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.
My 3 1/2 year-old son Ethan loves Parashat B'reishit. He does not know it, though. He only knows that he likes to hear the stories of creation, of Adam and Eve, the Garden, Cain and Abel. He asks lots of questions as I tell the stories, and sometimes he likes to imagine what will happen next. To me that is the ultimate in making the biblical text a part of my family's life.
Kieren Egan, a professor at UCLA, says that the best teaching—the best communication—takes the form of telling a story. B'reishit, in addition to being sacred text, history and theology, is a collection of well-written stories. They can make your hair stand on end, make you cry or laugh, and show you the joy of discovery and creation. At the heart of these stories we can learn much about:
How we parent: God creates a safe secure environment (the garden) in which to rear the kids. Adam becomes lonely, so God tries to get him involved in other activities (tilling and tending the garden (2:15);naming the animals (2:20). God finds (create) the perfect companion for him (Eve). God even includes Adam in the process (2:23), much as we try to do with our own children.
How we handle discipline: After they eat the forbidden fruit, God confronts them with their actions (3:11). God then follows through with the consequences that follow breaking the rules. They are given responsibility for their own well-being, make their own way in the world (3:16-24), and become parents themselves (4:1-2).
How we handle stress and conflict: Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve (2:12-13). Cain is distressed that his offering is not accepted while his brother's is (4:5-15).
It's a great story, and you should read it. You might want to discuss or consider the following questions:
As Dr. Eskenazi points out, there are two accounts of the creation in B'reishit (1:1-2.3 and 2:4-24). What are the differences between the two? How are they similar? If you were the editor, why might you have decided to include both stories?
What does God tell Adam about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What does Eve tell the serpent that God said? Why might she have a different set of rules? Who might have told her, and why?
Adam is given the task of naming the animals. What is so important about that task? Why do we spend so much time and energy and emotion in trying to name our children?
The biblical text does not tell us what Cain said to Abel. Try to imagine the conversation that led to the first murder. Try to imagine what each of the brothers might have felt during the conversation.
Finally, as you read or discuss these narratives, try to look for ways in which the situations or the lessons they teach us may find application in your own or your family's life.
For further reading: Joel Grishaver, Learning Torah (UAHC Press, 1991).
At the time of this writing in 1996, Ira J. Wise, R.J.E., was the Director of Education at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
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