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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bereisheit (Mevarekhim Hahodesh)
September 28, 2013 – 24 Tishrei 5774

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

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

God creates the universe out of chaos, separating light from darkness and land from water; producing plants of all kinds; establishing the sun, moon and stars; placing winged creatures in the air and swimming creatures in the sea; and making land animals, including a male and female human being. The process takes six days, each of which God blesses, saying that the creations are good. God rests on the seventh day, sanctifying it as the Sabbath.

A parallel account of the creation of humankind follows. We meet Adam and Eve, who are placed in the Garden of Eden and commanded to rule over the animals. They are forbidden to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. But a serpent convinces Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge, and she influences Adam to do the same. As punishment, God banishes them from the garden, requiring them to work the land for food and promising pain during childbirth.

Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, each offer a sacrifice to God. When God chooses Abel’s sacrifice only, Cain’s anger causes him to kill his brother. God forces Cain to live the rest of his life as a nomad.

Ten generations of humanity are catalogued. By the end of the last generation, humanity’s corruption is so pervasive that God looks to one man, Noah, to salvage the world.

Theme #1: Let There Be Light

And God said: “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3)

The most famous translation of the first verse in the Torah is “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” But many scholars, among them Rashi, understood the first three verses of Genesis to be one unit, thus redefining the opening words as “When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water -- God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” This understanding establishes the establishment of light, not of the heaven and the earth per se, the first act of creation. It also does not necessarily place the story of creation at the beginning of time.

That light is God’s first order of business has invited numerous commentaries:

The equation of God with light is familiar in Scripture in several ways. There are texts that explicitly identify God and light as, for example, Isaiah 60:19: “Your Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.” … But light is also the first of God’s creations in Genesis 1. The one wrapping self in light is also the creator of the light. Light refers both to the beginning of creation and to the wondrous and mysterious nature of God. Note that the initial creative act is not the creation of light and darkness. It is only light, which is part of the provisioning work of God and for a particular purpose. There is something significant in seeing the first creative work of God as also characteristic of the being and nature of God. God and the world begin in light, and the light is both God and God’s creation. (Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord.)

“And God said: ‘Let there be light’” (Genesis 1:3). Rabbi Yehudah taught: The light was created first, and then [all that is in] the world. [There is] a parable of a king who wanted to build a palace, but the site was dark. What did he do? He lit lamps and lanterns to see where to lay the foundations. Hence, light had to be created first. But Rabbi Nehemiah maintained: The world was created first; just as a king would first build a palace, and then adorn it with lights and lanterns. (Genesis Rabbah 3:1)

Scripture refers to the next day of creation as the “second day.” Why, then, does it call the first day yom echad, “one day”? Because the first day of creation was different from all the other days. It was on a level entirely apart from the five days that followed. For what was created on that first day was the special “light” which was subsequently concealed, to be revealed only in the end of days, because the world was not deserving of such great light (Genesis 1:3). Had the verse read “the first day” it would have put that day on one level with all the other days, when in fact the first day of creation was “one day,” unique in kind and degree. (Meshekh Hakhmah)

Questions for Discussion:

Miller points out that God creates light, but darkness already existed on the first day of creation. Do you know people who have brought light to times of darkness? When has that happened?

Rabbi Nehemiah insists in a midrash that it’s possible that God created the earth first and light later. While we might agree more with Rabbi Yehudah’s contention that light was needed first in order to build the earth, Rabbi Nehemiah seems to imply that God could have just as easily had the power to build Earth while in darkness. Was the creation story meant to insist that God’s power is limitless, or does it define limits? If so, what are those limits? Does belief in God require us to think God as limitless?

The Meshekh Hakhmah indicates that the light created on the first day is not that which lights the world today, but is a light that will be revealed at the end of days. Was this interpretation meant to make a distinction between what was created on the first day and what was created on the fourth day (sun, moon and stars)? Why did God create this light so early in the creation process? Can one presume this “light” is actual or symbolic of something else?

What aspect of the creation story inspires the most awe?

Theme #2: Last, But Not Least

On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created. (Genesis 2:2-4)

Shabbat is the “icing on the cake” of the creation story, and in many peoples’ minds, the most important moment of the story.

“And on the seventh day God finished” (Genesis 2:2). Isn’t this statement curious? Geniva explained it by the parable of a king who made a bridal chamber, which he painted and decorated. Now, what did the bridal chamber still lack? The bride to enter it. So, too, what did the world still lack? The Sabbath. (Genesis Rabbah 10:9)

The Sabbath was last to be created, but first in God’s mind. It was the culmination of all creation. Indeed, everything exists for the sake of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the source of all blessings. Before God gave the commandment of keeping the Sabbath to Israel, He said to Moses: “I have a good present in my secret chambers. The name of that present is ‘Sabbath.’ Tell the people that I now wish to give that present to them.” (Talmud Shabbat 10b; Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Beshalach 133)

Since the creation of the world and the construction of the Temple are parallel, if not identical, then the experience of the completed universe and that of the completed sanctuary should also be parallel. In fact, the two entities share an interest in rest as the consummation of the processes that produced them. In the case of creation, God “rested” on the seventh day, the primordial Sabbath, after he had completed his labors … and he commands his servants to rest in imitatione Dei in similar language. (Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion)

Questions for Discussion:

The Genesis Rabbah excerpt utilizes the same metaphor as “Lecha Dodi”, arguably the climactic prayer in the Friday night Kaballat Shabbat service. Is this metaphor resonate to you? Are there additional comparisons for the merging of Israel and the Sabbath?

The Talmud speaks of Sabbath as a gift that God has been preserving in God’s chambers, waiting for the right moment to give it. In what ways is the Sabbath a gift? Does this understanding, that God chose to experience the Sabbath long before giving it to humanity, make the gift of the Sabbath seem even more special?

As Levenson indicates above, in both the creation of the world and the construction of the Temple, rest is an essential part of the creative process. Do we give ourselves enough time to rest and reflect while creating something new? If not, how can we make this a priority?

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