parashat bereishit: what is our part in creation? sermon 2019

Rabbi Simcha Bunem of P’shis’kha is said to have taught that “Everyone must have two pockets. In one are to be the words “For my sake the world was created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) and in the other “I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)

Reading the stories of Creation in parashat Bereishit, one cannot but think of this teaching – for what is the world created? What is our part in this?

The Mishna Rav Bunem quotes from is a long one, the context being how to ensure a witness is appropriate and truthful in court, especially where the trial was of capital cases and other lives are at stake.  It includes the following statements: “for this reason  the human being was created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, scripture imputes [guilt] to them as though they had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture ascribes [merit] to them as though they had preserved a complete world.

Furthermore, [Adam was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, that one might not say to the other, “My father was greater than yours”, and that the heretics might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, for if a person strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the Holy One  created every person in the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them is exactly alike. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake” (Sanhedrin 37a)

There is so much in this Mishnah, which is devoted to fair trials and proper process in judicial hearings. We are reminded that all people are equal, that our uniqueness and diversity do not alter the fact we are all from the same Creator. We are reminded that everyone encompasses a whole world, that our having lived will echo down the generations long after we are gone. We are reminded of the power of the one true God, whose greatness and creativity are the wellspring of everything and everyone in this world. All of this emphasises and underlines the absolute and indivisible importance of the life of every human being.

So it is not surprising that the fear of a court of law giving out the death penalty improperly hangs over much of these texts; and even though Torah imposes it for a range of things – such as breaking Shabbat, bringing God’s name into disrepute, some sexual sins, murder etc., the rabbinic tradition – even though essentially acting only theoretically since the Romans had removed the right of Jewish courts to punish- works hard at making such a punishment all but impossible.  Any such court had to have 23 extremely competent and experienced judges on it; should they agree unanimously that the death penalty should be applied the person must be acquitted; The offence being tried had to have been witnessed by two people, who had to have warned the perpetrator before the offence was committed, that this would be a capital offence, etc. etc.  In Mishnah Makkot we read “A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.”

The sanctity and uniqueness of every single life permeates these rabbinic texts, so much so that every person ever born is obliged to understand that the world was created for them, that they are essential in the world.

Reading back into the two creation stories, this sense of the supremacy and uniqueness of human life – of every human life – is extraordinarily humbling. But at the same time it brings a potentially problematical phenomenon that could cause great arrogance and selfishness.  This, I think, is the reason why we have two pockets in Rav Simcha Bunem’s teaching – we are mortal, made up of very ordinary and rather undesirable elements. The quotation comes from Avram, when he is arguing with God over what will happen to Sodom and Gomorrah. He prefaces his words challenging God with the words that show he recognises his worth, that the chutzpah of his challenge:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V’anokhi `afar va’efer

“I am but dust and ashes”. Avram knows that his is a breath that can be gone from this world so easily. As psalm 103 puts it “God knows how we are formed, remembers that we are dust. As for human beings, our days are like grass, we flourish like a flower of the field but the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows us no more….”

We are mortal, we have the same worth as the dust and ashes cleaned out of every home each day, we will return to the earth after our lifespan, and melt back into the soil. We are tolerated on this earth only so long as the breath of God animates our bodies, and we should not lose awareness of this lowly and dependant status.

It is generally understood that Rabbi Simcha Bunem wanted us to be able to locate ourselves between these two positions, articulated by the quotations in different pockets. That when we feel low and worthless we remind ourselves that for us the world was created, we are the most beloved creation of the great Creator; that when we feel a little too proud we remind ourselves of our mortality, much as memento mori function in art or in as artefacts we carry with us. Generally memento mori were designed to nudge us along, to motivate our living full lives – a slightly different image to how most people understand the words of Simcha Bunem. Generally his teaching is seen as a way of balancing our sense of self-worth, providing a corrective for our unbalanced sense of ourselves, but I think there is more than this going on.

The two quotations – one from Avram challenging God to behave with righteousness, the other from a mishnah set in the context of potential judicial execution (one might see them as essentially being the same situation) both remind us that for the sake even of a very few good people, rather than destroy the innocent along with the guilty, we must err on the side of protecting everyone present, of defending all those who live, regardless of the beliefs they espouse or the behaviour they enact.

