Weekly Torah: Bereisheet

Parshat Bereisheet (Gen. 1:1-6:8)

Longer Essays

Five Stages of Soul (2015)

Bees: Warrior-Farmers (2011)

Dinosaurs (2010)

Creation Science, Creation Metaphor (2008)

Short Takes

Two Creations, One Philosophy (5777/2016)

For first century philosopher Philo of Alexandria, there is only one true philosophy of life. Both of his favorite philosophers — Moses and Plato — express it. In the Torah, Moses presents many ideas later found in the philosophical dialogues of Plato.

Plato often describes the physical world as a faint representation of big ideas that mathematically, morally and metaphysically structure reality. So, says Philo, does Moses.

At the beginning of the Torah, Moses presents two contrasting creation stories. In the first story, divine speech, ordered mathematically into six segments, creates an ideal world of “goodness.” In this ideal world, human beings reflect the image of the Divine. In contrast, the second creation story begins with the earth and its produce; even human beings are made of clay.

By juxtaposing these two stories, Moses teaches that God created the world in two stages. First, God created an intellectual model. This subtle, ideal plan can be known only through thought. Next, relying on this model, God created a physical world. This world, much less perfect than the ideal plan, is the one we know through everyday sensory experience.

Moses begins the Torah with a creation story, even though its main theme is morality and ritual. This beginning, says Philo, teaches that laws of ethics and spiritual practice reflect the structure of reality. When we practice them, we create human communities in harmony with nature.

Philo recognizes that we don’t live in an ideal world. However, this is not a defect of creation or of God. Instead, it’s a challenge for human responsibility. Matter isn’t perfect; it can only show a hint, a trace, or a faint representation of ideals. Human beings, however, blend matter with mind. We live well when we use our minds to reflect on our embodied lives. At our best, we discern spiritual ideals and put them into practice.


greedGreed’s Destructive Power – or – On the Nefilim (5776/2015)

Genesis 6:1-4 are some of the strangest verses in Torah, introducing odd characters, and telling their stories in cryptic, non-grammatical sentences. Explore two translations:

JPS translation … NRSV translation

How should we understand these verses? Do humans begin to multiply (heikhel larov) or greatly rebel (heikhel larov)? Who are the “sons of God” (bnai ha-Elohim)? Do they marry (vayikhu nashim) or just take women (vayikhu nashim)? What does God say to them? Is it a punishment? When are the Nefilim on the earth? Are they famous or destructive? What are we supposed to learn from their story?

Three famous commentaries offer different answers — on all but the last question.

Genesis Rabbah: Political leaders rebel, falling from high ethical standards, exploiting the people, even kidnapping and raping women. They are men of destruction. Such men lived long ago, and reappear throughout history. From their story, we learn the destructive power of greed.

Book of Enoch: Angels fall in love with human women, marry them, and teach them all the divine arts and sciences. Their clever children, raised with these arts, overreach, consuming everything around them. To stop them, God imprisons the nefilim under the earth, until a judgment day to come. From the story, we learn the destructive power of greed.

Philo of Alexandria: Human souls (“sons of God”) incarnate in human bodies (“daughters of humans”). God has decreed that they can remain united for a maximum of 120 years. Each embodied soul must decide how to use its time. From the story, we learn how to avoid the destructive power of greed: follow spiritual heroes who live in right and limited relation to materiality.


Creation and God’s Gender (5774/2013)

“When God began creating… darkness was on the face of tehom (deep water)” (Gen 1:1-2).

Some scholars see in the word tehom a reference to the Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, whose sons kill her and create the world from her body parts. In some traditions, Tiamat is the threatening ocean or flooding rivers that must be contained, the impenetrable chaos that must be ordered. From a Jungian perspective, she represents the unconscious, out of which a conscious psyche must form and navigate a reasonably predictable world.

Here, the character of God can be seen as a “sky father” imposing logos (reason) on chaos, taming it into a controlled female eros (passion). Systematically, God divides the earth’s waters from the sky’s waters, gathers the earth’s waters so that dry land appears, and sprouts seed-bearing plants. For his own purposes, he controls and fertilizes what was once powerful in its own right. However, eros cannot be fully contained: aside from the repeating formulas that give Chapter One its poetic structure, the most frequently appearing word root is the unpredictable “seed.”

