PARASHAT BEREISHEIT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
October 21, 2006
Annual: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 3; Hertz p. 2)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 5:1 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 30; Hertz p. 16)
Haftarah: I Samuel: 20:18 – 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
As we begin a new Torah-reading cycle, all Jews are invited to renew our relationship with the Torah. The text may be understood on a variety of levels. Even if you are well acquainted with the basic story line, there are opportunities to probe deeper and to explore the values that lie beneath the surface of the text. If you are willing to undertake the challenge, we will make every effort to match your efforts through the weekly Torah Sparks.
Summary of the Parashah
The Torah opens with the familiar story of creation. God is depicted as creating the world in seven days. Every aspect of creation is portrayed as being purposeful, not random. The culmination of God’s work is the creation of a day of rest.
Man is situated in the Garden of Eden and presented with Woman, who will be his peer and partner. They are given rules about the fruit of the trees in the Garden, and they break these rules. Thus ends their idyllic stay in that carefree environment.
Adam and Eve have children. These children, once grown, manage to argue until one kills the other. The Torah spares us the details of their bickering, as if to assert that the particulars of the argument are far less important than their utter lack of respect for human life.
The balance of the parashah occupies itself mostly with the genealogy of the generations between Adam and Noah. At the end of the parashah, we are told that God was dissatisfied with the behavior of the creatures in the world that God had created. This sets the stage for next week’s story of Noah.
Issue # 1: The Value of Human Life
The Torah describes the first human being as the deliberate product of God’s creation. This description of God creating an individual human being, rather than a batch of human beings, has broad implications. Consider the following passage from the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5):
For this reason, man [i.e. the first human being] was created alone: to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as if he had destroyed an entire universe, and whoever sustains a single life is as if he had sustained an entire universe. Moreover [the first human was created as an individual] for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could [legitimately] say to his peer: “My ancestor was greater than yours.”
On a surface level, this Mishnah text makes it clear that human life must be valued and safeguarded. What other implications might we draw from this text
- for parents or teachers?
- for the way that we relate to our peers?
- for relating to those less fortunate than ourselves?
Issue #2: Genesis vs. Darwin
We are well aware that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is widely accepted in scientific circles, was developed without regard for its possible contradiction of the account of creation transmitted in the opening chapter of Genesis. This apparent conflict has inflamed passions in America, from the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925 to the recent debate over creationism as a theory proposed for inclusion in the science curricula of public schools. For example, the idea that our planet is billions (or at least millions) of years old seems to contradict the Jewish notion that the Earth was created less than 6,000 years ago.
The Torah does not pretend to be a textbook of science or of history. It is instead a transmitter of timeless values. But if we choose to read the Torah as if it were a chronicle of natural history, we might find that the chronological conflict with Darwin is less pronounced than we might have imagined. Consider the absence of the sun, in Chapter 1 of Genesis, until the fourth day of creation. This implies that the days described in this creation story are not 24-hour days, but rather periods of time whose length is unknown.
Reread the creation story with this thought in mind. How can we now reconcile the broad outlines of the creation story in Genesis 1 with Darwin’s theory of evolution? What details, if any, might still have to be reconciled?
On the other hand, even if we are successful at reconciling the broad sequence of creation with the broad sequence of evolution, there is still a significantdifference in perspective between Genesis and Darwin. Darwin’s theory requires random mutations in order for species to evolve. Once a mutation has occurred, then his principle of “survival of the fittest” takes over. In this way, postulates Darwin, species adapt and survive. However, the notion of random mutations is foreign to the worldview expressed in Genesis, in which all aspects of creation are deemed to have a divine purpose. This gap is more difficult to bridge than the chronological gap. Can you think of any ways to resolve this difference?