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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BEREISHEIT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
October 6, 2007 – 24 Tishrei 5768

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

The Torah begins with God’s creation of the world – light, heaven and earth, the oceans and dry land, the heavenly bodies, plants, animals, and finally the first human beings – in six days. God then blesses the seventh day, Shabbat, the day of rest. The human beings are placed in the Garden of Eden “to till it and tend it,” but when Adam and Eve disobey God’s commandment and eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they are expelled from the Garden. Eve gives birth to two sons. When they are grown Cain, the elder, kills his brother, Abel, and is punished by God. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, and the Torah relates the 10 generations from Adam to Noah. The parasha concludes with God’s sorrow over human wickedness.

1. Does "Torah" Mean "Law"?

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. (Bereisheit 1:1-3)

  1. Rabbi Yitzhak said: It was only necessary to begin the Torah with “This month shall mark for you...” (Shemot 12:2), for this is the first mitzvah about which Israel was commanded. And what is the reason that it begins with Bereisheit? Because of this verse: “He revealed to His people His powerful works, in giving them the heritage of nations” (Tehillim 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “you are robbers because you seized the lands of the seven [Canaanite] nations,” they can say to them, “The entire world belongs to the Holy Blessed One; He created it and He gave it to whomever was right in His eyes. By His will he gave it to them and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us.” (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France], based on Yalkut Shemoni)
  2. One may well dispute this question, for there was a great need to begin the Torah with “When God began to create heaven and earth...,” for that is the very root of the faith; one who does not believe in this, and believes that the world is primeval, denies the very essence of the faith and such a person has no Torah at all! (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  3. On the face of it, it would appear that the highest sanctity pertains only to the commandments and admonitions, not to the narrative and miscellaneous portions. Nor might we regard the Book of Deuteronomy, which contains the addresses of Moses to Israel, as possessing full sanctity. Yet we find that the sacredness of the entire Torah is of one piece, whether it deals with the commandments of God or the marital relations of Cain and his wife. The same scrupulous care applies to all, that they should be written on proper parchment, without an extra or missing letter, and read in synagogue with equal reverence. For it is all the word of the living God, the Sovereign of the Universe, written two thousand years before the creation of our world. All of it contains the names of the Holy and Blessed One. (Rabbi Moses ben R. Joseph of Trani [Safed, 16th century], “Beit Elohim” 33 in Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Heavenly Torah As Refracted through the Generations,” edited and translated by Gordon Tucker, p. 372)

Sparks for Discussion

Older English texts translate the word Torah as “law.” This is consistent with R. Yitzhak’s statement that the logical beginning of the Torah should be Shemot 12:2, where the listing of mitzvot begins. Therefore, R. Yitzhak and Ramban both offer explanations for why the Torah begins with creation, but each of them applies only to the first chapter of Bereisheit. Why does the Torah contain the remaining 49 chapters of Bereisheit and the rest of its narrative material? Moreover, as R. Moses of Trani teaches, the Torah’s narratives are no less sacred than the mitzvot. Clearly, a better translation for the word Torah is “instruction.” Surely the Torah contains God’s commandments, but what else does the Torah come to teach us?

2. The First Shabbat

On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. (Bereisheit 2:2-3)

  1. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. (Bereisheit 1:5) Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Shimon said “let there be evening” isn’t written here but “and there was evening.” From this we know that the order of time preceded creation. (Bereisheit Rabbah 3:7)
  2. Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat at twilight. They are the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach], the mouth of the well [that accompanied Israel in the wilderness], the mouth of the ass [that spoke to Balaam], the rainbow, the manna, the rod [of Moses], the shamir [a magical creature that cut the stones used to build the Temple], the characters [on the Tablets], the writing, and the Tablets. And some say, also the demons... (Avot 5:8)
  3. Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said... The Holy Blessed One created the souls of the demons but when He came to create their bodies Shabbat began and He didn’t create them. This comes to teach proper behavior from the Torah, that if a person is holding in his hand a costly object or a precious pearl on erev Shabbat at sundown we say to him “throw it away,” for He at whose word the world came into existence was engaged in the creation of the world and had created their souls but when He came to create their bodies the holiness of Shabbat began and He did not create them. (Bereisheit Rabbah 7:5)

* Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was a key leader of the Jewish community of Judea toward the end of the 2nd century CE, during its occupation by the Roman Empire. He is best known in Judaism as the chief "editor" or "redactor" of the Mishnah.

Sparks for Discussion

The midrash makes the extraordinary statement that God stopped in the middle of an act of creation when the sun set on the first Shabbat. Certainly God could have delayed the setting of the sun for a few moments until He finished what He was doing. Or He might have said, “I’m God – I’m not bound by the rules I put into place for human beings.” So why did God choose to let Shabbat interrupt His work? Was it only to set an example for human beings? Perhaps God had something more important in mind when He chose to be bound by these rules. How does God’s self-imposed limitation impact our understanding of the brit (covenant) between God and Israel? What impact does the knowledge that God “plays by the rules” have on our relationship to God?


 
 
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