Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Parshat Bereshit

The Pre-History of Bereshit

Apart from the creation of the entire universe, this week's parsha contains around 1,000 years of human history in just 5 chapters. Even though we can learn a surprisingly large amount about the pre-ancient world from these few words, there are still many gaps. So what is the purpose of this potted history?

The first idea that people jump to is the first words that Rashi wrote over a thousand years ago. He wrote that the purpose of this information is for the future generations to know that if ever the world claims that Israel are thieves, for they stole the land of Israel from another people (they would never do that, would they?!!), than Israel could respond that it is not true as God created the world and He gave Israel that land.

There is no doubt that the Torah is rushing through pre-ancient history in order to get to Israel and to show how they emerged, but it is also saying a lot more. It is saying why Israel emerged.

When God created the universe, He gave humanity a three-fold mission:

  • "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth
  • and conquer it,
  • and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth " (Bereshit 1:28).

Essentially, humanity was created in the image of God (ibid 27) and its purpose was to continue God's work. Just as God created life, so too humanity were to create life ("be fruitful and multiply), just as God created the earth, humanity are to continue developing it ("conquer" the earth, i.e. use its resources to further creation) and just as God mastered the animal kingdom, so too were humanity ("rule over…").

The next four chapters show just how humanity attempted to, but yet ultimately failed, to fulfill this mission.

To begin with: "Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, "I have acquired a man with the Lord." She bore again his brother Abel, and Abel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil" (ibid 4:1-2).

Essentially, these pesukim show how Adam and Eve procreated, i.e. they were fruitful and multiplied and began filling the earth. So far, so good. And things get better! Abel was a shepherd, ruling over the animal kingdom, and Cain was a farmer, conquering the earth.

Man is beginning to fulfill its destiny and its only fitting that "Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord" and that Abel "brought of the firstborn of his flocks" (ibid 3-4). They are now showing thanks to God.

However, things suddenly go rotten. Cain kills Abel, over a difference of religion (nothing new there either!!).

However, the world continued to develop. "Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch, and he was building a city" (ibid 17). Humanity is growing so fast that it now needs cities.

"Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle" (ibid 20). A Bedouin way of life and the breeding of cattle has now developed.

"His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who grasp a lyre and a flute" (ibid 21). We now have the development of music.

"She too bore Tubal Cain, who sharpened all tools that cut copper and iron" (ibid 22). We now have the mining of metals and the invention of tools, as well as a lot more filling the earth.

Things seem to be going well, but then Lemech takes the invention of metal and rather than using it for the benefit of Creation, he creates a weapon and kills: "I have slain a man by wounding (him) and a child by bruising (him) (ibid 23). Lemech is also the first person to have two wives – another break with the order of creation.

There are still some positives along the way, however, humanity begins a descent that makes this parsha end on a depressing note: "The Lord said, "I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them" (ibid 6:7).

Nevertheless, there was still some hope as: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (ibid 8).

As we will see next week, God starts again with Noach, but eventually decides that humanity needs some teachers, that eventually leads to the emergence of Israel. We will discuss this at a future date.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "Humanity's Objectives" can be found at:

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled "The Good the Bad and the Woman" can be found at: A further Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "Shattering Ancient Creation Myths" can be found at:

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