is among them.
Strategically, we stand a better chance of finding our way if we do not dismiss their capacity for moral reasoning. We stand a better chance of moving their hearts if we assume they have one.
As we conclude the fall harvest festival of Sukkot in this year of shmitah, a year of sabbatical “release,” I am going to let go of the scorn I harbor for those who fight on the other side. I am going to let go of my certainty without forfeiting my commitment. Or at least I will try, and hope that it bears fruit.
God, we pray that our words and our deeds may be for Your sake, bringing healing to our world and wholeness to all those whose lives we touch.
Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva serves as the Herman E. Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies, Interim Academic Dean, and Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Wow — what a profound reflection about the Garden of Eden and our “pandemic of polarization” today! Thank you Vaughn.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
SNAKE: CONFUSED CREATION
Alert calm face of a ball python and a bit of its body wrapped around a human arm.
The snake in the Garden of Eden. It’s not a bad creature. Instead, it’s well meaning. But it’s just a little confused. And why wouldn’t it be? In these early days of life on planet earth, even God seems a little confused.
Hear me out: in Genesis 1 and 2, God creates all the species. Or does God? Here’s a bit of an unusual—but still literal—reading of the story. (Hint: it helps to review the Hebrew text before you read on.)
In Genesis chapter 1, it’s clear that God knows what species are. In fact, it says, God created each thing according to its kind. Plants have their unique fruits and seeds. Animals, including humans, are also “fruitful,” although not exactly in the same way.
But in Genesis chapter 2, God seems not to know yet what a species is. Everything is a bit of an experiment. God creates the earth. But nothing grows, because God didn’t water the ground, or bring in animals to enrich the soil. So, God adds a stream, and creates a human to tend the soil. But God seems not to know much about the human. Turns out, the human is a social animal, and needs a mate. So God creates various animals. The human calls out to them, but none is the right mate. So God tries something new: making a second human from the body of the first one. This time, the original human calls out: Yes! We share the same essence!
And then, in Genesis chapter 3, the second human, the woman, meets the snake. The snake is the most arum of all the land animals. The Hebrew word arum means both “prudent” and “naked.” Snakes, as we know them today, are certainly “prudent.” They are efficient animals. Many snakes are ambush predators. They wait for their prey to wander by, tracking its vibration and heat pattern. Then, they strike, catching their weekly or monthly meal. And then, they slowly digest it, converting 80% of it to body mass.
Snakes as we know them today are certainly naked, too. At least, they get naked four to twelve times a year. A snake grows by shedding its skin! As its body gets bigger, its skin stretches and loosens. Fluid collects underneath the skin, and the snake’s eyes turn blue, its body cloudy. When it’s time for a shed, the snake rubs its face against a rough object, for example, tree bark. The snake’s skin loosens and then the snake wriggles out.
So, back to the story. The first snake visits the first woman, and strikes up a conversation. He seems quite curious about her. What, for example, does she eat? Does she avoid fruit, like he does? That’s why he asks, “Did God also say, don’t eat from any trees in the garden?” No, she says, “we do feed on the garden trees.” But, she adds—maybe to find some commonality with the snake—there is a tree she is not supposed to touch. She might even die if she touches it.
Of course this seems odd to the snake. He can’t even grow unless he rubs against a tree! So, he coaches her on what he thinks God intended. “You won’t die,” he says. Instead, “your eyes will be opened, and then you’ll know, like God, what’s good and bad.” Or, in other words, rub against the tree! Start your shed! Lift the old skin from your eyes! Then you’ll get to see how life works!
The woman checks out the fruit with her most powerful human sense: sight. She see that the fruit is good-looking, tasty, and wonderful to know. So she eats, and gives some to her man. Their eyes open, and they see that they, too, are now eirumim, naked and prudent. It’s as if they have shed their skin! Suddenly, they rely on snake senses, feeling the breeze and hearing God walk in the garden. Like prudent snakes, they hide themselves.
God then interviews the humans and figures out what happened: the snake shared its life wisdom. But it’s not the right wisdom for humans. As it turns out, they are different species. So, God reminds both the snake and the humans how their bodies work.
You, snake, will slither on your belly. And those little bony spurs on the back of your spine? (Yes, some snake species do have vestigial legs.) The bones won’t be growing into legs, like the humans have, anytime soon. So, just stop hanging out with the humans. From now on, only their heels will come into contact with your head.
You, woman, you will not give birth as a snake does. You won’t have dozens of babies at once. Every single one will be hard work. And there will be no parthenogenesis for you. (Yes, some snake species can do this.) You’ll always need your human mate. And if you want more life wisdom from an older creature? Get it from him, because hu yimshol bakh—he will teach you. (Usually, translators say “he will rule over you.” But because a mashal is a “wise proverb,” this alternate translation is literal, too.)
And you, human man, don’t copy the snake either. You won’t lie in wait for your meal to come to you. Instead, you’ll have to pull grain out of the parched ground, and work up a sweat turning it into bread.
The time of experimentation is over. But its memory lives on in the woman’s name. The man calls her Chava, an old Aramaic word for snake.
From Reform Judaism.org
Living in the Light of Goodness
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI KARYN D. KEDAR
When God began to create heaven and earth the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water. God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. (1:1-4).
In the beginning of time, there was swirling dark waters and amorphous depth and a Spiritual Presence suspended above it all, hovering. Reading slowly and with pause, we quickly realize that the story of creation is a birthing story. Precreation is the description of a womb — darkness, depth and amniotic waters; and then, with a burst of light the God of creation births life into being.
This is our origin story. Assumptions, beliefs, values, guiding principles are formed by the way we tell our story. The cosmos is birthed with light and with goodness. This metaphor of the birthing God is most powerful when seen in the context of other origin stories. For example, the Babylonian myth, The Epic of Enuma Elish describes creation as the result of warring gods. Violence and jealousy are the context. But in Genesis, time, space and being collide in a burst of light and formation begins.
Within the first words of Torah a compelling question is awakened – what is the nature of this primordial light, a light that is created before the sun, the moon, and the stars. Rashi (11th century) comments that it is the light of righteousness that will be planted in the soul of every living being who desires goodness. And the moment the light is declared as good, there is a separation between light and darkness. Those who seek light will live in light and those who choose darkness, will live in darkness.
And in this cosmic world of distinction and discrepancy, of light and darkness, of righteousness and wrongdoing, The Tree is created, and it is the center of attention.
And from the ground Adonai God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad. (2:9). And Adonai God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die. (2:16-17). When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (3:6).
This is a theological setup. This most beautiful tree, the one within easy reach, the tree that will transform your reality, this tree… don’t touch. Why create the tree, why make it beautiful and place it in the center? There is a struggle between the power and loveliness of The Tree and the curiosity of Adam and Eve.
We consume the sweetness of knowledge and suddenly live within distinctions. We are naked, we are covered. We are afraid, we are safe. We are known, we are invisible. We do right. We do wrong. We have a deep capacity for knowing, we know nothing of the mystery that surrounds us. As we reach for the beauty of the fruit, we grasp the ability to choose. Our days are comprised of hundreds of decisions, some small, some consequential, some life altering. We choose what to wear, we choose what to say, to be angry, to be joyful, to be obedient, to break through conventions, to eat our bread with jam, or simply with butter. Choice becomes the catalysis for all human endeavor.
And then, as the sun begins to set and the shadows grow long, wrestling with the diminishing light. This is the in-between time. Not the light of day, not the darkness of night, but in the blurred distinction of dusk. It is the place where most of us live. Not righteous, not evil, but flawed and seeking repair. There is a breeze, a soft wind called ruach. It is the identical word to the spirit (ruach) of God which hovered at the very beginning, moments before the birth of humanity. This time, ruach, the ethereal Presence of breath and wind, the source of life, the transcendent will of the universe, visits in the Garden to proclaim a rebirth, a new definition of what it means to be human: we can know, we can choose, and we become mortal. The universe is still in formation. With one simple act of defiance we experience a recreation of what it means to be human.
Adam and Eve hide among the trees. And the voice of God moves about the garden, perhaps the leaves of the trees quiver in its presence, certainly the humans do. Where are you? This rhetorical question becomes the existential question for all time, still echoing in the spirit of every living human who thinks, who ponders, who yearns to know, who desires to live a life that has meaning. Where are you? And the answer: I am afraid, I am naked, I hide.
We so often hide. Hide because we are afraid or because we are confused or because we’ve been told to shrink away from the light of who we are. We are vulnerable. We struggle to be good and we struggle against it. We toggle between light and darkness, between contradictory impulses of right and wrong, decency and decadence. But the hovering spirit never leaves us. It animates us, it is our light within, it is the creative impulse that enlivens us, it is our desire to be good, to do good and to manifest goodness and light into the world. It is our origin story.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Adam Greenwald
…When the authors of our most ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah, considered the implications of the Torah’s first parsha, they ask: “Why was it that God started with one single person at the very beginning?” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). They offer three, interconnected answers:
First, to teach us the infinite preciousness of every life, that out of one can emerge an entire world, and therefore we are all obligated to protect each other at all costs.
Second, since we all share a common ancestor, that makes us family to one another. Family doesn’t mean we’ll always get along or see eye to eye; but family has each other’s backs when the going gets tough. Genesis calls us to an awareness of universal kinship, that our being “in this together” isn’t just metaphorical but biological.
And, finally, so that each unique human being should be able to say b’shvili n’vrach haolam – for my sake, the world was created. Not that the world was created for my benefit, but for my sake – that each of us is to play an irreplaceable role in the human drama, that we each bring something special to a shared table, that without our light, the world is a lot less bright.
Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, wrote the following lines:
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s magnitude and bond.
At the beginning of a fresh, new year, let’s recommit to the Torah’s vision. We are in this together. We are each other’s business. Your safety, your thriving, your joy is my responsibility – and mine, yours. There’s no more necessary and urgent teaching for our shared moment than that.
May this year bring blessing to you and all of us.
By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
At this time of the year when we rebegin our Torah reading with Parshat B’reishit, I am elated to experience new beginnings and the insights found in the first Parsha of our Torah. But I am also very sad at this time of the year. The reason is that B’reishit is so filled with important philosophical, ethical, and teleological teachings; it is so rich in Midrashic and Rabbinic commentary that I am truly frustrated and sad that we only spend one week on this Parsha and before we know it is left behind as we move on to the next Parsha. I will just briefly mention three of my favorite teachings.
Our Sages comment not only on the words of the Parsha, but, indeed, elaborate on the choice of each of the letters of the Parsha. One erudite insight is captured by asking the question as to why the Torah begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter Bet, rather than the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter Aleph. An elaborate philosophy emerges from the answer to this question. Aleph (one) connotes unity; the fact that the Torah does not begin with the letter connoting unity suggests that this world is not based on simple unity, but unity must be created through our actions and partnering with other human beings and G-d. If we operate on the assumption that we are already in a state of unification, a naive consciousness arises, which leads to a ‘cursed’ existence (a naive consciousness intimated by the word ‘Arur”-curse, which begins with an Aleph).
The Torah begins with the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet to teach us that this is a world of Bet (‘twoness’), a world filled with disparate energies, opposites, that must be faced and integrated into a unity based on consciousness. We are to partner with G-d, and with other human beings to create this world. We are to work to make this world, a world of justice and overcome oppositional forces that oppose this unity. Hence the shape of the Bet is closed on three sides but open on the fourth side, and it is up to us to fill in this fourth side. We are charged to create wholeness, by integrating the opposites as we journey toward our unique destiny. This challenge, this directive gives meaning to our existence and is the reason why we were created; through each of our unique contributions we uplift our world; it is through this challenge that growth emerges and ultimately joy, and satisfaction of purpose. Thus, the letter Bet begins the word ‘Bracha’-blessing. And is the first letter of the Torah, a Torah of blessing! (Ramchal: Derech Hashem, Ch.1).
A second profound teaching is found in Ch.5, verse 1. There is an argument between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai as to which is the most important verse in the whole Torah! Rabbi Akiva chooses the verse in Lev. Ch. 19, verse 18, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ and Ben Azai says there is a verse even greater than this found in Gen. Ch.5, verse 1, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam, every human being is created in the image of G-d.’ The Rabbis agreed with Ben Azzai that this verse found in B’reishit embodies the greatest principle in the Torah, for it instructs us not only to love our neighbors, who may be ‘like us,’ but it teaches us that every human being (even those who may appear different from us) is created in G-d’s image and thus has absolute value, is unique, and must be treated as an equal (Sifra, 7:4). This profound insight is the guiding principle for all humanity and teaches us that we are all G-d’s children, interconnected and bound by a common destiny that can lead to the blessed existence which G-d intends for us. It is love for all our fellow human beings, those who are ‘like us’ and those who are different that can lead to an expansion of our consciousness as we discover the beauty of God’s creation in even the most ‘hidden places’.
A third teaching is found in the verse in Chapter 2, verse 15, “And the Lord put the man in the garden to cultivate(L’avda-to serve) it and to take care of it (L’shamra-to watch it, to keep it).” As the Midrash says, “Look, Adam at my works! See how beautiful they are! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”(Kohelet Rabbah, 7:13). As I read this verse, I am so distraught and moved by what we face today as we witness the abuse of our planet. The Torah teaches us to take care of our world and yet we deforest our beautiful and essential rainforests, we pollute our waters with plastic and mercury, we destroy our plants and attenuate the plethora of animal species. Our use of fossil fuels causes terrible climate change, global warming, melting of ice caps, we have multiple, destructive fires in California, rising oceans, hurricanes, droughts, enormous floods and storms, extraordinary heat all influenced by our ignoring the mandate ‘to serve and take care of our earth,’ and as the Midrash poignantly states, ‘If we do destroy it there will be no one else to repair it!’
Indeed, these three vital teachings, to work to build a world that is not yet complete, to work for justice and equality for all human beings; to realize how interconnected we are and how we must learn to love, recognize and see one another as created in the image of G-d; and finally to wake up to the crisis of the hour that we are indeed mandated to serve and guard our earth, the home that G-d has bestowed upon us with Grace and Blessing.
May we all have an uplifting Shabbat and rebegin to live out the calling of Bereishit. It is time! Our new year blesses us with a new opportunity. Let the love of Shabbat surround you and may you be blessed with a joyous and committed week.
From Reconstructing Judaism
Shabbat and Holiness
By Rabbi Steven Nathan
This week’s parashah is the first in the Torah, Bereyshit. We are all familiar with the story of the creation that we read in these chapters of the Torah. However, the narrative still raised many questions for our rabbis and scholars. One of the many issues debated by the rabbis is the timing of humanity’s creation in relationship to Shabbat. Rashi (12th century France) believed that God created Adam right before Shabbat so that he could immediately enter the holy and peaceful realm of Shabbat. And yet we also read in the same source that God created Adam a few hours before Shabbat so that he could first participate in the everyday activities of the world and thereby be better able to appreciate the peace of Shabbat.
This contradiction raises a question: psychologically and spiritually speaking, is Shabbat a starting place from which to enter the week? Or is it a respite and refuge from the week that has already passed?