These two quotations work together. Far from being either/or, the two bowls of a weighing scale or a continuum along which we must locate ourselves, they are a reminder that human life, while sacred, has a limited span. So we must use that span as well as we can, and endeavour to live up to the holiness inherent within it as well as allow the holiness of others to have a chance to blossom.

Each of the two quotations holds an extreme position, neither of them are a way for us to encounter the world and thrive. For those who arrogantly assume the world belongs to them, it would be easy to abuse this earth, taking and taking without thought of the future. For those whose self-awareness of our limited mortal state is so acute as to paralyse, our lives would simply fail to grow and we would not develop anywhere near our potential.   In the words of Rabbi Professor Dalia Marx, “I understand the passage as a warning: Both statements caution us against equally dangerous attitudes. Both are indications of an incomplete self, and are laced with a narcissistic thread. An “it’s-all -about-me” stance often reflects a sense of worthlessness. Instead of reaching into either pocket, instead of pampering one’s ego or denying it, we are challenged to use the ego carefully.”

These are not words of comfort to be brought out to make ourselves feel better. They are carefully selected reminders that human beings are the creation of God, and that we are here to do the work of God. We do not have the right to judge others to the point of removing them from this world, we do not have the right to wallow in our own impotence in the face of the politics we face nor to feel this is not our battleground as we are ok.

There is a sin we confess to in the Al Chet prayer we have just been reciting in every service of Yom Kippur – “for the sin we have committed by giving in to despair”.

We each of us despair. We despair the pain of refugees, we despair the problems of climate change and environmental disaster. We despair about the terrorism and racism growing in our world. We despair about the future for our children and the present which seems to chaotic.

The two quotations from Rabbi Simcha Bunem are warnings. We are warned to remember both our value and our mortality, and we are to use the two together to spur ourselves to the work of God – to creation. Some human beings may cause us anger by their behaviour, others may cause us to feel impotent at the situation they find themselves in, yet others may horrify us by their rhetoric – yet we are reminded each of them are created by God, each of them has a place in the world. It is not for us to make decisions about them, our work is to be spurred on to partner God in creation, to use – and to overcome – our ego, our fear and our pride – and to build a world that will be better for our having been in it.

Sermone Bereshit 2019/5780  Di rav Sylvia Rothschild

Si dice che il rabbino Simcha Bunem di P’shis’kha abbia insegnato che “Ognuno deve avere due tasche. In una vi sono le parole ‘Per amor mio il mondo è stato creato’ (Mishnà Sanhedrin 4:5) e nell’altra ‘Io sono solo polvere e cenere’. (Genesi 18:27)”

Leggendo le storie della Creazione nella Parashà di Bereshit, non si può non pensare a questo insegnamento: per cosa viene creato il mondo? Che parte abbiamo in tutto ciò?

La Mishnà dalla quale Rav Bunem cita è lunga, e il contesto riguarda il modo di garantire che un testimone sia appropriato e veritiero in tribunale, soprattutto qualora sia in corso un processo per casi capitali e siano in gioco altre vite. Sono incluse le seguenti affermazioni: “per questo motivo l’essere umano è stato creato singolo, per insegnarti che a chiunque distrugga una sola anima, le Scritture imputano [colpa] come se avesse distrutto un mondo completo; e a chiunque conservi una sola anima, le Scritture attribuiscono [merito] come se avesse preservato un mondo completo.

Inoltre, [Adamo è stato creato da solo] per motivi di pace tra le persone, in modo che uno non possa dire ad un altro: ‘Mio padre era più grande del tuo’ e che gli eretici non possano dire che ci siano tanti poteri al comando nei cieli; di nuovo, per proclamare la grandezza del Signore, perché se una persona conia molte monete da uno stampo, queste si assomigliano tutte, ma il Signore ha creato ogni persona con lo stampo della prima persona, eppure nessuna di esse è esattamente uguale. Pertanto ogni singola persona è obbligata a dire: ‘il mondo è stato creato per me’.” (Sanhedrin 37a).

Vi è davvero tanto in questa Mishnà, dedicata a processi equi e a un’adeguata procedura nelle udienze giudiziarie. Ci viene ricordato che tutte le persone sono uguali, che la nostra unicità e diversità non alterano il fatto che siamo tutti dello stesso Creatore. Ci viene ricordato che in ognuno è racchiuso un intero mondo, che il nostro aver vissuto echeggerà le generazioni molto tempo dopo la nostra scomparsa. Ci viene ricordato il potere dell’unico vero Dio, la cui grandezza e creatività sono la sorgente di tutto e di tutti in questo mondo. Tutto ciò enfatizza e sottolinea l’importanza assoluta e indivisibile della vita di ogni essere umano.

