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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bereishit
October 13, 2012 – 27 Tishrei 5773

Annual: Gen. 1:1-6:8 (Etz Hayim p. 3; Hertz p. 2)
Triennial Cycle: Gen. 5:1-6:8 (Etz Hayim p. 30; Hertz p. 16)
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5-43:10 [Ashkenaz] (Etz Hayim p. 36; Hertz p. 21)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

This Torah Sparks is sponsored by Beth El Synagogue, New Rochelle, New York in honor of Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

The Torah begins with God's creation. Chapter one describes a very orderly process. Cosmos 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, but seems to reach its peak only with the creation of humanity: "God saw all that He had made, and found it very good." The seventh day is blessed by God as a sacred time of rest. Chapter two 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 paradisaic setting of the Garden of Eden. At the infamous urging of the snake, "shrewdest of all the wild beasts," the first humans consume forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, and are banished from the Garden. The second generation of humans, nevertheless, continues to interact with God: Cain and Abel each bring offerings as gestures of worship. Alas, they also introduce murder into human history, as Cain, whose offering is rejected, kills his brother Abel.

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: "God in the Garden"

"The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and placed there the man whom He had formed." (Genesis 2:8)

Study: Derash

"No matter how sophisticated and civilized we have become, most of us respond to this portrait of our mythical remotest 'past' with something that feels, in fact, like nostalgia…. We envy original man not only his contentment with life but also and especially his simple innocence and goodness, his psychic wholeness and spontaneity, and his lack of troublesome self-division and corrosive selfconsciousness… Even though we probably would not, on balance, exchange our life for his (any more than we would willingly return permanently to early childishness), we are made poignantly to experience what we have lost and to wonder why." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest." (Voltaire)

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." (Jorge Luis Borges)

"The island, a smooth mound like a vast worn molar tooth, with birds thick in all the hollows. The hot air was full of their sound, coming and going; full of the ammoniac smell of their droppings, and the reek of fish; and all over the hard white surface it shimmered in the heat and the intolerable glare so that birds fifty yards up the slope could hardly be focused and the ridge of the mound wavered like a taut rope that had been plucked. Waterless, totally arid. Not a blade of grass, not a weed, not a lichen: stench, blazing rock and unmoving air. 'This is a paradise,' cried Stephen." (Patrick O'Brian, H.M.S. Surprise)

"He who is wearied of his village plain, May roam the Edens of the world in vain." (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

Questions for Discussion

Gan Eden – the garden of Eden – represents both the paradisaic location of human origins and the "heavenly" realm of the hereafter. What constitutes a paradise? The innocence, human goodness, and psychic wholeness described by Dr. Kass? The intellectual richness and enlightenment of Borges? The O'Brian character's unlikely description of a noisome, sweltering island as a paradise reflects his interests as a naturalist. What do our views concerning paradise – and the nature of eternal reward – say about our lives and values? Describe your paradise.

The Hebrew word "eden" signifies "pleasure." What does this tell us of the Bible's view of paradise? What does this tell us of the Jewish attitude toward human pleasure?

What is Voltaire's main concern? The dignity and sanctity of human labor? Personal responsibility in securing the blessings we seek and the quality of society we demand? What blessings should the Jewish community be cultivating… and how?

For what aspects of your personal past – or the collective Jewish historical experience – are you at times nostalgic? What are the limits of your longing for those past experiences… that is, would you actually "willingly return permanently" if you could?

Theme #2: "Guardin' the Garden"

"He drove the man out, and stationed East of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life." (Genesis 3:24)

Study: Derash

"Cherubim. These mythological creatures appear elsewhere as God's entourage.Their sculpted form decorates the holy ark (Exodus 25:18). The gateway to the garden is closed, but the world has opened up." (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women's Commentary)

"The same cherubim that held swords as they stood guard at the gates of Eden are not doomed to that position. They can change drastically when they are placed upon an Aron Kodesh. When they are on top of the Aron, they guard it and cherish it. Young children are affected by their whereabouts. Place them as guards and they will brandish swords. Put them with the Aron Kodesh -- let them feel the sanctity and they will become the cherubim we all cherish and aspire to emulate." (Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky)

"Though the entrance to Eden was guarded by the angels with the flaming sword, the gentler angel of mercy did not forsake them in their exile. Adam and Eve discovered Repentance – the Rabbis tell us – and thereby they came nearer to God outside of Eden than when in Eden." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"Responsibility is what awaits outside the Eden of Creativity." (Nadine Gordimer)

"The Expulsion from Paradise is eternal in its principal aspect: this makes it irrevocable, and our living in this world inevitable, but the eternal nature of the process has the effect that not only could we remain forever in Paradise, but that we are currently there, whether we know it or not." (Franz Kafka)

"The loss of Eden is personally experienced by every one of us as we leave the wonder and magic and also the pains and terrors of childhood." (Dennis Potter)

Questions for Discussion

Both A Women's Commentary and Rabbi Hertz suggest the distinct benefits of expulsion from Eden. Were the fearsome beasts and fiery sword intended to protect the garden from human beings… or to protect humanity from the dangers of re-entering the garden? How are we today "nearer to God" than the first human beings in Eden? How might Genesis – and Rabbi Hertz – counsel us to draw nearer still?

How is Kafka's assertion that we are currently in paradise "whether we know it or not" reflected elsewhere in Jewish thought and practice? How does this relate to Jewish views concerning the Messiah? The hereafter? How can we simultaneously understand the process of expulsion as eternal and paradise as immanent?

Rabbi Kamenetzky's discussion of child development and education seems to reflect the popular view of cherubim as baby-faced angels, rather than fierce, winged leonine beasts! How would such imagery alter our understanding of the verse above?

Imagine Rabbi Kamenetzky and the editors of the URJ's Women's Commentary discussing this passage! What shared perspective might they reach on the various functions of the kruvim (cherubim)?

Historic Note

Parashat Bereishit, read on October 13, 2012, is a celebration of new beginnings: God's creation of the universe, the "birth" of humankind, the onset of the annual cycle of Torah readings. On October 13, 1483, Don Isaac Abarbanel began his commentary on the Bible. His practice of providing guiding questions for study of the weekly Torah Portion laid the groundwork for Torah Sparks – over 500 years later!

Halachah L'Maaseh

The Jewish practice of burial in a wooden coffin has been traced to two verses in Parashat Bereisheet: "The man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among (literally 'within') the trees (or 'the wood') of the garden" (Genesis 3:9); and "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). See also Midrash Bereishit Rabba 19.

Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi instructed that holes be bored in the bottom of his casket, literally to fulfill the scriptural injunction to return to the dust (See Yerushalmi, Kilayim 6); the practice is still commonly observed. The use of a wooden casket also reflects Jewish tradition's disdain for class distinctions in death, the great equalizer. This principle dates to the instructions of Rabban Gamliel in anticipation of his own demise (see Talmud, Moed Katan 27): "Formerly, they used to bring out the deceased for burial: the rich on a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets; the poor on a plain bier. The poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was established that all should be brought out on a plain bier... Formerly, the expense of the burial was harder to bear by the family than the death itself, so that sometimes they fled to escape the expense. This was so until Rabban Gamliel insisted that he be buried in a plain linen shroud instead of costly garments. And since then we follow the principle of burial in a simple manner.

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