The usual English translation of the first verse of the Torah is: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). But that’s not exactly what the Hebrew says: B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim v’eit ha-aretz – ‘In beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – the definite article, ‘the’, is missing from the Hebrew. In the beginning would be: bareishit. What’s in a word – or in the case of the Hebrew, a vowel? A world of difference: in the beginning: at a particular moment; in beginning: a process.
B’reishit: ‘In beginning’. The first portion of the Torah is about beginnings, and includes two tales concerning the beginnings of the Earth. The first revolves around God ‘calling’ the world into existence; creating each element, stage by stage, and it is usual to refer to the texts in chapters 1 and 2 as ‘Creation’ narratives.
But so much more than divinely orchestrated acts of creation are described in B’reishit. The second story (Genesis 2:4ff.), in which the human being is at the centre, rather than at the apex, demotes humanity from a position of ‘dominion’ over the entire world to a ‘tender’ and ‘keeper’ of a garden, and also makes it clear that the human being is subject to the power of God (Gen. 2:15-17):
The Eternal God took the human being [ha-adam] and placed it/hir [oto]* in the Garden of Eden, to tend it and keep it. / The Eternal God commanded the human being, saying: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; / but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall surely die” [*hir: conflation of him/her. There is no ‘neutral’ gender in Hebrew: oto, is the masculine form].
The human being: singular – hence, non-gendered. While the first narrative, divides ha-adam into sexually differentiated forms, zachar and n’keivah, ‘male’ and ‘female’, for the purposes of reproduction (1:27), the second concludes with a division of ha-adam into two related types, ishah and ish, ‘woman’ and ‘man’, with an emphasis on their common humanity (2:22-24). Genesis 3 then goes on to explore the consequences of human consciousness. When the woman’s curiosity drove her to eat the fruit and share it with ‘her man’ (3:6), they did not die, but ‘their eyes were opened’ and becoming aware of their nakedness, they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves (3:7).
The story continues with the punishments meted out by God for their disobedience: Principally, humanity will no longer inhabit a garden, which has sufficient for all their needs; human beings will have to go out into the world, and work to eat. Further: at the end of life’s labours, they will return to the ground, from which humanity was formed (2:7): ‘for dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ (3:19). Death: a consequence of life. And of all the creatures on the earth, human beings alone are aware of their mortality.
The first portion of the Torah: not simply a ‘how life began’ tale, also a reflection on how all life, inevitably, ends. But, significantly, B’reishit does not conclude here, but rather continues with a story of murder: the first murder. Death, as it turns out is not just the inevitable last chapter of the journey of life. Cain, the first child of the first human beings killed his brother, Abel, because God preferred his younger brother’s offering – ‘the choicest of the firstlings of his flock’ – to the one that he had brought ‘from the fruit of the soil’ (4:3). Human beings are driven to intervene and kill: not, simply, in order to eat – and interestingly, up to this point all the creatures of the world, according to the Torah, are vegetarian (Gen. 1:30) – but rather, to annihilate the other.
B’reishit: stories of beginnings – including the first murder. Human beings: curious and intellectually gifted, and also driven by powerful emotions, not least, competitiveness and murderous rage. That more or less sums us up. But not only human beings: The first narrative in B’reishit speaks of the human being as created ‘in the image of God’ – b’tzelem Elohim (1:27). So what of God? The Divine, it turns out, is not only choosy when it comes to accepting offerings: the ‘Creator’ is also the ‘Destroyer.’ And so, the very next portion, Noah, relates the story of what happened when ‘God said to Noah: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth”’ (6:13).
Humanity created in the image of God: with the capacity and the urge to create and destroy. This is all very challenging – perhaps, especially to Liberal Jews. How do we integrate the troubling underside of the Torah – of which the first portions are only a foretaste – with our emphasis on ethical conduct and our commitment to practice the values of compassion and justice? Certainly not by ignoring what Jungian psychotherapy refers to as our ‘shadow-side.’ As usual, our rabbinic sages have some wisdom to offer us. We read in a 6th century collection of midrash, Genesis Rabbah, in a comment on Genesis 1:31, (9:7):
‘And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good [tov m’od]. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.’ Nachman said in Rav Samuel’s name: ‘Very good’ refers to the good inclination [yetzer tov]; and ’very good’ refers to the evil inclination [yetzer ra]. Can then the evil inclination [yetzer ha-ra] be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the evil inclination [yetzer ha-ra], however, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business.’
B’reishit: the tales of our beginnings are an invitation to harness all our complex capacities and drives and values to the challenging task of living life as fully and deeply as possible until we die.