Quindi non sorprende che la paura di un tribunale che emette la pena di morte incomba impropriamente su gran parte di questi testi; e anche se la Torà la impone per una serie di cose,  quali rompere lo Shabbat, screditare il nome di Dio, alcuni peccati sessuali, omicidi etc., la tradizione rabbinica, anche se agendo essenzialmente solo su base teorica da quando i romani tolsero ai tribunali ebraici il diritto di punire, lavora sodo per rendere tale punizione quasi impossibile. Ogni tribunale di questo tipo doveva disporre di 23 giudici estremamente competenti ed esperti; se avessero concordato all’unanimità sull’applicazione della pena di morte, la persona doveva essere assolta; l’offesa in corso di giudizio doveva essere stata testimoniata da due persone, che dovevano aver avvertito l’autore prima che fosse commesso il reato che questo sarebbe stato un reato capitale, etc. In Mishnà Makkot leggiamo: “Un sinedrio che decide un’esecuzione una volta ogni sette anni si chiama omicida”. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azarià dice: “Una volta ogni settant’anni”. Rabbi Tarfon e Rabbi Akiva dicono: “Se fossimo stati membri di un sinedrio, nessuno sarebbe mai stato messo a morte”.

La santità e l’unicità di ogni singola vita permea questi testi rabbinici, al punto che chiunque sia nato è obbligato a capire che il mondo è stato creato per lui, e che lui è essenziale nel mondo.

Rileggendo le due storie della creazione, questo senso di supremazia e unicità della vita umana, di ogni vita umana, dona una straordinaria umiltà. Ma, allo stesso tempo, porta un fenomeno potenzialmente problematico che potrebbe causare grande arroganza ed egoismo. Questo, penso, è il motivo per cui abbiamo due tasche nell’insegnamento di Rav Simcha Bunem: siamo mortali, composti da elementi molto ordinari e piuttosto indesiderabili. La citazione viene da Abramo, quando egli discute con Dio su ciò che accadrà a Sodoma e Gomorra. Abramo premette alle sue parole di sfida verso Dio le parole che mostrano che egli riconosce il proprio valore, e qui sta la faccia tosta della sua sfida:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V’anokhi `afar va’efer

“Io sono solo polvere e cenere”. Abramo sa che il suo è un respiro che può andarsene da questo mondo facilmente. Come dice il salmo 103 “Dio conosce il nostro istinto. Si ricorda, ricorda che noi siamo polvere. I giorni dell’uomo sono brevi come quelli dell’erba, e la sua fioritura dura come quella di un fiore di campo, poiché basta che un alito divento passi su di lui ed egli non c’è più ed il luogo dove si trovava non lo conoscerà più… ”

Siamo mortali, abbiamo lo stesso valore della polvere e delle ceneri spazzate in ogni casa ogni giorno, torneremo alla terra dopo la nostra vita e ci scioglieremo di nuovo nel terreno. Siamo tollerati su questa terra solo fintanto che il respiro di Dio anima i nostri corpi e non dovremmo perdere la consapevolezza di questo stato umile e dipendente.

Resta generalmente inteso che il rabbino Simcha Bunem voleva che fossimo in grado di collocarci tra queste due posizioni, articolate dalle citazioni nelle due diverse tasche. Che quando ci sentiamo giù di morale e senza valore ricordiamo a noi stessi che il mondo è stato creato per noi,  che siamo la creazione più amata del grande Creatore; che quando ci sentiamo un po’ troppo orgogliosi ci ricordiamo della nostra mortalità, proprio come la funzione del ‘memento mori’ nell’arte o negli artefatti che portiamo con noi. Generalmente i memento mori sono stati progettati per spingerci avanti, per motivare il nostro vivere vite piene, un’immagine leggermente diversa da come la maggior parte delle persone intende le parole di Simcha Bunem. Generalmente il suo insegnamento è visto come un modo per bilanciare il nostro senso di autostima, fornendo un correttivo per il nostro squilibrato senso di noi stessi, anche se penso che ci sia molto di più.

