The Book of Bereishit: Becoming Partners in God’s Creation
Rabbi Boaz Pash is the Rosh Kollel of the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary‘s Torat Yosef Kollel.
Once again, we find ourselves reaching for the first volume on the far right of the shelf – the Book of Genesis, Bereishit. A new year has begun; a new beginning, new weekly portions to be read, and maybe, if we are lucky enough – new insights will be gained. Hopefully we will open the Book of Bereishit week after week, read it with new eyes, as if we have never read it before, never perused its exegesis nor contemplated its significance. New thoughts will blossom. New life rekindled.
In fact, anytime we take a new book in hand, a moment before opening it and reading it, we wonder: What are our expectations? What do we hope to find in it? If it’s a suspense novel, the answer is pretty straightforward – we expect to be excited; we want to be swept into the plot, in which the good guys always win and the bad guys are defeated forever. If it’s a classic literary work, we expect to be inspired by lofty literary forms, complex characters, exalting expressions as well as values and dilemmas that will highlight the fact that humans are superior to all other living creatures. If it’s a non-fiction work, we might pay less attention to the language or the emotions the work evokes, and focus mainly on the information it provides – in this case, the input is paramount. In short, every book has its unique features.
What are our expectations of Bereishit, which we have just pulled off the shelf? And what do we generally expect when reading the weekly Torah portions? Superficial excitement? A convoluted plot? Lofty language? Reading about a crime that doesn’t pay off? I don’t think any of the above are what the Torah wishes to convey or evoke.
If so, what does the Torah wish to teach us?
Our Sages, as can be expected, gave this matter their attention as well.
Rabi Akiva’s words are well known: “‘Love thy neighbor as yourself’ – this is a fundamental Torah principle.”
Less known, but no less important, are the words of Ben Azzai (disciple and friend of Rabbi Akiva), which either follow or precede Rabbi Akiva’s words: “‘This is the book of the generations of Man’ – this is a fundamental Torah principle.” (Midrash Rabbah 24:7). Or more simply put: “This is a core principle in understanding the Torah.”
Ben Azzai was probably referring to the entire verse he was quoting – “This is the book of the generations of Man. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him; male and female created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Man, in the day when they were created.” (Genesis 5:1-2)
This is the story of Man, says Ben Azzai – not as an individual, but as mankind, the pride of God’s creation.
The Book of Genesis tells the story of the universe, of humanity in its initial stages – a tale that will be told and retold in different versions throughout history, sometimes as a tragedy and sometimes as a comedy, as historians like to put it. The book will give a vivid description of the “germinal humanity” with the clear objective of letting humanity shape itself, based on very clear options: catastrophic apocalypse or utopian Messianic times; the consoling prophecies of Isaiah, or Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom and destruction. Humanity’s great adventure begins right here, but how will it end? There are a great many possibilities.
But it is not humanity that is telling its story. Rather, God almighty, who makes His appearance at the start of the human story, is the playwright who weaves the plot, chooses the genre and determines how His creation will play out. It is He who knows the purpose of all creation; foresees all that is hidden; pulls the ropes behind every scene; and also knows – perhaps even decides – what will be the final scene of the human saga. This means that although he story is told from the standpoint of Man, the protagonist, the plot is directed and navigated by (supposedly implicitly; de facto – quite explicitly) by the Creator Himself.
This notion is expressed in many of our Sages’ words. Here is one such example:
“The light created by the Almighty on the first day was of such a nature that Man could look through it and see the world until eternity. When God looked and saw how flawed are the deeds of the generations to come, He took that light and concealed it. And for whom did he conceal it? For the righteous, in the world to come.” (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 12)
The Midrash, too, describes the primal moment of Man’s creation, and how at that point in time, the so-called Big Bang, the encounter between the Great Artist and His creation – the history of all future creation is embedded. This is how the Midrash portrays it in its picturesque and figurative manner:
“When the Blessed One created the first Man, he extended him from one end of the earth to the other, from East to West and from North to South, such that Man filled all spaces and voids…and this first Man lay before the Creator as a lifeless lump. And God showed him all generations to come; each generation and its scholars; each generation and its sages; each generation and its scribes; each generation and its leaders. All, with no exception, had already been inscribed in the Book of the Generations of Man. As is written: ‘This is the book of the generations of Man.'” (Bereishit Rabbah 8).
