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Parshat Bereshit

October 10, 2017
The Ultimate Framing Narrative
A Dvar Torah for Bereshit
By Rabbi Lenny Levin


“In the beginning God created heavens and earth.” (Gen. 1:1)


“Who am I?” The answer to this question takes a narrative form. I am [fill in the name]. I grew up in such-and-such a family, went to such-and-such schools, have had such-and-such experiences and accomplishments. I belong to [one or more religious-ethnic backgrounds]. My [great-]-grandparents came here in 19xx. Our group had a history of so-many centuries in such-and-such a place. My personal narrative is embedded in family and group narratives, extending backwards through receding horizons.


Our teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman said it’s all narrative. We live our lives as narrative. When asked to tell someone (a date, an employer, a therapist, a chance encounter) something about ourselves, we respond with our personal narrative couched different ways. Religion is one master-narrative telling us the meaning of it all. Science is another master-narrative, explaining how it all happened.


Stephen Jay Gould, in Rocks of Ages, taught that the religious and scientific narratives should be seen not as conflicting, but as complementary. And Maimonides suggested in Guide II.30 that the specifics of the creation narrative should be understood symbolically, in terms of what science establishes as factual. (See also Nathan Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation.)


The Jewish narrative extends back several thousand years. We retell this narrative on Passover in the Haggadah (“haggadah” or “aggada” means “narrative”). The third-century authorities Rav and Shmuel differed on where the recital of this narrative should begin. Shmuel said we should start with avadim hayinu, “We were slaves in Egypt.” Rav went back further, to the point where “Our ancestors were idolators, but God has drawn us to the divine service” – in other words, back to the patriarchal-matriarchal period.


The Torah takes us back even further than this, to the origin of the human race and the creation of the world. It affirms that the totality of everything is here for a purpose, that it all began with the creative act that started world history on its trajectory. This creative, purposive action grounds everything that follows with ultimate meaning. Everything is for a purpose. Life is for a purpose. Human existence is for a purpose, embracing the histories of all the human families and nations within it. The history of the Jewish people finds its place and meaning within the context of this universal history. All strive together to make the original universal vision of ki tov (“and it was good”) a reality. The striving for this fulfillment extends to the endless future, to Messianic times.


Adam and Eve stand as prototypical figures at the start of human history. Their fateful struggle and decision prefigures the choices that will confront all future generations: whether to embrace God’s plan and joyfully perform the divine will, or seek self-aggrandizement and rebel against God’s command. The consciousness of these bifurcating possibilities is itself part of the knowledge of good and evil. Our primeval parents made painful and tragic mistakes along this road to self-awareness, but ultimately the serpent’s prophetic words were verified, that by coming to know good and evil they become godlike, fulfilling the promise of being created in the divine image.


Psalm 104, with its celebration of the panoply of all earth’s creatures, is a fitting companion to the creation narrative. In response to Genesis’s “God saw that it was good,” it proclaims: “How many are Your works, Adonai! In wisdom have You made them all; the world is full of Your creations!” (Ps. 104:24)
My teacher Eliezer Schweid (in Philosophy of the Bible) found another lesson for our time in the Eden narrative. God put the human being in the garden l’ovdah ul’shomrah – to work it and to preserve it. This injunction extends to the whole history of human life on the planet Earth, including the recent development of technological civilization. We have a sacred trust to take care of the planet we inhabit, to cultivate it, and to preserve it and its species insofar as it is in our power to do so. Not only self-interest, but gratitude to the source of all life and responsibility for creation, bid us do this. The future narrative of life on earth depends on how we respond to this challenge.


Rabbi Lenny Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God is Subject to Murphy’s Law.