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This Week’s Old Testament: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 2)

The weekly parashoth are generally named for the first significant word in the first sentence; in this case, it is bëréshith, which is usually translated, not with complete accuracy, as “in the beginning.”

The word réshith actually means something much more like “that foundation,” the basis from which everything which follows flows. And so, our parasha deals with the creation of the universe, the populating of the Earth, and the beginnings of human culture.

At the completion of each stage of the unfolding process of creation, G-d surveys His work and labels the stage tov, “good.” On the sixth day, with the advent of the pinnacle of creation, man, He terms it tov më’od, “very good,” after which the Torah goes on to tell us:

And the heavens and the Earth and all their hosts were completed. … And G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it …  (I.31-II,3).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) tells us that this first ‘erev shabbath or “sabbath eve” had in fact been a much busier day than the above account implies. Not only was the adam, the first human being, created and placed in the garden planted for his benefit, but on that very day the adam was split into his constituent ish and isha, his male and female halves. They then succumbed to the blandishments of that mysterious creature termed the nachash (“snake”), violated the Divine commandment not to eat of the ‘étz hada‘ath tov vara‘ (“tree of the knowledge of good and evil”), and were driven from the garden. All this before the first sabbath!

Yet, the written Torah seems to draw a veil over the sequence of events, concealing it from the reader, and reporting these events only after describing the first sabbath, so that without the Talmud one could surely be forgiven for believing that these cataclysmic events in human history occurred after shabbath. Moreover, the very fact that the Torah asserts on the completion of the sixth day’s work that Creation was tov më’od would seem to aid and abet the concealment.

If mankind had in fact sinned and been driven from the garden just before, in what way was “everything which He had made” still tov më’od?

As we begin to peruse the detailed account of that momentous first ‘erev shabbath, we encounter the following, after the adam had been given life and placed in the garden:

“And Ha-Shem, G-d, formed (va-yitzer) from the earth every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens, and He brought [each one] to the adam to see what he would call it; and everything which the adam would call a living soul [nefesh chayya], it was its name” (II,19).

The great Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner, one of the deepest rabbinical thinkers of the 19th century, in his work Ruach Chayyim saw wide-ranging implications in the way this verse is worded, writing:

For in truth the name is the essence of a person’s soul, and the evidence is from what is written: “And the adam called names” [ibid., v. 20], and it is written: “and everything  which the adam would call a living soul, it was its name” … but the naming was not [solely] according to what presented itself and just some name came into his mouth, but rather according to what [the adam] saw [of] its root in the supernal world … and likewise with the adam, that the name [expresses] the essence of his soul, which is attached to its supernal root … .

The Ruach Chayyim plainly sees in the end of our verse an implication that the adam’s name-calling constituted a finishing touch to each of the animals brought before him. It would seem that the Divine act of “forming” mentioned at the beginning of our verse consisted of shaping and animating gross matter with the characteristics of each beast presented only in potential, to be perceived and drawn down from its “supernal root” by the adam, and imposed on the finished creature as he uttered its name. Elsewhere, in his Nefesh haChayyim, R’Chayyim similarly expresses, with different examples, a relationship in which human creativity builds on and completes Divine activity.

As man is the dëmuth vë-tzelem, “likeness and image” of G-d, so does there seem to be an ambiguous relationship between man and his handiwork. Both are called (in II, p. 8 and p. 19, respectively) nefesh chayya, and it is perhaps instructive that Chazal, the rabbis of the Talmud and midrashim, comment on a third occurrence of this term (I,24) that “this is the spirit of the first man. (Yalqut Shim‘oni ad loc.)”

This relationship between man and the beasts can be seen to go even further. If we read on to the end of our parasha we find G-d declaring:

I shall erase the adam which I created from the surface of the Earth, from adam to beast to creeping thing, and to birds in the sky (VI, 7).

Note that the order follows that in which the status of nefesh chayya was awarded, as revealed in chapter II: First the adam, then the land animals, then the birds.

Conspicuously absent are the denizens of the sea who, indeed, do not share the fate of the land- and sky-dwellers (which, after all, are ultimately land-dwellers), as the great 11th century commentator Rashi notes on VII, 22, to which the 16th century Maharal of Prague appends (in his Gur Aryeh): “since the fish are not in the same class with the adam,” whence we can derive that the other animals were. The fish, after all, were formed on the fifth day, and did not receive their nefesh chayya from the adam.