Le due citazioni, una di Abramo che sfida Dio a comportarsi con giustizia, l’altra di una mishnà ambientata nel contesto di una potenziale esecuzione giudiziaria (il che potrebbe essere visto essenzialmente come la stessa situazione) ci ricordano entrambe che per amor di poche brave persone, piuttosto che distruggere gli innocenti insieme ai colpevoli dobbiamo sbagliare per proteggere tutti i presenti, per difendere tutti coloro che vivono, indipendentemente dalle convinzioni che sposano o dal comportamento che mettono in atto.

Queste due citazioni funzionano insieme. Lungi dall’essere “o l’una o l’altra”, o i due piatti di una bilancia o una linea continua lungo la quale dobbiamo sistemarci, ricordano che la vita umana, sebbene sacra, ha una durata limitata. Quindi dobbiamo usare questo arco nel miglior modo possibile e sforzarci di essere all’altezza della santità insita in essa e di permettere alla santità degli altri di avere una possibilità di fiorire.

Ciascuna delle due citazioni ha una posizione estrema, nessuna delle due è un modo per noi di affrontare il mondo e prosperare. Per coloro che presumono con arroganza che il mondo appartenga a loro, sarebbe facile abusare di questa terra continuando a prendere senza pensare al futuro. Per coloro la cui autocoscienza del nostro limitato stato mortale è così acuta da paralizzare, la nostra vita semplicemente non riuscirebbe a crescere e non ci svilupperemmo così da arrivare vicini al nostro potenziale, con le parole della professoressa Rabbina Dalia Marx: “interpreto il passaggio come un avvertimento: entrambe le affermazioni ci mettono in guardia contro atteggiamenti altrettanto pericolosi. Entrambe sono indicazioni di un sé incompleto e sono intrecciate con un filo narcisistico. La posizione ‘tutto ruota intorno me’ spesso riflette un senso di inutilità. Invece di entrare in una delle tasche, invece di coccolare il proprio ego o negarlo, siamo sfidati a usare l’ego con attenzione.”

Queste non sono parole di conforto da mettere in risalto per farci sentire meglio. Sono promemoria accuratamente selezionati: gli esseri umani sono la creazione di Dio e siamo qui per fare il lavoro di Dio. Non abbiamo il diritto di giudicare gli altri al punto di rimuoverli da questo mondo, non abbiamo il diritto di sguazzare nella nostra stessa impotenza quando affrontiamo la politica, né di sentire che questo non è il nostro campo di battaglia quando ci sentiamo bene.

C’è un peccato che confessiamo nella preghiera di Al Chet che abbiamo appena recitato in ogni servizio di Yom Kippur: “per il peccato che abbiamo commesso cedendo alla disperazione”.

Ognuno di noi dispera. Ci disperiamo del dolore dei rifugiati, ci disperiamo dei problemi del cambiamento climatico e del disastro ambientale. Ci disperiamo per il terrorismo e il razzismo che crescono nel nostro mondo. Ci disperiamo per il futuro dei nostri figli e per il presente che sembra caotico.

Le due citazioni del rabbino Simcha Bunem sono avvertimenti. Siamo avvertiti di ricordare sia il nostro valore che la nostra mortalità, e dobbiamo usarli insieme per spronarci all’opera di Dio: alla creazione. Alcuni esseri umani possono farci arrabbiare a causa del loro comportamento, altri possono farci sentire impotenti per la situazione in cui si trovano, mentre altri possono inorridirci con la loro retorica. Tuttavia ci viene ricordato che ognuno di loro è stato creato da Dio, ognuno di loro ha un posto nel mondo. Non spetta a noi prendere decisioni su di loro, il nostro lavoro deve essere incoraggiato a collaborare con Dio nella creazione, a usare, e a superare, il nostro ego, la nostra paura e il nostro orgoglio e a costruire un mondo che sarà migliore per il nostro esserci dentro.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

Bereishit -subduing the earth or serving her – not slaves but co-creators to protect and nurture our world

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’  (Genesis 1:28)

The stories of creation found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis provide the foundation for the myth of human ownership of the world; something which has allowed us to feel ourselves permitted to exploit and use the natural world for our own benefit.  And no verse has been quite so powerful in this myth as the one quoted above – translating the verbs as humanity “subduing / ruling / dominating” the earth.

But this reading is, at best, a partial understanding of the texts of Creation, and I would like to offer a more nuanced and less literalist view.

