Bereshit: The Beginning of Transcending Ourselves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

The leaves are turning from green to gold to brown, and the Torah
scroll is turning back from Moshe on the mountaintop across the
Jordan Valley, all the way back to The Beginning. We start our
learning anew this week, and I’m delighted that you’re joining me!
It’s been a privilege and an honor to write these weekly
commentaries, and I thank you sincerely for the questions, insights
and feedback you’ve shared. If you’ll keep reading them, I’ll keep
writing them!

Now, onto the first parsha, Bereshit. Many of you know the famous
parts of this parsha: the seven days of Creation ; Adam and Even in
the Garden; the Expulsion; Cain and Abel. What you probably didn’t
notice amidst all the dramatic stories was the little narrative that
comes just after Cain kills Abel. I’m going to quote it in full,
between the dotted lines:

———————————————————————
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then
founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. To Enoch was
born Irad, and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methusael, and
Methusael begot Lamech. Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of
the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore
Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst
herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor
of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-
cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of
Tubal-cain was Naamah.

And Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.
I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a lad for bruising me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth,
meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of
Abel,” for Cain had killed him. And to Seth, in turn, a son was
born, and he named him Enosh. It was then that people began to invoke
the Lord by name. (Bereshit/ Genesis 4:17-25, modified JPS
translation)
———————————————————————-

That last verse is what I find so interesting about this story; it
turns out Bereshit is not just the story of the beginnings of the
world and its inhabitants, but also of religion and spirituality: “it
was then that people began to invoke the Lord (YHWH) by name.”

So the next question is: why then? Why didn’t people call out to God
earlier, perhaps even in the Garden of Eden, when things were going
great? The little story before this verse is complicated, and there
is no standard interpretation among classic or modern Bible
commentators, but notice that it’s about Lamech, a descendent of
Cain’s, who himself seems to be caught up in a cycle of violence. He
pleads – or, perhaps, boasts- to his wives that he, too, has done
harm, or is capable of it. Some commentators see his poem as an
anguished cry of guilt and shame; others see it as a victory song, or
perhaps a lament over some tragedy or accident.

The origins of Lamech’s poem are obscure, but it clearly involves
violence, death, and vengeance. The next verse takes us back to Adam
(yes, THAT Adam, since in Genesis, the early characters are portrayed
as living impossibly long lives), who has another son, Seth, as a
consolation after the murder of Abel. Seth then has a son, named
Enosh, a word related to the word for “human,” or “people.” This is a
key point: the name Enosh is a different word for “human being” than
the generic “Adam,” which is related to “adamah,” or “Earth.”

The first human- Adam- was a creature from the Earth, a physical
being. Now humanity, marked by the change of name, Enosh- is
beginning in earnest: with family pattern of good and evil, loss and
love, death and rebirth, grief and consolation. So maybe what
Bereshit is telling us is this: what it means to be human is to try
to exceed our physical existence and touch that which is
transcendent, especially at times when the cycle of life can be made
into a sacred occasion.

Lamech is caught up in something he cannot transcend on his own, and
Adam turns again to the power of life to renew itself. Both are
examples of humankind’s innate desire to be more than a physical
being- in either case, we reach beyond ourselves, we call out to God,
to experience fully the sacred dimension of earthly existence. To
invoke God is to be fully human, for in transcending ourselves, we
become what we were created to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: If you know any Jewish singles in their
20’s-40’s, please tell them about a great weekend retreat, the
Basherte Workshop, (with yours truly as part of the staff team)
coming up this Veteran’s Day weekend in the Berkshires. Details at:
<http://www.basherte.org>.

PPS- The text and additional commentaries for this week’s parsha can
be found here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/bereshit.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: