Parshat Bereshit 2017
How is it possible that Adam and Eve and their extended progeny became such a severe disappointment to the God who created them in such a relatively short period of time? Think about it. In a scant five and a half chapters accounting for a measly few thousand years (just count up the years attributed to each of the 10 generations recorded, including Methuselah who lived 969 years even if Gershwin did write it ain’t necessarily so) – in that short period we move from God’s absolute satisfaction with his creation (and He saw that it was very good) to total dissatisfaction (and God saw that evil was great in man on earth…and he was sad that he created them).
A cynic might say that the evil we see around us today has roots reaching all the way back to creation times. If that’s true, perhaps we should consider emulating Noah. But more seriously, can we find a common denominator in the negative acts leading to God’s disenchantment with the pinnacle of his creation?
Obviously, we are not dealing with a literal history of the creation of the world but rather with a stylized recreation by the ancients and as such, we may assume that the author(s) wanted to convey some message, some moral values, through the stories. Chazal certainly extracted morals and lessons for us from the stories.
First, we have the dual story of the creation of man and woman – in the first chapter they were created together, in the second, woman was the beta version created after God’s alpha version, Adam (that’s a contemporary explanation, of course).
According to Ariel Seri-Levi, the two stories reflect two different conceptions of man’s function on earth. In the first story, where both were created together, their purpose was to be the representative image God on earth, to be fruitful and to multiply so that they could fill the earth with human presence, which was God’s presence (as His image). In the second, shidduch had no divine motive. It was intended to fulfill Adam’s desire for a partner who was of his flesh and blood.
The next story teaches us something more universal, something that is as difficult to find today in the public and private spheres, as it was then. Accountability.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden don’t have much responsibility. They barely have to water the plants. They simply have to refrain from eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Immediately this raises the question of why the tenants of Eden were forbidden to know about good and evil. One answer is that they had to have free will in order to be more than just puppets, and to do this they had to be able to choose. So this prohibition was actually a test.
Which they failed. Instead of just enjoying all the available bounty, they disobeyed orders. And here’s the point. It was by performing this act of disobedience that they actually revealed the essence of evil and concretized the difference between good and evil, as well as the consequences.
But according to Chazal, despite the fact that they sinned and were rebellious – their greatest sin was in never owning up.
God says to Adam, did you eat from that tree? And Adam says. It’s your fault. It’s that woman you gave me – she gave me the apple to eat! And so God goes to Eve with the same question to which Eve replies, the snake tricked me and I ate. It wasn’t me. It was all someone else’s fault! Fake news! Liars! Troublemakers! And Chazal say God gave both of them a lot of time to take responsibility and repent, but they didn’t.
Cain and Abel come onstage and soon enough Cain slays Abel. God says, do you know where your brother is? To which Cain replies, waddaya mean? Am I my brother’s keeper? No. Actually you are his murderer. Own up!
The half-chapter concluding our reading presents the murky story of the children of God who begin to have relations with human women. Some see these children of God as the original master race that produced נפילים – humans of immense proportions, who were the human equivalent of dinosaurs. But they strayed from God’s plans, and became one of the reasons for the flood.
Here’s a different interpretation. Rabbi Shubert Spero cites anthropologists who theorize that the children of God may refer to Homo Sapiens. Thus this obscure chapter may be talking about a period in which Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens overlapped, lived together and intermarried. It’s far-fetched but it has an appealing scientific-sounding logic.
To sum up, we see that the beginning of Bereshit talks about the individual lack of responsibility or accountability manifested by the main characters. This develops into a general disregard for divine norms.
This all makes sense if we view these stories as a formulaic foundation setting the stage for the individuals who will step up and say the buck stops here.
Noah is a first step. He didn’t actually go out of his way to save anyone but he was evidently better than the norm of the time. In two weeks’ time, with Avraham, we begin our own personal history marked by individuals who feel obligated to follow the commands of the one and only God, master of the universe. And to them we owe our presence here today.