Parshat Bereishith 5777

This Shabbat we begin again the 54-parasha cycle of Torah reading. Bereishith is the first parasha in the book with the same name.

Summary: Parashat Bereishith (Genesis 1:1-6:8) contains probably the most well-known stories in the world; the 7-days of Creation, Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, the Snake’s deceit, punishment and exile after the first couple disobeyed G-d’s command, Cain killing his brother Abel and the list of 10 generations from Adam to Noah.

Comment: The 5 Books of Moshe aren’t evenly divided in time. For example, Genesis covers the 2200-year period from Creation until Jacob’s descent to Egypt. Whereas, the Book of Exodus accounts for the roughly 210-years of Jewish bondage before G-d’s redeeming Bnei Yisrael from under Pharaoh’s rule.

The Book of Leviticus concerns the Mishkan and its ritual service – effectively a dedication period lasting 8-days. The Book of Numbers spans the people’s 40-years wandering in the Midbar. The Book of Deuteronomy presents the last month of Moshe’s life.

But, even within the Book of Genesis the 2200-years aren’t evenly spread. Bereishith and Noah cover almost 1800 years. Necessarily, the stories chosen for these early chapters selectively point to what must be told while we’re left to wonder what was withheld. In that sense the Torah, which we believe was given by G-d, is a ‘Guide to Understanding Life’ more so than a historical chronicle.

Two observations that may resonate with us in a modern world, are 1) the need for fidelity to the original text and 2) the role of humanity in a post-Tree of Knowledge state.

The first is exampled by the seemingly innocent approach of the Snake where in Chapter 3 it asserted to Eve they mustn’t eat from any of the trees. Naively, Eve revised G-d’s original command ‘not to eat,’ imposing onto it ‘not to touch’ as well, ‘lest you die’. The Rabbinic commentaries point out that adding this extra restriction led to confusion when the Snake made her touch the fruit and she saw it didn’t cause death. It was then a much easier next step to eat from the tree as well.

While perhaps intending good by adding extra stringencies, one must wonder whether today we aren’t falling into the same pattern of over-exaggerating Divine commands making our communities more prone to similar failure. Each new stringency seems to drive some faith communities more inward and simultaneously more separate from others. It’s a short slippery slope to some of the abuses we’ve witnessed recently.

Second, finding ourselves in a post-Tree of Knowledge world, we may ask what are our responsibilities to G-d and mankind? Has all of history been tainted by an ‘Original Sin’ as some religions suggest and little can be done to change it?

Rambam and other Medieval commentators who faced harsh relations with the leading faith’s of their time, adopted a different approach. They believed Adam & Eve must already have had a sense of what is morally right. Otherwise, how would they have been able to choose to obey G-d’s command to refrain from the Tree of Knowledge?

Rather, the difference is they understood right and wrong intrinsically – seeing the world from G-d’s viewpoint. Whereas, in a post-Tree world, their intuitive sense was obscured by heavily-weighted self-interest. Accordingly, to get back to a state of innocence, our choice must be to counter-balance selfish interests from our decisions.

A contemporary example would be the use of natural resources. While all understand there’s a finite amount of oil under the earth’s surface, willingness to conserve usage is affected by complexity. Today the conflicting needs of different producing countries has prevented a unanimous agreement to curtail output. And where output continues, so will consumption.

The same argument applies to clean water. Do we carelessly leave the tap running in the sink or the shower knowing well that in some places people still transport water from wells to villages? How careful would we be if the same applied to us?

The taint of a post-Tree world isn’t indelible, it’s just much harder to address; when we’re able to balance the excesses of some with the shortfall of others, we’ll have made progress in getting back to that state of primordial and pristine Divine innocence.