The book was written by God. He may even have written the outline of the plot. However, the details are written by Man himself. Man’s mission is to discover the Divine Intent in all of creation and in every historical event, and make these compatible with the Creator’s primal intent.
The Book of Genesis teaches us that we continue God’s act of creation in this world; we are partners – whether of equal standing or secondary – to God’s great enterprise. In much the same manner that God had created worlds and destroyed them, Man, too, has the ability to do so, and put the wheels of history into motion. Man can either be a partner in God’s creation by doing justice, keeping the Sabbath, telling the truth, lending money to the needy and so forth; or else Man can become a destructive force by preventing the study of Torah, by being impulsive and malicious; by acting miserly; by spreading words of gossip and harming others…
If we revert to our original question – what should we be looking for when reading the Book of Genesis once again? The answer that must follow is – ourselves. Where is my personal Book of Man’s Generations? How does this book tell my own story, as a human, as a nation, as a tiny atom in the humungous and infinite mosaic of the entire cosmos? Are my ideas in keeping with the ideas expressed therein? How will I find the Man inside me, my individual personality within the Book of Man’s Generations? And perhaps the most disconcerting question: How can I, on the personal, family, national and universal level, contribute to the continuity of this divine-human plot? Have I, as an individual or as part of a collective, left a mark on one of its pages? Have I left an impression on a single line, a word, or even a letter?
In the Book of Genesis there are hardly any practical commandments; so much so, that our Sages question the necessity of this book and its inclusion in the Five Books of Moses – a composition comprised mainly of Israel’s binding laws and commandments. Rashi, in his opening exegesis on the book, begins with this very question: “The Torah should have opened with ‘This month shall be for you the first of all months’ (Exodus 12, 2), as this is the first commandment given to the People of Israel. Wherefore did the Torah begin with Genesis?” (Rashi on Genesis 1,1).
Nonetheless, there are a few commandments in this book, among which is the first Torah commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land” (Genesis 1, 28). One cannot but turn to the end of the Torah to find the last written commandment; surely the first and last mitzvah must be connected in some way, as any end is connected to its beginning, as any flame connects to its wick. The last mitzvah is “And now write for you this song,” whereby every Israelite is commanded to write his very own Torah scroll. Is this perhaps the Book of the Generations of Man mentioned in the beginning of Genesis? If so, perhaps the message to us is that the general story titled ‘The Generations of Man’ in the book of Genesis, as well as the unique story of the history of the People of Israel mentioned in the following four books of the Torah – which together make up the foundation for humanity’s entire historical account – should serve as a framework or mold into which we must pour our own personal human account, and which we are commanded to write with our very own hands.
In fact, Ben Azzai fulfilled his own words quite literally, when he set aside the fulfillment of the Torah’s first mitzvah in favor of the last – the latter was viewed by him as the loftiest expression of the former, being fruitful and multiplying through Torah.
Thus, when we take the book of Bereishit in hand once again, on the eve of Shabbat Bereishit, and reread the ancient book which is forever relevant, we might find ourselves engaged in a different sort of reading: one through which I try to find myself in the book; a reading that shows me a reflection of who I am; a reading that makes me feel that I belong in the story and that the story belongs to me – both on the personal-emotional level, as well as on the national and universal level; so much so, that I feel I myself have written it. If one toils and searches – one finds; so our Sages taught us. We might not find exactly what we are looking for, but we are sure to find some of what the Divine wisdom wanted us to find and make it our own.
The Book of Genesis, Bereishit, is indeed the Book of the Generations of Man, and one rule of thumb when it comes to Torah reading – read it with the aim of finding your own human story in it.