A great Hassidic rabbi, Shmuel of Sochochow, connects this question to a Talmudic debate as to what one does if one is lost in the desert and has no idea what day it is. If you have completely lost track of time,when should you observe Shabbat? The ancient rabbinic Beit Shammai (house of Shammai, one of the early sages) states that the person should observe Shabbat immediately and then count off six days and observe Shabbat again. The other dominant house, Beit Hillel, states that the person should first count six days and then observe Shabbat.
Beit Shammai’s decision is based on a belief that human beings need Shabbat to give them an added degree of holiness before they can enter the “regular” week, and that through Shabbat they somehow bring holiness and God into the ordinary days. Beit Hillel, who tends to emphasizing God’s attribute of mercy (hesed), believed that in order to connect with the sacred and the divine in our world we must first do the “ordinary” work of our everyday lives, and try our best to pursue sanctity at the same time. If we do this then we are rewarded with the ultimate sanctity and holiness of Shabbat as an act of divine care. This notion of Shabbat as a reward for our striving toward holiness in our everyday lives, explains why (in Hillel’s view) Adam was created a few hours before Shabbat, as well as why, if one has no idea what day it is, one works for six days and then observes Shabbat.
These commentaries remind us that in order to connect with the Divine in the world and in our lives (as symbolized by Shabbat) we also need to connect with the “ordinary” aspects of our lives (represented by the six days of the week). It is our work in the world, with the people in our lives, that enable us to find God. Only then can we truly be rewarded with the experience of the holiness and peace that is represented by Shabbat.
We must try our best to experience the holiness that can be found within the ordinary so that we can then truly experience the holiness and sanctity in the day that is “all holiness.”
CREATION: EARTH DAY INTERDEPENDENCE
Last summer, I was at the Grind Café, on Main Street. I was sitting near the window, trying to get some writing done. But I got distracted by a loud buzzing. A bald-faced hornet was trying to get back outside. It flew, rested, flew, rested, and then crawled down the side of the table.
This hornet was large, for a bee. About ¾ of an inch long, with a black armoured body, and a clownish white face. Normally I avoid hornets, but I had just read that wild hornets are an important part of the natural environment. In fact, they can be considered beneficial to humans. Some species pollinate flowers and eat aggressive yellow jackets.
So, I leaned over the edge of the table and I looked directly into the hornet’s face. And I said, “Hi, beautiful! The window isn’t safe. Here, climb on my notebook.” Immediately the hornet crawled onto the table and made a beeline (so to speak) for the notebook. Then, it settled on the middle of a page and waited.
At that time, I didn’t know much about bald-faced hornets. So I said, “I don’t know where you live. You’ll have to tell me.” I carried the notebook outdoors, to the nearest quiet street. I showed the hornet a flower. Not interested. Grass. Not interested. Soil. Nope. Finally, I brought the notebook to a tree trunk. “Yes, that’s right!” the hornet said – in body language. It walked off the notebook and quickly climbed the tree.
Why did I help? I depend on the hornet. It should be able to depend on me. I’m a conscious thinking creature, and I should assume the hornet is, too. Because that’s what God created: a world of interdependent, conscious creatures.
So says the Biblical creation story, Genesis chapter 1. Especially if you read it with the help of midrash. Midrash is a Hebrew word that means “deep inquiry.” It refers to interpretations and legends developed over centuries of Jewish tradition. Some stories in midrash are as old as the Biblical text itself. So, in synagogue and Hebrew school, we study midrash along with Torah.
Let’s study some midrash now. And inquire deeply into the creation story.
On the first day of creation, says the Bible, “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness God called ‘night’.” That’s your standard, literal English translation of the Hebrew. But every translation is also an interpretation. And according to this one, God makes something, steps back to look at it, and then gives it a name.
But – stop and think. Does this translation make sense? God just said, “Light, come into being!” God already named the new being “light.” Why would God also name it “day”? Light and day aren’t even the same thing.
So, here’s another, equally literal translation, “God called to the light ‘Day!’ And to the darkness, God called ‘Night!’” According to this interpretation, God creates something, and then speaks directly to it.
A midrashic legend describes this first conversation. God says, “Hey light, I’d like you to work during the day. And dark, I’d like you to work at night.” And the creatures consent. With their consent, “it was evening, it was morning – a day.”
What a challenging midrash! In our everyday perception, light isn’t a being. It’s an energy, that comes and goes. It’s insubstantial. Scientists can’t figure out whether it’s a wave or a particle. And dark is so subtle, we think it’s just the absence of light. But from God’s perspective, light and dark are conscious beings. If we develop spiritual perception, we can see that, too. We can understand why God talks to them.
And why God keeps on talking to them, day after day.
On the sixth day, says Genesis, God is ready to create human beings. According to the Bible, God says, “Let us make a human in our image, in our likeness.” Now the Biblical universe recognizes only one Creator, so you might wonder. Who is God talking to? Who is us? Whose image is our image?
One famous midrashic legend says: God is talking to everyone created so far. Light, land, plants, stars, birds, fish, insects, and mammals. “Help me,” God says to them. “Help me design someone who is a little bit like each of you. Someone who will recognize you. Who won’t regard you as a stranger, or as an alien Other. And then, let us all work together to sustain this new creation.”
Another midrash agrees: humans were created last, because we are the least self-sufficient creatures on the planet. We depend on everything that was created before us.
Don’t be surprised if this reminds you of local Indigenous wisdom. The Hebrew Bible is an Indigenous text of the ancient Near East. It’s woven from oral stories about life on the land. In these stories, human life depends on donkeys, ravens, eagles, wasps, and medicinal plants. No wonder the very first story, creation, presents a philosophy of sustainability.
Even today: Worms till our soil. Bees pollinate our food. Moths spin our fabrics. Mosquitos feed the fish we eat. Flies process our garbage. The distinguished insect biologist Edmund O. Wilson calls this work “free ecosystem services.” And he calculates the value of this free labor as equal to the gross domestic product of all human countries, combined.
Without insects, Wilson says, flowering plants and herbs would become sterile. They would disappear. So would birds and vegetarian animals. Bacteria would multiply in rotting material. At first, ferns, conifers and wind-pollinated grasses would spread. But soil quality would deteriorate, and these plants would also disappear.
And then, in Wilson’s own words:
Amid widespread starvation during the first several decades, human populations would plunge to a small fraction of their former level. The wars for control of the dwindling resources, the suffering, and the tumultuous decline to dark-age barbarism would be unprecedented in human history. Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age, the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.
We depend on other creatures. Even creatures as small and scary as a hornet. Let’s pray for the wisdom, the spiritual perception, the scientific insight, the indigenous knowledge, and the political will to sustain them — so that they can depend on us, too.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
I. Here’s a shtickel Torah about the word Bereishit from the Zohar:
The Holy One created desiring songs with the creation of heavens and
earth… [A]ll the world are desiring and rejoicing to beautify the
One who formed them… and this is “In beginning /B’Rei’ShiT /
בראשית”—look at the letters and see: Desiring Song / ShiR Ta’eV / שיר
תאב. (Zohar Chadash, Midrash Hane`elam, B’rei’shit 5d)
Creation is woven out of the desire of song, out of en-chantment
literally, and desiring songs are created at the beginning,
b’rei’shit. In a very real sense, song may be thought of as the
information that encodes and is embedded in the structure of the
universe.All the creatures are created, as it were, to sing songs
already created, waiting to be sung.
(You’ll find this passage discussed in Kabbalah and Ecology, ch. 12,
“Nigun, shirah, the singing of Creation, and the problem of
II. Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath our “cathedral in time,”
and it is hard to imagine a more splendid cathedral. But you don’t
have to be religious or believe in God to imagine how this might feel.
Theodor Adorno, the secular 20th-century German Jewish philosopher,
wrote this gem about the Sabbath:
“To children returning from vacation, the home is new, fresh, festive.
But nothing has changed in it since they left. Only because the duties
were forgotten, of which every piece of furniture, every window, every
lamp is otherwise a reminder, does the Sabbath peace once more repose…
Not otherwise will the world appear, nearly unchanged, in the steady
light of its day of celebration, when it no longer stands under the
law of labor, and the duties of those returning home are as light as
vacation play.” (Minima Moralia, “Second Harvest,” p.72)
The tremendous hope of even a normal Shabbat is to see the world in
the light of redemption.
NEFILIM: PRIVILEGE, POWER AND PATRIARCHY IN GENESIS
Nefilim. Literally “fallen ones.” One of Torah’s great mysteries.
Who are they?
If we read Torah with attention to detail, then we can find some clues.
Nefilim are sons of gods (Gen. 6:1-4). They’re like giants (Num. 13:33). And they’re well-protected (Deut. 3:1-11).
But they are nothing good. Because right after we meet them, God regrets creating human beings.
Why? Torah tries to explain it. But the point is very subtle. So, some of us miss it.
The sons of god saw the daughters of the humans, that they were good. And they took for them women from all whom they chose (Gen. 6:2).
Midrash Rabbah, an early commentary, decodes this for us.
The sons of god are human beings. Aristocrats, wealthy and privileged. Too powerful for others to hold accountable. In their own eyes, above the law. Beyond ethical codes that constrain lesser human beings.
These self-proclaimed favoured “sons of god” do what they want. And if they want a woman, they just take her (Bereisheet Rabbah 26:5).
No wonder they are called Nefilim, fallen ones. Because morally, they have fallen. And no wonder God says, human evil is great (Gen. 6:5). Because it is.
Where did God go wrong? What exactly should God regret?
Remember back in the Garden of Eden? Where the primordial woman and man lived? The couple whose story tells us all about human nature? They eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And their meal comes with a heavy price tag of consequences.
To the woman, God says: el ishekh teshukatekh, v’hu yimshol bakh. Your desire will be for your man, and he will rule over you (Gen. 3:16). Or, in plain English. You will look to this man for friendship, love, co-parenting. For respect, approval, appreciation. But – your society being what it is, patriarchal – it’s possible your man will never look up to you. He may even look down on you, as a wealthy ruler looks down on his subjects.
The woman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. She names him Kayin, Cain. Why? Because, she says, kaniti ish et-Adonai, I have acquired a man, a God (Gen. 4:1). At least, that’s what the Hebrew says. Cain is a privileged boy. A firstborn son, an amazing being, seen by his mother as something divine.
Cain grows up with his younger brother. Both men offer fruits of their labor to God. And privileged Cain expects God’s approval. But God doesn’t give it. So, vayiflu panav, Cain’s face falls (Gen. 4:5).
Then, God asks, lama naflu panekha? “Why did your face fall?” (Gen. 4:6) Perhaps something inside Cain is falling, too. His feelings. Or his morals. Because God suddenly warns him that strong emotions can lead to sin.
What words does God use? The same ones God used to caution Eve about patriarchy. About sin, God tells Cain, eleicha teshukato, v’ata timshol bo. It will desire you, but you must rule over it. (Gen 4:7). As if God is saying, “Women, men will rule over you; so men, you’ve got to rule over your impulses.”
Think about it, Cain, God says. You were raised to expect approval, appreciation, even adulation. But some things you cannot have. Your mood may fall. Your ethics may fall away. But get a grip on yourself. You must master the impulse to sin.
And then Cain, poor fallen Cain, gets up – vayakam — and kills his brother.
Instead of mastering himself, he masters his brother.
“You’re cursed!” God says. “But, no!” Cain whines, “the punishment is too great for me to bear.” “Okay, then,” God says, “I will protect you.”
Is it any wonder that the descendants of Cain become the nefilim, the fallen ones? Men who expect everything to come their way. When it doesn’t, their faces fall and their hearts sink. Then, they get up and take what they want anyway. But no one holds them accountable. No judge, no jury, not even God.
No wonder God says, “I regret what I did.”
And yet, humans are still here. And so are the nefilim.
How, then, will we lift up our world?
From My Jewish Learning
Noah’s father saw in him the possibility for greatness — something parents experience even today.
BY RABBI SHIMON FELIX
I would like to take a look at the end of Genesis, where the action takes place years after the better-known stories of the Creation and the Garden of Eden.
By the time we get to the end of the portion, we are meant to be well and truly depressed. Adam and Eve have been thrown out of Eden, and along with the snake and the very earth itself, have been cursed. Cain has killed Abel. God’s decision to destroy the world He created, with the flood, is just around the corner. At the birth of Noah (“Noach,” in Hebrew), there is a sense of failure, of something having gone horribly wrong with the world. His father, Lemekh, names him, saying (chapter 5, verse 29) “this one will comfort us for our actions and the sorrow of our hands, from the earth, which the Lord has cursed.” The Hebrew word for ‘comfort’ is ‘yeNACHamainu,’ hence the name “Noach.” Apparently, Lemekh felt his age to be a distressed one, in need of comfort and assistance, and he looked to his newborn son for these things.
Prophecy or Prayer?
The medieval commentaries supply a number of possibilities for the kinds of comfort that Lemekh thought his son Noah might give to his troubled time. There are, generally speaking, two approaches that they take. The one, expressed by Rashi, the Radak, and others commentaries, sees Lemekh as a prophet, foreseeing a special role for his new-born son. According to them, the prophecy contained in the naming of Noah was that he will become the inventor of ploughs and other farming implements, ameliorating the post-Edenic curse on the earth (‘thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you’), and easing mankind’s burden of labor, which Lemekh calls ‘the sorrow of our hands’). The ibn Ezra says that Lemekh’s prophecy refers to the fact that the sinful world will soon be destroyed by the flood, and that it is his newborn son Noah who will be its salvation.
The other exegetical approach is unwilling to turn Lemekh into a prophet. It sees his words at the birth of his son as a prayer, not a prophecy. The S’forno says: “[Lemekh] prayed that he would bring comfort [to the world] from its [evil] actions.” The Rashbam, and others, point out that Noah was the first child born after the death of Adam; Lemekh prayed that this new life, coming after the death of he who was exiled from Eden and cursed, would somehow augur the end of the sorry situation in which an accursed humanity found itself.
A Midrash , which appears in the Yalkut Reuveni and is quoted by Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid (mid-13th century), adds a fascinating element to the naming of Noah. According to this Midrash, Noah was the first human being born with an opposable thumb(!). Until his birth, mankind had not evolved sufficiently to make, hold, and use tools, and, instead, dug the earth with their paw-like hands. With a human hand, with proper fingers and an opposable thumb, mankind evolved into tool-makers and users. This Midrash obviously takes Lemekh’s words ‘the sorrow of our hands’ quite literally, and complements the tradition, which sees Noah as the inventor of farming implements.
It seems to me that all these interpretations share something; an important insight into parenting and parental expectations. For Lemekh, the world was a dark, difficult place. He saw the birth of a child as an opportunity for hope, for change, for improvement, for faith.
We can understand his relationship to his newborn son in three ways. The way the first group of commentators mentioned above do; as a prophet, with a very specific plan for Noah, a specific vision of how this child could change the world, or, as the second group understands Lemekh; as having a generalized hope, a prayer, that somehow this new life could bring an improvement, a salvation, to the difficult world he knew, or, as in the ‘opposable thumb’ Midrash, where Lemekh saw in his newborn son something really different, and special, and appreciated this difference as something that could transform, and improve the world. But there is one, underlying message, expressed in three ways, about being a parent.
