This Shabbat we read Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8. Just last week, on Simchat Torah, we rolled back Torah from the end, back to the beginning. We confront again Creation, with all its religious, scientific, mythic, historical, and cosmological significance. Two stories with different teachings about Creation: Genesis 1 speaks of six days of Creation while Genesis 2 unfolds with story of the rib. All sorts of issue arise: Science vs. religion. Creator vs. natural process. Planned vs. just happened.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino teaches in Did Moses Really Have Horns? and Other Myths about Jews and Judaism that Genesis offers many significant lessons, including:
- There is order in the universe;
- Humanity is the pinnacle of creation;
- We need both work and rest; and
- There is great power in the creative word.
When we read the beginning of Genesis, so many other abiding lessons flow from it. Here are some of my favorites:
Torah is Not a Science Text
W. Gunther Plaut, the great 20th century Torah commentator, editor of the Torah: A Modern Commentary (CCAR Press, p. 6) wrote:
Ancient people considered the earth the center of the universe and natural law not as unalterable but as subservient to the will of God. … Why – it is asked – should we concern ourselves at all with stories of the six days of creation, with Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden? All these are unscientific, antiquated myths, and therefore appear irrelevant.
In answer, many defenders of the Bible agree that while the book has indeed little to tell about the scientific origins of the world and its inhabitants it does have a great deal to tell about God’s relationship to God’s world and about human beings and their destiny. Since the Bible’s scientific comprehension, they say, is limited to the world view of the ancients, just as ours is to that of our own time, it would be futile to look to the Bible for references to evolution or to suggest that “one day” in creation may correspond to millennia in scientific reckoning…
It would be better, therefore, to come to the biblical text with full respect for its intellectual convictions and to understand that these are often expressed in metaphors and always in the vocabulary and framework of antiquity… They should read the Bible for what it suggests about the nature of human history, the meaning of existence, and the Presence of God.
Torah as Poetic Truth
Rabbi Stanley Gevirtz taught that one may approach the book in much the same manner as one approaches poetry:
To the question of the ‘truth’ of Genesis the sensitive response can only be: It is, indeed, true; not in the sense in which a statement of physical law is true, but few things that really matter to the poet ever are. It is true in the way that great poetry is always true: to the imagination of the human heart and the orderliness of the human mind. This God-and-Israel centered account discriminates, as every good historical narrative must, in its choice of events and presents us with history, not, perhaps, as it was but as it ought to have been.
Be Radically Amazed at the Universe
In Lights in the Forest, I write:
In that first week following his creation, after the work of naming the animals, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator! (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 3 (end, on Psalm 104:24).
Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One. Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world. The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.
Every inch of our world is flowing with its own flavors of milk and honey. Some of us see it. Many of us miss it. The eighth century prophet Isaiah said it best: m’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s magnificence. God created. God sustains. God is. Here. In this place. The Place. HaMakom. This is God.
Rabbi Michael Latz:
For me, the lesson is one of poetry and spiritual amazement. This was our ancestors’ attempt to articulate the wonder of the universe, the awe they felt for God, the sublime mystery of the universe. I read it as a poem, as spoken word, as street theatre–and it is magical!
Perhaps Multiple Worlds Were Created and Destroyed
In Genesis 1:5 we read:
God named the light ‘Day,’ and the darkness God named ‘Night.’ It was evening and it was morning, one day.
Which Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 3:7 interprets as:
Commenting on the verse, “and there was evening…” (Genesis 1:5), Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Simon said: “Let there be evening” is not written here, but “and there was evening.” Hence we know that evening already existed before this.
Rabbi Abbahu said: This proves that the Holy One went on creating worlds and destroying them until God created this one and declared, “This one pleases Me; those [worlds] did not please Me.” Rabbi Pinchas said: [How did Rabbi Abbahu know this? Before, God said, “This is good.” But then] Genesis 1:31 reads: “And God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good: This pleases Me, but those [previously created worlds] did not please Me.”
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter observes:
What an incredible statement this is! God created worlds and destroyed them until God got it right? “Here’s a world,” says God. “Oops. I don’t like it. I’ll try again.” How many worlds were there? Five? Thirty? One hundred? We are not told. How can we understand this? God needed practice? God could not get it right the first time?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik responds:
Of course God did not need practice. Of course God could get it right the first time. But God deliberately “messed up” to teach us a powerful lesson. If God could not get it right the first time and needed to start again, then we can too. If God could start again from scratch after each, then we can too.
We Humans Continue the Work of Creation
Rabbi Jordie Gerson brings this beautiful piece of Torah:
In the beginning, God created…When R’ Leibele Eiger returned from Kotzk, his father, R’ Shloimele, asked him: ‘What did you learn in Kotzk?’ He answered, ‘I learned three things there 1) that a human is a human and an angel is an angel; 2) if a person wishes to, he can become greater than an angel and 3) ‘In the beginning, God created’ – God only created the beginning and left the rest to humankind.
Educator Ira Wise:
Beginnings are obvious. But how about satisfaction with work done well?! On everyday but one, God says ki tov (it was good). On day two, God doesn’t say it at all. The rabbis suggest this was because nothing new was created. Rather, things were just rearranged, so it wasn’t good. And on the last day it was very good. So maybe when we think about the first Creation story, we should think about the work we do. When we are truly creators, it is good. When we just move the deck chairs around, not so much. Not bad, but not good.
Life is Full of Unclarity
NFTY Teen Lisa Friedman: When I was at URJ Kutz Camp, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen taught that Genesis 2:9 states that both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are in the midst of the garden. Why would G-d put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden if G-d didn’t want Adam to eat its fruit? We decided that G-d purposely did this. From this, we can learn that some things in life are challenging and don’t make sense. If we are smart and trust ourselves, each other and G-d, we will survive and thrive in this world.