Parshat Bereishit: In the Beginning

“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” (Beresheit 1:1)

The Torah begins with an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth. Rashi asks an important question. The Torah is a work of law. It presents a system of six hundred thirteen mitzvot. It would seem appropriate for the Torah to concentrate on the objective of teaching us the commandments. Why does the Torah begin with an account of creation?

Rashi provides a response. He explains that Hashem promised the land of Israel to Bnai Yisrael. However, the Jewish people would not occupy an empty region. They would dispossess other nations. The Torah teaches justice. How can we justify the seizure of the land of Israel from these nations?

The account of creation provides the response. The Almighty created the universe. Therefore, He has the right to apportion the earth to various nations. He also has the authority to command the dispossession of these nations.[1]

Rashi’s answer is difficult to understand. The nations, which Bnai Yisrael would expel, were idol worshippers. They did not accept the authenticity of the Torah. Certainly, they would question the assertion that the Creator had promised the land of Israel to Jewish people. They would not agree that the Almighty – the true owner – had confiscated the land from them.

We encounter this very situation today. The nations of the world are familiar with the Torah, its account of creation, and its record of the Almighty’s promises to the Jewish people. Yet, these nations do not recognize the Jewish people’s Divine right to the land! Are we to assume that the Almighty did not fully understand the nature of his creatures? Did He think the entire world would accept the message of the Torah?

Rav Yisrael Meir Lau explains that we must carefully consider Rashi’s comments. Rashi does not say that the nations of the world will be convinced of the Torah’s argument. It seems that Rashi did not maintain that the message is addressed to these nations. Instead, the Torah is speaking to Bnai Yisrael!

According to Rashi, Hashem recognized that the morality of the Jewish people would be challenged by the nations. He also realized that Bnai Yisrael would be sensitive to this reproach. We need to know that, despite all accusations, we have a Divine right to the land of Israel. Therefore, the Torah teaches us the basis of our claim.

This lesson is important today. The world does not recognize our right to the land of Israel. We must work to overcome this obstacle. We must also strive to live in peace in the land. This may require accommodation and compromise. But we should not abandon our assertion of the justice of our claim. We need to know that the Creator promised us the land of Israel. No other nation’s occupation of the land supercedes this Divine right.[2]

“And the earth was without form and in confusion with darkness on the face of the depths. And the spirit of the Lord hovered on the waters’ surface.” (Beresheit 1:2)

The meaning of this pasuk can best be understood in conjunction with the previous pasuk. The Torah begins with the statement that Hashem created the heavens and earth. The terms heaven and earth are proceeded with the article et. This article generally implies some inclusion. Our Sages explain that, in this case, the term et is intended to include all derivatives. In other words, the pasuk should be understood as stating that creation began with the forming of the heavens and the earth and all of their derivatives. The derivatives are the stars, plants and other elements that came forth on the subsequent days.[3]

Now this seems very confusing. The first pasuk asserts that the heavens and earth with all of their elements were formed on the first day. The subsequent pesukim assert that these various elements emerged during the full course of the six days of creation. Our pasuk resolves this difficulty.

The initial creation contained all that emerged on the subsequent days. However, these elements existed only in potential. This is the meaning of the earth’s formless and confused form. The darkness also represents this concept. In darkness individual forms cannot be discerned. These terms describe the initial creation. The various elements had not yet emerged into their actual form. The Divine influence was required in order to transform the potential to actual.

Based on this interpretation of creation, Rabaynu Avraham ben HaRambam explains the “hovering” mentioned in the pasuk. The term used for hovering is associated with the bird hovering over its nest. Why is this term used to describe the Divine influence? A bird hovers over its nest in order to protect and cultivate its eggs. The eggs contain a living entity – in potential. Through the efforts of the mother, hovering over the eggs, the potential of the eggs emerges in the form of offspring. In a similar manner, the earth included its eventual elements in potential. G-d’s “hovering” represents His influence in converting potential to actual.

It is interesting to note the correspondence between this understanding of creation and the modern scientific view. Science maintains that the building blocks for all that now exists were formed during the initial creation. Over time, the universe we now see eventually emerged. This occurred through the organization of these primitive elements. However, science is faced with the challenge of explaining the emergence of design and organization from chaos. The Chumash provides the resolution of this riddle. G-d’s influence caused the normal pattern of the physical universe to be reversed and organization emerged from chaos.

“And He chased out the man. And He stationed at the east of Gan Eydan the cherubs and the revolving sword blade to guard the path to the Tree of Life.” (Beresheit 3:24)

Hashem places Adam and his wife Chava in Gan Eydan. Adam and Chava sin and are driven from the Gan – the garden. Hashem places cherubs – angels – at the entrance of the Gan. These angels are accompanied by a revolving sword blade. Together they guard the approach to the Gan and the Tree of Life.

Early explorers understood the account of humanity’s experience in Gan Eydan and the eventual banishment in the literal sense. Ancient maps suggest probable locations for the Gan. These explorers believed that a complete exploration of the globe would result in locating the Gan.

However, this literal interpretation does not provide a full understanding of these incidents. These events communicate a deeper message. This message can be appreciated through looking beyond the literal meaning of the passages. An exploration of the full meaning of the experience of Gan Eydan requires a lengthy analysis. We will limit our discussion to the meaning of the cherubs and the sword that guard the Gan.

We must begin our analysis by understanding the significance of the Gan and the Tree of Life. Adam and Chava lived a life of leisure in Gan Eydan. This life is very different from our existence in today’s world. Most must toil to secure daily sustenance. Even those that are more economically established must deal with the aggravations of everyday existence. Life is uncertain and economic success cannot insulate us from the frustrations and tragedies that occur in everyday life. Gan Eydan represented an idyllic existence immune from the problems we experience in today’s world. Humanity’s banishment from the Gan introduced into our lives these difficulties. The Tree of Life epitomized the perfect existence. The exact nature of this tree is debated by the commentaries. Nonetheless, it seems to represent the potential to achieve longevity and happiness. According to this interpretation, banishment from the Gan is much more than exile from a geographic location. Banishment represents a change in humanity’s environment. With banishment, humanity is confronted with a new more difficult reality.

We constantly attempt to return to Gan Eydan. We have abandoned our search for its geographical location. Instead, we attempt to transform our world into the Gan. We strive through the application of science and technology to improve our lives. We endeavor to make our world more perfect. We seem to believe that we can eliminate suffering and our personal frustrations. However, we never really succeed. We created automobiles to transport us. We are plagued with the pollution they generate. We released the power of the atom and now we are confronted with the dilemma of disposing of nuclear waste. We invented vaccines and antibiotics only to be plagued by new diseases and antibiotic resistant infections. It seems that every advance is associated with a new problem or challenge.

How do react to this phenomenon? We assume that these new problems can be solved. More science and better technology will solve the problems created by our latest technological breakthrough. We have absolute faith in the ultimate triumph of human knowledge. Yet, a question must be asked. Can we ever succeed in our quest? Can we recreate Gan Eydan?

Perhaps, this is the message of the cherubs and the sword that guard entrance to the Gan. Perhaps, the Torah is telling us that the Almighty has blocked the road to success. Hashem banished humanity from the Gan. He decided that humanity is better nurtured in a less perfect world. He does not want us to return to the Gan. The failures and frustrations we encounter in our endeavors to recreate the Gan are not a result of inadequate knowledge. Our objective is unrealistic. We can work towards improving life. However, a certain level of toil and frustration is built into nature. We can never overcome the inherent limitations of our material existence.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:1.

[2] Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Why Does the World Contest Our Right to Eretz Yisrael?

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:14.