On New Beginnings

Bereishit By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 5, 2002 / 5763

As a teacher for JTS Kollot: Voices of Learning, I hear many voices of Torah that open my eyes to creative ways of reading the texts of our sacred tradition. One of the groups from which I derive a great deal of sipuk nefesh (soulful satisfaction) is our JTS Women’s Study Group which meets regularly in our South Florida office. Last year, this group demonstrated their adept skills in learning as we pored over Avivah Zornberg’s insightful and challenging commentary on the Book of Genesis, The Beginning of Desire. Now, we are making our way through the sequel, Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture, a commentary on the Book of Exodus. In our most recent discussion, we explored the many parallels between the creation of the world in Bereishit and the creation of the Israelite nation in Shemot. One of the verses pregnant with meaning that we focused our discussion on is when Moshe “saw their (the Israelites’) suffering” va’yar b’sivlotam (Exodus 2:11). Avivah’s commentary is striking: “Moses’ seeing is Moses allowing himself to be affected, to suffer with those who are unexpectedly called ‘his brothers’ “(Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 25). Moses’ seeing is an act that imparts knowledge to him – and more importantly, a knowledge that must be acted upon. This week’s parashah, Parashat Bereishit , also contains many instances of sight and knowledge – and the need to act on that knowledge. It is no coincidence that both the creation of the world and the creation of the Israelite nation involve these two acts.

Two examples, one human and the other Divine stand out as sparkling examples. First, God commands Adam that “[o]f every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Eve later sees that the tree was good for eating and encourages Adam to eat. Rather than dying, their eyes are opened immediately; their scope of vision is broadened. Based on this sequence of events, Ramban comments that our initial warning from God should be understood as such: “[on the day that you eat] you shall realize that you are mortal. You will have to live with the knowledge that one day you will die, a burden of awareness that no other creature bears.” As we, the readers see, Adam and Eve do not die, but in Ramban’s sensitive reading, they are given awareness of their death. Such knowledge no doubt leads Adam and Eve and us, their descendants, to live our lives with a greater sense of value and preciousness – of each moment and every day. Sight and then acquired knowledge change our behavior.

At the close of our parashah, God gives us another example to take to heart. Successive human failures, moral and ethical, lead God to look upon his creations and pass harsh judgment. The Torah states:

The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created – men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” But No·ah found favor with the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8)

God’s act of seeing leads to the disturbing knowledge that something has gone awry in the ‘experiment of creation.’ God cannot sit idly by as evil accrues and that which was declared to be good spoils to oblivion. God’s subsequent knowledge leads to action: the destruction of absolute evil and the saving of one individual from whom life is to be regenerated.

Seeing has the capacity to change our behavior. It is, as Avivah Zornberg describes, a redemptive act that sets the stage for change – that lays the groundwork for different modes of being. The task before us is first to open our eyes – whether it be to Torah, to injustice, to goodness, to righteousness. The mere act of seeing has the potential of behavioral transformation. Far from being passive, we like Adam and Eve need to live our lives with an awareness of the preciousness of each moment; and like God, we need to intervene in the face of injustice. May this parashah represent a new beginning – showing us the potential for sight, insight and ultimately redemption.

With wishes for a good week and Shabbat Shalom.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.