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Parsha Bereshit

The opening book of the Bible is generally known as Genesis in English or by its first Hebrew word Bereshit. In the Middle Ages it was also called among Jews Seifer Ha-Yashar (The Book of the Upright) referring to the Patriarchs.

Genesis is a book about origins; the origin of the world of humankind, of the people of Israel, and of the unique relationship of God with that people. In its entirety, the book claims to cover a time span of 2,309 years. It offers a rapid sketch of 1,948 years of universal human history from Adam to the birth of Abraham, with the remaining 361 years to the death of Joseph making up the bulk of the work. This imbalance is there by design. The theme of Creation serves merely as an introduction to the central motif; God’s role in history. The opening chapters serve as a prologue to the historical drama that commences in Chapter 12 (Lech Lekhah). They serve to set forth the worldviews and values of the civilization of the Bible, the pillars on which the religion of Israel rests.

The Story

God creates the world in six days. On the first day He makes darkness and light. On the second day He forms the heavens, dividing the “upper waters” from the “lower waters.” On the third day He sets the boundaries of land and sea, and calls forth trees and greenery from the earth. On the fourth day He fixes the position of the sun, moon and stars as timekeepers and illuminators of the earth. Fish, birds and reptiles are created on the fifth day; land animals, and then the human being, on the sixth. G‑d ceases work on the seventh day, and sanctifies it as a day of rest.

G‑d forms the human body from the dust of the earth, and blows into his nostrils a “living soul.” Originally Man is a single person, but deciding that “it is not good that man be alone,” G‑d takes a "side" from the man, forms it into a woman, and marries them to each other.

Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, and commanded not to eat from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The serpent persuades Eve to violate the command, and she shares the forbidden fruit with her husband. Because of their sin, it is decreed that man will experience death, returning to the soil from which he was formed, and that all gain will come only through struggle and hardship. Man is banished from the Garden.

Eve gives birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain quarrels with Abel and murders him, and becomes a rootless wanderer. A third son, Seth, is born to Adam; Seth’s eighth-generation descendant, Noah, is the only righteous man in a corrupt world.


I’d like to begin tonight’s study with a teaching from Rabbi David Almog at Columbia University. He writes –

Once again, Jews of all denominations have started the cycle of the Torah reading afresh. We have returned back to the beginning, to our most cherished text's description of the creation of the world and of humanity. As we reopen the Torah again, we ask ourselves the question; what is this book? It isn't just stories and mythology, though it certainly has that element. Neither is it a book of laws alone, though it contains many ancient laws. It certainly doesn't read like a work of theology, although it has many theological implications. Indeed, we revere this text as a source of wisdom and holiness despite the fact that scientifically educated readers would not recognize what we read this week as an accurate depiction of our origins. What draws us back to it year after year? Is it merely that we are mimicking our parents and grandparents, as we say, minhag avoteinu b'yadeinu (a custom of our ancestors in our hands)? Or is there something spiritually substantive to the often confusing language that our most sacred text provides? If we were to follow the late, revered Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik's lead in his The Lonely Man of Faith, we would see in the account of creation distinct presentations of the origins of human beings, each depicting a separate archetype of the human personality. In fact, there are three accounts of the origins of human beings if you include the beginning of Genesis 5, These are the generations of Adam. I believe we can also follow the lead of our Sages who found in these accounts different theological descriptions of God. Rashi, referring to a Rabbinic midrash, comments that the name of God used in the creation account of the first chapter is Elohim, whereas in the story of gan eden, the Garden of Eden, the text appends the four-letter name of God (yav hay, vav hay) before Elohim. He suggests that the reason for the dual stories and the use of different divine names - signifying different divine attributes -- is that the first plan was to create the world with strict divine justice, but seeing that the world could not last, God created it first with divine mercy. Our tradition understands that the differences between the names in the stories reflect important differences in understanding God and the place of humanity in creation. Turning our attention to the text, we can see some of the differences more clearly. God in the first story is "divinely efficient." God states "let there be light," and without delay there is light. Comparing verse 1:11 to 2:5, we see that in one, the Torah describes God having made a single statement saying "let the land sprout vegetation" and ends with "and it was so." In the other, the Torah explains that the reason there was no vegetation was that God "had not yet sent rain on the land, and there was no human to work the earth." The God of the first story needs no intermediate steps while the God of the second story seems less efficient. Indeed, the very verbs used to describe God's actions in the garden are more varied and numerous in fewer verses, with fewer results. A corollary of this difference is that God in the garden is more detail-oriented. In the garden, God creates a specific garden, with a specific tree and specific bodies of water for one specific human being to work in. Each verb describes a particular detail of the creation of these singular items. Perhaps the most intriguing difference is one of effectiveness. The Seven Days story has a God who creates by order and it is all "good." In the garden, the juxtaposition is striking. Suddenly, it is "not good for Adam to be alone." What's more, God's first attempt at solving the problem, namely the creation of creatures from the earth, the same source Adam came from, failed to produce a suitable companion. This hardly sounds like the same God described a chapter earlier. In the first few chapters we clearly see that our Torah is neither a science text book nor a theological dissertation. Instead, it presents in the language of mythology varying ways in which human beings encounter God. We may see ourselves as the pinnacle of the creation of a distant yet all-powerful deity, or we may be partners with a God who is palpable in our lives, but in a world that is far from perfect with the possibility of "good and evil." What's more, if we include the creation story of chapter five, God could be an important starting point for an otherwise essentially human story. I believe that this diversity of versions demonstrates that different human beings have different perspectives on God's world and our place in it, and our Torah provides a means to encounter this truly human reality.

