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Torah Commentary
B'reishit (October 18, 2014)

Dr. Gady Levy, Executive Director,
The Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center

A CLOSE FRIEND recently marked the 30th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. When I asked what he remembered most, thinking he would say his ’80s mullet or a velour tuxedo, he instead replied that his strongest memory was that his Torah reading, Parashat B’reishit, was “really, really long.”

He remembers it well. It is, in fact quite long — although given the density of content, it is understandable. In the six-and-a-half chapters of B’reishit, we experience the creation of Earth and its inhabitants, the exile from Eden, the story of Cain and Abel, and the long lineage connecting to Noah.

Nearly every ancient religion — Semitic and otherwise — has some version of a creation story. Replete with colorful depictions and woven with overtones specific to that culture, creation stories comforted people and provided structure to their understanding of the world. What makes the Jewish creation story so rich and interesting? I suggest it is because in creating humans, God created us in the image of the Divine — with all the magnificence and majesty such a depiction implies. We are like God: with wisdom, with energy and with the most essential gift of all — the capacity for independent thought.

At the start of the parashah, God creates the universe from unformed void. God then wills light into existence, separates waters and lands, and creates the sun, moon and stars. On the fifth day, God has the waters bring forth sea creatures and birds to fill the skies. And before enjoying the Sabbath, day six gets interesting: God creates humans. Made in His own image, Adam and Eve were blessed with every accommodation they could want. In the Garden of Eden, an ultimate paradise, they are blessed with bountiful food and shelter and only one rule: They are forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. How interesting that knowledge was forbidden to them!

In Hebrew, the language of the Torah belies this interesting plot twist — reminding us that “creation” in the Jewish tradition is a richer story than merely pushing “play.” The word B’reishit (בְּרֵאשִׁית) — the first word of the entire Pentateuch — means both “in the beginning” and “at the head of things.” Rosh (רֹאשׁ) — the root of the word B’reishit — literally means “head.” The first word of the Torah signifies the importance of the capacity for independent thought. We surely can appreciate the irony of God creating humans that must breech the only condition imposed by their maker — eating fruit of the one forbidden tree — in order to evolve their understanding of the world.

Eve eats from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and shares the fruit with Adam. As a result, their thinking is no longer innocent and naïve, and they are exiled swiftly from Eden and subjected to the hardships and struggles of life outside of Eden. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge, despite the heavy consequences, represents humanity’s deep desire to learn the truths of the universe. Adam and Eve exchanged their paradise for truths and wisdom beyond that which was provided initially.

The pursuit of true wisdom has been a core value in Judaism ever since, which in turn has enabled us to adapt and to remain current as a people. Throughout history, education has been both an essential tool and the foundation for the development of Jewish communities around the world. As we begin a new (Jewish) year, it is my hope that the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, through a variety of educational and social events, will engage you on your personal journey and remind you that learning is a gift and that being Jewish is fun.

So yes, B’reishit is “really, really long.” And while each parashah gives us something to think about, B’reishit starts our learning journey — and it is a journey for the ages.

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