That message is this: In all three understandings of Lemekh as a father, we are presented with a parent who, one way or another, saw in his newborn child the possibility of greatness. The world into which Noah was born was a horrible one; accursed, exiled, on the cusp of destruction. Lemekh saw in his son, in this new life, the engine for change, for possibility, for evolution, for salvation. And, by naming him Noah–comfort–he passed his vision, his hope for a better world, and his appreciation of Noah’s ability to effect this change, on to his son.
We often wonder, when faced with greatness, what made this person great? What gave him or her the strength, the vision, the energy, the talent, to accomplish so much? It may be that Noah grew to greatness, to stand above the rest of his generation and, literally, save the world, because he was Lemekh’s son, because he was the child of a parent who imagined, prayed for, and saw in Noah the possibility of greatness, and who told Noah, by naming him, how he felt about him, and what he saw in him. This, perhaps, is how parents can try and encourage greatness in their children; by imagining it, believing it, seeing and celebrating it when it is there, and naming it.
The Complexity Of Creation
Recognizing that Creation and many natural phenomena are clouded in mystery can actually enrich our lives with meaning.
BY RABBI JONATHAN GLASS
Every child knows the story of Creation. The Torah gives us a day-by-day account, describing how God, in His omnipotence, benevolently brought forth all that we know — light and darkness, dry land and sea, trees and plants, stars and planets, animal and man.
The text reads so simply and orderly that one is tempted to skim through it to get to the “meat” of the parashah–the story of Adam and Eve. The story of Creation remains an introduction, one that poses little difficulty for believers.
But Rashi, the great commentator, does not see it that way. He says that the opening sequence cries out for interpretation. It cannot be that these verses are telling us about the chronology of Creation, he writes, for the Torah’s second verse tells of God’s Presence “hovering on the face of the water,” before any account of God’s creating water is given.
Rashi therefore does not subscribe to the popular translation of the opening verse of the Torah, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” Instead, he renders the words to leave open the possibility that water was created prior to heaven and earth.
What looked like a neat and clear account of Creation turns out to be full of mystery. And the Torah beginning with mystery is important–it reveals the very nature of Creation and of the Torah itself.
The Need for Wonder
We tend to feel a need to clarify and understand the world around us, to grasp and digest every experience we have.
But we must never lose track of the mystery that pervades all of Creation. A sense of wonder is necessary in this world. We must know that we are part of something much larger than our selves and our personal experiences, something we may never fully be able to understand.
The “works of Creation” refers to science, according to some talmudic Sages. Science, too, resides in the tension between the known and the mysterious.
In our century, particularly, with the discovery of subatomic particles, the science of Creation has become more mysterious than ever. Those very mysteries of our origin make us cognizant of the contemporary wonders around us today.
The Torah is also telling us about life itself. We don’t need to have all the answers. A good question often serves us better than a mediocre answer. Even our great Sages were occasionally unable to answer questions of halacha (Jewish law) and left them for Elijah the Prophet to answer.
In the meantime we are not threatened. Life, in fact, becomes more meaningful. Rather than trying to deny the existence of phenomena that don’t fit neatly into our categories of thought, we are prepared to acknowledge an element of mystery, live with it, and be enriched by it.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Faith of God (Bereishit 5778)
In stately prose the Torah in its opening chapter describes the unfolding of the universe, the effortless creation of a single creative Force. Repeatedly we read, “And God said, Let there be … and there was … and God saw that it was good” – until we come to the creation of humankind. Suddenly the whole tone of the narrative changes:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every moving thing that moves upon the earth.”
So God created man in His image,
In the image of God He created him,
Male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)
The problems are obvious. First, why the preface, “Let us make …”? In no other case does God verbally reflect on what He is about to create before He creates it. Second, who is the “us”? At that time there was no “us.” There was only God.
There are many answers, but here I want to focus only on one given by the Talmud. It is quite extraordinary. The “us” refers to the angels with whom God consulted. He did so because He was faced with a fateful dilemma. By creating Homo sapiens, God was making the one being other than Himself capable of destroying life on earth. Read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel or Collapse and you will discover how destructive humans have been wherever they have set foot, creating environmental damage and human devastation on a massive scale. We are still doing so. This is how the Talmud describes what happened before God created humankind:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create man, He created a group of ministering angels and asked them, “Do you agree that we should make man in our image?” They replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, what will be his deeds?”
God showed them the history of mankind. The angels replied, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” [in other words, let man not be created].
God destroyed the angels.
He created a second group, and asked them the same question, and they gave the same answer. God destroyed them.
He created a third group of angels, and they replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, the first and second group of angels told You not to create man, and it did not avail them. You did not listen. What then can we say but this: The universe is Yours. Do with it as You wish.”
Then God created man.
When it came to the generation of the Flood, and then to the generation of the builders of Babel, the angels said to God, “Were not the first angels right? See how great is the corruption of mankind.”
Then God replied (Isaiah 46:4), “Even to old age I will not change, and even to grey hair, I will still be patient.” (Sanhedrin 38b)
This goes to the core of the dilemma even God could not escape. Were He not to create humanity there would be no-one in the universe capable of understanding that he or she was created and that God exists. Only with the birth of humanity did the universe become self-conscious. Without us, it would be as if God had created billions of robots mindlessly doing what they been programmed to do for all eternity. So, even though by creating humans God was putting the entire future of creation at risk, God went ahead and made humankind.
This is radical theology indeed. The Talmud is telling us is that the existence of humankind can only be explained by the fact that God had faith in man. As the Sifre explains the phrase in Moses’ song, “the God of faith” – this means, “the God who had faith in the universe and created it.” The real religious mystery, according to Judaism, is not our faith in God. It is God’s faith in us.
This is the extraordinary idea that shines through the entire Tanach. God invests his hopes for the universe in this strange, refractory, cantankerous, ungrateful and sometimes degenerate creature called Homo sapiens, part dust of the earth, part breath of God, whose behaviour disappoints and sometimes appals him. Yet He never gives up.
He tries with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, a string of judges and kings. He tries with women also, and here succeeds much better. They are more faithful, less violent, less obsessed with power. But He refuses to give up on men. He has His most passionate relationship with the prophets. They understand Him and become bearers of His word. Yet most of the prophets end up as disappointed with people as God is.
The real subject of the Torah is not our faith in God, which is often faltering, but His unfailing faith in us. The Torah is not man’s book of God. It is God’s book of man. He spends a mere 34 verses describing His own creation of the universe, but more than 500 verses describing the Israelites’ creation of a tiny, temporary, portable building called the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. God never stops believing in us, loving us, and hoping for the best from us. There are moments when He almost despairs. Our parsha says so.
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and He was grieved to His very core.
But Noah, good, innocent, upright, consoles Him. For the sake of one good man God was prepared to begin again.
Of course, all of this is a matter of faith – as is all belief in the thoughts and feelings of persons other than myself. Do I really know whether those closest to me – my marriage partner, my children, my companions, my friends – love me or have faith in me, or is that just wishful thinking on my part? Atheists sometimes think that belief in God is irrational while belief in other people is rational. That is simply not so. The proof is the failure of the man who, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, sought to put philosophy on a rational basis: Rene Descartes. Descartes famously said, Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” All he was sure of was his own existence. For anything else – the existence of physical objects, let alone other minds – even he had to invoke God.
I for one do not have enough faith to be an atheist. To be an atheist you have to have faith, either in humankind as a whole, or in yourself. How anyone can have faith in humankind after the Holocaust defies all reason. The single most calculated, sustained crime of man against man happened not in some benighted third world country but in the heart of a Europe that had given birth to Kant and Hegel, Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller. Civilisation utterly failed to civilise. Humanism did not make men humane.
When I first stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau the question that haunted me was not, “Where was God?” God was in the command, “You shall not murder.” God was in the words, “You shall not oppress the stranger.” God was saying to humanity, “Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.” God did not stop the first humans eating forbidden fruit. He did not stop Cain committing murder. He did not stop the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites. God does not save us from ourselves. That, according to the Talmud, is why creating man was such a risk that the angels advised against it. The question that haunts me after the Holocaust, as it does today in this new age of chaos, is “Where is man?”
As for believing only in yourself, that is hubris. Every serious thinker since the dawn of history has known that this ends in nemesis.
There are only two serious possibilities to be entertained by serious minds. Either the one put forward by the Torah that we are here because a Force greater than the universe wanted us to be, or the alternative: that the universe exists because of a random fluctuation in the quantum field, and we are here because of a mindless sequence of genetic mutations blindly sifted by natural selection. Either there is or is not meaning to the human condition. The first possibility yields Isaiah, the second, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Greek tragedy. The Greece of antiquity died. The Israel of Abraham and Moses still lives.
I respect those who choose Greek tragedy over Jewish hope. But those who choose Judaism have made space in their minds for the most life-changing idea of all: Whether or not we have faith in God, God has faith in us.
There may be times in our lives – certainly there have been in mine – when the sun disappears and we enter the cloud of black despair. King David knew these feelings well. They are theme of several Psalms. People can be brutal to one another. There are some who, having suffered pain themselves, find relief in inflicting it on others. You can lose faith in humanity, or in yourself, or both. At such times, the knowledge that God has faith in us is transformative, redemptive. As David said in Psalm 27:
Even were my father or mother to forsake me,
The Lord would still receive me. (Ps. 27:10)
We may lose heart; God never will. We may despair; God will give us hope. God believes in us even if we don’t believe in ourselves. We may sin and disappoint and come short again and again, but God never ceases to forgive us when we fail and lift us when we fall.
Have faith in God’s faith in us and you will find the path from darkness to light.
 Sifre, Ha’azinu, 325.
 Of course an atheist might say – Sigmund Freud came close to saying this – that faith is simply a comforting illusion. That really is not so. It is far more demanding to believe that God summons us to responsibility, that He asks us to fight for justice, equality and human dignity, and that He holds us accountable for what we do, than to believe that there is no meaning to human existence other than ones we invent for ourselves, no ultimate truth, no absolute moral standards, and no one to whom we will have to give an account of our lives. Fifty years of reflection on this issue have led me to conclude that it is atheism that is, morally and existentially, the easy option – and I say this having known and studied with some of the greatest atheists of our time. That is not to say that I am critical of atheists. To the contrary, in a secular age, it is the default option. That is why now, more than at any other time in the past two thousand years, it takes courage to have and live by religious faith.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE WANDERER – Parshat Bereshit
What ever happened to the first murderer?
It didn’t take very long, did it, for the killing to begin? Just four chapters in, just four people on earth, and one of them strikes his brother down in a jealous rage. And when God comes to question him, Cain responds with the famous disavowal:
Am I my brother’s keeper? (Gen. 4:9)
הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי
The answer, of course, is: yes. What do you think a brother is?! Forget brothers, what do you think a human life is, that you can take it away so easily?
Monster. Butcher. Savage. Devil. How could he?? What will God do? Surely, just as he killed, so he will be killed. Surely he has forfeited his own life.
And yet, God does not kill Cain. He is to live many years more, in fact. His punishment, instead, will be this:
You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on the earth. (Gen. 4:12)
נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ
A wanderer. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, as punishments for murder go. God even offers Cain protection, when he worries of attacks on the road:
I promise, if anyone kill Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken upon him. (Gen. 4:15)
לָכֵן֙ כָּל־הֹרֵ֣ג קַ֔יִן שִׁבְעָתַ֖יִם יֻקָּ֑ם
And God gives him the mark of Cain, a warning to anyone who sees him, to let him be. It seems Cain has gotten away easy, all things considered. He’s free to go. And he does:
Cain left the presence of the Lord, and settled in the Land of Nod, east of Eden. (Gen. 4:16)
וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן
A relatively benign line, it appears at first glance. But wait… does it say that Cain “settled”? That doesn’t sound right. This is a man cursed to eternal wandering – and the very first thing he does is settle down? But the verse is stranger still, for he settles “in the Land of Nod,” and the word ’nod’ (נוד), in Hebrew, means: ‘wandering.’
Here is the richness of ancient Hebrew literature on full display. “He settled in the Land of Wandering.” That’s a phrase you could get lost in for days. What does it mean, he settled in Wandering? Was he wandering or did he settle? The great commentators do not miss this paradoxical wordplay, and they offer various interpretations. Ibn Ezra says:
He called it that because he was a ceaseless wanderer.
קראו כן בעבור שהיה נע ונד
So it was Cain who named the place after his own wandering, as if to memorialize his journey. Rashi offers a similar explanation, suggesting that the city was named for those who ended up there:
The Land of Nod, [or, of Wandering] – the land to which all who were exiled would wander.
בארץ נוד: בארץ שכל הגולים נדים שם
This was a home for wanderers, a meeting place for those who had been cast out and had no other place to go. In both of these interpretations, there is a kind of settling. The Land of Nod is a final destination for those who have been wandering for a long time, and it bears a name that represents its vagabond inhabitants.
But it is is the Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of Spain, who gives us the most textured explanation of Cain’s strange mix of wandering and settling:
The reason it was called the Land of Wandering, is that he did not go all over the world. He settled in that one place, but was always wandering in it, and never felt any comfort from the place at all.
וטעם וישב בארץ נוד שלא הלך בכל העולם אבל באותה הארץ ישב נודד תמיד לא ינוח במקום ממנה כלל
Cain tried to settle down. He tried to escape his cursed fate. But he was restless. He never went anywhere, but he was always wandering. One imagines him pacing the streets at night, circling the town, lost in thought, haunted by memories.
He did his best, the Torah tells us, to build a life for himself. In the next verse we read that:
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Hanoch. And then he was building a city, and named it after his son Hanoch. (Gen. 4:27)
וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֙יִן֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ
He got married, had children. He even began a construction project. This seems like a man who is getting on with his life. But again, the Ramban provides a psychological account of these details that suggests a very different mentality at work:
He named the city after his son Hanoch, because at first he thought he would be childless, because of his sin, but after a child was born to him, he began to build a city so that his son could settle in it. But because he knew he was cursed and his own actions would never succeed, he called the place “Hanoch,” as if to say that he was not building it for himself, for he could never have a city, or any settlement on the earth, for he was an eternal wanderer.
ויקרא שם העיר כשם בנו חנוך כי מתחילה היה חושב להיות ערירי בעונו ואחרי שנולד לו זרע החל לבנות עיר להיות בנו יושב בה ובעבור כי הוא ארור ומעשיו לא יצליחו קראו “חנוך” להגיד כי לא בנאה לעצמו כי הוא אין לו עיר ומושב בארץ כי נע ונד הוא
Cain knew he could never escape his fate. He knew he was destined to wander the earth forever. But at least, he thought, he could build a home for his child. At least the son would not inherit the sins of the father.
This much the Ramban gets from the name of the city. But then he has an even more penetrating read, based on the unusual verb tense he notices in the phrase, “he was building a city”:
Because it doesn’t say, “he built the city”…. which shows that he was building the city his whole life, but because everything he did was cursed, he would built a little bit, with great strain and effort, and then he would get restless and wander off for a while, and then come back and build a little more, and he would never complete his tasks.
ומפני שלא אמר “ויבן עיר” יורה כי היה כל ימיו בונה העיר כי מעשיו ארורים יבנה מעט בטורח ועמל וינוע וינוד מן המקום ההוא ויחזור שם ויבנה מעט ולא יצליח את דרכיו
The verb is in the present tense because Cain was always building. The city was constantly under construction, but never completed, because Cain could not keep himself in one place long enough to see anything through. And so the sisyphean task of creating a home for himself and his family stretched on throughout the rest of his days, never yielding any peace or satisfaction. He could not escape the wandering.