This study from Rabbi Almog underscores the need to view Torah in a unique way. It isn’t a chronology. It isn’t a history book. And it isn’t a newspaper. It is, as he says, an accounting of the ways in which human beings encounter God and I’d like to add – a way for us to understand our own relationship to God – even today. This will be the underlying theme of all our Parsha of the Week classes going forward – uncovering our personal relationship with the Almighty; using Torah themes as a springboard to initiated discussion about this relationship.

Which leads me into the themes of Parsha Bereshit. Before diving into the specific themes, the parsha provides us with an important clue into our relationship with God – specifically,

We were created in Gods image. TZELEM ELOCHIM

What attributes do we share with God?

Free Will (Seforno)

A Soul (Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Seforno)

God Rules the universe, we rule for the lower world (R. Ra’adya Gaon, Hizkuni)

Inherent holiness and spirituality (Hizhuni)

The Themes of Bereshit: There are three basic themes that we can define in this parsha.

1. Cruelty and Violence

Among the several firsts of this week's parshah are cruelty and violence, introduced into the story by Cain's murder of his brother Abel. As depraved as it is, Cain's sin seems only to grow when we hear his response to God's haunting question, "Where is Abel, your brother?" To this, Cain spits back, taunting God- "Am I my brother's keeper? (Genesis 4:9)."

Let’s look at this in a literary way. The Torah has set up its audience ingeniously here. It baits us to answer Cain. It begs us to intervene and shout back in disbelief: "Of course you are your brother's keeper! That hateful rejection of your family responsibility is the very thing that allowed you to spill his blood!" By posing--and leaving unanswered--Cain's question, the Torah compels us to articulate this fundamental moral principle for ourselves.

While the Torah leaves Cain’s response to its reader, it does not leave Cain's question unanswered. Instead, it allows a subtler response to unfold. At the close of Cain's story, the Torah recounts the generations between Adam and Noah, from which Cain is conspicuously absent. After Abel's murder, Adam and Eve beget another son, Seth. Seth, in turn begets Enosh, who begets Kenan, who begets Mahalalel, who begets Jared, who begets Hanokh, who begets Metuselah, who begets Noah, from whom, as survivors of the flood, we are all descended. Cain has been erased from the lineage.

2. Triumph of the Younger Brother Over The Older Brother

The story of Cain and Abel begins the longest sustained theme in the Bible: the triumph of the younger brother over the older. It recurs in the stories of Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Reuben and Judah; Joseph and his brothers; and Ephraim and Menasheh. Beyond Genesis, it’s found in the fact that leadership is conferred on the younger Moses, not the older Aaron, and that King David is the youngest among his brothers.

By frequently repeating this theme, the Torah clearly meant to convey a powerful message. Primogeniture, the primacy of the first-born, was an "iron rule" in the ancient world. The eldest son was thought naturally to merit leadership and to be entitled to an enhanced inheritance. The victory of biblical younger sons, who are depicted as more wise and more righteous than their elders, is meant to demonstrate that humans can shatter nature’s seemingly ironclad laws through purposeful action. They can shape history to overcome the limitations of the natural world.

3. Taking Responsibility for our Actions

After Adam sinned, G-d approached him and said, "Why did you eat from the tree of knowledge?" Adam said, "It wasn’t my decision. I listened to the woman you gave me (Eve)." Eve said, "The serpent made me eat from the tree of knowledge." None of them was willing to admit to G-d that they had made a mistake.

Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig both were renowned Jewish scholars and philosophers who lived in the early 1900s. They interpreted this story as follows. Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge. This, according to the traditional interpretation, is considered to be the first sin in the Bible.

However, there is another school of thought from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his books Man is Not Alone and G-d In Search of Man he contradicts Buber. Heschel believed that the first sin of man was not the eating from the tree of knowledge. Rather, the first sin was that of not engaging in dialogue with G-d. Heschel said that Adam did not take responsibility for his decision to sin. When G-d asked Adam, "Where are you?" Adam was hiding and blaming his wife, saying to G-d, "The woman you gave me caused me to sin." Adam should have been communicating with G-d all along and not have waited until he broke G-d’s rules. This carried on into the next generation with his sons Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel. When G-d said, "Where is your brother Abel?" Cain again did not own up to his mistake. He said, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"

As they hid from G-d’s sight, knowing that they had done wrong. G-d calls out to Adam "Where are you?" But if G-d knows and sees everything, He knew where they were, so why did he ask? The words of the Torah were meant for all time. So the question G-d asked Adam and Eve wasn’t addressed just to them, but also to each of us in every generation. When we have gone astray, when we feel we’ve lost our course, we hear the voice of G-d in our hearts asking: "Where are you? What have you done with your life? I have given you a certain amount of years; how are you using them?"

