God, Nature, People, and Animals: The World of Parshat Bereshit

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In this space, I’ve gone through the parashiyyot of the Torah a few times. Six years ago, after the passing of my dear friend Barukh Leib Ha-Kohen ben Mordekhai Yiddel, she-yihyeh, and Dobba Hayya, aleha ha-shalom, I took five comments of Rashi’s from each parsha, to see what interesting points they made. The next year, I made a similar effort for Ramban’s commentary, and this past year, I looked at where Onkelos chose to interpret the Torah other than literally.

In each of those, I was obviously the confounding factor, choosing comments I personally found interesting. With three such endeavors in my past, this year, I want to see where I took myself. Based on the comments I highlighted in those years, what were the themes of the Torah, parsha by parsha?

For Bereshit, the first parsha in the Torah, I see reasonable coherence around a few themes. We’ll see if we’ll be as fortunate in coming parashiyyot.

What We Saw About Gd

Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban each gave me a sense of how they conceived of Gd in their comments to Bereshit. I noted how Onkelos translates different Names of Gd with the same word (the Torah starts with the Name Elokim, later brings in the YHVH Name, both of which Onkelos renders with a pair of letters yod. Where they appear jointly, he does use Elokim, as he does when Elokim appears in a phrase, such as tzelem Elokim or demut Elokim, the image of Gd.

It seemed to show Onkelos was not exact about the meaning of Names, perhaps in line with his overall refusal to attribute any kind of characteristics to Gd, created distance between Gd and any apparent action or change of status. In the example we saw, he turned the serpent’s assertion “ki yode’a Elokim,” “for Gd knows,” into arei gelei kodam Hashem, it is revealed before Gd.

Rashi says the Torah presented the Creation story to justify the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel. Gd created the world, giving Him the right, as it were, to give it to whomsoever Gd chooses (in the case of Israel, the Jewish people).

Ramban largely agrees with Rashi, as we will see in a moment. He first objects to the apparent premise of the question Rashi quotes in the name of R. Yitzhak, why the Torah did not start with the first mitzvah given the Jewish people (making Nisan the first month of the year). We might mistake the question as a way to say there is no halakhic need to know Gd created the world, where Ramban notes Jewish observance requires  Jews to assert the idea many times.

He instead reads R. Yitzhak to have meant we wouldn’t have needed the story in Bereshit because the bare-bones version in the Aseret Ha-Dibberot (the Ten Pronouncements at Sinai—for in six days, Gd created the world, and on the seventh, Gd rested) would have been enough. Like Rashi, he thinks the story, along with the Flood and Tower of Babel incidents, make clear ownership of land—and the right to life, he infers from the Flood story–is always subject to Gd’s Will. Just as Gd expelled humanity from Eden, killed the people of the era of the Flood, and scattered the builders of the Tower, nations hold their land and lives only as long as Gd finds them minimally deserving.

Ramban also thinks the Torah’s telling us Gd “saw” each of the parts of creation as good signaled Gd’s support of their continued existence.

Putting them all together, I have found a tradition that tells me Gd has many Names, although not as essential descriptors, thought the Creation story matters to basic Jewish faith, sees Gd as the necessary continuing support for existence, at whose Will we live and occupy whatever land we think of as ours, especially Israel.

Nature’s Active Role in History

Rashi gave Nature a surprising level of freewill. Gd commanded the earth to produce etz peri, fruit trees, where the earth instead  produces etz ‘oseh peri, fruit-producing fruit. In his view, Gd wanted trees that tasted like the fruit, and Nature did not do it.

Another role for Nature helped Ramban explain Gd’s speaking in the plural about the creation of human beings. For Ramban, only the original moment of Creation had beriyah yesh me-ayin, creation out of nothing; from then on, Gd’s creations always went by way of Nature, made use of existing materials to scaffold to innovative new ones. Gd said “let us” make humans, because Nature would be part of it.

For Rashi and Ramban, firm believers in Gd’s supreme power, Nature has more freewill and/or role in creation than we might have imagined.

The In-Betweeners: Humanity

Gd implants in a soul in Adam, who then becomes a nefesh hayyah, a term Onkelos writes as ruah memallela, a speaking soul. Speech was essential to humanity, for Onkelos.  Then, when they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, they become wise to the difference between good and evil, making them ke-elohim only in the human sense, like ministers or sophisticates (for Rambam; Abarbanel did think it meant like angels, but certainly not like Gd, as the simplest read might have led us to believe).

Rashi focused on similarities between humans and Gd, necessitating differentiation. The verse uses two letters yod in the word va-yitzer, Gd formed, to show people have both an upper and a lower side, partake of the divine as well of the animalistic, and therefore live in two worlds, this one and the next. They come close to the divine in having a soul, in being creators of worlds, and were they to be immortal would look too much like a divinity, leading Gd to expel them from the Garden of Eden.

After the sin of the Garden, Rashi implies that Hevel chose to eschew agriculture as a way to show he accepted the Divine judgment—Gd cursed the ground because of people, so he turned to animal husbandry. Rashi also thought righteous people’s hold on their righteousness could sometimes be fragile, the reason Gd took Hanokh out of this world early, to save him from his own weakness.

Animals Exist Because of Noah

Ramban takes Bereshit’s presentation of roles in the world one more step. He infers Adam and Havah were not allowed to eat meat, because Gd tells them they may eat all grass and fruit. Only after the Flood did Gd permit meat; according to Ramban, since the entire world deserved to be destroyed at the time of the Flood, including animals, and was saved only by Noah’s righteousness, Noah and his descendants earned more rights and power over the animals, including eating.

What I have tracked in Bereshit, apparently, is the role of the players to Creation, Gd, Nature, people, and animals. I wonder what Noah will bring. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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