Bereshit 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Breishit (Gen. 1:1-6:8)

OVERVIEW

In the first parsha of the Torah, the cosmos is created in 7 days, ending with the culmination of creation, the weekly Sabbath. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden, but are expelled after eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cain and Abel fight and Cain kills his brother, thus setting up the pattern of jealousy and conflict which will persist throughout the Book of Genesis. The parsha ends with a review of the generations from Adam to Noah.

IN FOCUS

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

PSHAT

The first part of the creation story follows a certain rhythm and structure: God creates by bringing forth a certain aspect of life, from the most simple divisions through the most complex creatures, and then reviews God’s work, finding it good. On the sixth day God finishes the physical creation, and finds it “very good.”

DRASH

Last year we looked at the final phrase of this very same verse, noticing that it was different from the “review” verses of all the other days of Creation. This year, I want to go back to the middle of our verse, to another anomaly, noted above: all the other days of Creation are pronounced “good,” while the sixth day is called “very good”- in Hebrew, tov meod.

Of course, this sort of variation in the text is an opening for creative interpretation, and in fact one midrashic text, Midrash Rabbah, [“The Great Midrash”] offers about 16 different interpretations of this one phrase. One of the most interesting midrashim challenges us to reconsider simple distinctions between those parts of us which are “bad” and “good:”

    R. Nahman said in R. Samuel’s name: BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD refers to the Good Desire; AND BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD, to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet IV, 4)  

    (Genesis Rabbah, 9:7, Soncino translation; this midrash is attributed slightly differently in the Mirkin Hebrew edition.)

The translators have rendered yetzer hara literally, as “evil desire,” but as a recurring concept from classic texts, I would think of it as “selfish” or “egocentric” rather than “evil” in its ordinary sense. Thus the midrash works something like this: all of creation is “good” in that it fits together in a harmonious scheme, and is beautiful, bountiful, and reflective of its Source. Basing itself on two textual variations from the other days- the “and” and the “very” – R. Nahman points out that humans have an extra or additional aspect, different from the rest of creation. We have the capacity to be altruistic or selfish, good or evil, generous or stingy. Human beings are neither inherently good nor bad, but are given the impulse and desire for either direction.

If the midrash stopped there, we’d have a fairly straightforward point: humans possess a moral consciousness that animals don’t, and are thus morally responsible for our choices. R. Nahman, however, goes a step further, and points out that things that we might think of as self-centred can actually produce great things. The human drive for achievement might be based in ego, but without it, the world would be poorer.

This is not Judaism’s blank cheque for unbridled careerism, for look carefully at R. Nahman’s examples (with apologies for the gender bias of ancient texts): without the yetzer hara, a person would not build a house, get married, or have children. In his example, I understand R. Nahman to be acknowledging that human relationships contain elements of both selfishness and selflessness; perhaps he is even suggesting that without the personal satisfaction of intimate relationships, the hard work and emotional struggle just wouldn’t be worth it for many people.

R. Nahman is certainly also challenging the views of those religions that posit poverty and celibacy as the spiritual ideal- in his midrash, God directly approves of personal fulfillment in worldly relationships. Again, this is not about hedonism, but balance. No reasonable reading of Jewish sources would produce the idea that personal, self-centred fulfillment is the ultimate goal of life. On the other hand, this reading of the story of Creation seems to teach us that we are meant to enjoy life and find it good. Hard things can happen, but the challenge is to see the world through God’s eyes, making the choices and connections that raise the material world, which is good, to the level of spiritual fulfillment, which can be “very good” indeed.

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