In Genesis Chapters Two and Three, eros crosses gender lines and chaos ignores boundaries. Here, a male God mothers as he births, forms, feeds, educates, worries, walks with, punishes, clothes, protects and consoles human beings. God forms a woman, who values “opening her eyes,” “knowing good and evil” and what is “desirable to the mind” (Gen 3:5-6) more highly than following rules. She breaks a rule, thus opening her own and her husband’s minds. After her mind-opening action, but before she has children, her husband appreciatively calls her “mother of all life” (Gen 3:20). The untamed, creative unconscious is back in the story!


Not Knowing about Mortality (5773/2012)

Kayin spoke to his brother Hevel when they were in the field. Kayin rose up towards Hevel and killed him. God said to Kayin, “Where is your brother Hevel?” He said, “I do not know.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 4:8-9)’’

“I do not know.” Most likely, Kayin truly does not know how to answer God’s question. In the narrative of the Torah, no one has yet died.

Normally, when we read this text, we don’t pause to notice the gravity of Kayin’s truthful answer “I do not know.” We rush on to his more sarcastic tagline, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Kayin’s truthful answer is still true – as it should be — in at least three ways.

(1)     In times of civic peace, death is a disruption, an opening on to existential and emotional questions. Only in terrible times of war, plague, or famine do people become numb to the disruption.

(2)     We do not know what happens to the soul, spirit, or animating force of a person who has died. All we know is that, if we were close to them while they were alive, we continue to encounter them after they have died. It’s not unusual to continue our relationship through memory, dreams, conversations, or visual imagery.

(3)     We do not know the definitive or correct way to mourn. As Torah tells it, Adam and Chava express no outward grief, continue their life together, and give birth to more children. On the other hand, Kayin, despite his worldly accomplishments, remains forever unsettled inside himself. Torah passes no judgment on either approach, simply reporting them as ways human beings might cope.

From this I take comfort: the fact that I do not know is not a failing, just a feature of human nature. Socrates echoed this in his famous statement, “I am wise…because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”


Creation and Evolution (5771/2010)

Does the Torah support a theory of evolution?

Two traditional Jewish answers are: (a) Yes! (b) Who cares?

Those who argue “yes,” say: Torah’s language teaches that the first three days of creation were eons. On the first three days, Torah speaks of the alternation of light and darkness, marking something called a “day.” Yet a “day” cannot possibly mean “24 hours” until the fourth day, when God installs sun, moon, and stars to mark “occasions, days, and years.”

And they also say: If you look beyond the words that form the basic rhythmic structure of Bereisheet/Exodus Chapter One, the word that appears most often is zera, seed. Torah uses this word ten times, to emphasize the potential for change in the created work. Classical rabbinic midrash adds that the separate days of creation mark pauses in God’s creative activity. During those pauses, God allowed each created thing to bring forth its own potential.

Those who find the question irrelevant say: Torah is neutral regarding theories of biology and physics. It should not be used to confirm or refute scientific truth. Instead, the poetic images and meter of the creation story invite us to pause and wonder at the complex harmonies of the living universe. The story stimulates us to attend more carefully to fellow creatures, and understand how we might learn from them some of the lessons God has hidden for us in this world.


In the Image of God (5770/2009)

What does it mean to say that we are created in the image of God?

Mishnah: Every human being is of infinite value.

Talmud: Just as God has no determinate image, each of us is unique.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides: We have intellectual ability.

Zohar: God has both male and female qualities.

Rabbi Moses Cordovero: We are compassionate.

Rabbi Solomon Dubnow: The human soul is immortal.

Rabbi Gutmann: It is possible for every human being to have a personal relationship with God.

Yonit (age 8): Because each of us is unique, God is like every single person in a community.


Whose Idea Was the Second Creation Story? (5769/2008) – by Eli Kaplan

Bereisheet/Genesis 1-2:3 and 2:4-25 tell two different stories of the order of creation. Why? Perhaps as a result of this conversation between Adam and God:

Adam: God, I don’t like the way you created the world.

God: Let’s change places. Tell me your plan.

Adam: I would have created earth before heaven.

God: But without heaven, there would have been no rain.

Adam: I would have made plants that don’t need rain.

God: But there would have been no one to take care of them.

Adam: I would have created myself first.

God: But you would have been alone.

Adam: I would have created animals.

God: But who would be your mate?