And the wandering, says the Italian renaissance rabbi, Ovadia Seforno:
..was a terrible life, like death, or even worse.
נע ונד שהם חיים רעים כמו המות או יותר ממנו
Yes, God had spared Cain’s life, but only to deliver him into an existence worse than death. He could traverse the earth or he could try to stay in one place, but no matter – he would always be wandering. Because the real wandering took place inside of his mind, as he went over, again and again, the memory of what he had done.
Did this torture ever end? Not for a long time, it seems. But a rabbinic legend gives us one possibility of what may have finally happened to Cain:
He lived for many more years, and was never eventually buried, for he withered away until the Flood came and washed him away. (Exod. Rabbah 32:17)
ושנים רבות יחיה…וגם קבורה לא היתה לו, שהיה תלוי ברפיון ובא המבול ושטפו
If he died in the Flood – that is, in the generation of Noah – that means he kept wandering for hundreds of years. He who first took life could only die when all other life on earth ceased.
When the waters finally came upon him, they must have provided some form of relief. Perhaps the rushing torrent even managed to wash the mark off of his forehead. He was no longer branded as a killer, for he had served his time. As his body sunk down into the deluge, his wandering had come to an end.
From Rav Kook
Breishit: The Hidden Light of Creation
The very first act of Creation, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, was the creation of light. “And God said: There shall be light” (Gen. 1:3). What kind of light was this?
It cannot be the light that we are familiar with, the light emanating from the sun and the stars. These heavenly bodies were created much later, on the fourth day of Creation. The Sages called this primordial light Ohr Ha-Ganuz, “the Hidden Light.” Too pure for the current state of the universe, God concealed it for a future, more deserving world.
What is the nature of this special illumination introduced at the beginning of Creation?
The Sages taught (Shemot Rabbah 15:22) that certain topics mentioned cryptically in the Torah were later elucidated by David in the book of Psalms. For example, Psalm 104 speaks poetically of the creation of the heavens:
“[God] wrapped Himself in light like a garment and spread out the heavens like a curtain.” (104:3)
In this instance, however, it is difficult to claim that the verse in Psalms explains the Torah’s account; in fact, it contradicts it. The Torah states that God created light after creating heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1-3). In Psalms, however, the order is reversed: God first created the light, and only afterward the heavens.
Chomer and Tzurah
The philosophers distinguished between chomer, matter, and tzurah, the form or function of an object. For example, wood is a raw material (chomer) that may be used to produce many different functional objects. Once it is designated for use as a table, the wood also has tzurah, form, having acquired a particular purpose.
At the very beginning of Creation, there was only chomer. God created numerous elements, but they were without tzurah. They lacked function and purpose. This state of disorder and dissonance is referred to as darkness – “darkness on the surface of the depths” (Gen. 1:2). The Torah calls this unstable primeval stage Tohu and Bohu, indicating that it was chaotic and empty of form.
Then God created the Ohr Ha-Ganuz. This special light played a critical role in Creation. Just as regular light allows us to see and relate to our surroundings, the Hidden Light enabled the different elements of creation to interact with one another. It dispelled the initial state of darkness, when all objects were isolated and disconnected from one another.
To use the terminology of the philosophers, the illumination created on the first day of Creation stamped a functional tzurah on the material chomer. Through this special light, the universe’s myriad objects acquired purpose and function and were able to work together towards a common goal.
To Wear Light
The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 3:4) elucidates the verse in Psalms, explaining that “God wrapped Himself in light like a garment and illuminated the splendor of His glory from one end of the world to the other.”
What does it mean that “God wore light”?
This phrase indicates that the light took on God’s qualities of oneness and unity, just as a garment takes on the shape of the one wearing it. When “God wrapped Himself in light,” this means that He introduced an underlying unity into all aspects of creation, “from one end of the world to the other.”
In summary: the description in Psalms does not contradict the account in Genesis. At first, God created heaven and earth in an isolated state, as chomer without form and purpose. This was the unstable state of Tohu and Bohu described in Genesis, when the diverse elements of creation existed in chaotic darkness, lacking an underlying unity.
Then God said, “There shall be light,” creating the special Ohr Ha-Ganuz, the Hidden Light with which He bound the matter together with a common purpose. God “wrapped Himself in the light,” thereby giving the light His trait of oneness and making it a unifying force. After creating this unifying light, God “spread out the heavens” and stabilized the universe. The continuation of the psalm describes the stability of the world after the creation of light: “He founded the earth on its foundations, so that it will never falter” (104:5).
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 95-96)
From Rabbi Ivan Ivanickovits
You know that the beginning of Bereishis (Genesis) is the letter bet meaning duality. (This is to connect with the lamed at the end of Torah completing the heart connection lamed bet – means heart). So perhaps this is the origin of the construction of the prayers where the love sandwich is formulated? The heart sandwich of ahavah (love) is the entry point and exit to the Shma – the prayer of Unity. The prayer before the shma is b’ahavah , and the prayer after the shma is v’Ahvtah. Clearly a love sandwich with the Unity as the main ingredient.
We all know that all of creation starts with unity — the Aleph, so before the bet of Bereishis there is an impli cit, not visible, not explicit, reference to the hidden Aleph
( Ein Sof — the limitless, the infinite). So the first line of Bereishis is re interpreted as
(The Infinite) while beginning, created Elokhim, (forces of nature, the boundary makers), the heavens and the earth.
(This establishes a possible origin of the hierarchy of the divine names)
My other favorite take on Bereishis is found at the back of Sefer Yetzirah in the writings of the school of the Ari (R Is aac Luria), This has the origins in the
hidden dagesh of the letter Bet. This Bet starts out as a Mem with the 4 sides closed off and the point of the dagesh inside. The energy
is pumped up in the closed Mem vessel like in a prototype of a primordial laser until the energy is infinitely high (a delta function to the mathematically prepared) and then at the appropriate pre-existing moment (when time did not exist) — the side of the mem is pulled back revealing the letter Bet with the
dagesh fully present and all the letters of the Torah come bounding out with the rest of the letters).
From the Maqam Project
14th October 2014
The Genesis of Justice (Bereishit 5775)
There are words that change the world, none more so than two sentences that appear in the first chapter of the Torah:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in His own image,
in the image of God He created them;
male and female He created them.
The idea set forth here is perhaps the most transformative in the entire history of moral and political thought. It is the basis of the civilization of the West with its unique emphasis on the individual and on equality. It lies behind Thomas Jefferson’s words in the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …” These truths are anything but self evident. They would have been regarded as absurd by Plato who held that society should be based on the myth that humans are divided into people of gold, silver and bronze and it is this that determines their status in society. Aristotle believed that some are born to rule and others to be ruled.
Revolutionary utterances do not work their magic overnight. As Rambam explained in The Guide for the Perplexed, it takes people a long time to change. The Torah works in the medium of time. It did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a series of developments – most notably Shabbat when all hierarchies of power were suspended and slaves had a day a week of freedom – that were bound to lead to its abolition in the course of time. People are slow to understand the implications of ideas. Thomas Jefferson, champion of equality, was a slave owner. Slavery was not abolished in the United States until the 1860s and not without a civil war. And as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, slavery’s defenders as well as its critics cited the Bible in their cause. But eventually people change, and they do so because of the power of ideas, planted long ago in the Western mind.
What exactly is being said in the first chapter of the Torah? The first thing to note is that it is not a stand-alone utterance, an account without a context. It is in fact a polemic, a protest, against a certain way of understanding the universe. In all ancient myth the world was explained in terms of battles of the gods in their struggle for dominance. The Torah dismisses this way of thinking totally and utterly. God speaks and the universe comes into being. This according to the great nineteenth century sociologist Max Weber was the end of myth and the birth of western rationalism.
More significantly, it created a new way of thinking about the universe. Central to both the ancient world of myth and the modern world of science is the idea of power, force, energy. That is what is significantly absent from Genesis 1. God says, “Let there be,” and there is. There is nothing here about power, resistance, conquest or the play of forces. Instead, the key word of the narrative, appearing seven times, is utterly unexpected. It is the word tov, good.
Tov is a moral word. The Torah in Genesis 1 is telling us something radical. The reality to which Torah is a guide (the word “Torah” itself means “guide, instruction, law”) is moral and ethical. The question Genesis seeks to answer is not “How did the universe come into being?” but “How then shall we live?” This is the Torah’s most significant paradigm-shift. The universe God made and we inhabit is not about power or dominance but about tov and ra, good and evil. For the first time, religion was ethicised. God cares about justice, compassion, faithfulness, loving-kindness, the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of life.
This same principle, that Genesis 1 is a polemic, part of an argument with a background, is essential to understanding the idea that God created humanity “in His image, after His likeness.” This language would not have been unfamiliar to the first readers of the Torah. It was one they knew well. It was a commonplace in the first civilizations, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Certain people were said to be in the image of God. They were the kings of the Mesopotamian city states and the pharaohs of Egypt. Nothing could have been more radical than to say that not just kings and rulers are God’s image. We all are. Even today the idea is daring: how much more so in an age of absolute rulers with absolute power.
Understood thus, Genesis 1: 26-27 is not so much a metaphysical statement about the nature of the human person as a political protest against the very basis of hierarchical, class- or caste-based societies whether in ancient or modern times. That is what makes it the most incendiary idea in the Torah. In some fundamental sense we are all equal in dignity and ultimate worth, for we are all in God’s image regardless of colour, culture or creed.
A similar idea appears later in the Torah, in relation to the Jewish people, when God invited them to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. All nations in the ancient world had priests, but none was “a kingdom of priests.” All religions have holy individuals but none claimed to be a nation every one of whose members was holy. This too took time to materialise. During the entire biblical era there were hierarchies. There were priests and high priests, a holy elite. But after the destruction of the Second Temple, every prayer became a sacrifice, every leader of prayer a priest, and every synagogue a fragment of the Temple. A profound egalitarianism is at work just below the surface of the Torah, and the rabbis knew it and lived it.
A second idea is contained in the phrase, “and let him have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky.” Note that there is no suggestion that anyone has the right to have dominion over any other human being. In Paradise Lost, Milton, like the Midrash, states that this was the sin of Nimrod, the first great ruler of Assyria and by implication the builder of the Tower of Babel (see Gen. 10: 8-11). Milton writes that when Adam was told that Nimrod would “arrogate dominion undeserved,” he was horrified:
O execrable son so to aspire
Above his Brethren, to himself assuming
Authority usurped, from God not given:
He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but man over men
He made not lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free. (Paradise Lost, Book XII: 64-71)
To question the right of humans to rule over other humans, without their consent, was at that time utterly unthinkable. All advanced societies were like this. How could they be otherwise? Was this not the very structure of the universe? Did the sun not rule the day? Did the moon not rule the night? Was there not in heaven itself a hierarchy of the gods? Already implicit here is the deep ambivalence the Torah would ultimately show toward the very institution of kingship, the rule of “man over men.”
The third implication lies in the sheer paradox of God saying “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” We sometimes forget, when reading these words, that in Judaism God has no image or likeness. To make an image of God is to transgress the second of the Ten Commandments and to be guilty of idolatry. Moses emphasized that at the revelation at Sinai, “You saw no likeness, you only heard the sound of words.”
God has no image because He is not physical. He transcends the physical universe because He created it. Therefore He is free, unconstrained by the laws of matter. That is what God means when he tells Moses that His name is “I will be what I will be,” and later when, after the sin of the golden calf, he tells him, “I will have mercy on who I will have mercy.” God is free, and by making us in His image, He gave us also the power to be free.
This, as the Torah makes clear, was God’s most fateful gift. Given freedom, humans misuse it. Adam and Eve disobey God’s command. Cain murders Abel. By the end of the parsha we find ourselves in the world before the Flood, filled with violence to the point where God regretted that He had ever created humanity. This is the central drama of Tanakh and of Judaism as a whole. Will we use our freedom to respect order or misuse it to create chaos? Will we honour or dishonour the image of God that lives within the human heart and mind?
These are not ancient questions only. They are as alive today as ever they were in the past. The question raised by serious thinkers, ever since Nietzsche argued in favour of abandoning both God and the Judeo-Christian ethic, is whether justice, human rights, and the unconditional dignity of the human person are capable of surviving on secular grounds alone? Nietzsche himself thought not.
In 2008, Yale philosopher Nicholas Woltersdorff published a magisterial work arguing that our Western concept of justice rests on the belief that “all of us have great and equal worth: the worth of being made in the image of God and of being loved redemptively by God.” There is, he insists, no secular rationale on which a similar framework of justice can be built. That is surely what John F. Kennedy meant in his Inaugural when he spoke of the “revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought,” that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Momentous ideas made the West what it is: human rights, the abolition of slavery, the equal worth of all, and justice based on the principle that right is sovereign over might. All ultimately derived from the statement in the first chapter of the Torah that we are made in God’s image and likeness. No other text has had a greater influence on moral thought, nor has any other civilization ever held a higher vision of what we are called on to be.
 What I take to be the meaning is of the story of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge must wait for another time. In the meantime see Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, I: 2.
Reb Miles Krassen
From Rabbi Yoel Glick
We are told in the Talmud, Hagigah 12A, that when God was creating the world, the land and the waters continued to expand by leaps and bounds until He rebuked them saying “dai” (enough), and then they stood still. The Talmud tells us that this is the meaning of the Divine Name El Shaddai: the God who said to the world “dai” – “enough.”
Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches that this is why the Sacred Name of Shaddai is present on the mezuzah (the sacred parchment fixed to the doorpost) as we enter and leave our home, to remind us to say “dai”, enough, to the objects of this world, just as God said “dai” to the forces of creation – to warn us to limit our desires and ambitions and live by the principle of contentment.
From Rabbi Steven Fisdel
“The Cycle of Dark and Light Within Us”
In the Kabbalah, light and dark are seen as a simultaneous creation and at root a unified reality. Both light and dark emerge as two sides of the same divine impulse. At the highest level of the Tree of Life stands the divine impetus. It is in this concealed realm where God’s thought takes place that divine action is initiated.
In the realm of God’s Thought, the impetus to act, light and dark are all aspects of the same thing. As God’s Will manifests in the process of creating the universe, light and dark become differentiated and enter into a dynamic relationship with each other that is the basis for sustaining all of creation. Understanding this reality deeply holds great meaning for us as conscious beings.
Light and dark begin as part of the great unity from which everything comes. Their roots are in the singularity of consciousness. From that unity they emerge as separate forces that are in continual relationship with each other and are bound together inextricably. One flows from the other in endless rotation. Rooted in unity, the dualism of light and dark power creation and by extension, the whole creative process.
In Biblical literature, God creates the universe through the interplay of light and dark and consistently proclaims the whole process of their continual interaction as great good. Light and dark are the two halves constituting the existence and movement of consciousness. We experience consciousness and life through the interplay of these two primal forces. They are the heartbeat of our conscious experience. We are full and we are empty in a lifelong series of cycles and we must honor and cherish this movement, if we are truly to have a meaningful and transformative life experience.
