Torah Portion Bereshit Notes
(Genesis 1:1-6:8) 

Let's start by discussing the notions of these 5 books that you bring to this study. Is it "the law?" Other?

We know how crucial, how vital this Text is to people of faith, especially Jews and Christians. And we know the remarkable influence it has had on our culture and civilization - our laws, our literature, our mores - the way we live our lives. 

Literally, what is it? It is called by some the Pentateuch, a Greek term for the five books.  For others, it is Torah, although as we have seen in previous classes, Torah has lots of meanings and uses in the Hebrew Bible. 

Indeed Torah is seen by some as these first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Some see the whole Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as Torah. Some see both this written Bible and its oral accompaniment as comprising Torah. Some see all of what follows in the study of, and living by, the Text as Torah. 

Generally, in all of those contexts, Torah means instruction, or teaching, or instruction in the way (not really law). And that, at its essence, instruction from our God on how best to live, is what this Text is about. 

For our purposes in this class, we will look at Torah in the narrower sense of, and in the study of, the five books. 

Was it revealed to Moses? By tradition, the answer is yes. But scholars see multiple authors over centuries, with important editing throughout. You probably have had some experience with these strands - P, J, E, and D traditions, etc. Indeed we encounter seemingly  different strands in today's portion. They're utterly fascinating to explore.

Yet, while we will sometimes discuss the issue of source during the year, it will not be featured. We will read and discuss the Text as it appears to us, looking for meaning as - whatever your viewpoint - it was revealed or as it was edited, whether by editors or the Grand Editor. 

Having said all that, as a person who believes that God responds to our needs, I believe that the student's natural uncertainty and curiosity upon first encountering sacred Text will be satisfied (at least a little!) through the initial immersion. So, get ready over the next few minutes to get wet, and we'll see if I'm right!

Before diving in, I want to make one final point of introduction: as deep as we'll go with this sacred text over this full year, and as marvelous as this will be, I can't at all purport to tell you we'll have it "covered" when we're done. I've read this text over at least 20 years, and I find new, incredible and exciting things each and every time I study it. Is this because I simply missed it all the times before? Maybe. But, more likely, I'm new and older and different each time I confront the text, with different needs and different perspectives, and thus I see things that are new and powerful to me. 

Also, since I think study is a form of prayer, I truly believe that God speaks to us through the text, as if to answer our prayers which we convey through our reading and study. And since what we bring forward and offer through study is unique each time, I believe we are open to insights through the study that respond to our prayers, even if they are implicitly thought, felt and offered. 

So, let's get started on this Torah portion!

I. Where else would we start? The beginning!

A. Read verse 1. 

Any other translations? What about "At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and earth..."? Or "When God began to create heaven and earth..."? What difference would such translations make?

Rashi, the great medieval Jewish sage, says the Hebrew word, Bereshi'it, should be read as a verb in a construct stage, that is, in the beginning of X, God did Y. Rashi's has many adherents, though not all. 

What difference does it make? (It's huge! One view makes this out to be fundamentally about creation - its details, the order, the cosmology, etc. It's an account of the order and scheme of the creation of the world. Maybe. But what if we read it his way and increasingly that of the Jewish Publication Society, or the Common English Bible or Everett Fox's translation? (Make sure one of these transactions is read.)

These translations move us quickly past the cosmology to ask instead what is God's purpose/focus/intention through the creation, right? And what's that? I believe the text is driving us  very quickly to God's creation of humankind and God's relationship with us, our lives, and, more particularly, our lives with God. 

An important way to understand this is to see the transition in the text in the words used to identify God. In Genesis 1:1, it is Elohim. This is the One God, the force of forces, the Author of nature. This was a remarkable advance in thinking from pagan or polytheist cultures. 

But look at what happens so quickly. In Genesis 2:8, we begin to see God called Adonai Elohim. What is Adonai? Or, in another word, HaShem. So, there is a different sense of the Divine. It's now a mixture of the sense of Elohim, as we discussed it, plus this new Name. What's this?

Before we answer that, look at Genesis 4:1. Oddly, after Adam and the woman are banished from the Garden, and after Adam names Eve (as the mother of all living), after God provides skins  and clothes them, and after Eve bears a child, God is simply Adonai! What does that word mean?

This Name is now Thou, the One who speaks to us and with Whom we speak, the One who loves and cares for us, the One to Whom we pray, and, crucially, the One Who teaches us how to live. And just as radical and world changing is the idea of Elohim, just verses later, we get the even more radical idea that God is the One Who cares for and loves us and holds us accountable, the Divine with Whom we are related and from Whom we take guidance forever. 