To begin – the verbs whose roots are

כבש   רדד  / רדה

Have multiple meanings, but for each of them the base meaning from which subdue/dominate arises is the physical act of treading down/ trampling /spreading out.  It would not be too far a literary stretch in the context of the words coming before – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – to read the next part of the verse as “and stretch out/make pathways over her (the earth), and stretch [your reach] over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing on the earth.  The root כבש

Is used today to describe roads and pathways – the methods by which we extend our ability to travel the earth.

But should this be a “spreading out” too far for some readers, one must also be aware of the context of this verse – both historically in terms of other earlier creation myths, and textually in the Book of Genesis.

Enumah Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, describes the creation of humankind like this:

“Blood will I form and cause bone to be
Then will I set up a “lullu” [savage], ‘Man’ shall be his name!
Yes, I will create savage Man!
(Upon him) shall the services of the gods be imposed
That they may be at rest.”

For the Babylonians, the creation of human beings is about them being the slaves of the divinities, freeing the gods from the actual work of the world.  Human beings would work the earth, and provide the food and drink and other necessities or desires of the gods through sacrifices and libations.

It is this mythic story that informs the biblical creation stories, and some of the dynamic of owner/owned from the Enumah Elish may be found in the biblical text – but this is a very different creation story, with the human being created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, and the self-sufficient God going on to offer the plant based foods for all the newly created beings, both human and animal.

This is also not the only creation story in Bible, and one cannot read the first iteration in Chapter 1 without the second iteration in Chapter 2 – the story of the Garden of Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

And the Eternal God took the human, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

The verbs here are quite different

עבד שמר

Mean literally to serve and to guard/protect.

So even if we took the verbs in chapter one to mean “to rule/to subdue” the earth, here in chapter two that dimension is mitigated greatly. The role of the paradigmatic human being is that of carer for the earth, serving it rather than exploiting it.

Any power of the ownership implied in the first story must now be understood to be that of the obligation to nurture and guard something that is precious to God. To work with God (rather than for the gods) is to have an authority and role in creation, it gives no permission to use or exploit without care or consideration for the earth and its future.

The rabbinic tradition clearly understands this – and reminds us that we are not to exceed our powers, not to selfishly take and exploit and damage in order to meet our own desires and needs – indeed this would bring us back full circle to the Enumah Elish and the selfish greedy lazy and thoughtless gods. Famously in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. “ (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Read together, the two creation stories provide a picture of the complex and important relationship between humanity, God and nature.  God, having created the world to be self-sustaining, is still involved through the work of human beings. We are, as ever, the hands of God in the world. We can manage and care for the natural world, sometimes – as in a garden- having to be creative in order to get the best results. Any gardener will tell about the importance of pruning, of digging up weeds by the roots,  of dead heading or thinning plants – all things that may seem “heavy handed” but ultimately provide the best environment.

Is our role to subdue the world or to spread out within it, causing fruitfulness and the fullness of nature?  I would suggest that the long standing myth of our being the pinnacle of creation meaning we have the right to dominate the world is a misunderstanding at a very deep level. To serve and to protect the earth – it is for this we were created, and this is how we most profoundly embody the idea of our being ‘b’tzelem Elohim”

Bereishit: sottomettere la terra o servirla, non schiavi ma co-creatori per proteggere e nutrire il nostro mondo

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

E Dio li benedisse; e Dio stesso disse loro: Prolificate, moltiplicatevi, empite la terra e rendetevela soggetta; dominate sui pesci del mare, e sui volatili del cielo e su tutti gli animali che si muovono sulla terra.” (Genesi 1:28)

Le storie della creazione che si trovano nei primi capitoli del libro della Genesi forniscono le basi per il mito della proprietà umana del mondo: qualcosa che ci ha permesso di sentirci autorizzati a sfruttare e usare il mondo naturale a nostro vantaggio. E nessun verso è stato così potente in questo mito quanto quello sopra citato, per tradurre i verbi relativi all’agire dell’umanità in “sopraffare, controllare, dominare” la terra.

Ma questa lettura è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, una comprensione parziale dei testi della Creazione, e vorrei offrire una visione più sfumata e meno letterale.