If one follows the logic of the Creation narrative in the Book of Genesis, the unfolding of conscious experience is not only cyclical but also a progressive process of new elements being added to the reality of things. That is; Creation builds on itself stage by stage, opening up new dimensions sequentially before finally coming to a rest point. At the juncture that the process comes to rest, it culminates in a complete reality.
The process of creation continually repeats itself. One week completes itself and as a result, another week is initiated. As that week ends it is followed by another one. The paradigm of creation is therefore one involving a set pattern that repeats itself cyclically.
What is of considerable significance is the fact that in the Biblical view, light emerges out of darkness and that this is not seen as a dichotomy, but rather as a natural flow of interlocking and complementary forces that fuel the process of creative expression unfolding. God creates something, often building on what was already formed and thereby extending the process toward a specific conclusion.
God’s spirit hovers over the dark void, creates light and then separates the two. There was evening and then morning, the result being the completion of Day One. It is important to note that not only do each of the “days”, the various stages of creation, emerge from its predecessor, but also that they all follow the same pattern. The dark comes first during which time the new elements of creation are formed and is followed by the light, by which these new components are made manifest. Light emerges out of dark and by doing so, the dark is fulfilled by the light.
In this manner the stages of the creative process are enunciated as discrete realities forming links in a chain that continually renews itself. In Kabbalist thought, God continually renews creation. This means that the Holy One is not simply replicating creation, but rather that it is being continually upgraded and refined. There is no stasis in creation or in the creative process. The pattern stays the same, but the re-emerging reality is never exactly the same. Everything is in evolution. That is the inherent nature of creation.
One can certainly look at the process of the creation of the world also as the paradigm of consciousness per se. Viewed from that standpoint, then each completed cycle in our life, be it large or small, is not a duplicated circle, but rather another revolution in an expanding spiral. We are not constantly repeating the same reality over and over again.
We are developing. Our understanding of self and our ability to express ourselves change and re-adjust over time. True, the framework of our experience remains consistent. However, what we come away with from our experience is quite varied, often very rich and definitely leaves us altered.
Like DNA, reality constantly unfolds as a spiraling chain. In human terms, each cycle of our conscious experience adds another link to our overall chain of life. Our experience is in perpetual motion, bringing new configurations, new challenges and new possibilities, and so forcing us to respond. Our experience and our responses to it forge the links, which result in the chain itself continually growing, developing and expanding our consciousness.
If the cycle of dark and light is the very basis for the unfolding and developing of conscious awareness and self-understanding, how do we experience it within ourselves, how to we come to understand it and how do we manage it?
To answer these questions, we need to begin with a definition of what dark and light mean in regard to human experience.
In Kabbalist thinking, at the highest level dark has a great deal to do with the primal state of void. That means that the reality of dark, psycho-emotionally, has to do with being empty. One’s awareness is not focused on anything. It is aware, but not centered on thoughts, concepts, feelings or emotion. The mind is totally clear. It is fully aware of itself, but of nothing else.
Dark leaves us unimpeded and free. It is not pre-occupied with anything whatsoever. Hence, the essence of the dark is the ability to be completely open and to remain totally receptive. The principle of dark is that of the vastness beyond time and space. It is the formless, empty void, which waits to welcome and embrace the light.
The principle of light at its origin is understood to be the source of our individuality.
Each of us is unique as souls. Being is the reality of the soul. However, manifesting and developing the qualities of our soul is the essence of our existence. So, being unique is not enough. We are impelled to become, not just to be. Light is our drive to express ourselves and to be creative on all levels. It is the great internal push to actualize who we are and manifest what we can become.
Light has everything to do with life, not simply existence. At its root, light is our will, the ability to choose, to focus, to pursue and to achieve. We not only are eternal souls, but we have the mandate to fulfill ourselves and to evolve. In order to do that, we have to express ourselves continually in order to fully manifest the vast dimensions of who we are and come to understand why we are here. Just as God is the Creator, we who are made in the Divine Image by nature have to be creative.
Our light is our potential. Our dark is the acceptance of that potential and the ability to give it direction. Light is our energy and our determination. It is our creativity and our drive to fulfill ourselves and grow. Dark acts as the womb. It takes in the light. It holds it within and it nurtures it, allowing the light to take shape and to develop.
So, the dark precedes the light because one has to be open and vacant to receive the light. One can only fill a vessel that is empty. If it already has contents, it function is fulfilled. As long as that state remains, there is nothing else to be done with the container. If light is the energy of our being trying to express itself, it needs somewhere to go. It has to be received and contained in order for it to be given form and definition.
Light emerges from its concealment in the dark in order to manifest itself after it has been given shape. Once revealed, it works its process through, expressing itself fully. When the manifestation of the light completes itself, it is fulfilled and the light merges back into the dark, adding another link to the chain of life experience. At that point, the spiral extends itself further and the process starts anew. A new cycle begins its journey.
At the center of our lives, we need to remain very clear about the great importance of each cycle we are working through and be focused on it carefully as we work through it. Moreover, we need to be unwaveringly devoted to the supreme sacredness of the whole journey of life as we experience it. This is how we grow spiritually, from dark to light in an ever expanding spiral of conscious awareness.
From Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
“A flash of light”
It is written that at first God thought to create the world completely under the sign of judgment, or law.
This meant that He Himself would be completely absent — everything would proceed according to its own nature and there would be no need for Divine interference.
Such a world would be sealed and finished; there would be no way of anything getting beyond itself.
But God saw that this was not feasible, that it was necessary for mercy to be able to operate in the world, not only as a form of being, but manifesting as revelation.
Something had to penetrate the hard core, even if only as a flash of light that would illuminate the darkness of deterministic density.
This, incidentally, is the image used by the Rambam to describe the nature of prophecy:
It is like what happens to a man walking in utter darkness.
Suddenly there is a flash of lightning, which, for a moment, shows him where he is, so that afterward, even though he is still in darkness, he has at least oriented himself and knows where he has to go.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From “Breaking through the Barrier” in The Sustaining Utterance by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Not Knowing about Mortality (5773/2012)
Kayin spoke to his brother Hevel when they were in the field. Kayin rose up towards Hevel and killed him. God said to Kayin, “Where is your brother Hevel?” He said, “I do not know.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 4:8-9)’’
“I do not know.” Most likely, Kayin truly does not know how to answer God’s question. In the narrative of the Torah, no one has yet died.
Normally, when we read this text, we don’t pause to notice the gravity of Kayin’s truthful answer “I do not know.” We rush on to his more sarcastic tagline, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Kayin’s truthful answer is still true – as it should be — in at least three ways.
(1) In times of civic peace, death is a disruption, an opening on to existential and emotional questions. Only in terrible times of war, plague, or famine do people become numb to the disruption.
(2) We do not know what happens to the soul, spirit, or animating force of a person who has died. All we know is that, if we were close to them while they were alive, we continue to encounter them after they have died. It’s not unusual to continue our relationship through memory, dreams, conversations, or visual imagery.
(3) We do not know the definitive or correct way to mourn. As Torah tells it, Adam and Chava express no outward grief, continue their life together, and give birth to more children. On the other hand, Kayin, despite his worldly accomplishments, remains forever unsettled inside himself. Torah passes no judgment on either approach, simply reporting them as ways human beings might cope.
From this I take comfort: the fact that I do not know is not a failing, just a feature of human nature. Socrates echoed this in his famous statement, “I am wise…because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”
Creation and Evolution (5771/2010)
Does the Torah support a theory of evolution?
Two traditional Jewish answers are: (a) Yes! (b) Who cares?
Those who argue “yes,” say: Torah’s language teaches that the first three days of creation were eons. On the first three days, Torah speaks of the alternation of light and darkness, marking something called a “day.” Yet a “day” cannot possibly mean “24 hours” until the fourth day, when God installs sun, moon, and stars to mark “occasions, days, and years.”
And they also say: If you look beyond the words that form the basic rhythmic structure of Bereisheet/Exodus Chapter One, the word that appears most often is zera, seed. Torah uses this word ten times, to emphasize the potential for change in the created work. Classical rabbinic midrash adds that the separate days of creation mark pauses in God’s creative activity. During those pauses, God allowed each created thing to bring forth its own potential.
Those who find the question irrelevant say: Torah is neutral regarding theories of biology and physics. It should not be used to confirm or refute scientific truth. Instead, the poetic images and meter of the creation story invite us to pause and wonder at the complex harmonies of the living universe. The story stimulates us to attend more carefully to fellow creatures, and understand how we might learn from them some of the lessons God has hidden for us in this world.
In the Image of God (5770/2009)
What does it mean to say that we are created in the image of God?
Mishnah: Every human being is of infinite value.
Talmud: Just as God has no determinate image, each of us is unique.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides: We have intellectual ability.
Zohar: God has both male and female qualities.
Rabbi Moses Cordovero: We are compassionate.
Rabbi Solomon Dubnow: The human soul is immortal.
Rabbi Gutmann: It is possible for every human being to have a personal relationship with God.
Yonit (age 8): Because each of us is unique, God is like every single person in a community.
Shabbat Parashat Bereshit / Mevarekhim ha’Hodesh
October 21, 2011 / 24 Tishri 5772
By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz
Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature
Two For The Price of One
Torah Reading: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10
This week we begin the Torah again. Well, some of us do. Actually, at the synagogue where I am a member, Temple Beth Am Los Angeles – and including the Library Minyan, where I most frequently daven – we will begin with the second third of Parashat Bereshit, as we begin the second year of the triennial cycle. There are many good reasons why some Conservative Jewish communities choose the option of reading in this way. Nonetheless, as with most things in life, there are also trade-offs, things that can be lost. In this case, one of the trade-offs is a chance to experience the continuity and juxtapositions built into the biblical narrative.
A particularly interesting example of such a juxtaposition is found in this week’s parashah. As noted by Biblical scholars (and in the Etz Hayim humash), there are actually two accounts of the Creation of the world and of human beings in Genesis. The first, found in Gen. 1 and 2:1-3, made up last year’s triennial reading (and the last aliyah read on Simhat Torah). The second starts at the beginning of this year’s reading, with 2:4, and continues into chapter 3. The first gives us the six days of Creation, the second the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge. The two also have what appear to be different accounts of the creation of human beings, particularly the creation of male and female human beings. Gen. 1:27 relates that on the sixth day, “God created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created him (oto), male and female He created them (otam) (Gen. 5:1-2 has a similar statement). Gen. 2:15-24 tells the familiar story of the creation of a single, male, human being, Adam, and God’s subsequent removal of one of Adam’s ribs to create a second, female human being, Eve.
Reading triennially, we might not take note of this apparent discrepancy. Certain modern biblical scholars would suggest two different narratives and sources that were redacted into our current text. The classical rabbis, however, reading the Torah as the unified word of the One and Unique God, had to find another solution. In the Talmud (Berachot 61a and Eruvin 18a-b) and the midrash to Genesis, Bereshit Rabbah (5:1; similarly Vayikra Rabbah 14:1), some rabbis take the position that the original human was actually “two faced” – that is, two persons, one male and one female, linked in a single body. What Gen. 2 describes as the taking of a rib from Adam is actually the splitting of one half of the original person from the other, thereby making two distinct beings, one male and one female. In Talmudic terms, is the “rib” taken from Adam a “face,” a distinct person separated from another distinct person? Or is it a “tail,” that is, a small appendage, out of which an entirely new, and later, female being was fashioned? Perhaps, counter some rabbis of the latter view (the rib was a “tail”), the verses in chap. 1 indicate only that God’s original intent was to create two beings in one, but that in fact God ultimately decided to create just one (male) human being, as in Gen. 2; in Ketubot 8a it is even claimed that this is the commonly held view.
[A later, medieval approach to the textual problem in Genesis (found in Otzar Midrashim) proposes that there were in fact two creations of the “first” woman. Adam’s first female partner, referred to in Gen. 1, was not Eve, but Lilith. When Lilith claimed equality with Adam (sexually and otherwise) because they had both been created at the same time, he resisted. She then “uttered the Divine Name and flew away.” Refusing to return, she instead became the mother and queen of demon-kind; Eve was then created out of Adam’s rib and became the mother of human-kind. In our day, Lilith has lent her name to a Jewish feminist journal.]
The significance of this debate to the rabbis of the midrash and Talmud, and thus to us as their spiritual descendants, is summed up by rabbinics scholar Judith Baskin in her book Midrashic Women:
Delineating the nature of the first human creation was important because of what was at stake. Essentially, the theoretical basis for rabbinic Judaism’s conviction that men shared in the divine image in ways that women did not and that men should therefore be privileged in ways that women were not rested on the belief in the initial creation of a single man. This version of events maintained the primacy of the male and made clear that only men were created in God’s likeness with the implications of potency, dominance, and generativity which followed from this analogy. Conversely, the secondary nature of women’s creation from man’s rib affirmed her secondary position in marriage, in reproduction, and in the public aspects of rabbinic society. (49)
This is no doubt why many modern Jewish women – and men who support women’s equality – have found this interpretation of Genesis to be an important resource, as a counter-narrative to the more familiar story of the secondary Eve, the secondary nature of woman and womankind. The two-in-one creation makes women and the feminine part and parcel of the initial Creation, not a later addition to the original male.
Yet the rabbinic account of the “two-in-one” creation cannot be described as “feminist” in its original intent. Even according to those held that the original human being was a “two-in-one” creature, the Talmud goes on to say, it must certainly have been the case that when this being went somewhere, the male half took the lead.
What is more, I also have to admit that as important and appealing as I find the reading of the original two-in-one human, there is yet another scholarly source that, though it is not feminist in intent, nonetheless gives me, as a feminist, a bit of pause. In a talk given in October of 1972, the French, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas offered an interpretation of the Talmudic dispute about the nature of the first human being (“And God Created Woman,” found in Nine Talmudic Readings, 161-177). Among other things, he said:
The one for whom the rib is a face posits a perfect equality between the feminine and the masculine…The creation of man was the creation of two beings in one but of two beings equal in dignity: difference and sexual relations belong to the fundamental content of what is human. What does the one who sees only a tail in the rib mean?…he too does not think that woman came into the world through natural evolution, from a lost bone of man; he knows that she came forth from a real act of creation. But he thinks that beyond the personal relationship that establishes itself between these two beings issued from two creative acts, the particularity of the feminine is secondary. It is not woman who is secondary; it is the relationship with woman that is secondary; it is the relationship with woman as woman that does not belong to what is fundamentally human. Fundamental are the tasks that man accomplishes as a human being and that woman accomplishes as a human being. (169)
What I believe Levinas is trying to point out is that while a two-in-one creation would suggest one kind of equality between male and female, a two-step creation process can in its own, different, way be a model towards equality. Levinas’ point is obscured by his tendency to use the term “man” to mean “human being ” (though it was typical of the time in which he spoke) and thus his inclination to equate “human” with the masculine, from which “femininity” is secondary, a deviation. But with a bit of reframing, Levinas’ question becomes a deeply significant one.
