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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BEREISHEIT
October 17, 2009 – 29 Tishrei 5770

Annual (Gen. 1:1-6:8): (Etz Hayim, p. 3; Hertz p. 2)
Triennial Cycle (Gen. 5:1-6:8): (Etz Hayim, p. 30; Hertz p. 16)
Machar Chodesh Haftarah: (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce T. Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

The Torah begins with God’s creation of the world – light; heaven and earth; the oceans, dry land, and plant life; the heavenly bodies; 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 it. Eve gives birth to two sons, Cain and Abel; when they are grown Cain, the elder, kills his brother and God punishes him. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, and the Torah lists the 10 generations from Adam to Noah. The parasha concludes with God’s sorrow over human wickedness.

1. The Greatest Principle

This is the record of Adam’s line. – When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1)

  1. “Love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Rabbi Akiva said: That is the greatest principle in the Torah. Ben Azzai said: The sentence, “This is the record of Adam’s line” is even greater than the other. (Sifra)
  2. Ben Azzai laid down a fundamental teaching of Judaism. For in the verse quoted, the scholar saw the basic declaration of human brotherhood: By tracing back the whole of the human race to one single ancestor, created by one God, the Bible taught that all men have one Creator – the heavenly Father – and one ancestor – the human father. (Menahem M. Kasher, “Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation,” Vol. I, p. 245, cited in “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” W. Gunther Plaut)
  3. Man was created as a single person to teach us that anyone who destroys a single life is as though he destroyed an entire world; and anyone who preserves a single life is as though he preserved an entire world. . . . And also for the sake of peace among mankind, that no person should say to another, “My father was greater than your father.” ...Therefore, every person is obliged to say, “For my sake was the world created.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
  4. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (U.S. Declaration of Independence)

Sparks for Discussion

The Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, there are few things less self-evident than the equality of all human beings. Look around and you will see that people display an almost infinite variety of innate and acquired attributes. On what basis can we therefore insist that people are equal? Is this a legal statement? A moral one? What are the practical implications of this statement for society and its institutions? For interpersonal relationships? Why does Ben Azzai reject “Love your neighbor” as the greatest principle of the Torah? Do you agree with him?

2. The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. (Genesis 6:6)

  1. A heretic asked Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah: “Do you people not maintain that the Holy Blessed One foresees the future?” Rabbi Joshua: “Yes.” The heretic: “But does Scripture not say, ‘and His heart was saddened?’” Rabbi Joshua: “Was a son ever born to you?” The heretic: “Yes.” Rabbi Joshua: “What did you do?” The heretic: “I celebrated and had all others celebrate.” Rabbi Joshua: “Didn’t you know that in the end he would die?” The heretic: “Joy at the time of joy, and mourning at the time of mourning.” Rabbi Joshua: “Even such was the experience of the Holy Blessed One.” (Bereisheit Rabbah 27:4)
  2. Even though it is revealed before Him that their end would be to sin and to be destroyed, He did not refrain from creating them for the sake of the righteous who are destined to arise from them. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France
  3. When God came to create Adam, the ministering angels divided themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” ...Love said, “Let him be created because he will carry out acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will do good deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with controversy.” ...While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One he will be filled with controversy.” ...While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One created man. He said to the angels, “What can you do? Man already has been made.” (Bereisheit Rabbah 8:5)
  4. For two and a half years, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disputed. The House of Shammai argued that it would have been better for man had he not been created, and the House of Hillel argued that it was better for man to have been created. In the end, a vote was taken, and it was decided: “It would have been better for man not to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him examine his deeds.” Others say, “Let him consider his future actions.” (Talmud Eruvin 13b)

    Sparks for Discussion

    Why do you think God created human beings to be imperfect? Why did God make us with free will, able to disobey and to sin? Is human perfection possible? Is it desirable? Why do you think the House of Shammai argued that it would have been better if human beings had not been created? Why do you suppose the vote went its way.


 
 
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