Tishrei 27, 5780 – October 26, 2019
Torah Reading: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5-21
Welcome back everyone to this week’s “Torah for the Earth” audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the first parashah of the Jewish calendar year, Bereishit – the opening portion of the book of Genesis. Last week, in my introduction to this series, I discussed the grammatical significance of the shewa under the letter bet – the first letter of the first word of the Torah – and its conceptual relation to our understanding of a ‘beginning’. This week, I would like to begin by highlighting an affiliated question that arises in the Midrash Aggadah, which is a compilation of ancient, rabbinic commentary on Scripture. The question is as follows: Why does the Torah, which commences with the creation of the world, begin with the letter bet (which is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet)? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for the narrative of creation to begin with the first letter of the alphabet: aleph? (1)
While there are many homiletic interpretations on this detail, I will focus on one point that I believe has an ecological message. The letter bet – in its physical representation as a symbol – is closed on all sides but open at the front (don’t forget in this instance that Hebrew is read from right to left). This is meant to teach us that we are to concern ourselves primarily with what is before us here and now; speculation about what preceded the creation of the world (i.e. “what is before and what is after”) – or what exists in the far reaches of the cosmos (i.e. “what is below and what is above”) – are, in principal, thoughts that are forbidden. So much time, money, and energy in this modern world are spent on technologies that are either trying to get us to Mars or position the nation state with some future variety of military prowess. Such efforts seem incredibly superfluous when there are large populations of the world that are still starving, or massive regions of the oceans and marine life that are drowning in plastic. “The Torah begins with the letter bet because the letter itself represents a blessing – as evident from its pride of place in the word berachah [meaning blessing].” (2) This line from the Midrash advises us to focus on the present moment, and to consider every breath, every thought, every waking moment as a new beginning and a blessing given to us by G-d. To deviate from such a premise is a diversion of our physical and spiritual resources, which – in turn – belittles our purpose on Earth.
Bereshit, in truth, is a massive parashah that covers the beginning of creation up to the prelude to the flood. The six days of creation are described (1:1 – 1:24), the notion of the Sabbath as a day of rest is introduced (2:1), and we are given an account of Adam and Eve’s time in the Garden of Eden (2:8 – 2:15). The serpent entices Eve to take fruit from the tree of knowledge (3:1), the first sin is committed (3:6), and both Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden (3:23). We are then told of Cain’s grievous murder of his brother Abel (4:1), and are provided with a genealogy of humankind that lists of the ten generations from Adam to Noah (5:1). I will note that a vast amount of ecotheological literature has centered around chapter 1, verses 26 to 28, which describe humans as being made in G-d’s image. Within these verses, we are also told to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “subdue the Earth.” (3) These are verses that have been argued over for centuries, and is not a conversation that I am going to broach here. But I will add that much work is being done by both secular and religious scholars and academics to reorient this discussion – which is colloquially referred to as the ‘dominion debate’ – around a more theologically comprehensive, earth-based notion of ‘stewardship’. (4)
In relation to principles of ecology, I find the creation story detailed in chapter 2, verse 7, to have much more straight-forward implications. And I quote: “Hashem G-d formed the man from the dust of the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.” (5) There is an understanding that when G-d took the earth from which he formed the first human, that He used dust (or dry land) from all the different corners – the Four Corners – of the earth. Rabbi Isaac Luria, a famous 16th century Kabbalist, taught that this is one of the reasons why human beings can be buried anywhere instead of in just one, prescribed place. (6) That when we die, we are actually returning to the earth the materials from which G-d formed the first human, Adam. But, more fundamentally, we are all made from the earth and the earth is made of us – which sounds simple, but is immensely powerful. For this I will reference the third day of creation in chapter 1, verse 12, which states: “And the earth brought forth vegetation: herbage yielding seed, fruit trees yielding fruit after its kind, containing its own seed on the earth.” (7) This verse is in opposition with a later verse, chapter 2 verse 5, which occurs after the completion of the world and the sanctification of the Sabbath. This verse describes how nothing had grown on the earth prior to the creation of Adam “for Hashem G-d had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (8) The Talmudic sage Rav Assi explains this contradiction as such, and I quote: “Herbs began to grow on the third day, as they had been commanded, but stopped before they broke through the soil. It remained for Adam to pray for them, whereupon rain fell and the growth was completed. This teaches that G-d longs for the prayers of the righteous.” (9)
Because the base materials from which we are constructed are one and the same with the earth, an inherent magnetism exists between the actualization of both of our physical and spiritual purposes. After the third day of creation, the herbs and grasses of the earth did grow but were halted at the threshold of the ground, waiting for Adam’s prayers. With Adam’s prayers came the rain, and with the rain the herbs could sprout, but not until Adam chose to sprout the seed of his own righteousness. This establishes an essential link between our faith and the ecology of the planet. It wasn’t until Adam recognized the importance of rain that his prayers could cause the vegetation of the world to spring forth. And unless we recognize our dependence upon the physical reality of the earth, then we will be unable to fulfill our ultimate, spiritual purpose for G-d. In this way, Parashah Bereshit and the mystery of Creation is very much about our story with the earth, which urges us to remember that God is in the world and is creating the world constantly.
That’s all for now and thanks for tuning in. I’ll see you next week.
(1) The Artscroll Series. Kleinman Edition Midrash Rabbah, p.17. The opening phrase [if it started with the letter aleph] world have read: בראשית אלהים ברא, G-d created in the beginning.
(2) The Artscroll Series. Kleinman Edition Midrash Rabbah, p.19
(3) Scherman, Stone Edition Chumash, p.9
(4) Richard Bauckham has done much work on reinterpreting the notion of dominion within the concept of ‘kingship’ as laid out within the Hebrew Scriptures.
(5) Scherman, Stone Edition Chumash, p.11
(6) As described by Chaim Miller in his “Torah in Ten” lecture on Bereshit. Can be accessed at: https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/1319993/jewish/Torah-in-Ten-Bereishit.htm
(7) Scherman, Stone Edition Chumash, p.5
(8) Scherman, Stone Edition Chumash, p.11
(8) Scherman, Stone Edition Chumash, p.5
Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the community of creation. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.
Bauckham, Richard. Living with other creatures: green exegesis and theology. Authentic Media Inc, 2011.
Carasik, Michael. The Commentators' Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot. Jewish Publication Society, 2018.
Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).
The Artscroll Series. Kleinman Edition Midrash Rabbah: Sefer Bereshis (Genesis Vol.1 – Bereshis – Noach). Mesorah Publications, 2014.
The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.