B'reishit for Tweens: Adam's Fence

B'reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8

D'Var Torah By: Faye Tillis Lewy

"B'reishit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz.... " "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth." So begins the book of Genesis, the first of the Five Books of Moses. Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells of how God created the world. God separates light from darkness, day from night and land from water. God makes the earth sprout trees and plants, and sets the sun and the moon in the sky. Fish and birds, creeping creatures, cattle and wild beasts are created by God before God makes man and woman, who are created in God's image and are to rule over the whole earth and all that is in it. As God creates each of these things, God pauses to see that they are good. Having finished the work of creation on the seventh day after beginning, God blesses the seventh day and declares it holy.

Genesis 2:4-24 tells a second creation story, different than the first. When God made heaven and earth, God formed man, Adam, from the dust of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, enabling Adam to become a living being. God planted the garden of Eden with every tree that is beautiful to look at and which bears good food to eat and placed Adam in the garden. God tells Adam that he may eat from every tree in the garden with one exception. God warns Adam not to eat from "the tree of knowledge of good and bad" because he will die as soon as he eats from it. Then God creates the beasts, cattle and the birds. Adam gives names to them all. Finally, because God wants to make a fitting helper for man, God creates woman out of one of Adam's ribs.

Genesis 2:25-3:24 tells of how Adam and his wife came to leave the garden. The snake, shrewdest of all of God's wild beasts, asked the woman if God had told her not to eat from any of the trees in the garden. She replied that they may eat from all of the trees except the one in the middle of the garden. If they "eat from it or touch it," woman tells the snake, they will die. The snake tells the woman that she will not die, but instead "your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad." (Gen.3:5) The woman sees that the tree is beautiful and that its fruit is good for eating. She eats from the tree and gives some to Adam, and he eats it, too. When God asks them if they have eaten from the forbidden tree, Adam says that the woman gave it to him, and the woman says that the snake tricked her. God curses the snake to crawl on its belly forever. God tells the woman that as a result of her behavior she will experience pain when she bears children. God tells Adam that he will have to work hard all of his life and grow his own food in order to live. Adam names his wife Eve (Chavah—from the word chai or life, meaning mother of all living things) and God banishes them from the garden of Eden forever.

In Genesis 4:1-26, Eve gives birth to two sons, Cain (in Hebrew Kayin, meaning "acquisition" or "purchase") and Abel (in Hebrew, Hevel meaning "breath" or "puff"). When they grow up, Cain becomes a farmer and Abel becomes a shepherd. Eventually, the brothers bring offerings to God. Cain brings his offering from the fruit of the soil, while Abel brings the best of the first animals born to his flock. God pays attention to Abel's offering, but does not acknowledge Cain's offering. Cain kills Abel and when God asks Cain "Where is your brother Abel?" Cain answers "Am I my brother's keeper?" God punishes Cain for the murder by condemning him to wander the earth. In Genesis 5:1-6:8, God saw that human beings were wicked and constantly thinking of evil, so God's "heart was saddened." God decided to destroy all living things, but "Noah found favor with God." (Gen. 6:8)


Pirkei Avot ,The Ethics of the Sages, quotes the Men of the Great Assembly as saying "make a fence around the Torah" (Chapter 1, Mishnah 1). This has been interpreted to mean that the Torah is compared to a garden, and just as a garden should be protected from damage, the Torah must also be protected from being harmed. Avot d'Rabbi Nathan, a commentary on Pirkei Avot written by Rabbi Nathan, says that this included adding restrictions to avoid the breaking of commandments. For example, Adam made a fence around the Torah by adding a restriction to the warning that God gave him about the tree of knowledge of good and bad. God told Adam not to eat from it because he will die as soon as he does. Adam, however, told Eve that God said not to touch it or eat from it. According to Rabbi Nathan, Adam's "fence" was what actually caused the breaking of God's commandment. Although Adam's intention was to keep both himself and Eve away from the tree, he was not entirely truthful. So when the snake touched the tree and did not die, Eve doubted all that Adam had told her. If Adam had told Eve exactly what God's words were, and then told her that he was adding an additional prohibition (i.e., not to touch), Rabbi Nathan says that the snake would not have been able to trick Eve.

To Talk About

  1. Using your own words, retell the story of what happened in the garden of Eden with Adam, Eve and the snake. Why does the snake want to tempt Eve into breaking God's commandment about the tree? Why does Adam change God's words when telling Eve about the tree? Did Adam do the right thing? Why or why not? Who was responsible for Adam and Eve being punished and sent away from the garden of Eden? Does reading the above Commentary section influence your opinion about who is responsible?
  2. While both Cain and Abel bring offerings to God, the text indicates that only Abel's is accepted. Nothing in the text, however, tells us why. The rabbis offer the explanation that Abel's offering was from the best of his flock. Abel chose the most desirable and choicest from his possessions and offered it to God, sincerely giving thanks to God. Cain, on the other hand, merely offers fruit of the soil. Other rabbis point out that Cain was the first to make an offering to God, giving spontaneously, of his own free will. Abel had the benefit of watching his brother and then preparing his own gift to God using his brother as an example. How do you interpret the differences between the two offerings? Do you think that the attitude and manner in which something is offered makes a difference? Why or why not? Can you think of any situation in which you have benefited from not going first but by following after another person? Describe.
  3. Several times in this parashah, God asks questions. In the garden of Eden, God asks Adam and Eve if they have eaten from the forbidden tree. God asks Cain where his brother is. If God is everywhere and knows everything, why would God ask these questions? Reread the beginning section and see how these people answer. Do they tell the truth? Do they accept responsibility for their actions? Do your parents ever ask you questions to which they already know the answers? How do you respond?
  4. Cain responds to God with a question of his own: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Although God does not answer this question, what do you think is the answer? Are any of us responsible for our "brothers"? Do you think that this means only those people who are related to us? The rabbis taught that if one kills a person, it as though they have killed an entire world. And if one saves a life, it is as though they have saved an entire world. What do you think this means? How does this have anything to do with being our brothers' keepers?
  5. After each act of creation, God looked at the result and "saw that this was good". Then God declared the seventh day a holy day, a day of rest from the work of creation. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own work that we don't stop to look at it and evaluate how we are doing. What can we learn from God's example? Can you think of ways to take a break from your regular activities so that you might be able to look at your work and see that it is good? Do you regularly take breaks to look at God's work around you and to acknowledge that it is still good? When and how?

Did You Know. . . that the last parashah of the Torah (V'zot ha-berachah) and the first parashah of the Torah (B'reishit) are read together on Simchat Torah? We begin again as soon as we conclude because, as our life experiences change, so does our understanding of the Torah. Yochanan Ben Bag Bag said, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for you have no better standard of conduct." (Avot 5:25)

Reference Materials

B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34

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