In all these ways, we get to the heart of what I believe is fundamentally beginning here. There are so many diverse and valuable and true insights that come down to us from great sages of all traditions. Please know that I do not want to devalue in any way the more traditional notions of creation among them. Rather I wanted to highlight views which tend to go more to the spiritual as well as ethical dimensions of the text. 

Let's close this out this introduction with a lovely and simple alphabetic exercise to show simply and graphically where I'm taking us. Look at the first letter of the first word. It is a bet. We have all these wonderful comments of the Bible in our tradition called midrashim. The singular is a midrash. One midrash is on this very letter in this very place in the Bible. Look at the letter. What do you see in it?

Now remember that Hebrew is read from right to left.  The midrash is that the bet is enclosed on 3 sides. Which side is open? It is only open to the front! This means that we BIBLICALLY are to look forward, put our energy into how we live our lives, how we live with God and others, not speculating about God's origins or what came before. This rather supports our alternative translation, doesn't it?

I thought I'd provoke you right off the bat!

B. So, God begins the work of creation with words! "Let there be light!" The light was good. 

And while light was associated with day and darkness associated with night, I must ask you when was the sun created. (?) (4th day!). I don't want to stop here for long. 2 minutes! How do you explain that? 

(Some say this is God's statement of what is done on the 4th day, and clearly there is the express statement here of day associated with light and night associated with darkness. Another thought is that the creation of the firmament hid the first light from the earth, so the luminaries were created to reach the earth. 

I  hold with those who believe this light may be related but also something more: a symbol of God's presence, a foretelling of light we'll see in the burning bush, the ner tamid of the tabernacle, light being held for the righteous in the World to Come, etc., or the light that makes all else "visible," perhaps mostly spiritually). 

Hear this from Isaiah 60:19: No longer shall you need the sun for light by day nor the shining of the moon for radiance by night; for the Lord shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory." This is not only portended perhaps in Genesis; it may also suggest a different (or additional) light altogether that is intended. 

Indeed, not to belabor our earlier discussion of "the beginning" any further, I must share this cool lesson from the great sage, Ibn Ezra. He translates the first verses to say that all that happens in the beginning is a prelude to God saying and creating light See where your heart and mind go with that!

II. We won't be able to go through the order of creation today. But, consistent with the theme I want to strike with you today, I must tell you a wonderful rabbinic story from the Talmud. It was asked why man was created last. The answer was: if he is worthy, it will be said all was made for you; but if he is unworthy, he is told, even a gnat preceded you!

III. So, don't look at your Bible: tell me the account in the Bible of the creation of Adam and Eve. 

There are two. (For this analysis, I am greatly indebted to the great Rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik.)

1. Genesis 1:26-29. Read it. God says and then makes man (and woman) in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the world. God blesses them and instructs them to be fruitful and multiply and rule all living things, with food from plants to eat. 

2. Genesis 2:7-24. Read 2:7-8, 15-24. God forms man from the dust of the earth, blew into his nostrils the breath of life (nishmat), and man became a living being. He placed the man in the Garden of Eden to till it and tend it and told him he could eat of of every tree except for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad (more on this in a moment!). Then, God, deciding it was not good for the man to be alone, creates all the animals, directs the man to name them, and then, finding the man still had no fitting helper, took one of the man's ribs while he was in a deep sleep and fashioned it into a woman. This sets the stage then for a man to leave his mother and father and cling to a wife, so they become one flesh."

For purposes of our study, I will put aside how we got these two different accounts, trusting that the editor of the Grand Editor simply intended for us to have both. But why?

First, as to the "first Adam," we've talked in earlier study about the remarkable significance of man's being created in God's image - we are challenged forever after to understand God, strive to emulate and "live in God's image." We're struck at the beginning by all of the "God verbs," especially as to acts of creation and what that means for us. Yet, we don't learn how his body is formed. 

We're struck with the "second Adam" by the fact that like all of the created beings, man is created out of already created material BUT unlike all others, we are given the spirit from God. Body from the earthly realm, Spirit from the higher, Divine realm. This Adam is to cultivate the Garden, but there's no mention of filling and subduing the earth. Further, in contrast to the first's simultaneous creation with woman, this Adam emerges alone, with the woman joining later to help. 

So, the first is a striver, a seeker, a creator, one who seeks to control nature, and, thus, must be curious and concerned with practical implications, aggressive, bold, and victory-minded. He tends to see human existence as glorious, powerful, purposeful. For him, humanity equals dignity equals responsibility equals majesty. He's born in community with Eve, not alone. 

