The Profound Depth of Bereishit – A Study Sheet from Rabbi Mel Gottlieb


     Our first Parsha in the Torah, Parshat Bereishit, is filled with the philosophical acumen and teleological orderly plan that is the guide and roadmap of our lives.  It is so rich and packed with important values and ideas, I thought that it would be a blessing to ingest some of the teachings of our Sages and utilize these insights as study material during our week of Bereishit..  I have always lamented that Bereishit comes and goes so fast when we would be more ably served by studying it the whole year. So let me set out some basic, salient ideas as an introduction to our study and allow ourselves time in the future to continue to study these principles.  You may wish to focus on one idea and save the rest for a later time.

     Let us begin.  The first chapter and indeed the first verse in our creation myth sets out four primary values:  the value of INDIVIDUATION (growth), the value of EQUALITY, the value of finding UNITY within the ‘opposites’ that we encounter, and the underlying support of LOVE that sustains the creation.  The Rabbis parse every letter and every word in the verse to teach us these important values.  Come and see, the Torah begins with a Bet, the second letter in the alphabet rather than Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet.  The Rabbis learn from this that duality inherent in the second letter is an indication that the world was created with opposites, for the sake of our INDIVIDUATION, and this is a blessing (‘Bracha’).  It is through the opposites that we are moved to seek to find UNITY, a conscious unity that emerges through our probing and carrying out the charge and values of our tradition.  We discover G-d’s Presence, the Unity and interconnection of all creation, by searching for it, and being open to the Presence of G-d, found in the Torah and in nature.  The simple unity found in the letter Aleph would be restful, but not lead to the growth and purpose in the world found in confronting the opposites.  Simple unity leads to the road of death (non-stress) and is a curse (‘Arur’).  We do need some stress to grow.  The opening on the fourth side of the shape of the Bet hints to the incompleteness of our world and our task and purpose becomes completing it with our unique gifts.

     Our Rabbis teach us the first letter of the Torah is Bet and the last letter is Lamed, which spells “heart” (Lev).  So, the Torah is a heart book, the more the heart is open and listened to, the more the purpose of the world emerges.  Our Scripture teaches, “The world is created for the sake of bestowing kindness (Olam Chesed Yiboneh—Psalm 89, line 3), “G-d builds the world from LOVE,”  G-d builds a world which manifests G-d’s lovingkindness for all of us.

     Let us continue with the underlying value of EQUALITY found in our first chapter and supported by our Sages.  In the Mishna in Sanhedrin, (4;5), the question is asked why ADAM was created singularly, after all G-d could have created many people at the same time.  The Rabbis in the Mishna answer that it is to teach the value of EQUALITY, we all come from the same ancestor, and one cannot say “My father is better than your father.’  (The Mishna goes on to say that the creation of ADAM singularly also teaches us that every human being is UNIQUE, has ABSOLUTE VALUE (destroying or saving one human being is as if one has destroyed or saved the whole world).  And finally, to teach that one should live as if THE WHOLE WORLD WAS CREATED FOR HIS/HER SAKE, to both enjoy it and be responsible for it).

     Moreover, in Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 8:1, the Rabbis state that G-d originally created ADAM as a hermaphrodite, bodily and spiritually both male and female, before creating the separate beings of Adam (ish) and Eve (isha).  This is based on the verse in Genesis, 1;27, “So G-d created ADAM (the first human) B’Tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d was Adam created; male and female G-d created THEM.”  Thus, affirming the absolute EQUALITY of the sexes.

     Not only human beings, but all of nature was created in the spirit of EQUALITY.  As the Midrash states, ‘The first day G-d created heaven and earth, the second day heaven, the third day earth, the fourth day something from heaven, the fifth day something from earth (so that neither heaven nor earth feel superior to the other), and the sixth day ADAM was created from both heaven and earth. The midrash continues that the earth utilized in the creation of Adam was taken from the four corners of the world so that one nation should not feel superior to another nation.’ (EQUALITY).

     There is also the value of ENCOUNTERING DIFFERENCE TO PROMOTE GROWTH in our creation story.  In chapter 1, verse 8, we read “And G-d called the firmament ‘Shamaim.’  Rashi says, “It is a mixture of water and fire, two things that don’t naturally mix.  Hashem wished to teach us that the fusing of ‘opposites’ is a necessity.  We must strive to allow the opposites to work together in one vessel, rather than denying the existence of opposite qualities within.  Hashem made peace between the opposites above us. It is our task to make peace within the attributes buried inside us.”  Each energy contributes to life, no need to repress it.  Only if we acknowledge and recognize our inner “arrogance” for example, can we then proceed to accord one’s fellow the honor s/he deserves.  If we repress our need for it, we will not honor the other, not recognize this need in him/her (R.Yisrael Salanter).  We see the same idea in Ch. 2:18. G-d says: “I will make for him a helpmate opposite him.”  Help will emerge from a person who is “opposite” him, and through accepting the difference in the ‘other’, growth and harmony will emerge.

