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Torah Sparks

October 9, 2004 - 24 Tishrei 5765

Annual: Genesis 1:1 - 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 3; Hertz p. 2)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 3; Hertz p. 2)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 42:5 - 43:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 36; Hertz p. 21)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


The Torah begins with God's work of creation. Chapter 1 describes a very orderly process. Cosmos, replete with earthly flora and fauna, replaces chaos in six days of divine effort. Humankind is the crowning achievement of God's creation, introduced on the sixth day. The goodness of the physical world is repeatedly asserted. This goodness seems to reach its peak only with the creation of humanity: "God saw all that He had made, and found it very good." The seventh day is blessed by God as a sacred time of rest.

Chapter 2 recasts the creation narrative with conflicting (or complementary) details: Man is created first, later made complete through the creation of woman - all after a far less orderly divine process of trial and error. The moral education of humanity begins in the paradisiacal setting of the Garden of Eden. At the infamous urging of the snake, "shrewdest of all the wild beasts," the first humans consume forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, and are banished from the Garden.

The second generation of humans, nevertheless, continues to interact with God: Cain and Abel each bring offerings as gestures of worship. Alas, they also introduce murder into human history, as Cain, whose offering is rejected, kills his brother Abel.

In the generations that follow, descendants of the Eden's inhabitants initiate various areas of industry and creativity: agriculture, construction, metallurgy, music. By the time of Noah, introduced in the closing verses of the Parshah, God seems to have despaired of his human creatures, and the moral corruption that has come in their wake.

Theme #1: "The Rest is Commentary"

The six days of Creation are famously followed by a day of rest: the first "Sabbath." The opening verses of Chapter 2 provide a literary and theological bridge between the physical world, described in considerable detail in Chapter 1, and the spiritual purposes for which that world was brought into being. These familiar verses ("Vayechulu") are chanted as an introduction to the Friday evening Kiddush, and are a central element of the liturgy on Shabbat eve.

"God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done." (Genesis 2:3)

Derash: Study

  • "Blessing signifies the bestowing of some additional good. The additional good bestowed on Shabbat regards the soul, which enjoys respite on this day from affairs of the temporal world, and is able to attend to wisdom and God's Word." (Radak)
  • "God's creative activity was followed by the Sabbath, when He deliberately ceased from His creative work". The stars and the planets, having once started on their eternal rounds, go on blindly, ceaselessly, driven by nature's law of cause and effect. Man, however, by an act of faith, can put a limit to his labor, so that it will not degenerate into purposeless drudgery. By keeping the Sabbath the Jew becomes, as our Sages say, domeh l'yotzero - 'like God Himself.' He is, like God, work's master, not its slave." (Pinchas Peli, Shabbat Shalom)
  • "The world in itself is not holy. Nature is desacrilized in the Bible. Only God and humanity made in His image are able to make it holy". The human person is capable of transcending the material world, while being in it and with it. To prove this, there is a 'holy' (i.e., 'special') day, hallowed by God." (Isadore Grunfeld, The Sabbath)

Questions for Study:

  1. Shabbat presents a paradox. How does Shabbat insist that we emulate God, the Creator, while simultaneously reminding us of our humanity and creature-hood?
  2. Traditional Shabbat observance is often maligned as archaic. How has observance of the Sabbath - especially principled disengagement from technology - become increasingly relevant and urgent in the modern period?
  3. Why is Shabbat linked by the Torah to the primordial history of the universe, rather than to Israel's unique, national, historical experience?
  4. What did Rabbi Pinchas Peli mean by describing Shabbat as "all of Judaism in one word?" In what ways is this assertion reflected in Jewish tradition and communal norms?
  5. In what other ways does Jewish practice and Tradition invite us to "transcend the material world, while being in it?" Consider the realms of ritual, personal relationships, and public policy. In what ways does this distinguish Judaism from other religious disciplines?

Theme #2: "Because I am involved in Mankinde"*

(*This phrase is quoted, with original spelling, from John Donne's poem,"No Man is an Island")

In the first of many incidents of sibling rivalry which constitute a major motif in the Torah, Cain and Abel each bring a sacrificial offering to God. Cain, who was a farmer, brought an offering "from the fruit of the soil." Abel, a shepherd, made an offering described, significantly, as from "the choicest of the firstlings of his flock." Despite God's poetic admonition concerning man's ability to master his own urges and thus to avoid sin, a dejected and envious Cain murders his brother.

"The Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' And he said, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?'" (Genesis 4:9)

Derash: Study

  • "When the Holy One said, 'Where is your brother Abel,' Cain replied, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper? You are the keeper of all creatures I killed him because You created the evil inclination in me. You are the keeper of all, yet you allowed me to kill him. It is You who killed him." (Tanchuma)
  • "One more war. The last. They always say that. Let us fight so as to fightno more. Let us kill so as to conquer death. Who knows, perhaps Cain himself aspired to be not just the first murderer in history but the last as well." (Elie Weisel, A Beggar in Jerusalem)
  • "The sevenfold stress in this chapter on the obvious fraternal relationship of Cain and Abel (the word 'ach' - brother - is used seven times) emphatically teaches that man is indeed his brother's keeper and that all homicide is fratricide." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Genesis)
  • Cain's defiant response to God is among the Torah's best known and frequently quoted verses. His words, emblematic of the human moral load, have informed these studies and inspired their titles: "Am I My Brother's Keeper? The Ethical Frontiers of Biomedicine," by Arthur Caplan; "Am I My Brother's Keeper? The AIDS Crisis & the Church," by Michael Malloy; "The Ethics of Giving & Receiving: Am I My Foolish Brother's Keeper?" by William May; "Am I My Brother's Keeper? A Study of British Columbia's Labor and Oriental Problems," by Agnes Laut; and "I Am My Brother's Keeper: American Volunteers in Israel's War for Independence," by Craig Weiss. Note also Amitai Etzioni's "My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and Message," envisioning a society which transcends selfish interests in favor of the common good.

Questions for Study:

  1. By killing his brother, Cain ignores the most fundamental moral obligations of one human being to another. In the aftermath, seeming to acknowledge his wrong-doing, Cain is also dishonest with God. How are these two crimes related?
  2. How is the "sevenfold stress" on brotherhood reinforced? What other sevens appear in Chapter 4?
  3. Notwithstanding Elie Weisel's generalized lament regarding killing, what factors and considerations determine if a war is just? Is the decision to avoid war invariably preferable? How do Weisel's other writings contribute to this discussion?
  4. "Where is your brother Abel?" Why must an omniscient God ask Cain about his brother's whereabouts. Compare to God's questions to Adam and Eve in the preceding chapter: "Where are You?… Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?" What is this you have done?"
  5. In what ways can and should we be our brothers' keepers? In what situations have we missed the opportunity to "be involved in Mankinde" (as John Donne wrote)? How can a Congregation enhance the ability of its individual constituents to do so?
  6. Prior to the first recorded homicide, we read: "Cain said to his brother Abel"." His words are not recorded (although some ancient versions add, "Come, let us go out to the field.") How can this "gap" in the text be viewed as artistic and meaningful? How does it affect our understanding of the incident? What might Cain have said in this situation? How might Abel have responded?

Historical Note

Shabbat Parshat Bereisheet 5765 falls on October 9, 2004. This day is the 650th anniversary of the charter issued by Casimir the Great to the Jews of Poland on October 9, 1354. Like the creation described in Parshat Bereisheet, this marked a hopeful beginning that culminated in catastrophe. Poland saw a vibrant Jewish civilization grow and flourish for many centuries, until its murderous ruin in the Holocaust.

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