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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Parshat Bereshit

Below are three Sedra Shorts on Parshat Bereshit:
  • The Pre-History of Bereshit
  • The Good the Bad and the Woman
  • Shattering Ancient Creation Myths
Scroll down for each Dvar Torah.

1. 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.

2. The Good the Bad and the Woman

God created the world in six days and six times the Torah declares: “God saw that it was good”

However there was one thing that was not good. “The Lord God said, "It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him an Ezer Kenegdo” (Bereshit 2:18).

Unlike the animal kingdom, which was created “according to their kind” (ibid 1:21), humanity was created “male and female He created them” (ibid 27). Obviously there were male and female animals, nevertheless the Torah points that the creation of the two sexes was an integral part of humanity’s being.

Indeed, “God created humanity in His image; in the image of God He created it”. According to this understanding it is only when the man and the woman were together that they are in the image of God. Independently, they were not a complete image of God.

Without each other they are incomplete, but when they get together they become one and restore the image of God, or as the Torah puts it: “a man shall…cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (ibid 2:24).

Therefore it was not good for the man to be alone.

Being godly requires partnership, someone to share with and to care for. Choosing to be a hermit, alone and a celibate is not the way of the Torah. It is choosing to be an incomplete image of God.

3. Shattering Ancient Creation Myths

The ancient world had many myths about the creation of the world and the power of the gods. The children of Israel leaving Egypt, were well versed in these myths. Therefore the the first few chapters of the Book of Bereshit deal with shattering those myths. The new nation had to discard those myths. Here's a few of many examples of Torah attempts to shatter those myths:

Myth 1 - There is a pantheon of gods

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ - בראשית א:א
In the beginning God created the universe - Genesis 1:1 .

There is no pantheon of gods, only one God.

Myth 2 - The gods struggled with each other and with other powers in order to create the universe

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים... - שם ג
"God said..." (or "God willed...") - ibid 3

There was no epic struggle between different gods or powers. God's creation was effortless and unopposed.

Myth 3 - Nature is a force that needs to be worshipped so that it continues to generate its produce.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינו, אֲשֶׁר זַרְעו בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן - שם י"א
God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. - ibid 11

God alone has bestowed the earth with generative powers. Nature reproduces soley on account of God's will. God, and not fertility cults, must be worshipped in order for this cycle to continue. On the same realm, the sun, another creation of God, was created on the fourth day after the vegetation, to shatter the myth that it is the source of life.

Myth 4 - Ancient Kings are desecendents of gods and have dominion over other humans - note the name: Tutenkhamen (an Egyptian Pharaoh) - it means "in the image of Amun (an ancient Egyptian God".

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ - שם כ"ז
God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him - ibid 27

This radical concept taught that all humans are in the image of God - all are equal regardless of status. No human has the right to subdue or harm another - doing so would be an affront to God.

Other shattered myths include:

The Serpent - Partially because it sheds its skin, the ancients venerated it as a symbol of health and longevity; and its unblinking eys and its sudden venomous bite, gave it a demonic dread. Yet it was merely, "... the shrewdest of the wild creatures that the Lord had created" (ibid 3:i), and so undeserving of any worship.

Evil - believed to be a metaphysical primordial creation, existing on its own to destroy all the good the gods had done; was caused by human action. Calamity and hardship was not the result of a haphazard power that did evil in accordance with its own will, but due to the immoral actions of humanity.

Thereby, the purpose of the first few chapters of Sefer Bereshit are not necessarily to teach us the history of creation, but are in order to bring the world of ethical monotheism to a humanity steeped in unethical polytheism.


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