Adam and Eve’s disobedience changed humanity and therefore the world, forever.

They brought the notion of FAILURE to the world – while God creates, man fails. This ultimately changed Gods plan for humanity.

I read a great article by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs on Taking Responsibility – he wrote this back in 2005.

If leadership is the solution, what is the problem? On this, the Torah could not be more specific. It is a failure of responsibility.

The early chapters of Genesis focus on two stories: Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. Both are about a specific kind of failure.

First Adam and Eve. As we know, they sin. Embarrassed and ashamed, they hide, only to discover that you cannot hide from God:

The Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:9-12)

Both insist that it was not their fault. Adam blames the woman. The woman blames the serpent. The result is that they are both punished and exiled from Eden. Adam and Eve deny personal responsibility. They say, in effect, “It wasn’t me.”

The second story is more tragic. The first instance of sibling rivalry in the Torah leads to the first murder:

Cain said to his brother Abel … While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:8-10)

Cain does not deny personal responsibility. He does not say, “It was not me,” or “It was not my fault.” He denies moral responsibility. In effect he asks why he should be concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself. Why should we not do what we want and have the power to do? In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon argues that justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger party. Might makes right. If life is a Darwinian struggle to survive, why should we restrain ourselves for the sake of others if we are more powerful than they are? If there is no morality in nature then I am responsible only to myself. That is the voice of Cain throughout the ages.

These two stories are not just stories. They are an account, at the beginning of the Torah’s narrative history of humankind, of a failure, first personal then moral, to take responsibility – and it is this to which leadership is the answer.

There is a fascinating phrase in the story of Moses’ early years. He grows up, goes out to his people, the Israelites, and sees them labouring as slaves. He witnesses an Egyptian officer beating one of them. The text then says: “He looked this way and that and saw no one (Ex. 2:12, vayar ki ein ish, literally, ‘he saw that there was no man’).”

It is difficult to read this literally. A building site is not a closed location. There must have been many people present. A mere two verses later we discover that there were Israelites who knew exactly what he had done. The phrase almost certainly means, “He looked this way and that and saw that there was no one else willing to intervene.”

If this is so then we have here the first instance of what came to be known as the Genovese syndrome, or “the bystander effect,”[1] so-called after a case in which a woman was attacked in New York in the presence of a large number of people who knew that she was being assaulted but failed to come to her rescue.

Social scientists have undertaken many experiments to try to determine what happens in situations like this. Some argue that the presence of other bystanders affects an individual’s interpretation of what is happening. Since no one else is coming to the rescue, they conclude that what is happening is not an emergency.

Others, though, argue that the key factor is diffusion of responsibility. People assume that since there are many people present someone else will step forward and act. That seems to be the correct interpretation of what was happening in the case of Moses. No one else was prepared to come to the rescue. Who, in any case, was likely to do so? The Egyptians were slave-masters. Why should they bother to take a risk to save an Israelite? The Israelites were slaves. Why should they come to the aid of one of their fellows if, by doing so, they were putting their own life at risk?

It took a Moses to act. But that is what makes a leader. A leader is one who takes responsibility. Leadership is born when we become active not passive, when we don’t wait for someone else to act because perhaps there is no one else, at least not here, not now. When bad things happen, some avert their eyes. Some wait for others to act. Some blame others for failing to act. Some simply complain. But there are some who say, “If something is wrong let me be among the first to put it right.” They are the leaders. They are the ones who make a difference in their lifetimes. They are the ones who make ours a better world.

Many of the great religions and civilizations are based on acceptance. If there is violence, suffering, poverty and pain in the world, that is the way the world is. Or, that is the will of God. Or, that is the nature of nature itself. All will be well in the world to come.

Judaism was and remains the world’s great religion of protest. The heroes of faith did not accept; they protested. They were willing to confront God himself. Abraham said, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25). Moses said, “Why have you done evil to this people?” (Ex. 5:22). Jeremiah said, “Why are the wicked at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). That is how God wants us to respond. Judaism is God’s call to human responsibility. The highest achievement is to become God’s partner in the work of creation.

When Adam and Eve sinned, God called out “Where are you?” As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, pointed out, this call was not directed only to the first humans. It echoes in every generation. God gave us freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. God teaches us what we ought to do but he does not do it for us. With rare exceptions, God does not intervene in history. He acts through us, not to us. His is the voice that tells us, as He told Cain before he committed his crime, that we can resist the evil within us as well as the evil that surrounds us.

The responsible life is a life that responds. The Hebrew for responsibility, achrayut, comes from the word acher, meaning an “other.” Our great Other is God himself, calling us to use the freedom He gave us, to make the world that is more like the world that ought to be. The great question, to which the life we lead is the answer, is, which voice will we listen to? The voice of desire, as in the case of Adam and Eve? The voice of anger as in the case of Cain? Or the voice of God calling on us to make this a more just and gracious world?

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