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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BEREISHEIT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
October 2, 2010 - 24 Tishrei 5771

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 Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

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 asserted repeatedly. 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 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: “When I'm good, I'm very good...”

“And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

Derash: Study

  1. “For consumers of art and culture, one simple way to sift out ephemerality is ‘time-shifting' - i.e. delaying one's experience of a cultural product long enough that any undue hype surrounding it has dissipated…. If you want to see whether something is great, leave it on a shelf for seven days, or seven years, or seventy.” (Bill Wasik, And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture)
  2. “In the Torah of Rabbi Meir, it was found written: ‘Death is good' (tov mot, rather than the very similar sounding traditional text, tov me'od - very good), indicating that death is becoming for the righteous, who find peaceful rest from their struggles, and it is becoming for the wicked, who will thereby cease their sinning.” (Midrash Rabbah)
  3. “It was the sixth day, the day God created adam (humankind), that gave His intended meaning and value to Creation. Only then, therefore, could God consider His Creation tov me'od, very good. Indeed, the very letters that spell me'od (very) - mem-aleph-dalet - also spell adam (humankind) - aleph-dalet-mem, for only humanity's presence allows Creation to fulfill its destiny.” (Rabbi David Feinstein, Kol Dodi)
  4. “God would not have created the world if among all possible creations it had not been the best.” (Gottfried von Leibnitz, Théodicée)
  5. “A pity for the world, which, like other self-made things, was reckoned by the Lord to be so excellently good.” (Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt)

Questions for Discussion:

Wasik's statement suggests that the lessons of Shabbat - here, judicious perspective, patient deliberation, skepticism at the seductiveness of the faddish - are urgently needed in the twenty-first century. In what other ways has Shabbat become increasingly compelling for contemporary Jews? What fads and trends - very much the subject of Wasik's book - are countered by Shabbat observance?

Midrash Rabbah and von Leibnitz affirm the ultimate goodness of Creation while implicitly recognizing its imperfections. How might these insights be helpful to those who are bereaved or are otherwise experiencing personal adversity, and to those whose task it is to comfort and support them?

If humankind alone of all species is capable of moral evil, how is it that - as Rabbi Feinstein has taught - adam is the very meaning of me'od… that which lends God's “intended meaning and value to Creation”?

Is there indeed a peril to avoid in the assertion that humankind is inherently exceptional, God's crowning glory?

Theme #2: “What do you mean WE?”

“And God said: Let us make humankind in our image and likeness...” (Genesis 1:26)

Derash: Study

  1. “One who considers himself better than others does not act in keeping with the spirit of God's declaration, ‘Let us make man,' by which we are taught the way of humility, that the greater should consult the smaller… One who does not accept this interpretation of God's pronouncement obviously must think it was meant to be construed literally (that there was more than one God involved in creation) and this, of course is idolatry.” (Rabbi Yehuda Rozanis, Prashat Derachim)
  2. “O man, strange composite of heaven and earth!” (John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Dream of Gerontius)
  3. “The Hebrew language permits a great person to speak using the plural. As Balak said: ‘Perhaps we can thus defeat them' (Numbers 22:6); as Daniel said: ‘Such was the dream, and we will now tell the king its meaning' (Daniel 2:36); and as Manoach said: ‘Let us detain you; we will prepare a kid for you' (Judges 13:15).” (Saadiah Gaon, Beliefs and Opinions)
  4. “Adam comes from the term dimyon - similarity, comparison, imagination… with an added alef. The advantage of humankind over all other species in the world is the power of imagination, the ability to draw comparisons. All other creatures are aware only of themselves. But humankind is created with a nature that partakes of both worldly and higher beings: Human beings see and recognize similarities, they see and perceive things that are outside their own physical beings and experiences. Thus: ‘Let us make humankind in our image and likeness' - Let us make humankind with the power of insight and imagination, with the ability to draw analogies and comparisons, the power to draw one insight from another, to infer and to intuit with imagination.” (Rabbi Bunam of Przysucha)
  5. “Of all creatures, humankind alone is able to exercise self-determination and to act as a matter of will. It is in this way that humankind resembles the Creator. ‘Man has no superiority over the beast - both amount to nothing' (Ecclesiastes ,3:19). That is, only the ‘Nothing doing!' - the power to offer opposition and to say no - separates humanity from the beast. This is the meaning of ‘our image and likeness.'” (Ha-Derash V'Ha-Iyun)

Questions for Discussion

What divine quality defining the human condition, and separating humankind from all other species, is conveyed by our verse? According to Rabbi Rozanis, humility; according to Rabbi Bunam, imagination, insight, intuition. According to Ha-Derash V'Ha-Iyun, a moral capacity. All agree that “image and likeness” refers to intangible and incorporeal qualities. In what other ways can human beings most effectively reflect the divine image they bear? What other godly qualities or pursuits should we strive to emulate?

Ha-Derash V'Ha-Iyun discusses moral capacity in exclusively negative terms: Morality inheres in our ability to refrain from immoral, unworthy, or unseemly behavior. Is this a sufficient definition of morality and human goodness - indeed, of godliness? What else is required of us before we can claim to be moral beings?

How are creation in the divine image and the assertion of the verse quoted from Ecclesiastes to be reconciled - or is that simply impossible?

The plural formulation of Genesis 1:26 has caused considerable consternation among theologians and readers of Scripture! Saadiah's solution is appealing, but his examples weak: wasn't Balak referring to his army? Wasn't Manoach assuming his wife would participate with him in preparing the meal? Daniel, indeed referring only to himself, was speaking Aramaic - from which Hebrew grammar can not necessarily be drawn! Is Saadiah's reading of our verse, despite the less-than-conclusive literary evidence he presents, nevertheless correct? If so, why all the excitement about the “royal we”?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Parshat Beresheit establishes the religious obligation to be fruitful and multiply - to have children. In a responsum unanimously adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbi Elliot Dorff concludes: “Artificial insemination, egg donation, and, especially, adoption, are Jewishly permissible procedures… Even in those cases where the commandment to procreate is not fulfilled, these techniques enable the social parents to experience the joys and challenges of parenthood, thereby growing themselves, and they add to the numbers of the Jewish people at a time when that is nothing short of critical.” The responsum emphasizes that infertile couples are not required by Jewish law to avail themselves of these reproductive technologies, but that their affirmative decision to do so is to be “enthusiastically endorsed.”

Historic Note

We read of God's creation of the cosmos and of all the species of wildlife inhabiting the earth on October 2, 2010. On October 2, 1836, the naturalist Charles Darwin, author of the still bitterly debated Origin of Species, returned from his fateful voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle.


 
 
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