So here we are again. We’ve spent an entire year reading the Torah; we’ve celebrated Simchat Torah, and now once again, we are back at the beginning. Literally.
B’reishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….
These are the opening words of this week’s parsha, Parshat B'reishit, the very first chapters in the Book of Genesis. Yes, the words are the same as last year, and no, nothing has changed, but the power and mystery, and profound lessons of the Torah continue to enlighten and teach us because we have changed. We are not the same as last year, and when we bring our changed selves to the text, like a diamond with many facets, the Torah suddenly shines a different light on these ancient stories, and we are challenged to think differently.
In this case, I’m talking about the very foundational idea of our place in the world and our relationships with each other and with the ecosystem we live in.
We all know that the Torah begins with the creation of the world and the beginning of humanity, but the fact of the matter is that there are actually two creation stories and two stories about the origin of human beings. The first is told in Genesis, Chapter 1, and the second in Genesis, Chapter 2.
There are many explanations for this. The most traditional is that the second story is an elaboration of the first, filling in more details and giving us a clearer picture of what transpired. This is what our sages believed, but I find it difficult to accept. The two stories are actually polar opposites and do not elaborate as much as contradict each other.
A second explanation is that these two stories were written by two different writers, known by scholars of Biblical criticism as E and J. In the first chapter, the Hebrew name for God is Elohim, and in the second, the Hebrew name for God is YHVH (which we read as Adonai, and Biblical scholars read as Yahweh or Jehovah). Two names for God suggest two different writers with very different points of view.
A third explanation is that one story originated in the Kingdom of Israel and the other in Kingdom of Judah. (After the death of King Solomon around 930 BCE, ten of the tribes seceded and the realm was split into two separate kingdoms –Israel in the north and Judah in the south). After the Kingdom of Israel was invaded and conquered by Assyria in 721 BCE, many Israelites fled to Judah bringing their traditions and mythologies with them. By the time our sages canonized the Torah in 400 BCE, both creation stories were so popular that they decided to include them both.
No matter the origins, what we have in Chapters 1 and 2 are two different concepts of God, humanity, and the natural world. What are these concepts and why should they matter? Why should we care about these clearly mythological tales of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge?
I believe because today in 2021 when we read this text, we are being offered two different ways to live our lives, two different philosophies, and understandings of the meaning and purpose of our existence.
In Chapter 1, our story begins with God as the main character, a creative being who merely has to speak to manifest a physical world of beauty and order. The first thing God creates is light, the symbol of wisdom, joy, justice, redemption, and a metaphor for the Jewish people, who are commanded to be a “light unto the nations.”
Each day, God adds more complexity and organization to his creation – a natural world filled with land, seas, shining constellations in the sky, rich, verdant vegetation, and living creatures of all kinds. In each instance, God pronounces his work “good” and seems pleased with His three-dimensional canvas.
A world filled with light and goodness – this seems to be God’s intention in the first creation story. Only then, does God create the first human being.
“And God created a human (Adam from the Hebrew word adamah, which means earth), in His image, in the image of God, He created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said,
Be fruitful and multiply….”
Whether the first human was male and female in one body and then split into two (as some midrashim explain), or God created both a male and a female human, there is no question that they were equal. There was no master and helper, no lord and maidservant, no ruler and subject. This was an egalitarian creation, formed at the same time, with the same intention that they were both formed in “the image of God, “and tasked with the responsibility to rule over all the other living beings in God’s name.
What image of God are we talking about? According to this chapter, someone who is creative and powerful, yet gentle and generous, who values light and goodness, and cherishes the earth and the seas, and blesses all the creatures who live within them.
In contrast, Chapter 2 presents man as the main character and the first real creation. There is no natural order or process of evolution; the male human is created first from the dust of the earth, and God blows into his nostrils to give him life. Only afterward, does God create vegetation and living creatures and a beautiful garden where the man will live. The whole world is not man’s domain, but just a small, perfect bubble within whose boundaries he must remain. However, within that bubble, there is a tree of knowledge from which man is forbidden to eat. No enlightenment or wisdom is allowed here. Instead, knowledge is deemed so dangerous that it can cause death.
While man is God’s first creation in Chapter 2, woman is last. In this version, the woman comes out of the man’s body, completely overturning the laws of nature, in order to be man’s “fitting helper.” There is no blessing here, no suggestion of the importance and sanctity of sex and having children, of partnership and sharing. Instead, woman is a possession given to man by God to be named and owned.
When I look at the world today, I see both realities battling each other for the future of our society and our planet.
In the first reality, we humans are part of the harmony of the universe, created and connected to the fabric of creation. We understand that there is inherent value in all of nature and work to preserve it, whether it be other humans, other living creatures, the air, the oceans, or the earth itself.
In the second reality, the world revolves around us. We regard humankind as the central and most important element of existence and that everything else in the natural world are means to serve or fulfill our needs. We are the masters, and we can exploit and use every aspect of our planet as we see fit, including destroying it.
In the first reality, we seek the light of learning and wisdom and strive for knowledge in order to repair, heal, and create a better life for all. We are committed to creating goodness in the world, as did our Creator. In fact, in the first creation story, after God created the first human, he called them very good! We are meant to be better than all the other creatures on earth and to be generous and compassionate stewards of our ecosystem.
In the second reality, too much knowledge is dangerous. We live in an unrealistic and falsely idyllic bubble with a limited amount information, and are never exposed to new ideas, philosophies, or other ways of thinking. We become fearful and soon begin to lie and twist the truth to suit our view of the world and in order to make us feel safe. Inevitably, jealousy and murder infiltrate this reality and brother turns against brother.
In the first reality, men and women are equals, with equal power, equal worth, and equal agency. They are both respected and valued for their contributions toward creating a just society.
In the second reality, women are subservient to men, owned and named by their fathers, husbands, even their brothers. They have no right to choose what they do with their bodies, and in many cases, their minds.
Needless to say, there are many, many other commentaries, interpretations, and understandings of B’reishit. But this week, this year, after 18 months of Covid, the brutal 2020 elections, the January 6 insurrection, the refusal of people to get vaccinated, the floods, the droughts, the hurricanes, the fires, the demise of 20 species of animals just this month, the abortion law passed in Texas, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and so much more – this is what the Torah is saying to me. Two chapters, two versions, two choices. Which will we choose?