This difference between the sea creatures and those of the land leads one to consider the very different environments which they inhabit, and thence to a yësod, a fundamental idea, which the Maharal advances in chapter seven of his Gëvuroth Ha-Shem.

From the very beginning, he writes, man, the ‘iqqar hatzura (“essential form”), was intended to become the ‘iqqar hamëtzi’uth (“essence of what is”), by completing creation and imposing the concept of form on it. When man initially failed in this mission, G-d dealt with him through the primordial waters “which are simple and formless” (cf. also Rashi to VI, 7).

We note that when G-d first gathered the waters to reveal the land, he made a miqvé mayim, a “gathering of waters” (I, 9-10). From this same root is derived the word tiqva, “hope.” When a Jew wishes to sanctify and transcend his mundane nature, he therefore resorts to a miqvé mayim, a ritual bath.

With this, we can begin to string things together.

Man, as we know, is composed of two fundamentally opposed elements, a physical component and a spiritual one. He thus lives in two worlds at once; as the ‘Aruch haShulchan points out in commenting on the standard codification of Jewish law (1:1-2). Angels, which are wholly spiritual, are not eligible for reward, since they can do nothing else but obey the Divine will; hence, there is no struggle, no tension in them, since they can only do the right thing. No reward is deserved.

Animals, for their part, are not subject to punishment. They are driven entirely by their urges and have no higher, finer spiritual nature to direct them differently. They are indifferent to shame, which has no meaning for them, and no punishment is deserved.

Only man is caught in the middle.

Only man is capable of rising to be little lower than the angels or, G-d forbid, little higher than the animals. For this reason, the Talmud notes, the word va-yitzer, when it is written of man in II, 7, is anomalously written with two letters yud, to mark his dupartite nature, while in reference to the animals, in II, 19, the very same word is written with a single yud (Bërachoth 61a).

Further evidence of man’s unique status as an interface between this world and the next may be gleaned from a midrashic comment (Bëréshith Rabba XVII, 4) that the angels, when asked to name the animals, were unable to do so. They could not relate to their material, earthy nature.

Our first account of creation, I believe, is expressive of man’s exalted, spiritual nature. This is the pinnacle of Creation, confident master of all that his Creator has assigned him, confidently ready to accept upon himself the sabbath with all its precious sanctity.

The second account is of a very different adam. The emphasis is on his origin in the earth, and hence on the earthiness of his nature, which drives him to sin: “For an adam is not righteous in the world, who will do good and not sin”; Ecclesiastes VII, 20). Therein, I believe, lies the reason for the two accounts as they are: The first account, in which there is no breath of sin, and the second, emphasizing man’s earthiness.

But what of the chronology of the incident of the ‘étz hada‘ath tov vara‘?

We call the two elements of human nature the yzer hatov and the yétzer hara‘. The words tov and ra‘ are traditionally translated “good” and “evil,” and thereby hangs a tale.

Many years ago, I had an interest in learning Esperanto, the artificial, international language invented by an idealistic Polish Jew named Zamenhof. In order to minimize the vocabulary to be memorized, Zamenhof set up pairs of antonyms derived from the same root by the prefix mal-. Thus, “good” is bona and “bad” is malbona, in effect “good” and “ungood.”

What is striking is that no natural language, certainly not the Holy Language, does it that way; the two concepts always involve two totally different roots. Why?

A clue may be ascertained from the root of ra‘. The fundamental meaning of the root can be shown, from example of Biblical usage, to be something like “broken, smashed, impaired, unstable, dysfunctional” (e.g., its use to describe an earthquake in Isaiah XXIV, 19, and in Psalms II, 9 and Daniel II, 40, both in connection with an iron rod).

From this, then, tov would appear to refer to the proper order of affairs, the way in which things are intended to be, while ra‘ is the undermining or impairment of that state of affairs.

Now, consider the name of that tree from which the adam was originally forbidden to eat:  the “ētz hada‘ath tov vara,” “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” not (as it is often misrepresented) “the knowledge of good from evil.” As we have observed, this is in fact man’s essential nature, uniquely combining both components in one being.

So, it seems, the sin was not in the eating; it is clear that such knowledge is necessary for the adam to cope with his very nature as created. Rather, it lies in the timing and manner of that eating, and this is why the chronology is arranged as it is: First we learn of man’s spiritual nature, then of his earthy nature, and then of his realization of both together.