Between Creation and the Flood

Bereishit By :  Burton L. Visotzky Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies Emeritus Posted On Oct 29, 2005 / 5766 | Torah Commentary

In the beginning, Dr. Ismar Schorsch was a rigorous scholar, a great teacher, and Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. And for the past twelve years, Rabbi Schorsch also has written weekly words of Torah. Like his father before him, he assumed the mantle of spiritual leader. That our friend Ismar could do all of these tasks is not surprising; but for me, his taking the role of pastoral rabbi is the one that most inspires my awe. Writing a message for each week’s Torah portion that can reach the heart and inspire readers is a daunting task. Yet Rabbi Schorsch has found a clear voice of leadership and wise counsel; a unique voice unmistakably his own, which weds the insights of Wissenschaft des Judentums (Jewish scholarship) with the ancient teachings of our talmudic sages. It is with trepidation that I offer my own words of Torah on this new cycle of scriptural readings to honor our teacher, Chancellor Ismar Schorsch.

This week’s portion, with which we begin again our annual cycle of Torah reading, starts at the very beginning (which, as the song says, is “a very good place to start”). Whether we read the majestic opening words of Genesis as traditionally rendered by our rabbis of old (“In the beginning”) or whether we read them as an introductory clause of a lengthy sentence describing the process and ordering of creation (“When God began to create”), there is no mistaking the grandeur of creation.

We need not enter the sorry fray of Darwinists vs. Intelligent Designers to capture the essential truth of the biblical world view that God’s creation is magnificent. For each of the six days’ worth of creation that Genesis records, it has this positive judgment: “God saw that this was good.” I qualify the creation narrative by saying “six days’ worth,” because the Torah portion this week does not actually have God say “this was good” on the second day of creation. But day three has God pronounce “this was good” twice, so everything evens out.

On the final day of creation, the day on which humanity was created, Genesis reports, “God saw all that God had done and behold, this was very good.” As the fifth-century midrash Genesis Rabbah reports, the Hebrew word for “very” (me’od) is spelled memalefdalet in the verse of Genesis. What God is suggesting, according to our sages, is that humanity, Adam, is very good. Me’od is Adam, spelled alefdaletmem — the same letters in but a different order. This insight evaluates humanity (as another song would have it) as “the crown of creation.”

Our annual scriptural lectionary or Torah reading cycle reflects the Rabbis’ division of the Five Books of Moses into fifty-four segments, parashiyot (singular: parashah). This week, which is week one of the cycle, is called Bereishit, Genesis, after the opening word of the Torah. In addition to being the first word of the Torah, it is more or less descriptive of the content: the story of creation “in the beginning.” Next week, we will read the parashah called Noah. That proper name appears as the third word in the reading, and it, too, is reasonably descriptive of the content: the story of Noah’s flood. These two parashiyot contain the Bible’s primeval history and are the run-up to the story of Abraham, which is found in the third portion of the cycle.

What troubles me is how the Rabbis divided that pre-Abrahamic history. As we read Genesis, we are overwhelmed by the glory of God’s creation. That litany of “it was good” tolls its positive judgment, almost willfully ignoring the vicissitudes of actual history that would subsequently unfold. We know that in week two, God will “regret that God had made humanity upon the earth.” We know that God will decide “to blot out humanity from the earth.” Except those verses are not found in the second portion of the Torah cycle. No, that’s not in No·ah’s portion at all. Those incredibly depressing words are in this week’s Torah reading, B’reishit.

I ask myself, just how much pessimism must the Rabbis embrace for each week’s Torah portion? Couldn’t they have allowed us just one measly week to revel in the judgment that humanity is “very good?” Must they rub our noses in the fact that God’s grand experiment was an utter failure? Would it have been so terrible for us to have seven short days of thinking we aren’t so bad after all? Why couldn’t they have left that stuff until the parashah on No·ah, and reserved B’reishit for a week’s worth of unadulterated praise to the Creator for God’s greatest creation, humanity?

I take my clue from the holiday season just ended. On Rosh Hashanah we prayed: HaYom Harat Olam, “today the world was born!” According to rabbinic opinion, Rosh Hashanah was not only the first day of the New Year, but also marked the very creation of the world, linking the holiday with this week’s Torah reading. But the holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah ended with Yom Kippur and judgment. If there is one thing that is clear from the Yom Kippur liturgy, it is that no human is perfect; we each have our failings for which we must atone.

The two weeks of Torah reading we recite for B’reishit and No·ah give us a nuanced and balanced view of humanity. While this week’s narrative begins with the grandeur and goodness of creation, it ends with a dour, negative judgment of humankind. Next week, which reports the horrific holocaust of a flood that destroys virtually all of humanity, ends with a rainbow and the hopeful report of the birth of Abraham.

When the Rabbis divided the weekly Torah portions, they were not being pessimists, they were being realists. We should and must extol the glory of God’s creation. But we would be foolish to bury our heads in the sand and not to recognize that humanity is flawed — capable of great things, yet equally capable of sin. And next week, when we read the awful story of the flood, we should wait for that ray of sunlight to peep through in the end. We are not all bad. In fact, we’re not too bad at all.

Our Torah cycle teaches us the mutability of human history. We are neither entirely wonderful nor entirely irredeemable. Our lives hang in the balance and our daily actions count. Our rabbi and professor Chancellor Schorsch has spent his career instructing us in this essential lesson of history. May he and we go from strength to strength.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky