Bereshit, the first parashah of the Torah, takes us from the creation to the story of Noah. It concludes with chapter 6, verse 8 of Genesis: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”
Bereshit (“In the beginning”) starts with the great holiness of the creation narrative and ends on the eve of catastrophe. It is a tragic sidra whose ancient themes continue to resonate in our own time. Humanity and the natural environment are part of a single sacred reality, but the sidra is haunted by violence and human dereliction, and there are moments of intense foreboding, when the familiar world is about to change forever: Adam and Eve are driven from the garden into a fragile existence of physical hardship, pain and suffering; Cain’s world is plunged into terror and darkness when he realises the consequences of his murderous act will always be with him, and he will know no peace; as God contemplates the destruction of the world, He “mourns for all the work of His hands” (Rashi on 6:7) and is stricken by grief.
Such dark moments, when the ground seems to shake beneath our feet, are familiar for all too many of us, especially at the present time. When I read the sidra, I recalled the fate of the Jews of Europe in the twentieth century. I had been listening to a discussion of Tom Stoppard’s recent play, Leopoldstadt, about his Viennese family: they were Christians of high culture, but at a particular moment in 1938 it suddenly becomes clear that they are to be ‘reclassified’ as Jews because they have Jewish grandparents. Like many European Jewish families, they had had absolute faith in progress and enlightenment, especially in Vienna. Now they too had to see the destruction of the world that was their home and they too would know a world filled with violence (Genesis 6:11) and constant peril.
Yet the parashah does not leave us without hope. It enables us to recover our vision of the holiness of the physical universe as a divine creation. (The much criticised verse 1:28, which instructs humans to have dominion over the earth and subdue it, has clearly been misused. At this stage, 1:29 makes clear that humans had no right to take the life of any creature – they were to be vegetarian. The context of the whole passage makes ransacking the natural order quite unthinkable.) It gives us a vision of the Sabbath day – every week, one day would be devoted to recovering our sense of the holiness of all life.
When Adam and Eve have to leave behind their idyllic existence, Adam’s response is remarkable: “And Adam called the name of his wife Chava, because she would be the mother of all the living. And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and He dressed them” (3:20-21). The rabbinic commentators do not take “mother of all the living” literally and say that it is obviously referring to humanity alone, but the phrase does imply a sense of responsibility for all life that comes, perhaps, from Chava’s experience of bringing new life into the world. At the end of the sidra, when God is contemplating the destruction of the world, the term for the human is used inclusively of all living creatures. As Adam contemplates the harsh realities of the new life he will share with his wife, he is evidently sustained by a transcendent sense of the holiness of all creation.
God’s response is also striking, reminding one of a mother doing up her children’s coats and gloves before sending them out into the cold. It is a moment of tenderness and care that evokes a loving presence, even in times that are very grim and forbidding.
The parashah teaches us that human beings are both exalted and spiritually and psychologically very fragile. In the first creation account, humanity is made in the image and likeness of God (1:26) and even in the second account, which has Adam being formed from the dust of the earth, God breathed into his nostrils a living soul which was the breath of his life (2:7). The first account refers to humanity having dominion over the other creatures, but Rashi points out that the word for ‘dominion’ (radah) can also connote descent (yarad) or demotion. If we are worthy, then we will have dominion, but if not, then we will fall below the level of the animal kingdom.
In our time we are aware of darkness, debasement and peril, especially in global politics. But we also know of countless examples of goodness, great nobility and heroic self sacrifice on a daily basis, especially among people who were previously held to be of little account by those who should have known far better. They remind us who we truly are and how precious is the gift of life: in them we truly see a humanity that is fashioned in the image and likeness of our Creator.