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.