What Levinas calls “femininity” we might call “gender,” by which I mean our experience and understanding (personal and cultural) of humans being divided into the categories of “male” and “female,” “masculine” and “feminine.” That is, we should ask ourselves if our experience of ourselves as distinctly “male” and “female,” our experience of ourselves as gendered beings, can and ought to be secondary to our experience of ourselves as all human. Put another way, we should not say that “femininity” is secondary to “masculinity,” as if “masculinity” were the generic and “femininity” the different and the particular, but rather both “masculinity” and “femininity,” and the division between them, are secondary to “humanity.”
Are we humans first, before we are men and women? Do our differences, and the challenges they create in our relationships with each other, come second? Do we start all the same, undifferentiated, and is that therefore a source of equality? Alternately, if our division into men and women is integral and original to Creation (if humans were created two-in-one), can our particularities exist from the very beginning without our being in competition with each other? Or would we women and we men be left without any common features to help us transcend our fundamental difference(s) – and if so, what sort of an equality could result from this on-going antagonism between equals?
These are fundamental questions about our nature as human beings. Neither the Torah nor the rabbis necessarily resolve them one way or the other. Indeed, perhaps by means of this intriguing juxtaposition, the Torah tells us that this very uncertainty about our nature is itself inherent in Creation and must be an on-going challenge to us. Again and again, we must ask what it means for all of us to have been created in the Divine Image, and how we can create relations between us, in all our particularities, that recognize and institutionalize our underlying equality before the One who created us all.
The blessing of “dominion” or r’diyah in the first chapter of Genesis troubles many environmentalists: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and occupy her, and have dominion over [or, dominate] ur’du the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky and every animal creeping on the land.” [Gen 1:28] It seems like a clarion call to profiteer off of the earth, or at the very least a problematic directive that is likely to be abused.
From Nachmanides’ perspective (one of the very first Kabbalistic commentators), the true nature of the original dominion is shown in the second chapter of Genesis, when the human being names all the animals. According to Ramban (Nachmanides), what dominion means is that Adam would call a name to each animal and then that animal would come to him – in other words, he would name and tame them.* Instead of “dominate”, ur’du would mean something closer to “domesticate”.
In fact, there are no commentaries on this verse in the span of Jewish history that would justify the connection some people make between dominion and the kind of exploitation of animals that is part of our modern society. The actual meaning of dominion in the first chapter of Genesis does not even allow human beings to eat meat. More broadly, dominion does not grant the first humans the right to destroy anything or to use anything against its nature or instinctual need. From the Talmudic perspective, dominion in Genesis means the right to use animals to do work, and nothing more.**
After the flood of Noah, a similar-sounding blessing is given: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, and fear of you and dread of you will be on all the [animals], they are given into your hand…And you, be fruitful and multiply and swarm in the land…” (Gen. 9) Though it sounds almost the same, the word for “dominion” is no longer part of the blessing spoken by God. According to Rashi, this means that humans were no longer blessed with dominion.
The human family leaving the ark is granted a rule of “fear and dread” over the animals. In addition to the obvious absence of any word related to dominion in the blessing, this condition of “fear and dread” is understod sometimes as a kind of curse rather than a blessing, corresponding directly to the permission to eat meat. This “power over” may sound like the parallel to dominion, but the midrashic commentaries heard the opposite message. As Rashi (the greatest medieval Jewish scriptural commentator) wrote on B’reishit Rabbah (the earliest collection of midrashim on the book of Genesis), after the flood, “fear returned, but dominion did not return”.***
Dominion is quite pointedly the opposite of “fear and dread”. What we find in Jewish interpretations of Genesis is the idea that dominion means being able to use something for the sake of a greater good, not to use it up for selfish reasins that would its lead to destruction. (See Maimonides’ perspective in “Rambam and the Earth”.)
These interpretations are all congruent with sustainable use. The meaning of “dominion” is not the anti-environmental concept that both environmentalists and religious doctrinaires imagine. It’s worth mulling over the true meaning, even though we may still want to develop a more biocentric approach to environmental ethics than thise verse can provide. Only a fallen world–meaning a world denigrated by the human abuse of nature—is ruled by the kind of “dominion” or exploitation that many human civilizations and nations carry out today.
* Ramban’s reading of the end of the verse, that the human being could find “no help corresponding to himself”, no ezer k’negdo, is that even though he was able to give the other animals names, none of them was able to give him a name! This wonderful interpretation is somehwat counter-balanced by his reading of the phrase “fill the land (or earth) and occupy/conquer her” in the same verse: for him this includes the power to “act upon our will” with respect to the animals because they are created from the earth. See more on his interpretation of “conquer her” here .
** You can read this history, along with the history of Christian interpretation, in Jeremy Cohen’s excellent book, “Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text.
*** For Rashi and other commentators, fear also existed before the flood, but was abated during the flood itself so that all the species could live together peacably on the ark. Note that ‘dread’, chit’khem, is a new element in the relationship between humans and animals after the flood from the perspective of either Nachmanides’ or Rashi’s reading of the flood story.
For a guide to midrashim on the flood story related to biodiversity, see the curriculum on biodiversity written by Rabbi David Seidenberg for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Torah Reading for Week of September 28 – October 2, 2010
American Academy for Jewish Religion/CA
“Music and Civilization”
by Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, ’10
The use of music as entertainment is a late and relatively rare phenomenon in human history. Rather than an end in itself, music most often serves as an aid to other, non-musical, objectives and events. Musical tones accompany ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations throughout the world. Songs and chants are frequently used to transmit messages, stories, values, and ideals. Music’s many utilitarian genres include work songs, lullabies, military marches, and national anthems. These observations point to the fact that music is much more than a peripheral concern. Since ancient times, music has been a constant and indispensable part of human life. Allusion to this is even made in Parshat Bereshit, the opening chapters of the Torah.
The first reference to music in the Bible appears in a compressed passage in Genesis listing the descendants of Cain and the growth of human civilization (Gen. 4:17-22). As in many ancient cultures, the Bible links the invention of music with a mythological personage. His name is Jubal, “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (v. 21).
This short verse is the only place Jubal appears in the biblical text; we have no other accounts of his personality or the music that he made. However, this paucity of information does not necessarily negate Jubal’s status or significance. On the contrary, it may be an indication that music—and perhaps the Jubal legend—was so well known in Israelite culture that further descriptions were not needed. As musicologist Alfred Sendrey explained, “The biblical authors took it for granted that the people were thoroughly familiar with musical matters, so that they considered it unnecessary to indulge in long descriptions and minute details” (Music in Ancient Israel, p. 60).
Jubal’s importance is also gleaned from the context in which he is found. In the same passage, we read that his brother, Jabal, was the first to raise cattle (v. 20), and his half-brother, Tubal-cain, “forged all implements of copper and iron” (v. 22). Mention of music’s invention alongside the origins of cattle raising and tool forging reveals an early recognition of the vital role of music in society. Indeed, the Torah seems to imply that herding, metal forging, and music making are the three fundamental professions upon which humanity depends.
Music in ancient Israel was almost entirely of a practical kind, or Gebrauchsmusik. It served a variety of daily purposes, like education and divine worship. And, from those days to the present, the collective memories, oral histories, wisdom, and sacred stories of the Jewish people have been contained and passed on in musical tones. Thus, while Jabal can be seen as the ancestor of food production and Tubal-Cain as the ancestor of technology, Jubal is in many ways the ancestor of knowledge.
It is tempting to group music among life’s superfluous or auxiliary elements. But doing so ignores the role of melody in conveying ideas and information, facilitating social bonding and cohesion, and a host of other functions. Historically and cross-culturally, music resides at the center rather than the fringes of human experience. This is why we find music placed prominently in the stories of Creation. Without Jubal, the Torah teaches, civilization would be incomplete.
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
Torah Reading for Week of October 11-17, 2009
“Redemption of the Snake-Crossing Boundaries”
by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
President, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA
While it is true that on the literal level (Pshat), the snake in the Garden of Eden is accused of causing Eve to sin, and is cursed as a result, on a more esoteric level (Sod), we may say that the snake represents a very important teaching for us. After all, the Kabbala, equates the Nachash (snake) with Moshiach (Messiah) through Gematria (the system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase). In this case, they both equal 358 when you count their letters. The Kabbala also points out that the word Chet (sin) equals Chai (life) through Gematria, both equaling eighteen. Moreover, the Parsha Bereishit, containing the story of the snake and the Garden of Eden, always occurs after the holiday of Sukkot; an abode in which we must dwell, and which can only be reached by crossing a boundary. Though Judaism emphasizes the importance of maintaining strong boundaries, it is equally important to realize that it is, at times, essential to cross boundaries in order to grow and find greater harmony.
Though Eve was delighting in the Garden, she dwelt in a world of beauty that consisted of one eternal light, a one-sided goodness. The Garden encased Adam and Eve in the safety of a place of ideal beauty and loveliness, the fantasy that most people long for. While this state protects us from having to face change, and temporary chaos, it also prevents us from facing the unknown which leads to growth. We must all leave the Garden. (G-d pre-ordained the Chet that would lead to Chai). So something shifted in Eve in her encounter with the snake to make a bold move and disobey the literal word of G-d because of some higher esoteric calling (Et La’sot L’Hashem). She brought an aspect of the unknown into paradise, for this is an essential ingredient for growth and individuation, for consciousness. Sinning becomes the name of following one’s inner authority, and becoming aware of one’s inner authority becomes necessary while walking the path of individuation. The process of encountering newness encourages a type of movement. This movement provides the option of momentarily letting go of the known and gives the ability to move into the unknown. Psychologically, this is a courageous step one takes towards the threshold between the known and unknown. The snake became the catalyst for Eve to step into the threshold; the no man’s land, the passing into the Sukkah. The snake symbolizes this by shedding its skin and growing a new layer, throwing off the past and continuing to live, death and rebirth, transformation. Eve was able to slough off the known rules of the Garden and embark upon a new path of her own creation. It was a movement from obedience to the literal, to an outer authority, to listening to the Voice of G-d within, the inner dimension of the Torah, obtained through conflict and a new way of hearing. The snake thus opens the path of individuation for all humankind, Chet becomes Chai, Nachash becomes Mashiach, when we, through inner faith, cross the threshold into the Sukkah, where Hashem truly protects us.
The snake has been vilified for suggesting an opposing view to the one-sided goodness. But I do not think that this is the truly Jewish view, which encourages struggle with the opposites, and movement toward growth as a result. (Our world is a world of “Bet-duality” (‘Bereishit’) and not “Aleph” (the world of the one-sided Garden). I believe the snake shared this divine thought with Eve. It had innate instinctual wisdom. It told her that eating from the fruit would not kill her but would lead her to a life of greater depth. Of course, the ego which wants simplicity and unity suffers as a result and attempts to pull us back into a world of literalism and fundamentalism, but once we walk past the threshold, once we leave the Garden, we can not return in this simplistic manner. We learn to live with conflict that leads to depth and discovery, and feel greater conviction towards our inner authority, towards G-d’s strong Voice supporting us. Though change appears to be a traitor to everything that promises to endure, Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter, the Sfat Emet, teaches that “exile (Galut) has an innate purpose that leads both to inner redemption (Geulah) and redemption of humanity by revealing (Gilui) the hidden light submerged in exile.”
Bereishit: Tasty Fruit Trees
The account in the Torah describing Creation and the beginnings of mankind is not particularly encouraging. We read of Adam’s sin, the murder of Abel, the origins of idol worship, the corrupt generation of the Flood, and so on.
The Kabbalists used the term “shevirat hakeilim”, breaking of the vessels, to describe the many difficulties that occurred in the process of creating the world. With this phrase, they wished to convey the idea that the limited physical realm was incapable of accepting all of the spiritual content that it needed to contain. Like a balloon pumped with too much air, it simply burst.
The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 5:9) relates that these failings were not only with the human inhabitants of the universe, but also with the heavenly bodies (a power struggle between the sun and the moon) and even with earth itself. The ‘vessels broke’ on many different levels.
What was the ‘rebellion of the earth’?
God commanded the earth to give forth “fruit trees producing fruit” (Gen. 1:11). The earth, however, only produced “trees producing fruit” (Gen. 1:12). God’s intention, the Midrash explains, was that the trees would be literally fruit trees — i.e., the taste of the fruit would be in the tree itself. Were one to lick the bark of an apple tree, for example, it would taste like apple.
What does this mean? Why should the trees taste like their own fruit?
Appreciating the Path
Rav Kook explained that the Midrash is describing a fundamental flaw of nature. One of the basic failings of our limited world is that we are unable to appreciate the means — the path we take towards a particular goal — as much as we value the goal itself. We set for ourselves many goals, both short-term and long-term; and we are usually excited, even inspired, by the vision of accomplishing our final objectives. But how much exhilaration do we feel in our laborious, day-to-day efforts to attain these goals?
A number of factors — the world’s material character, life’s transient nature, and the weariness of spirituality when confined to a physical framework — contribute to the current state of affairs, so that we can only sense true fulfillment after attaining the ultimate goal.
God’s intention, however, was that the soul would be able to feel some of the inspiration experienced when contemplating a sublime goal also during the process of achieving that end. This is the inner meaning of the Midrash: the means (the fruit tree) should also contain some of the taste, some of the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that we feel in the final goal (the fruit).
In the future, the flaws of Creation will be corrected, including the sin of the earth. The world’s physical nature will no longer obstruct the resplendent light of the ideal while it is being accomplished through suitable means. Then we will be able to enjoy genuine awareness of the ultimate purpose that resides within all preparatory activity.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 21-22. Adapted from Orot HaTeshuvah 6:7)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Breishit: Letters of Creation
The Midrash relates how the first letter of the Torah was selected. Before the world was created, the letters of the alphabet presented themselves before God. The letter Aleph then announced: I should be used to create the world, since I am the first letter in the alphabet. But God replied: No, I will create the world with the letter Bet, because it is the first letter of the word brachah (blessing). If only My world will be for a blessing!
For this reason, the account of the world’s creation begins with the letter Bet — Breishit. The Aleph, as the first letter in the alphabet, was given a different honor: it was selected to begin the Ten Commandments — Anochi.
Nice story — but what does it matter which letters were used to start Genesis and the Ten Commandments?
Two Types of Light
A major textual difficulty in the account of Creation concerns the creation of light. God created light on the first day, but the sun and the stars were only formed on the fourth day. So what kind of light was created on day one?
According to the Sages, the light of the first day was no ordinary light. It was a very elevated light — so elevated that God decided that it was too pure for this world. He hid this special light away for the righteous in the future. Where did God conceal it? In the Torah.
The Torah, the Sages taught, preceded the world and its physical limitations. The pristine light of the first day also belongs to this initial stage of creation, transcending all limitations of time and place.
Unlike the elevated light of the first day, regular light is produced by the heavenly bodies that were created on the fourth day. Our awareness of the passing of time, of days and seasons and years, comes from the world’s movement and rotation. The sun and the stars, God announced, “will be for signs and festivals, days and years” (Gen.1:14). Our concept of time belongs to the limits of the created universe; it is the product of movement and change, a result of the world’s temporal nature.
This second type of light corresponds to a lower holiness that penetrates and fills the world. In the language of the Zohar, the higher, transcendent light ‘surrounds all the worlds’ (“soveiv kol almin”), while the lower, immanent light descends and ‘penetrates all of the created worlds’ (“memalei kol almin”).