     Let us now look at the Garden of Eden story.  What was the error of Adam’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge?  The Zohar remarks that G-d was not opposed to Adam’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but only limited him to doing so after he partook of the Tree of Life.  The Midrash says that Adam was not to eat from the tree of Knowledge until after Shabbat, but the serpent caused him to partake of its fruit beforehand.  G-d did not want Adam to be infused with knowledge until he encountered ‘Spirit’.  Only after Shabbat would he have been ready for worldly knowledge.  If not, when he would fall prey to his instincts, to the serpent, to the tempter within him, he would be led astray.  But if connected to G-d, his instincts as well become vehicles for the holy.  Shabbat is the solution to duality and desire, for it surrounds us with ‘spirit/soul’.  With faith, all knowledge leads to greater purpose and perception of unity, to connection to the Light.  It allows us to see the connections within the clouds/shadows, the rays of Light that are always within the distractions.  Without the light, we may be led to paths of chaos, lack of meaning, despair, alienation, nihilism.  With Shabbat the presence of eternity is found in every moment (Heschel- ‘The Sabbath’).  This is the revelation of every day when we are led by the Tree of Life.  We then imbibe correct values, expansive wisdom, rather than the path of uncertainty.  Shabbat energy is from the radiance of above (Ma’ein Olam Haba).  Thus, all knowledge seen under this Light continues to affirm the unity and Light in the universe.  The Tree of Life leads to absolute knowledge from above while the Tree of Knowledge leads to subjectivity.  If you lead your life from the Tree of Life, the Shechina rests with you.  G-d’s Presence becomes manifest. You live a life of Kedusha (holiness).  If you are led by it, you see and hear differently, rather than just seeking truth in secular knowledge.  It is said that on Shabbat we have an additional Soul, the eternal within time.  A soul to receive more soul (Heschel-The Sabbath). This is the secret of the spiritual life, to be led by the Tree of Life, then knowledge enhances and reaffirms the soul. And the glory of G-d dwells within us in this blessed world.

     Some commentators state that the mistake that Adam made through eating from the tree was not a sin, nor was his eviction from the garden a punishment, but that the serpent was a benign force to educate Adam. (His sin was not taking responsibility for his action and blaming Eve instead). The Kabbalists point out that the Hebrew word for snake “Nachash” is numerically equivalent to ‘Mashiach’-358.  Thus, the snake is not only sinister, seductive, a tempter, but is also filled with the capacity to bestow wisdom, healing (caduceus), transformation (shedding of the skin).  It is the symbol of the great Mother sometimes living in a cave or around a tree.  It is a symbol of the “Circle of Life”.  A snake biting its tail = circle, beginning and end—Ouroboros.  It fertilizes, it kills and devours itself and brings itself to birth again. It is an emblem of wholeness or infinity. It can appear suddenly, unexpectedly and frighten or awaken us to new consciousness.  On a Native American reservation, the snake is viewed as a friendly creature.  Only when a visitor who manifests fear and hostility on the reservation only then is the person met with fear and hostility by the snake.  

     The snake was also utilized by Hashem and Moshe to heal the Jews after their complaining in the desert (Bamidbar, 32;23-33). They were punished for their constant complaints and Hashem let loose the snakes who were already there in the desert to bite them.  Moshe prayed to G-d and was told to build a copper serpent, raise it on a stick and have the children of Israel stare at it and they would be healed.  The snake was utilized as a symbol of how one can heal by facing that which bites us, by tracing the symptom to its root.  That which bites us can be the source of our healing when we engage with it directly.  It teaches us how to confront our wounds.  The wound must be transformed at its root. This promotes consciousness.  This is the essence of the transformative act, facing the instinct; the world of instincts which are the least accessible to us, the hardest to master, buried down in the world of wishes.  The snake is the projection of the fear of the inner instincts which remain unconscious.  The unconscious must be made conscious, or else it will control us, or one may flee from instincts altogether and live a one-sided, repressive life.  Thus, the core sin of Adam was his lack of taking responsibility and blaming Eve for his actions.  We must have the courage to be honest, rather than erecting defenses out of our fears and thus lying.  Only through honesty can we discover our purpose, our unique destiny, to be lived out on this earth.

    What does our creation story tell us about the nature of human beings? We are taught that ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone” (2:18). Rashi says, “It is because we are social beings and need each other to actualize.” Nachmanides says, “It is because when one remains alone s/he is under the illusion that s/he is in total control, a ruler just as the ‘ONE’ above is singular, and this leads to narcissism. We are taught that interconnection is essential, it allows us to develop empathy, compassion, and tolerance for difference.

