Who are we? Parashat B'reishit pictures our origin as frail, naked earth creatures who are nevertheless bearers of the divine. The two different stories of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-3:21) share the view that we were created for relationships—with God in whose image we are or whose breath animates us; with the earth from which we were formed; with the animal world for which we have a responsibility; and finally, with each other as males and females who are co-created in Genesis 1, and who are separated in Genesis 2 only to feel a longing for reunion. Parashat Bereshit envisions the rewards and responsibilities of these relations as delightful and dynamically creative, necessary parts of a defined and defining harmony.
Genesis, however, depicts human desire to go beyond boundaries. The quest for more knowledge endangers all four relationships (God, earth, the animal world and one another) and drives the first couple out of innocent, sheltered existence. The garden's gates shut behind them. But the world at large opens wide and the world is still God's good creation, even if no longer as cozy as a protected bubble: the still joyous creative acts of childbearing and work are now also mixed with sorrow and hardship. More importantly, relationship with each other and with God now require effort, which they undertake. Moving closer to each other and to God, they therefore name their first born in celebration of renewal and regeneration.
Journeying beyond the garden, the first humans transmit to us the memory of how we are meant to be: joyous, equal partners in work and play, in wholesome relationship with God, earth, nature and our human counterparts. Since these gifts of life no longer come on a silver platter, Parashat B'reishit invites us to renew them. As the cycle of Torah reading begins again, so too our lives resume a journey of regeneration, restoring our delicate yet resilient connection with God, nature and one another.
For further reading: Jonathan Magonet, A Rabbi's Bible (SCM Press, 1991).
At the time of this writing in 1996, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Ph.D., was Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.