Archive for Bereshit

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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Bereshit 5760

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 Jewish year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
In the first parasha (weekly portion), 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 human violence and jealousy that the rest of the characters in the Torah must struggle with.

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. (Judaism takes from this that life in this world is a good and precious thing, and should be appreciated in all its many splendors.) After the creation of human beings on the last day, God reviews the work of creation, and finds it “very good,” presumably because now there are humans in it, and the work is complete and ready for history to begin.

DRASH
The medieval commentator Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, lived late eleventh century) finds something grammatically unusual in this verse, and as he likes to do, uses it as the basis for a beautiful religious teaching. In all the other verses in this chapter telling us what got created on which day, it simply says: “a second day,” “a third day, ” and so on. In this verse, the day is named differently: “THE sixth day,” instead of “a sixth day.” One interpretation Rashi offers, based on an earlier book of Biblical interpretation, is that the “the” connected to “sixth day” tells us that the work of creation was at that point “hung up and standing,” and really only finished many, many years later, on the “sixth day” which would define forever after the ideal relationship between humans and the Divine.

What “sixth day” was this? The sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, upon which the Jews accepted the Torah, and which is still celebrated as the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving and receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. I think Rashi is not only concerned with explaining an odd extra Hebrew letter (the “hay” which means “the”), but more importantly, reminding us that merely existing physically isn’t really the whole point of our lives- from the very beginning, we were put on this earth for spiritual ends as well. The idea that God’s work of creation wasn’t “complete” until Torah was given and accepted can be a metaphor for our lives: having the most wonderful life in the physical world (work, food, housing, sex, money, you name it) won’t be complete unless spiritual goals- Torah- are accepted as our guiding principles.

Rashi seems to be less concerned with the mechanics of the physical aspects of the creation story and more concerned that we understand that our cosmos has more than only a physical dimension to it. What’s true for the world as whole is true for each individual: one becomes complete not when one’s body finishes growing up but when one takes on a holy purpose in life. This parasha is only “Bereshit,” the beginning- the rest of the Torah remains to help us learn what that is, and what we are truly capable of.

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