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Parashat Bereishit

November 5, 2014

Overture: Our Place in God’s Purposive World
Rabbi Len Levin

“In the beginning God created heavens and earth” (older translation)


“When God began to create the heavens and the earth
— the earth being chaos-shmaos (Yochanan Muffs’ paraphrase of tohu va-vohu
with darkness over the face of the deep
and the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters —
God said, Let there be light,
And there was light.

Any way you translate it, it is a fitting opening to the most formative book in the world. Like a classic overture, the beginning chapters of Genesis articulate the themes that will reverberate through the rest of the Torah as well as the historical and prophetic writings, the psalms, and the other components of the Bible. In broad strokes, it lays out the important elements of the biblical world view:

  • The world is ordered by God’s creative plan.
  • Everything in the world — skies, seas, land, plants and animals, birds and fishes, sun, moon and stars — is good, at least potentially.
  • The human being, at the center of it all, has the power to choose good or evil, which is the same as to cooperate with God’s plan or to rebel against it.
  • At least a major part of the evil in the world is our fault. We are complicated creatures, easily lured from the right path by short-term illusory benefits.
  • In the long term, history has a direction — to try to wean recalcitrant humanity from their destructive impulses and get them back on track to commit to furthering God’s plan and making this world the paradise that God intended it to be.

The narrative details in which this message is couched are charming but naïve, and are there to serve the broader message. Already in the first century the rabbis (Avot 5:1) and Philo (On the Creation) observed that an omnipotent God could have created the world in a single day and a single utterance, and that the six-day narrative is there to engage our attention or teach a lesson. Maimonides in his Guide (II, 30) observed that the main point of the opening narrative is to teach the principle of creation itself, and that the details may be understood symbolically — a lesson the modern-day creationists and fundamentalists would be well to take to heart. Maimonides would have welcomed the modern discovery of the Big Bang as a scientific counterpart to the poetic account of God’s creation in Genesis. The question is still open among contemporary physicists whether to interpret the origin of the universe as purposive or random. Stephen Jay Gould (in Rocks of Ages) probably gave us the wisest advice when he said that it is the task of science to describe the “what” of reality and the task of religion to address the question of “why.”

Of all the narratives in Genesis, that of Adam and Eve probably has had the most influence and echoes in the imagination of the Western world, in literature, art and religious thought, ever since. Joseph Soloveitchik (in The Lonely Man of Faith) drew from it the moral that the human being is in a primal state of loneliness and vulnerability, and that we can find meaning in our lives only through the companionship of our human counterpart and of God.

Reading the Eden narrative after the magnificent first chapter of creation, I have come to the conclusion that it tells the story of our awakening as moral beings and shattering the innocence of the idyllic basking in the bosom of nature. The entrance of human beings onto the natural landscape adds something radically new, with potential for good and for evil. In nature, all creatures live by instinct. We are capable of reflection and choice, of cooperating with God’s purpose for the world or living for self aggrandizement. History as a moral enterprise and quest is uniquely human.

The challenges facing us since Genesis have changed not in nature, but in scope. We still have the power, like Cain and Abel, to make life on earth murderous hell. We still have the power, like the generation of the Flood, to bring on catastrophe that will spell doom for us and for the planet. But we still have the capacity, like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, and the prophets and psalmists, to dedicate our lives l’takken olam b’malkhut Shaddai — to perfect the world under the governance of the Almighty.

It is up to us. And the message of Genesis is still our wake-up call, the beginning of our journey.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.