Per cominciare, i verbi le cui radici sono  רדה / רדד  כבש  hanno significati multipli, ma per ognuno di essi il significato base da cui emerge ‘sottomettere o dominare’ è l’atto fisico di schiacciare, calpestare, spargere. Non sarebbe troppo una forzatura letteraria nel contesto delle parole che precedono ‘siate fecondi, moltiplicate e riempite la terra’ leggere la parte successiva del verso come “e allungatevi, percorretela (la terra), e allungate [la vostra portata] sui pesci del mare e sugli uccelli del cielo e su ogni cosa vivente sulla terra”.

La radice כבש oggi è usata per descrivere strade e percorsi, i metodi con cui estendiamo la nostra capacità di viaggiare sulla terra.

Ma se questo dovesse essere un “allargamento” eccessivo per alcuni lettori, si deve anche essere consapevoli del contesto di questo versetto: sia storicamente, in termini di altri miti della creazione precedente, sia testualmente, nel Libro della Genesi.

Enumah Elish, il mito babilonese della creazione, descrive la creazione dell’umanità in questo modo:

“Formerò il sangue e farò esistere l’osso

Quindi creerò un “lullu” [selvaggio], “Uomo” sarà il suo nome!

Sì, creerò un uomo selvaggio!

(Su di lui) saranno imposti i servizi degli dei

Che possano essere in pace.”

Per i babilonesi, la creazione di esseri umani riguarda il fatto che essi sono gli schiavi delle divinità, liberando così gli dei dal lavoro reale del mondo. Gli esseri umani lavorerebbero la terra fornendo cibo e bevande e altre necessità o desideri degli dei attraverso sacrifici e libagioni.

Questa storia mitica, presente nel contesto in cui vennero scritte le storie della creazione biblica, e alcune delle dinamiche proprietario/proprietà dell’Enumah Elish possono essere trovate nel testo biblico, ma questa è una storia della creazione molto diversa, con l’essere umano creato ‘b’ tzelem Elohim’ e il Dio autosufficiente che continua a offrire alimenti a base vegetale per tutti gli esseri appena creati, sia umani che animali.

Questa non è nemmeno l’unica storia della creazione nella Bibbia, e non si può leggere la prima iterazione nel capitolo 1 senza la seconda, la ripetizione nel capitolo 2: la storia del Giardino dell’Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

E l’Eterno Dio prese l’uomo e lo pose nel Giardino di Eden perché lo coltivasse e lo custodisse.

I verbi qui sono abbastanza diversi: שמר עבד, significano letteralmente servire e fare la guardia, proteggere.

Quindi, anche se abbiamo considerato i verbi nel primo capitolo per significare “governare/ sottomettere” la terra, qui nel secondo capitolo quella dimensione è notevolmente mitigata. Il ruolo dell’essere umano paradigmatico è quello di prendersi cura della terra, servendola piuttosto che sfruttandola.

Qualsiasi potere della proprietà implicito nella prima storia deve ora essere inteso come quello dell’obbligo di nutrire e custodire qualcosa di prezioso per Dio. Lavorare con Dio (piuttosto che per gli dei) significa avere un’autorità e un ruolo nella creazione, non dà il permesso di usare o sfruttare senza cura o considerazione alcuna la terra e il suo futuro.

La tradizione rabbinica lo comprende chiaramente, e ci ricorda che non dobbiamo eccedere i nostri poteri, non dobbiamo prendere egoisticamente e sfruttare e danneggiare per soddisfare i nostri desideri e bisogni, in effetti questo ci riporterebbe al punto di partenza dell’Enumah Elish e gli dei egoisti, avidi, pigri e sconsiderati. Notoriamente nel Midrash Kohelet Rabbà leggiamo:

“Guarda il lavoro di Dio: per chi può raddrizzare ciò che ha distorto? Quando l’Uno, Santo e Benedetto, creò il primo essere umano, Dio lo prese e lo condusse attorno a tutti gli alberi del Giardino dell’Eden e disse: ‘Guarda le mie opere, quanto sono belle e lodevoli! E tutto ciò che ho creato, è stato creato per te. Fai attenzione a non corrompere e distruggere il mio mondo: se lo corrompi, non c’è nessuno che lo ripari dopo di te.’” (Kohelet Rabbà 7:13)

Lette insieme, le due storie della creazione forniscono un quadro del complesso e importante rapporto tra umanità, Dio e natura. Dio, avendo creato il mondo per essere autosufficiente, è ancora coinvolto attraverso il lavoro degli esseri umani. Siamo, come sempre, le mani di Dio nel mondo. Possiamo gestire e prenderci cura del mondo naturale, a volte, come in un giardino, dovendo essere creativi per ottenere i migliori risultati. Ogni giardiniere parlerà dell’importanza della potatura, dello scavo delle erbe infestanti dalle radici, della selezione o del diradamento delle piante, tutte cose che possono sembrare “pesanti” ma alla fine forniscono l’ambiente migliore.