Now we may understand why the Midrash states that God created the universe with the letter Bet. Bet, the second letter, indicates that our world is based on two forms of infinite light: an elevated, timeless light, and a lower light subject to the limitations of time and place. These two forms of light are the blessing that God bestowed to the world.
Sanctifying the Sabbath
This dual holiness is apparent in the seventh day of creation — “The heavens and the earth and all of their components were finished and He rested on the seventh day” (Gen. 2:1-2). The holiness of the Sabbath is keviyah vekayama, set and eternal, independent of our actions. And yet, we are commanded to sanctify it — “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Ex. 20:8). How can we sanctify that which is already holy?
The essential holiness of the Sabbath is eternal, transcending time; but it has the power to sanctify time. By reciting kiddush, we give the Sabbath an additional holiness – the lower, time-bound holiness. Therefore it is written that the Jewish people are blessed with a neshamah yeteirah, an extra soul, on the Sabbath. The first neshamah is the regular soul of the rest of the week, the soul that rules over the body. This soul is bound by the framework of time, just as the body that it governs is temporal and impermanent. On the Sabbath, however, an additional neshamah is revealed — a soul that transcends time, the soul of Israel that is rooted in the highest spiritual realms.
Our recitation of kiddush on Shabbat commemorates two historic events: creation of the world, and the Exodus. Creation is the aspect of holiness that transcends time, a holiness that is still only potential. The Exodus is the aspect of holiness within time, a holiness that was realized.
Bet and Aleph
Thus the Bet of Breishit is a double blessing: of potential and realized holiness, of timeless and time-bound light.
And what about the Aleph? The Torah’s revelation at Sinai came to repair the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. “I created the evil impulse and I created the Torah as a remedy for it” (Kiddushin 30). The Torah reveals the transcendent light of the first day of Creation, the light of timeless holiness. Therefore the first letter of the Ten Commandments, the beginning of the Torah’s revelation, is an Aleph — “Anochi Hashem Elokecha,” “I am the Eternal your God.” Like the Aleph, representing the number one, the Torah contains the infinite light of day one, the boundless light that God saved for the righteous.
(Adapted from Shemu’ot HaRe’iyah Breishit, pp. 6-9 (1931))
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Another mother psalm: song for the sixth day
Posted: 01 Jul 2010 08:13 AM PDT
SONG FOR THE SIXTH DAY
On the sixth day I labored
to birth a world.
To make room for you
I contracted myself, touched
the place where I disappear.
And for you, the journey
from my endless embrace
into the world of separation…
But when my work was completed
I gazed into your bottomless eyes
— my image; my likeness —
and I was not alone
rest with me now
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
(In the Beginning)
God creates the world.
EVERY SHABBAT CELEBRATES CREATION and thus the continuing re-creation of our world.
Creation begins with Light, (Or), which is another word for consciousness. God wraps us within garments of skin, (Or), which is Light (Or) made dense. Our physical bodies and the whole world that we see enfolds the Light of Creation. In this way, our world both reveals and conceals the Light of Creation.
Describing Creation the Zohar says:
“The silkworm wraps itself within and makes itself a palace. This palace is its praise and a benefit to all.”1
Our journey of consciousness/Light leads us through embodiment, the palace of existence, to Enlightenment, where God waits for us, ever present.
From the purity and innocence of Eden we journey forth through Duality (represented by the Tree of Good and Evil), through self-knowledge, suffering, and mistakes, towards the Tree of Life, a tree that is rooted in the Divine Reality, with branches that find their flower in our humanity.
THE BLESSING COMES as we receive a vision of “the palace” (physical reality) and let its praise sing through us. God is here, inside all Creation, radiant and waiting.
The teachings of Kabbala address the mystery of how the Divine becomes manifest, how the infinite enters the finite, how we might possibly bridge the chasm between God and Creation. Kabbala gives us the image of the Tree of Life with its roots in Heaven and its branches reaching into human awareness. The Tree has ten s’firot which form the pathways from the infinite to the finite. Each s’firah is perceived as a set of associated images that elucidate a certain quality such as Loving-flow, Boundaried-strength, Balanced Beauty, Endurance, or Sparkling-Glory.
THE TREE OF LIFE IS A VEHICLE FOR BLESSING. It is the connection between Heaven and Earth, between the infinite and the finite.
The seven days correspond to the seven lower s’firot of the Tree of Life. Each of these seven days and s’firot blesses us with its own gift. Moving along the pathway of the Palace of Creation, we discover God Herself wrapped within. As we get closer, we ourselves unwrap the Mystery of existence: the presence of God within everything.
WITH THE CREATION OF LIGHT (consciousness, the dividing of light from darkness) we receive the blessing of Chesed – of Love and Flow.
WITH THE CREATION OF THE FIRMAMENT (the separation of the waters above from the waters below) we receive the blessing of Gevurah – Boundaries, Strength and Discernment.
WITH THE CREATION OF LAND, sea, and vegetation, we receive the blessings of Tiferet – Beauty, Harmony and Balance.
WITH THE CREATION OF THE SUN, moon, and stars, we receive the blessng of Netzach – Endurance.
WITH THE CREATION OF FISHES and birds, we receive the blessing of Hod – Sparkle and Variety.
WITH THE CREATION OF LAND ANIMALS and humans in God’s image, we receive the blessing of Yesod – Foundation, Regenerativity, Creativity.
AND WITH THE CREATION OF SHABBAT, we receive Malkhut – the Indwelling Presence.
In receiving all these blessings we enter “the palace” where we may hear the praise of all Creation. Then, the power of our shining awareness, overflowing gratitude, and resplendent praise can send all of those sparks back to their Source.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
OUR SOUL’S JOURNEY BEGINS WITH THE QUESTION, “Ayeka? Where are you?” Hearing God’s first question, Adam hides, saying, “I was afraid because I was naked.” The spiritual challenge of this beginning time is to know that we are utterly naked and vulnerable. Yet rather than hide, we are challenged to stand in our nakedness. We are spurred to uncover our essence, to let go of everything that we’ve acquired to keep us safe. We are required to stand in our vulnerability, to open to the power that moves through us. This vulnerability allows us to experience the energy and flow of an ever-shifting and dynamic Reality. Suzuki Roshi calls this condition Beginner’s Mind:
“…mind free from possessing anything, a mind that knows everything is in flowing change. Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped.” 2
Even one moment of Beginner’s Mind wakes us up to the knowledge that we always perceive the world through our own specific lens. Our first challenge is to examine that lens in order to learn its peculiar distortions and colorings.
THE SECOND CHALLENGE is to receive Creation as a gift, experiencing the complete, swirling re-creation of the world in this present moment. Instead of trying to figure it all out by acquiring more and more data about the world, our challenge is to simply open to the gift of each breath and enter the process of freeing our attention so that we can receive, in radical amazement, the newness of each moment. This receptivity is dependent upon being present and finding a heart of gratefulness for this very moment.
THE THIRD CHALLENGE lies in becoming co-creators with God. Knowing that the world is being re-created at every moment, and knowing that I am created in God’s image, I am challenged to open myself to the flow of Goodness and to let that flow be expressed through the workings and play of my life. Then I can begin to know myself as a partner with God in the work of Creation. I can surrender the power of my imagination and the skills of my hands to the co-creative work of shaping a holy life. I am called into partnership.
For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website.http://www.rabbishefagold.com/bereshit/
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Bereishit “Light is Good”
The Torah of Be-ing is inexhaustible, it relaxes our minds. (Psalms 19:8).
Because of our anxieties and uncertainties, we may wish that our Torah were absolute and unchanging. But the Torah itself says, This is a scroll of human evolution (Genesis 5:1). The Degel Machaneh Efraim (see Bereishit ‘o yomar zeh sefer toledot adam) calls our attention to the middle of the Torah where the words Moshe darosh darash (Moshe deeply expounded) appear. Why two forms of the same root, DRSH, at the very center of the Torah? Because the Written Torah that Moshe received from Heaven has to be completed by the Oral Torah that is evolving in each generation.
Thus we read not In the beginning, but In a beginning. (Genesis 1:1). .
The Berditchever particularly wants us to understand as deeply as we can why the Torah says, a beginning and not the beginning. If we think there is only one “beginning” and then history takes its inevitable course, we may fail to realize the deeper mystery of Be-ing Itself, which transcends all finite beginnings and endings. In the liturgy, we say that Be-ing is Forming Light and Creating Darkness (Isaiah 45:7), because the world is constantly coming into and out of existence. The Ma’aseh Bereishit (Myth of Creation) in Genesis is happening all the time. It just happens so fast that we can’t see it. That is why Rebbe Nachman was teaching us so strongly to never despair. New beginnings and new endings are always possible.
A beginning speaks of an end (Isaiah 46:10). As we learn from Sefer Yetzirah (1:7), an end is formed by a beginning and a beginning derives from an end.
Whenever we break free of our linear sense of time, we discover a new beginning that emerges from an apparent end, and an end that can empower us with a new beginning. This secret is conveyed in the first and last letters of the Torah. The first letter of Genesis is the letter Bet and the last letter of the Torah is the letter Lamed. When we join these two letters, we form the Hebrew word, lev (Heart). The expansive consciousness of the Heart frees us of the limitations of the past and enables us to enter new beginnings.
Be-reishit (in a beginning). To enter into this new cycle of Torah, Divinity, and self, we connect the beginning of our new Torah with the end that forms it. We recall all of the signs and wonders that Be-ing empowered our Higher Mind to accomplish in transforming the not yet evolved sources of our bondage and limitation (Deuteronomy 34:11) and the overwhelmingly shocking thing that our Higher Mind did in order to arouse all of us to sense the Great Mystery. (Deuteronomy 34:12).
B-reishit… (The Great Mystery.)
Why does the Torah begin with an oversized letter Bet? The letter Bet is the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet and represents duality. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the oversized Bet is there so that we will pause and contemplate how, as soon as the world appears within human consciousness, duality emerges with it from the non-dual ground of Be-ing. (See Netivot Shalom, Bereishit). The world of incredible diversity and fascination that appears to us conceals its non-dual Source so that we feel we are separate from all that exists. Because of this dualistic way of seeing, we tend to believe that truth is limited to whatever our minds can conceptualize. Be-ing through its G-ding Power causes all types of living creatures to evolve from the earth and to appear within the limits of human consciousness to see how Adam will conceptualize them; and however the earth-being with the power to conceptualize names them, that is what they seem to be. (Genesis 2:19.)
But when we are able to see beyond the limiting view of our mental constructs and experience the state of awe that arises with the expansion of the Heart, we find that the Torah is pointing towards something much more wondrous.
At every moment the creative power of the Source that is beyond all conception is producing a G-ding Power associated with the apparent duality of a universe (that arises within the contraction of human consciousness). (Genesis 1:1). The Torah calls this duality Heaven and Earth and the G-ding Power (the program that “G-ds” this “Heaven and Earth”) is called “Elohim” (“G-d”).
Reishit Hokhmah (Beginning is Wisdom) (Proverbs 111:10). The Zohar revealed that the G-ding Power that shapes and gives coherence to every “Heaven and Earth” is always receiving its energy to maintain “Heaven and Earth” from an even deeper level of Divinity, called Hokhmah (Wisdom). The letters of Hokhmah can be understood as koach mah (source of indeterminate possibilities).
As manifestation assumes the form of “Heaven and Earth” through the agency of the G- ding Power, the True nature of the Land that derives from Hokhmah is covered over by veils that conceal its holiness.
The Ground of Be-ing appears as confusion and agitation, with darkness covering over its vast depth… (Genesis 1:2).
Nevertheless, even though Truth is concealed, the spirit of the G-ding Power hovers over the ocean of manifestation to bring the hidden holy sparks to life and light. (Genesis 1:2). The spirit of the G-ding Power, which emerges from Hokhmah, is Mashiach (Messianic) Consciousness. (See Liqqutey Halakhot, Y.D, Heksher Kelim, 4:38-39.) Some Prophets experience this higher consciousness as a makif (surrounding light), just behind and above the head.
And the G-ding Power decrees ‘Let there be Light,’ Light that was already there! (Genesis 1:3). (See Zohar I:31b-32a).
The G-ding Power discerns that Light determines what is Good, and so the G-ding Power draws out the light from within the darkness. (Genesis 1:4).
A midrash teaches that there is an Angel of “Truth” that opposes Be-ing’s intention to evolve the world through the G-ding Power. (Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 1:26). This “Truth Angel” feels compelled to oppose the divine intention to create us, because it recognizes that the way humans generally conceive of the World through the contraction of their minds is not true. But the G-ding Power discerns that despite the darkness, whenever a righteous person makes the effort to find a spark of holy light, it is Good. In the Midrash, Be-ing hurls the opposing Angel of “Truth” down to earth, so that we can gradually reveal an emesdige emes (a higher truth) each time we break through our darkness and confusion thus releasing the hidden light.
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that this Light is concealed in the Torah, so that in every generation, whenever we turn to it, we can find our way to Truth. (See Degel Machaneh Efraim, Bereishit, ve-yar’ elohim et ha-‘or ki tov). His grandson, Rebbe Moshe Chayyim Efraim of Sudilkov, clarifies in Degel Machaneh Efraim (Bereishit) that the verse, The Torah of Be-ing is inexhaustible, it relaxes our minds (Psalms 19:8), teaches us that everything in the world is Torah. When we search for the hidden light, we find G-d everywhere.
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s great-grandson, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, made it even clearer. Despite the “truth” that our minds tell us, there is a point of light and goodness in every person and situation. The path of constantly seeking that light is one of the deepest and most powerful methods of tiqqun (fixing ourselves and the world).
The Ba’al Shem Tov said, “The light is concealed for the righteous.” To be a righteous person, we need to learn how to find this light by relaxing our rigid attachment to mentally constructed points of view that we think are true. We need to learn the practice of humbling our opposing “Truth Angel,” which so often only mires us in an impasse of tohu va-vohu (polarization and despair), solidifying our darkness.
Rebbe Nachman’s great Hasid, Reb Natan of Nemerov has an amazing teaching that can help us connect our new teaching with the last verse of the Torah. (See Liqqutey Halakhot, Ribbit 5: 20, 24-29, 33):
What was the overwhelmingly shocking deed that Moshe did in the presence of all Israel that is alluded to in the very last verse of the Torah? It was when Moshe took the first Tablets of the Covenant, written by the divine hand, and threw them down to earth, so that they shattered. How could he dare to do that?
Reb Natan answers, it was because Moshe knew that according to the “truth” of the first tablets, the entire people of Israel would be condemned to annihilation for making the Golden Calf. Moshe the Tzaddiq saw the hand of the opposing “Truth Angel” in this condemnation and shattered that previous version of “truth” and “justice.” Because of Moshe’s Mashiach Consciousness, he saw the sparks of goodness in each of our hearts. He knew that the G-ding Power really desires a world in which truth is brought down from Heaven to Earth. Moshe was teaching us that the Divine Intention is not a Torah that distances and condemns us, but a Torah of inclusion, which brings all of us and everything nearer to Be-ing that G-ds us. We need to open our Hearts to this emesdige emes, the truer truth.
May we have the merit to learn this Torah of inclusion
And connect our new beginnings with what came before us;
From the openness of the consciousness of the Heart,
May we find sparks of light within all levels of concealment.
