Parshat Bereshit
                                             
Genesis 1:1 - 6:8

Summary

“Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz …” – “In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth …”(as Rashi would have us translate it). The Torah begins with two apparently different stories of creation. Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells of how God created the world: God separates light from darkness, day from night and land from water. God makes the earth sprout trees and plants, and sets the sun and the moon in the sky. Fish and birds, creeping creatures, cattle and wild beasts are created by God. The most controversial verses deal with the creation of humans. Genesis 1:26-27 state: “And God said, ‘Let us make a human in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.’ And God created a human in His image, in the image of God He created it; male and female He created them.” God gives to humans the first commandment: Be fruitful and multiply. As God creates each of these things, God pauses to see that they are good. Having finished the work of creation on the seventh day after beginning, God blesses the seventh day and declares it holy.

Genesis 2:4-24 tells a second creation story, different than the first. When God made heaven and earth, God formed man, Adam, from the dust of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, enabling Adam to become a living being. God planted the garden of Eden with every tree that is beautiful to look at and which bears good food to eat and placed Adam in the garden. God tells Adam that he may eat from every tree in the garden with one exception. God warns Adam not to eat from “the tree of knowledge of good and bad” because he will die as soon as he eats from it. Then God creates the beasts, cattle and the birds. Adam gives names to them all. Finally, because God wants to make a fitting helper for man, God creates woman out of one of Adam’s ribs.

Genesis 2:25-3:24 tells of how Adam and his wife came to leave the garden. The snake, shrewdest of all of God’s wild beasts, asked the woman if God had told her not to eat from any of the trees in the garden. She replied that they may eat from all of the trees except the one in the middle of the garden. If they “eat from it or touch it”, woman tells the snake, they will die. The snake tells the woman that she will not die, but instead “your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” (Gen.3:5) The woman sees that the tree is beautiful and that its fruit is good for eating. She eats from the tree and gives some to Adam, and he eats it, too. When God asks them if they have eaten from the forbidden tree, Adam says that the woman gave it to him, and the woman says that the snake tricked her. God curses the snake to crawl on its belly forever. God tells the woman that as a result of her behavior she will experience pain when she bears children. God tells Adam that he will have to work hard all of his life and grow his own food in order to live. Adam names his wife Eve (Chavah – from the word chai or life, meaning mother of all living things) and God banishes them from the garden of Eden forever.

In Genesis 4:1-26, Eve gives birth to two sons, Cain (in Hebrew “Kayin,” meaning “acquisition” or “purchase”) and Abel (in Hebrew, “Hevel” meaning “breath” or “puff”). When they grow up, Cain becomes a farmer and Abel becomes a shepherd. Eventually, the brothers bring offerings to God. Cain brings his offering from the fruit of the soil, while Abel brings the best of the first animals born to his flock. God pays attention to Abel’s offering, but does not acknowledge Cain’s offering. God says to Cain, “… But if you do not do right, Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” Cain kills Abel. Cain kills Abel and when God asks Cain “Where is your brother Abel?”, Cain answers “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God punishes Cain for the murder by condemning him to wander the earth.

At the end of chapter 4 Adam and Eve have more children: Eve bears Seth, and Seth has a son, Enosh. “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord by name.” Chapter 5 provides a listing of the ten generations from Adam to Noah (including Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham, and Yafet). The parasha ends with “divine beings” taking wives from among the humans. God determines that the limit of a human life would be 120 years. In Genesis 5:1-6:8, God saw that human beings were wicked and constantly thinking of evil, so God’s “heart was saddened.” God decided to destroy all living things, but “Noah found favor with God.”

Commentary

  • This parasha contains the Torah’s first mention of Shabbat. The word Shabbat itself comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to cease.” The Torah does not again mention of the seventh day as a day of rest until the Israelites reach Sinai. At Sinai, Shabbat becomes a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. The essential meaning of Shabbat was to cease working, but what was to be the definition of work? During the Rabbinic era, the Sages identified 39 actions as “work” and these categories were recorded in the Mishnah. These included: any kind of agricultural work, spinning, weaving, sewing, hunting, slaughtering, kindling fire and transporting. Through the centuries the definition of work expanded to respond to modern day developments and inventions. Shabbat restrictions now include prohibitions on transacting business, touching money, writing, tearing paper, smoking, switching on lights, using the telephone, television, computer, traveling and carrying. 
     
  • The Talmud (Berachot 64a) points out that in Genesis 2:7, when God created Adam, the Hebrew word for created (va-yitzer) is spelled with a double yud. When God created the animals the word is spelled with only a single yud. This is to show that people have two inclinations: an inclination to do good (yetzer ha-tov) and an inclination to be selfish (yetzer ha-ra).
Some Thoughts and Questions
  1. Who is the “us” of “Let us make the human in our image?” (Genesis 1:26) 
     
  2. How do you explain that the Torah gives us two apparently different stories of the creation of the first man and woman? 
     
  3. Several times in this parasha, God asks questions. In the garden of Eden, God asks Adam and Eve if they have eaten from the forbidden tree. God asks Cain where his brother is. If God is everywhere and knows everything, why would God ask these questions? Reread the summary and see how these people answer. Do they tell the truth? Do they accept responsibility for their actions? Do your parents ever ask you questions to which they already know the answers? How do you respond? 
     
  4. Cain responds to God with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Although God does not answer this question, what do you think is the answer? Are any of us responsible for our “brothers”? Do you think that this means only those people who are related to us? The rabbis taught that if one kills a person, it as though he or she had killed an entire world. And if one saves a life, it is as though he or she had saved an entire world. What do you think this means? How does this have anything to do with being our brothers’ keepers? 
     
  5. After each act of creation, God looked at the result and “saw that this was good.” Then God declared the seventh day a holy day, a day of rest from the work of creation. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own work that we don’t stop to look at it and evaluate how we are doing. What can we learn from God’s example? Can you think of ways to take a break from your regular activities so that you might be able to look at your work and see that it is good? Do you regularly take breaks to look at God’s work around you and to acknowledge that it is still good? When and how? What is your own definition of “work?” What, then, is the definition of “rest?” Is “rest” in the traditional Jewish sense the same as leisure? Why or why not? Explain. If you do not observe a cessation of “work” does this distance you from Jewish faith and belief? Explain. 
     
  6. Ahad Ha-am, a 19th century Jewish thinker wrote, “More than Israel has kept the Shabbat the Shabbat has kept Israel.” What do you think he meant by this statement? What meaning does Shabbat have in your life? Based on Ahad Ha-am’s comment, do you think he would agree that there are observances which one must assume in order to be part of the Jewish people or to help Judaism survive? Do you agree with this comment? Explain.