The Torah portion of Bereishit, and indeed the entire Torah, opens with the story of creation. We are told that God took six days to create the world we know, and on the seventh day He rested. Once man walks the Earth, the story shifts its focus to him. We are told of Adam and Eve’s poor choices in the Garden of Eden, resulting in their expulsion, and the rivalry of their children, Cain and Abel. The generations between Adam and Noah round out the portion.
The Israel Bible cites Rashi, who explains why the Torah, essentially a book of law (the word “Torah” means instruction), would begin with stories, especially the story of creation. Rashi says that it includes the stories of creation so that when the nations of the world accuse the Children of Israel of stealing the land of Israel, the Jews will be able to point to the Bible and declare that God, who created it all, chose to give the Holy Land to Abraham and his descendants.
The first Hebrew word in the Torah is Bereishit, meaning “in the beginning”, while the final word is Yisrael, or Israel. Thus, the first and last letters of the Torah can be combined to spell the Hebrew word lev, meaning “heart”. As the Israel Bible points out, this reminds us that the Torah is the heart of the Jewish people and an expression of God’s love for humanity.
Two Stories of Creation
The first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of creation. The first provides an overview of the six-day process, while the second zooms in to detail the creation of Man specifically.
The Bible tells us that first, God created Heaven and Earth, then goes on to provide some of the details of that creation.
Each day focuses on a different aspect of the world we live in. On the first day, He creates light and separates it from the darkness. On day two He divides the waters between Heaven and Earth. On day three He forms the dry land and causes plant life to grow. On day four He places the sun, moon and stars in the sky. On day five He creates the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky. On day six He creates all the remaining animals, and before sunset, he forms man.
Of all His creations, God only interacts with man. He turns to His creation, both male and female, and commands humanity to be fruitful and multiply and exert dominion over the Earth. He provides sustenance in the form of the fruit of the trees, offering the growth of the ground for the consumption of animals.
As God looks over His creations, He declares that they are “good”. On the third day He uses the term twice, and when surveying the finished product, He declares it “very good”. Only on the second day does He neglect to use this epithet.
In chapter two we are treated to a slightly different perspective, and even a slightly different order of events. Here, Man is the main focus, and we are told of God’s other creative works in their relation to his needs. Thus, animals are formed only when God determines it is not good for Man to be alone.
Man is formed from the dust of the Earth, and God breathes a soul of life into his body, placing him in the Garden of Eden. He instructs this first Man, called Adam (in Hebrew, the word Adam is synonymous with Ish, or man), not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then tells him to search among the animals He creates for a life partner. When Adam fails to identify with any of the animals, God causes a deep sleep to overtake him and He forms a woman out of Adam’s own side. We are told that both roam the garden naked, yet are not ashamed, foreshadowing the chapter to come.
In the second description of creation, the Torah tells us that God created the potential for plants, but nothing yet grew because rain had not yet fallen and there is no man to work the land.The Israel Bible cites the sage Rashi, who explains that God withheld the rain until Adam prayed for it. To this day the Land of Israel is dependent on annual rainfall for its water. This is God’s way of strengthening man’s relationship with Him, by building into the world a human need to pray.
Points to Ponder
What do you think is the significance of humanity being created last?
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
After learning about the creation of Woman, we now read about her first experiences. We are told that the sly serpent entices her to partake of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which she subsequently shares with her man. Having internalized the knowledge that the tree was meant to protect, the pair realize that they are naked and for the first time consider this a source of shame before God, so they sew themselves rudimentary clothing out of figleaves and try to hide from Him in the garden. The omnipresent and omniscient God seeks them out and confronts them over their choices, but instead of taking responsibility for their actions, each seeks to pass the blame to someone else; Man accuses “the woman whom Thou gavest to be with me,” while Woman charges the serpent with “beguiling” her into eating.
God curses each of them for their roles in this transgression. The snake He condemns to slither on his belly, eating dust and living in enmity with the descendants of Woman; upon Woman he bestows pain in childbirth; and Man receives the curse of the Earth, which will no longer yield its produce with ease. He then makes for them clothing of animal skins and exiles Man and Woman from His garden for eternity. He places cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance of the garden, to keep them out.
It is at the time that they are cursed that Adam finally gives his wife the name by which she is most known: Eve, for she is the mother of all living things.
The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to explain the curse Adam receives. He points out that the Hebrew word ba’avurekha does not mean the land is cursed “because of you”, but rather “for you” — for man’s sake, that he may correct his actions. Thus, the land’s prosperity becomes a measuring stick of man’s adherence to God’s ways, especially in the Land of Israel.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness after eating from the forbidden tree? What is the connection between the two?
Cain vs. Abel
The Torah tells us that Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Abel is a shepherd, while Cain is a farmer. each brings an offering to God from the fruits of his labors, but while Abel’s first of his flock is accepted by God, Cain’s offering is rejected. Cain becomes incensed, and God tries to calm him. When they are alone in the field, however, Cain rises up and beats his brother to death.
God gently confronts Cain, asking him where his brother is. Cain famously responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to which God says He already knows the answer: “Thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.” God curses Cain to wander the Earth, compounding the punishment his father already earned in the Garden of Eden. When Cain appeals to God that the burden is too great for him to bear, God assures him that in his wanderings, He will protect Cain from others.
The Israel Bible elaborates on the nature of Cain’s punishment, in line with the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. According to the German rabbi, the two Hebrew terms, na (fugitive) and nad (wanderer), connote two different types of disconnection: someone who is na can find no physical resting place on Earth, while someone who is nad is cut off from mankind. For Cain to have neither homeland nor society was no small matter. Likewise, the return of sovereign Jewish society to its Biblical homeland of Israel is a significant sign of God’s hand in the world.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Cain does not earn the death penalty, later identified as the Biblical punishment for murder, for killing his brother?
Following the story of Cain and Abel, the Torah recounts the genealogies of Adam and Eve’s children, starting with Cain’s descendants and their accomplishments. The Torah relates a brief, strange story of one descendant, by the name of Lemech, who has two wives. One day he calls his wives together to tell them he has killed a man, but as God protected Cain, He would protect Lemech sevenfold.
From there, the Torah relates that Adam and Eve had another son to replace Abel. This son, named Seth, is born in Adam’s own image, we are told. The Israel Bible brings the explanation of Rabbi Judah Halevi in his Book of the Khazars, that Cain killed Abel because he thought Abel would inherit the Land of Israel from their father. Seth’s similarity to his father made him the worthy heir. The entire incident illustrates how special the Land of Israel is and the lengths some would go to in order to stake a claim.
The Torah goes on to list the names of Seth’s descendants and how long they each lived. The prize for longevity goes to Methuselah, who lived 969 years, while Enoch, whom we are told “walked with God”, was removed from this Earth after a mere 365 years.
Noah rounds out the list, ten generations after Adam. We are told that man has proliferated upon the Earth, but not all his actions are acceptable in the eye of God. He decides to wipe out all life on Earth. Noah, though, has found favor in God’s eyes.
Points to Ponder
This is only the first of many genealogical passages in the Bible. Why do you think these are important?