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Torah Sparks

October 22, 2011 – 24 Tishrei 5772

Annual: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 3; Hertz p. 2)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 2:4 – 4:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 12; Hertz p. 6)
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 36; Hertz p. 21)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


The Torah begins with God’s work of creation. Chapter 1 describes a very orderly process. Cosmos, replete with earthly flora and fauna, replaces chaos in six days of divine effort. Humankind is the crowning achievement of God’s creation, introduced on the sixth day. The goodness of the physical world is asserted repeatedly. This goodness seems to reach its peak only with the creation of humanity: “God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” God blesses the seventh day as a sacred time of rest.

Chapter 2 recasts the creation narrative with conflicting (or complementary) details: Man is created first, later made complete through the creation of woman - all after a far less orderly divine process of trial and error. The moral education of humanity begins in the paradisiacal setting of the Garden of Eden. At the infamous urging of the snake, “shrewdest of all the wild beasts,” the first human beings consume forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, and they are banished from the Garden.

The second generation of human beings, nevertheless, continues to interact with God: Cain and Abel each bring offerings as gestures of worship. Alas, they also introduce murder into human history, when Cain, whose offering is rejected, kills his brother Abel.

In the generations that follow, descendants of Eden’s inhabitants initiate various areas of industry and creativity: agriculture, construction, metallurgy, music. By the time of Noah, introduced in the closing verses of the parashah, God seems to have despaired of His human creatures, and the moral corruption that has come in their wake.

Theme #1: “…I’m Gonna Let It Shine”

“God said: ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

Derash: Study

“Light, the first thing God created, can be seen as symbolizing Judaism’s commitment to clarity rather than mystery, to openness rather than concealment, to study rather than blind faith. Light functions as a symbol for God because light itself is not visible but makes everything else visible.” (Humash Etz Hayim)

“The first words that God says are ‘Yehi or, let there be light.’ I think that just as God pushed away the darkness, we -- who are created in God’s image -- also have the responsibility to bring light to the world’s darkness … deep down, human beings want to do good and kind deeds, like reaching out to the infirm and the elderly, and giving tzedakah to those less fortunate than ourselves. This definition, however, doesn’t exclude raising a voice on behalf of the oppressed.” (Rabbi Avi Weiss)

“The divine word shatters the cosmic silence and signals the birth of a new cosmic order. Divine fiat is the first of several modalities of creativity employed in this account. It signifies that the Creator is wholly independent of His creation. It implies effortlessness and absolute sovereignty over nature.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” (Carl Jung)

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King Jr)

Questions for Discussion

In what ways have the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition brought light into the world? In what specific ways does Judaism call upon us – as individuals and as sacred communities – to be sources of light (a la Jung and Rabbi Weiss and Dr. King)?

The special candle kindled at Havdalah, at the conclusion of Shabbat, is said to re-enact the creation of light on the first day. How does this ritual also illuminate the meaning of the Sabbath? How do other ritual uses of light convey their own specific messages?

The comment above from Chumash Etz Hayim is less than precise: light is the first thing God creates by dint of divine speech (God creates heaven and earth in verse 1). What is the significance of the association between speech and light? The creation of light conspicuously precedes the creation of luminaries: sun, stars, and moon. Does this lend greater credence to symbolic interpretations of our verse? What significance might we infer from this narrative choice?

How does Rabbi Weiss’ invocation of light as a call for activism “on behalf of the oppressed” relate to the Book of Esther’s statement that, upon their rescue, the Jews of the Persian Empire enjoyed “light and joy”?

Theme #2: “Going Up?”

“Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7)

Derash: Study

“Man’s sin is in his failure to live what he is. Being the master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

“God tells Cain that even though his offering was brought with the wrong intention, he will be forgiven. God loves you even after you’ve sinned. It’s not too late. All you have to do is repent, begin to do good deeds, and then your downcast face will become uplifted, and you will be purified. Undoubtedly, repentance is difficult. ‘Sin couches at the door.’ But God bears testimony at the very dawn of human history: ‘You can be its master.’” (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin)

“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” (Elie Wiesel)

“Every conquering temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.” (William Butler Yeats)

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.” (Aristotle)

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.” (Confucius)

Questions for Discussion

Strange verses! Is it invariably true that doing the right thing results in uplift? What might Confucius say about this? What is the nature of the uplift under discussion in our verse?

What does it mean that sin “couches at the door”? Attributing an “urge” to sin sounds dangerously dualistic. Is it more accurate to say that human beings’ urge is toward sin? Why the phrasing in our verse?

“Mastering sin” also is a strange formulation. Perhaps it is more productive to think in terms of mastering temptation – or mastering principle – or selfmastery. (See Wiesel and Aristotle.) Must we accept the concept of sin to truly “do right” and experience the resultant “uplift”? Is it spiritually productive to think of sin as lying in wait for us – couching at the door, longing to attack?

How – and when – might we most productively introduce the concept of sin to our children? What place does this religious concept have in our classrooms and pulpits? How does Yeats’ insight inform this didactic challenge?

Does Rabbi Riskin mean that all sins are forgivable, and remedied with good deeds? Do you agree?

Halachah L’Maaseh

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shabbat 29:7) prescribes recitation of “Vayechulu” (Genesis 2:1-3) before kiddush over wine on Shabbat Eve. Many people have the (arguably strange and grammatically disjointed) custom of prefacing these verses with the final two words of Chapter 1, “Yom Ha-Shishi” – “the sixth day.” This practice may have the purpose of clarifying the principle that God, indeed, concluded His work of Creation on the sixth day – in time for Shabbat – notwithstanding the potentially misleading formulation in 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work….” Adding these words also results in an opening acrostic: the first letters of “Yom Ha-shish Vayechulu Ha-shamayim” spell out the Tetragrammaton, God’s personal name, Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay. The acrostic effect is sacrificed by those people who consider it unseemly to recite a verse fragment and so preface “Vayechulu” with all of 1:31. In order to extend the verse somewhat yet preserve the acrostic, some add “Vayehi erev vahehi voker” (“And there was evening and there was morning”) softly, before saying “Yom ha-shishi” in a full voice.

Historic Note

In Parashat Bereisheit, read on October 22, 2011, we read of human history’s first homicide: Cain kills his brother Abel in a despondent jealous rage. God responds: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth!” The circumstances of this primordial crime seem to insist that all murder is fratricide. On October 22, 2002, the Washington Sniper killed his thirteenth and final victim, bus driver Conrad Johnson, in Aspen Hill, Maryland.

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