    Furthermore, in the early chapters, Bereishit also has some additional insights into the nature of human beings. Two examples are the following: the first is found in chapter 4:7, in the story of Cain and Abel. They each bring a sacrifice to G-d, and G-d chooses a preference for Abel’s sacrifice. This angers Cain! G-d declares to Cain, “Why are you so annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at your door. Its desire is towards you. YET YOU CAN CONQUER IT.” We learn here that in the face of the challenge of human life, one who makes mistakes can overcome them with free-will and honest effort.

     A second insight is found in Chapter 8:21, after Noah’s flood. We read that: “G-d says, I will never again curse the ground because of human beings, even though the INCLINATION OF THE HUMAN HEART IS EVIL FROM YOUTH ONWARDS.”  We see here again the view that ‘YOUTH’ is filled with powerful drives that need to be recognized, tempered, and thus integrated and transformed. We are born morally neutral, but with strong inclinations toward evil. (As Freud put it, ‘A child is polymorphous perverse,’ and must be educated).

   Our Sages in the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai, debate this very question about the nature of the human being. The Talmud in Eruvin 13B, states that “Hillel and Shammai debated for 2 and ½ years whether it was better for a human being to have been created or not! Shammai said, ‘It would have been better had a human being not to have been created than to have been created!’ Hillel said, ‘It is preferable for a human being to have been created!’ After 2 and ½  years the Sages decided in favor of Bet Shammai! It would have been preferable had a human being not been created than to have been created. However, now that s/he has been created s/he should EXAMINE his/her actions (that have been performed and seek to correct them). And some Sages say, “One should SCRUTINIZE one’s (planned) actions and evaluate whether or not those actions should be performed so that one will not sin.”

     We have a continuation of ambivalence about the nature of human beings, and how one can grow and reach one’s positive potential in the world. Do human beings grow more readily when they are seen as good and this helps them reach their potential (as Hillel suggests), or do they thrive better by recognizing their proclivity for ‘evil’ (as Shammai opines), and through that recognition and vigilance they will create the discipline to achieve righteous behavior. There is a strong opinion on the part of the Rabbis that deliberateness and caution is essential while facing strong instincts. The heinous misdeeds and incorrigible atrocities that they witnessed led them to believe that the following of the mandates of the Torah were essential to integrate these instincts and utilize them to build a humane world. The Sages teach the dictum: “Said the Holy One, ‘I have created the evil inclination and have created the Torah as its antidote.  If you are engaged in Torah, you will not be in its clutches” (Talmud Kiddushin 30b). They further state: “The Torah’s commandments were given to humankind for no other purpose than to refine people” (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1).

  The Rabbis also understand and recognize that the energies of the instincts are essential to the growth of our world; they only counsel that they be utilized for a noble purpose.  It is the inevitable engagement with the instincts and how they are utilized that contributes to our growth. The Rabbis state, “Were it not for the ‘evil inclination’ no one would build a house or have children or engage in commerce” (Bereishit Rabbah, 9:7).Thus, the instincts can be used for good or for evil; it is with the aggressive instinct that one can build a house or business, and with the sexual instinct that one can create children and family. It is what we do with the instincts that determine its effects. The instincts were given for a purpose, and are a blessing when ruled by Torah principles, and the guidance of the soul.   

           This question of human nature continues to be debated by philosophers throughout the centuries.  Are human beings innately good, innately evil, or a mixture of both (Or is it a combination of  a person’s temperament and his/her environment that determines behavior: B=PE)?  Though human beings are given free will to choose between good and evil, there is the recognition of diligence and alertness to our inner condition as a requisite for the world surviving and thriving.  

     Our secular philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau had a similar argument that our Sages Hillel and Shammai engaged in.  Hobbes favors Shammai’s view that inner instincts need to be tempered by societal strictures in order for us to build a functioning society, and Rousseau asserts, like Hillel, a more favorable view of the human being as a benign being by nature, and only corrupted by societal norms.  Interestingly, our sages continue in the Talmudic discussion in Eruvin that though Shammai’s view is the correct one in our day, during the Messianic era, Hillel’s view will be the correct one!  The world will return to the pristine nature found in the Garden of Eden, and the purity of the soul; the harmony and beauty of nature will prevail!  We will see the world through the lens of faith again!

       Let us continue to imbibe from the wisdom of our study of Bereishit and continue our Torah study for the rest of the year. May it be a source of Light and growth for all of us! May we be blessed with its wisdom and continue to debate and add to its profound offerings with our unique insights and intuitions!


 May your week be one filled with joy, friendship, love, and commitment to elevate our world!

    Blessings and Peace,

    Rabbi Mel