Il nostro ruolo è sottomettere il mondo o spargerci al suo interno, causando fecondità e pienezza della natura? Suggerirei che l’antico mito del nostro essere l’apice della creazione, nel senso che abbiamo il diritto di dominare il mondo, è un malinteso a un livello molto profondo. Siamo stati creati per servire e proteggere la terra, ed è così che incarniamo profondamente l’idea del nostro essere “b’tzelem Elohim”.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Bereishit: men and women created equally and mutually

Genesis has two creation stories, each with a different structure and a different name for God. The first, with the numbered days of the first week, has Elohim create humanity in God’s image at the end of the process, and this humanity is neither singular nor male. “Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekeivah bara otam” (1:27)

The second, where humanity was created even before the Garden of Eden was made, has one human fashioned from the dust of the earth, and placed into Eden. But it is already clear that one living being is a lonely being, so God creates the animals and birds. The human names them but does not develop a mutual relationship with them, and ultimately God has to create more human beings in the world. To do this, God does not create a new thing, but takes from the existing human to form the being who will be in relationship with it.

How we translate what God takes from the first being is critical to how we understand gender politics. And how it has been translated in the past is a direct outcome of such politics. For God takes מִצַּלְעֹתָיו  – from the side of the first human, and not, as it is frequently translated, a rib from it. This root appears over forty times in bible, and is never translated as anything other than “side” except in this passage, and first found in the Septuagint. If we look more closely we see that the word always describes something that is leaned upon, or (in the case of Jacob) limped upon. So what is bible telling us with this word? When God divides the Adam into ish (man) and isha (woman), the two are equal. One might ask why this understanding disappeared when bible is so clear?

 

(written for “the bible says what?” series for the progressive Judaism page of the Jewish News)

 

Bereishit: Leaving Eden as equals with creative work to do

One of the most difficult verses in bible comes early in the text and seems to set the scene for those who want to prove that God loves the patriarchy and that the divine ideal is that women are to be subservient to the rule of men. I have lost count of the times that men have told me that women were cursed by God because of the culpable actions of Eve in the Garden of Eden, or the times when women have told me that there is nothing we can do to remedy the role our biology has cast for us. Calling attention to the earlier creation story in which male and female are created together in the image of God as one Adam/human being doesn’t seem to have the same power as the story called by Christianity “The Fall”. Indeed this verse seems almost magically forgettable as being the original scene setter of the creation of human beings – so I thought it was time to have a look again at the text that so conveniently can be read as “the sin of a thoughtless woman has led to her and her husband being rejected by God and evicted from paradise into a miserable existence.”

Reading Genesis 3:16, after God has asked the man who had told him that he was naked, and asked directly if he had eaten of the tree that God had commanded him not to eat, the man said “the woman whom you gave to me, she gave me of the tree and I ate”. God turns to the woman and asks “what is this that you did?” and she says “the serpent beguiled me and I ate”. God doesn’t ask anything of the serpent, but instead tells it “Cursed are you among all the cattle and all the beasts of the field. Upon your belly you will go and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put animosity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed, they shall bruise your head and you shall bruise their heel”

Let us just note here some interesting moments. The serpent is described as being among the cattle and the beasts of the field – not a class we would normally associate with scaled reptiles, but definitely something we would associate with an agrarian world view.  And let’s note too that the antipathy is between

          בֵין זַרְעֲךָ וּבֵין

      זַרְעָהּ

 

your seed and her seed – the human descendants are described as the seed of the woman rather than of the man, obliquely but definitely introducing the idea of female childbirth in the future.

With this in mind, let’s look at the next verses.  God turns his attention to the woman, saying:

אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙

עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ:   ס

Now this verse is most painful for us feminists. It is most often translated as “To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pain and your travail. In pain you will bring forth children, your desire shall be to your husband and he shall rule over you”

But that is not the only way to translate it, and the clue is in the context of this passage. To begin, let’s look at the first half of this verse, in particular the word whose root it “etzev” ayin, tzaddi, beit and its noun form used here : itz’von. It is used only three times – twice here in relation once to Eve and once to Adam, and later about Noach.

