Back to the Beginning

Bereishit By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 9, 1993 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

Back to the beginning! Without losing a step, we move from the death of Moses back to the story of creation. Israel circles the Torah much as the earth does the sun, with Simhat Torah to mark the moment when one cycle ends and the next begins. From its light we draw our wisdom, our identity, our cohesion as a people. To hear it read weekly in the synagogue is to keep the experience of Sinai alive. But we need to prepare ourselves or else the power of the event will elude us. Hence, the study of the parasha should be the religious curriculum of our week.

I find the opening chapter of the Torah a nugget of biblical monotheism. No words are wasted on God’s biography or appearance. In this austere account, as throughout the Bible, God is a verb and not a noun. We come to know God only through His actions. Creation is effected by the spoken word of a supreme and omnipotent being. As the rabbis were to observe, it took but ten divine commands to turn chaos into cosmos (the phrase “and God spoke” occurring ten times in the chapter). Indeed, one of the names that they eventually bestowed on God memorializes the triumph of creation — “Praised Be the One Who Spoke and the World Came into Being,” and it is by invoking this circuitous name that we begin the shaharit service each morning. Monotheism denies us the cozy comfort to picture God, whose grandeur defies our ability to image or understand, though we surely feel God’s presence and concern. In the spirit of bereshit, our siddur speaks of God essentially in terms of action rather than being.

However, the real focus of the creation story is not God, but man. Of such deep concern is this subject that the Torah treats us to two distinct and conflicting versions of Adam’s origins. Chapters one and two of Genesis, in their overlapping present us with two different conceptions of human nature. Created on the sixth day, Adam One culminates the hierarchy of living beings. He is endowed with the image and likeness of God and manifests completeness, if not perfection. He enters the world as a vegetarian, with a mate by his side and the mandate to exercise dominion over the planet. It is a portrait that stresses the divine-like qualities of humanity and the orderliness and stasis of existence.

Not so chapter two, where the creation of man comes at the very beginning. Adam Two hardly resembles his counterpart. The text makes no claim about his God-like resemblance. On the contrary, it stresses his frailty and incompleteness. Adam Two is a lump of clay invigorated by God’s breath. His domain is not the world but the Garden of Eden which he is only to till and tend, and he is specifically instructed not to eat from “the tree of knowledge of good and bad.” What’s more, Adam Two is lonely, without mate or companion. Unlike Adam One, he is neither self-sufficient nor all-powerful nor a paragon of virtue. In Adam Two we begin to recognize ourselves.

The Torah opens with two snapshots of humanity because one would be wholly inadequate. It operates like a stereoscope where two views of the same scene are blended into a three-dimensional picture. Neither Adam One nor Adam Two alone would do justice to the complexity of human nature. Adam Two is the stuff of human history. His weakness introduces the dynamic factor which unravels the stability of creation. He bristles at the prospect of divine restrictions. In rebellion against God, he inflicts change and disorder on his surroundings.

But we need Adam One to remind us of the extraordinary nobility of human nature. We are undeniably graced by moments of creativity and transcendence that express our divine-like uniqueness and leave us “little lower than the angels.” We are composite creatures in a quest for purity. If Adam Two bespeaks the daily struggle against our baser instincts, Adam One offers us a glimpse of our nobler selves, of a messianic potential that will some day, with God’s help, restore the world to its pristine beauty and untrammeled orderliness.

A gentle midrash points to the same truth. When God set about creating the universe, Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta tells us, God was determined to bring the earth and the heavens into harmony by not playing favorites. And so on day one God made something for both, as it says: “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.” On the second day, work on the heavens begins, as it says: “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water that it may separate water from water.” On the third, God shifted to the earth, as it says: “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” On the fourth, we return to the heavens, as it says: “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night.” On the fifth, back to the earth, as it says: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.”

But what was God to do with Adam, who was to be created on the sixth day? If God made him exclusively of ethereal or earthly matter, God would shatter the balance and harmony of His handiwork. It is for this reason that God decided to make humanity with a measure of material drawn from both realms, as it says: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth, and God blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” (2:7)

Aside from an exquisite sample of close reading, the midrash hints at the structural flaw in God’s creation – a composite creature that could go either way. To preserve the balance of creation, God finished off with a species inherently unbalanced. Sometimes we end up with the opposite of what we intended. History is the workbench on which God and humanity ever since have labored to complete creation.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch