Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Torah in Brief: Bereishis

By Yehoshua Jason Bedrick

I'm going to try to write a short synopsis of each week's Torah portion, with a little bit of commentary along the way (in addition to a more in-depth analysis of one concept). Your questions or comments are welcome and appreciated.

Last week's Torah portion, Bereishis, is the first portion of the Torah (Gen. 1:1-6:8). Genesis famously begins "In the beginning, when G-d created the heavens and the earth..." The first chapter details the six days of Creation and ends with the seventh day, upon which G-d "rested".* In his commentary, Rashi wonders why the Bible opens with the creation of the world (as opposed to a commandment, which would be expected since the Torah is not primarily a history book, but an "instruction manual"). Rashi then explains that this is because people would one day accuse the Israelites of stealing the land from the Canaanites, but Genesis allows them to retort that G-d created the world and therefore He may give it to whomever He sees fit. (There are echoes of this ancient accusation in the modern claim that the Israelis are "settlers" on native Palestinian land -- despite thousands of years of Jewish residence in the Holy Land.)

The second chapter details G-d's creation of Adam and Eve. The Talmud explains that G-d created only one man at first so that we should know that if we save one life, it is as though we saved the entire world. Noting that "it is not good for Man to be alone," G-d created an "ezer k'negdo" for Adam -- literally, "a helper opposite him." Rashi comments that if the man is worthy, his wife will be a "helper" but if he is unworthy, she will be "opposite him". After Adam finds Eve pleasing in his eyes, the narrative concludes: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh."

The third chapter depicts their subsequent fall after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. G-d punishes them and expels them from the Garden of Eden, but He makes them warm clothes before He sends them away, a sign that He still loves humanity.

The fourth chapter opens with the birth of Cain and Abel. Cain becomes a farmer and Abel a shepherd, but G-d accepts Abel's sacrifices while rejecting Cain's. In a fit of jealous anger, Cain murders his brother. When G-d inquires about Abel, Cain infamously asks: "Am I my brother's keeper?" G-d curses Cain, but allows him to live seven generations, albeit with the "mark of Cain". The chapter concludes with details about Cain's descendants and the birth of Adam and Eve's third son, Seth.

The fifth chapter is the list of Adam's descendants through Noah. While many people prefer to skip over the "begot" sections ("And Enoch begot Methuselah..."), these sections are filled with meaning. Here's an example I learned from Rabbi Daniel Lapin: Keinan begot Mehallalel, who begot Jared (Yered). Their names mean, "acquired", "praised gods", and "descent" respectively. Each represents the trend of their generation: an acquisitive and materialistic generation (Keinan) is followed by a generation which seeks spirituality in all the wrong places (Mehallalel) which is then followed by a generation of decline.**

Parshas Bereishis concludes with the first part of chapter six, which describes the descent of humanity into depravity. G-d decides to destroy all of humanity, but the Torah portion ends on a positive note: "But Noah found grace in the eyes of G-d."

With G-d's help, we'll continue with Noah and Parshas Noach later this week!

*The chapters commonly used are of Christian origin and include the seventh day at the beginning of the 2nd chapter, but it is included as a part of the first "aliyah" in the Jewish reckoning.

**For greater depth on this point (and a whole lot more), pick up a copy of Rabbi Lapin's "The Gathering Storm: Decoding the Secrets of Noah".

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