Uniting Day and Night, whose secret is the Day of One. (Genesis 1:5).
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
From Reb Zalman
Connections »Creation: Something We Can Work With
The following text by Reb Zalman is for this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Bereishis.
“Asher bara elokim laasot / Which God, in creating, had made,” (Genesis 2:3).
Hashem Yisbarach / God, may S/He be blessed, deals with the level of Beriah / creation (creatio ex nihilo / creation out of nothing), and we deal with the level of Assiyah, making something out of what was already created.
And since the world of Assiyah is for our use,
[Assiyah is the name for the world of action. The others are the worlds of feeling-Yetzirah, mind-Beriyah and spirit-Atzilut. Gabbai Seth]
and since it was designated as such, God, Yisborach / may S/He be blessed, is both surprised and delighted from the new things that we bring about.
Furthermore, the invitation to make something new is a taste of God’s freely bestowed Chesed / loving-kindness, a part of (Psalm 90:17) “And establish the efforts of our hands.”
[I.e., God is supportive of our efforts to make the most, through our actions, of the world God has created.]
S/He gave us the possibility that there would be something for us to do. (That which G-d has created, as far as I am concerned, gives me something to do, something with which I can work.)
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat Bereishit,” p. 30
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler 2009
There is no conflict between science and Torah. Nowhere does the
Torah imply the universe was created in six days as we know it.
After all, we measure time by our spin around the sun, and the
sun does not appear on the scene until the fourth “day”! The
thirteenth-century kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco theorized
the age of the universe to be around 14 billion years old! (in
his work Shoshan Yesod Olam). This was written into our
tradition eight centuries before modern science arrived at a
similar estimate! The ancient rabbis describe the universe as
originating with God’s Light, which condensed to form matter
(Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 30b and Vol. 2, folios 75b-76a; Midrash
B’reisheet Rabbah 3:1). Or as Einstein would put it millennia
Lucy and the recently discovered earlier human ancestor are
wondrous discoveries. But do you not also see how each discovery
claims to be THE earliest until another is discovered, and then
another? And often these discoveries are rebuffed by further
investigation but the public is not informed of such. In the
early 1900’s, for example, museums around the globe took turns
boasting an exhibition of a stooped, ape-like man, dubbed the
Neanderthal Man, I think, with the claim that the missing link
in the evolution of humans from apes had finally been discovered.
And as we know, this stooped, ape-like man was etched in stone
in all of our school textbooks to this day. Soon after, another
fossil was discovered, labeled Proconsul Africanus, and was
immediately heralded by scientists as the progenitor of both apes
and humans, and immediately entered into school textbooks as well.
But to the dismay of both scientists and textbook publishers, in
1958 the Congress of Zoology in London declared that (1) the
stooped ape-like man was really nothing more than the remains of
a modern-type fellow affected by age and arthritis, and (2) the
intriguing fossil Proconsul Africanus proved to be that of an
ordinary ape! (Time Magazine, July 28, 1958). Have the textbooks
been revised to reflect these and other such shifts in scientific
discoveries? Of course not.
Yet, unbeknownst to most of us, the ancient Jewish mystical
tradition reminds us that the Genesis story of our Torah is
not meant to necessarily imply the beginning of all beginnings
but rather the beginning of this world as we know it, of humans
as we know them, and so on, and that there was an earlier series
of universes, of earths, of people and creatures unknown to us
today — except perhaps from fossils. We call this the Torah of
Shemitto’t — the cycles of times preceding those of Adam and
Eve. According to many of the early Jewish mystics, there were
full pre-Adamic human civilizations that had arisen long before
homo sapiens walked the earth, and that they were eventually
destroyed. As the third-century Rabbi Avahu taught: “God created
worlds and destroyed them, created them and destroyed them, until
this one came into being” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 3:14). The
Talmud alludes to 974 generations that existed prior to Adam
and Eve (Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 13b).
Science and Judaism are not in conflict. Science and Torah are
more in cahoots with one another than you might think. It is
Scientism, that clashes with the notion of God and spirituality,
“I think that part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear
the thought of a natural phenomenon that cannot be explained,
even with unlimited time and money,” wrote scientist Dr. Robert
Jastrow, who once served as the Director of NASA’s Goddard
Institute for Space Activities. “There is a kind of religion
in science…This religious faith of the scientist is violated
by the discovery that the world had a beginning under the
conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and
as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When
that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really
examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual,
when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the
implications…” In conclusion, he writes: “For the scientist
who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story
ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance;
he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over
the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have
been sitting there for centuries” (published in The New York Times
Magazine, June 25, 1978).
Perhaps the 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ibn Maimon (Maimonides) said
it best: “The primary source of confusion in our search for the
meaning of the universe as a whole, or even of its parts, is
rooted in our mistaken assumption that all of existence is for
our sake alone. For if we examine our universe objectively, we
will discover how very small a part of it we really are. The
truth is, that all of humankind and all the species of life-forms
on our earth are as nothing against the backdrop of vast ever-
continuing cosmic existence” (Morah Nevuchim [Guide to the
Einstein once summed it up this way: “The most beautiful and most
profound emotion one can experience is the sensation of the
mystical. It is the source of all true science” (quoted in
Newsweek, July 23, 1979).
MA’ASEI V’RAISHEET — THE WORKS OF CREATION
B’raishis bara Elokim et haShamayim v’et haAretz… (Genesis I:1)
Voracious Bard acclaimed ate Heaven and ate Earth,
and Earth was all confused and dark,
and Spirit exclaimed what deep waters there were.
And Spirit proclaimed Light was Light.
And Spirit knew the Light for its goodness
and made a boundary to it, assigning names
to either side, Day and Night, eve and morn.
And Spirit expanded the waters, stretching them
higher and lower, ripping their bond
and leaving them calling each to each, another evening and day.
And Spirit collected the lower waters into basins carved for them,
pools and ponds, springs and streams, rivers, lakes,
and mighty ocean, rippled with currents and tides,
ruffled by wind, calm and turbulent, abundant with life,
and heaving and spreading itself upon the dry land
in spasmodic episodes of hurricane fury,
or storm-drenched seasons, until the earth began to breed
and exhale the vapors that it received again
in torrential rains, the whole fecund world
responding to this outpouring of love divine
in blissful, paradisiacal joy.
And then fresh vegetation choked the place provided for it,
running rampant in a ceaseless grab for nourishment,
then died and left its cellular shells and fibrous skeletons
to be subsumed in mothering earth, which, newly fertilized,
remained sure harbor for the flowering species,
their roots plunged deep and their branches and petals
loftily arrayed, sucking moisture and air,
transforming every elemental substance into seed.
Spirit did what Spirit does best. It breathed
and weaved a quietus to episode three,
another cycle of days and nights.
Spirit blessed the luminaries to give light to the earth
and warmth to stoke the profligate species,
tropical heat, and heat to bake the sands,
with cooling winds to dry and moist winds to fructify,
shimmering waves of heat and light to penetrate
the soil and awaken the dormant buds,
to activate the roots and cause the twigs to sprout;
and vision became possible because the land shone in splendor,
every active branch of life quivering with delight,
and all was done, prepared and bespoken,
as the fourth diurnal circle came to a close.
And finally the locomotive creatures appeared,
ready, like juveniles, to outpace the heavens,
to soar and flutter and teem and roam,
to coo and caw and cry, to screech, to twitter,
a dizzy spiral of abundant dance and song,
meeting heaven and kissing earth,
embracing the sward and burrowing deep
for refuge and food, to fight and to die,
to struggle and live, to celebrate
with ceaseless motion the grandeur of creation,
to hover at twilight and to rest,
to keep watch and to guard,
to resemble statues, to move quicker than the eye,
to rear its young in secret, to gambol openly
upon the plains, to hide in the forest,
to exult in young strength, in plumage,
fur, and scales, diversely hued and frocked,
excellently garmented for heat or cold.
And the sun shone over half the world,
its shifting parameters leaving room for moon
to glow and dim, while the earth took naps
in shade or slumbered through the half-world’s night
and awoke in vivid day, miraculously arrayed and populated.
A hush fell over creation as Spirit drew forth
from its treasure trove creation’s crown,
that being nearest to the angels yet founded upon earth,
a link between the two, the conscious transformer
of all life forms — the human species, brandishing,
in its padded bony fist, the flower and spear, axe and hammer,
to build and to destroy, to lay waste and to replant,
to nurture, sing, dance, praise, even excel beyond
its own imaginings; a humble worm, a clever fool,
a genius, a tyrant, a wonder beyond wonders;
a shame and a disgrace; a moral being,
straining to control its wayward impulses;
a curious being, desiring to know its Creator.
Beyond this sixth cycle loomed God’s day,
the Creator’s own repose, that one-seventh splinter of time
for which man learned to simplify, reduce his cravings
and restless wanderings, to provide and prepare
ahead of Time, forbidding and anticipating joys,
celebrating the final Redemption still to come,
the reunion of all life forms and all inanimate substance
with the Source of Life, awareness of all-embracing,
fundamental harmony, whose ceaseless thrumming web
extols the primal energy, the heart of every star and atom,
and all is sanctified.
Vayahe erev, vayahe voker, yom ha-shishi….
And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.
Composed in the Holy City of Tzfat, 6 Adar I, 5785 / February 15, 2005
Reb Levi Yitzchak Berditchever
Translated by Reb Sholom Brodt from Kedushat Levi
Free translation by Reb Sholom Brodt, from “Kedushat Levi”
“In the beginning Elokim created the heavens and the earth.”
The general principal (that we must know) is that the Creator blessed be He created everything and that He is everything; and that His radiance is never interrupted, for at every moment He radiates abundant life to all His creations, to all worlds, to all supernal chambers and to all angels and to the ‘chayot hakodesh’.
That is why we say “yotzer or u’vorei choshech” – He creates light and He creates darkness, and not He created in the past tense, rather He creates in the present tense, for at every moment He is creating, for at every moment He radiates life to all living things (to all that is in existence); and everything emanates from Him, baruch Hu, and He is shaleym- complete.
He consists of everything [and beyond], therefore when a person reaches AYIN-no-thing-ness, and he knows that he is nothing and that it is Hashem who is giving him his life energy, then he refers to Him as the One who creates. But when a person sees himself [as the reference point] and does not perceive his no-thing-ness then he is on the level of a YESH- [a separate self] then he refers to the Creator b”H, as the One who created- past tense, that is that He already created him (as if now he exists on his own).
In the “Asher Yatzar” blessing we say “Blessed are You Hashem… who created (past tense) the man with chochma-wisdom” for chochma is the level of YESH-some-thing. It is appropriate to say created [past tense] in this blessing, rather than creates (since He created us with chochma which is this the level of YESH, therefore we perceive ourselves as YESH- some-thing that has been created).
In the writings of the Ariz”l it says that when we say “HASHEM MELECH” – Hashem is the King, this is the aspect of AYIN- no-thing-ness and we are proclaiming that it is Hashem who is giving us life energy at this very moment. We are really nothing; we exist only because Hashem is providing us with energy.
The aspect of AYIN- no-thing-ness is above and beyond nature. The YESH- some-thing, functions within nature. However we join the YESH to the AYIN through Torah and Mitzvot. . . . for the Torah and the Mitzvot are both “concealed and revealed.” The concealed is the aspect of AYIN and the revealed is the aspect of YESH. . . . . The delight we provide Hashem in doing a mitzvah is concealed, whereas the benefit we bring to ourselves in doing a Mitzvah is revealed.
Reb Sholom Brodt
Our Rebbe, Reb Shlomo zt”l was once flying to upstate NY for a concert and sitting next to him on the plane, was a holy non-Jewish brother. Reb Shlomo got into a conversation with him, and he told Reb Shlomo that in his community, about 40 families, had broken away from the church in order to form a community that was wanting to really pray, to really learn.
Reb Shlomo said that this man was a very special holy soul. A few minutes before landing Reb Shlomo felt that he wanted to share a holy Torah with this man. Reb Shlomo, who always had a sefer with him simply opened the sefer on his lap, and started teaching from the first Torah he saw on the page before him. (i believe the sefer was the Beis Yakov on Bereishis). And this is what he taught:
Everyone knows the famous question; why does the holy Torah start with the word ‘bereishis’, which is usually translated as ‘in the beginning’? Would we not otherwise have known when G-d created the universe? The Torah does not even have any superfluous letters, and certainly not any superfluous words! So then why does the Torah not start simply, “G-d created heaven and earth”? Should anyone ask you: ‘when did Hashem do this’?, you would certainly answer ‘it was in the beginning’.
There is an entire Kabbalah sefer, the Tikkunei Zohar, in which there are seventy different answers to this question alone. The Beis Yakov gives the following answer. This is a teaching from a rabbi who lived about one hundred and fifty years ago, the holy Beis Yakov.
The Beis Yakov says that the word ‘bereishis’, ‘in the beginning’, is not intended to tell us when G-d created the universe. Rather the Torah is teaching us; “Bereishis”, ‘with the power of renewal’, “bara Elokim es hashomayim v’es ha’aretz”, ‘G-d created heaven and earth’. Meaning that G-d put the power of renewal, into the creation.
Why is it that when you are feeling down, and you go for a walk in the forest, fifteen minutes later you find yourself feeling better? It is because of the power of renewal that Hashem put into the creation. Walking in the forest, connects you with the power of renewal, that is what is refreshing you. At this point the plane landed, and Reb Shlomo and this young man parted in friendship and love.
About two or three years later, Reb Shlomo was once again in Poughkeepsie, NY. At his concert Reb Shlomo noticed a very special couple with a young child, sitting in the front row. During intermission, the couple came over to greet Reb Shlomo. The woman said to Reb Shlomo, “I don’t know if you remember my husband, but a couple of years ago, he was sitting next to you on a plane flying to Poughkeepsie and you taught him a teaching from a Rabbi who lived a 150 years ago?” Reb Shlomo immediately remembered the young man.
“You know, that teaching saved my husband’s life! At the time you met my husband he was a multi-millionaire. About six months later, something went wrong in his business and he lost all his money. It was very hard for him to live with his downfall and he decided to commit suicide. You know my husband is a very organized and methodical man. So he had everything planned out. On such and such a date, at 7:30 in the evening he was going to commit this final act.
“At 7:15 my husband sat down at his desk in the study, to write his last letter to us. He finished the letter five minutes before 7:30, signed it and put it in an envelope. My husband is a religious man, so he always kept a Bible on his desk. Since there were a couple of minutes left, he thought he would take one last look in the Bible. He flipped it open, and staring him in his face were the words, “In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth”. And he remembered you taught him, “With the power of renewal, G-d created heaven and earth.
“My husband closed the Bible and came up to my room. He said to me, “you know, a few months ago, I met a Rabbi on a plane, who taught me a teaching from a Rabbi who lived about 150 years ago, about the power of renewal, about starting again. Will you please help me start again, my holy wife?”
And so here we are, thank G-d, and with all our hearts, we came to thank you.”
A few years after hearing this story from Reb Shlomo, the story came up again in our conversation. Reb Shlomo zt”l, smilingly said to me, “you know the Beis Yakov probably knew that 150 years later, this teaching would save this man’s life.
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