The second asks why and who and what, clinging passionately to the One who is life giving but who can be remote. He is not busy dominating or creating but wants to understand and till his piece of the world, receptive, dependent on God, seeking intimacy and union with God. He's here to serve rather than create and subdue, and is alone and needing God's further blessing of a companion. He is more inward, more aware of the "I." It's more about "to be," rather than to think, to conquer, to create, to achieve. More about needed attachment, shared empathy; less about production and outward achievement. 

In a sense, the first is a man of Divine-driven action; the second is a man dependent on faith. The more we understand this Adam, the more we see his relationship as with the God of the Tetragrammaton. It is through The second Adam that we best understand this intimate relationship with God, one deeply rooted, among other things, in prayer. Further, the more we see God in other intimate ways through teaching and instructing, for example, the more we see through this second Adam's eyes. 

QUESTION: why both accounts? (aren't we both, and aren't both different? We are to create, to quest for sovereignty on the earth, etc., but ALSO to retreat, to depend on God, be in relation to God, to stand in humility, needing and experiencing redemption. We are involved in the creative (majestic) enterprise, BUT we must also return to covenant with God in faith, obedience,  and relationship.) 

God created both Adams; some of us may be more one than the other, and all of us may have a piece of each. We must find ways to "accept each other." Both are needed by God and us, and each needs the other. This may be especially so in our current world where the model of the first Adam seems to be far more prized than that of the second, no?

3. Let's briefly discuss this vexing matter of God's prohibition about eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad. Let's read Genesis 2:16-18, 3:2-13; 3:22-24. 

So, what was wrong with eating of the tree of knowledge of good and bad? Is this about sex? Something else? And, again, given our nature of being curious, the notion that we're made in God's image, and that we have the inclination to act upon temptation, even if it's not in the right direction, was there anything wrong with this behavior in the first place? 

(Inspired by Nachmanides - 

A) I don't believe this has anything much to do with sex. The snake says it in 5; then God says it in 22, that the problem is that "now that the man has become one of us in discerning good from bad."  Regardless of the discussion realizing they were naked and made loin cloths, the problem is something other than sex. 

B) God's hope was that humankind would naturally live true to God's ways, just as the heavenly hosts do. The fruit of this tree gave rise to will and desire, to an awareness of good and bad, thus choices of bad sorts that could be  made. Man could now do whatever he willed to himself and others. And, thus, in this way, man discarded simple uprightness and arrogated himself prerogatives of the Divine. 

C. But it could be asked: why did God create mankind in a way in which there was an inclination to eat this fruit and why indeed was this tree planted right in the middle of the Garden?

D. After Cain and the generation of Noah, we will read shortly in 6:6 the chilling words that God regretted creating man on earth and that there was an ache in the Divine heart because of it. Was the Divine action in creating man truly regrettable? Or, dare I ask, was God imperfect in the creation? Or is man such that Torah (and more, for Christians) is required for man to live as God expects? Is this yet another reason why we see this text as the beginning of a much longer journey? We leave the first portion, knowing that more is needed, more must be done or given? Will that be a path back to the Garden? Or perhaps to an even better place? And what will that path be? We have at least a year to explore these questions.) 

4. I have likened our study of gems in these extraordinary texts to walking through the finest museums in the world. We get to stop and study some with some time and focus. But, for others, I can but point out a remarkable feature as we must move by. This, unfortunately, is the case with the story of God, Cain, and Abel. Look at 4:6-7, and let's marvel at this account of the inclination to sin. God sees it in Cain after his disappointment in the rejected sacrifice but before the murder of Abel. God says to Cain: "Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door (wow!). You must rule over its desire." I can't think of many Biblical (or other) ways of making this point any more powerfully! I'm tempted to end our study this week with God's question and challenge to Cain. Certainly, this concern is what's in the Divine heart as we move on. But I want us to put all this  in a bit of fuller context before we depart.

5. In a broader sense, the "beginning" idea in Torah, that which sets the table for the Bible really, is the fundamental principle that when we live in God's way in our exercise of the dominion we've been given we have a blessed place, but, when we don't, we lose our place, subjecting  ourselves to exile, being scattered, being lost. (Ibn Ezra, Ramban.)

See Genesis 3:23:24 (Adam and Eve); Genesis 4:10-12 (Cain); and we'll talk about Noah and his generation next week. 

So, as we wrap up, I pose the question again: what's this book about? I submit for your thought during this next week and throughout our study the answer that it is very deeply and very profoundly about our relationship with God and our relationship with each other, or, even more,  about our duties to, and love of, God, and our duties to, and love of, each other. 

Next week the journey continues with Genesis 6:9-11:32. 

Torah Portion Bereshiit             (Genesis 1:1-6:8) 

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