Adam: I’m getting tired of this. I need a nap.

While Adam is asleep, God makes a partner for Adam. Eventually Adam wakes up.

Adam: Wow! You did get it right!


In the Image of God – Actually and Potentially (5768/2007)

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak) teaches:

The Torah portrays God as saying, “Let us create a human being “b’tzalmeinu, kidemuteinu” – in our image, in our likeness. Two words describe the nature of humanity, “image” and “likeness.” Are they just poetic repetitions of the same idea? Or do they express two separate ideas?

According to traditional rules of reading Torah, no word is considered superfluous. So if Torah uses two different words to describe how we are created in God’s image, it must be calling our attention to two different aspects of our nature.

Under one aspect, we are automatically like God. Every single one of us, by virtue of being human, has the same potential for Godly behavior. The ten sephirot – ten attributes of God as described by Kabbalah – are built into our hearts and minds. In particular, we all have the potential for learning to balance qualities that are at the heart of God: rachamim (compassion) and din (judgment).

Under the other aspect of our nature, we are not automatically like God at all. Instead, we must work to mold ourselves in the divine image. We must learn to actualize our potential, to consciously guide our actions so that they express the attributes of God. We must use every tool available to us – body, mind, and feelings – to learn how to extend compassion and how to set boundaries in ways that help us and help others grow.


Paradox (5767/2006)

In the beginning. . .in a beginning. . .during the beginning. . .by means of a beginning. . .

Genesis/Bereisheet 1:1, the first word of the Torah…

Open this book, say our sages, and you will find that it contains the blueprint for right living on our planet.  Ecology, society, individuality – all will be explained.  How do they know? It’s all in that first magic word, bereisheet. 

In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom says, “I was with God as an amon.”  What is an amon, the sages wonder.  They examine every occurrence of the word amon in the Hebrew Bible, to find the role that Wisdom played.  Wisdom, they conclude, is a tutor, a judge, a hidden one, a great city of architectural wonders, a vessel of faith.

The book of Proverbs also says that Wisdom is reisheet – the beginning.  Thus, the sages conclude that at the beginning, God relied on Wisdom: the hidden teacher, setting the standard, mapping architectural wonders, testifying to the presence of God.

The book of Proverbs speaks of  “wisdom and tradition” and of “Torah and tradition.”  Thus, the sages conclude that the Wisdom is the Torah.  In the beginning, God relied on Torah, not yet revealed but containing the standard for building a wondrous world that could reach for holiness.

Bereisheet: by means of Torah, God created a world.  Bereisheet: This book existed before the world that contains it was created.  Bereisheet: open this book and discover the world.

Paradoxical?  You bet.  Welcome to the world of altered consciousness through text study!


Why The World Was Created (5766/2006)

Midrash Rabbah teaches:

“B’Reisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz: In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  (Bereisheet/ Genesis 1:1)

Where was God, before the heavens were created?  What was God’s plan?  Why was the world created and how is it sustained?  Our medieval rabbis, speaking in the midrash, asked all of these questions.  And they found answers to all them of in Jewish scripture itself.

The first thing God created was the Throne of Glory – and thus God had a place to be.  As it is written, “Your throne stands firm of old”  (Tehillim/Psalms 93:2).

Alternatively, the first thing God created was the Torah – and thus God had a plan to follow.  As it is written, “The LORD founded the earth by wisdom” (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:19).

The world was created so that we could give to others, and it is sustained when we do so.  As it is written, “The first fruits of your new grain” shall be brought to Jerusalem each year as a tithe (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:4).  The word used for “first” is reisheet — the same word used for the “beginning” of the world.

Each time we give to those who cannot sustain themselves, the rabbis taught, we do our part in creating and sustaining the world.

  1. Stumbled upon you blog.

    Chasidus teaches us that the Ayn Sof (G-d) created the world first and formost so that he could have a dwelling place on it. We as jews are to make it Holy so that he can dwell here. The blueprint to how to “make Holiness” is the Torah. Some Holiness is Rational and some is superrational, but both have the same amount of holiness in it. everything on earth has the potential to be holy through the G-dly sparks within it. We need , as Jews, to raise everything to the level of G-dillies, or in lay terms make it holy through use.



    1. Motl, beautifully stated. Thank you very much. A very nice teaching about interfacing AND participating with holiness. — Laura

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