The root has two major meanings – one is to to hurt/ to work hard and the second is to form/to fashion. The nouns are itz’von and he’ron, which look like a parallel is being used. Given that the second noun means pregnancy/forming a baby, then itz’von should also mean forming a baby/ pregnancy – in which case the phrase means “I will greatly increase your creating a baby and your pregnancy, and with hard work (labour) you will give birth to children.

Note that God does NOT curse the woman. Instead God informs her that she will be taking over the hard work of creation, it will be her seed as a result of the encounter with the serpent, so it will be her role to bring forth human beings in the future. God is done – having created everything else in the garden with the ability and seed to reproduce, now it is time for human beings to do so for themselves.

Let’s look too at the use of itz’von in relation to the man. And note too, that God does NOT curse him either.

וּלְאָדָ֣ם אָמַ֗ר כִּ֣י שָׁמַ֘עְתָּ֘ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּ֒ךָ֒ וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוִּיתִ֨יךָ֙

לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֲרוּרָ֤ה הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲבוּרֶ֔ךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן֙ תֹּֽאכֲלֶ֔נָּה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י

חַיֶּֽיךָ

“To the man God said, because you heard the voice of your wife, and you ate from the tree which I commanded you saying ‘you shall not eat of it’, then cursed is the land on account of you, with itzavon/ (hard work/forming and creatively fashioning),  you will eat from it all the days of your life.” (3:17)

Both man and woman are now told that the hard work of creating is down to them. The serpent and the land are cursed, they are no longer going to be as they were first intended to be, the serpent loses its place in the agricultural world, the land too loses its place as a garden where growth is luxurious and abundant and does not require the hard work that any gardener or farmer will tell you is necessary today to create a crop of food or flowers.

What is the curse on the land? It is that it will bring forth weeds, thorns and thistles, the unintended and unwanted growth that any farmer or gardener will tell you comes as soon as you stop working the ground, hoeing out the weeds, protecting the young seedlings.

A curse is something that goes wrong, that is not intended in the original plan, that deviates from the ideal.  So it is particularly interesting that the human beings are not themselves cursed, their situation is not deviating from the plan. It begins to look like leaving Eden was always the plan, that creating was always going to be delegated, otherwise why put those tempting trees there?

The section ends with God telling the man that in the sweat of his face he will eat bread, until he returns to the ground he came from, and the man calling his wife Eve, because she has become the mother of all living. Both these again are references to the itz’von of each of them – she becomes creative in the area of growing children, he in the area of growing food. And God’s statement that follows “Behold, the human has become like one of us”, is then qualified in terms of knowing good and evil, but it also describes the attributes of creativity that each now have, attributes which until this point have been the dominion of the divine.

Now let’s look at the second half of the verse where the woman’s future is described. “Your passion will be to your man, and he will mashal  you (וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ:  v’hu yimshol bach)”

M’sh’l is one of two words for ruling over – the more usual being m’l’ch. It too has a second meaning – to be a comparison, from which we get the idea of proverbs/parables which show us a truth by virtue of a difference. The first time we have the word is in the creation of the two great lights which will m.sh.l the day and the night in Genesis 1:16-18. Are they ruling over the day and the night or are they providing a point of comparison? Is the man ruling over the woman or does he have a comparable function of creativity? Her passion is for him, a necessary partner for the creation of children. His comparable creativity is to work the land, to bring forth food alongside the thorns and thistles that grow there.  He is not described as her master/ba’al but as her ish/man, the equal partner of her status as isha.

Can one read these verses in this way, of the passing on of the ability to create through the seriously hard work of the two protagonists?

The next (and final) time we meet the word itz’von is at the birth of Noach, ten generations after Adam and the pivot to the next stage of the story, indeed the rebirth of creation after the earth is so corrupted that God chose to destroy it by flood.

We hear that Lamech, the father of Noach says

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֠֞ה יְנַֽחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּֽעֲשֵׂ֨נוּ֙ וּמֵֽעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ

מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרֲרָ֖הּ יְהוָֹֽה

“And he called his name Noach (rest) saying, this one will comfort us from our work and the itz’von/ creativity/  work of our hands, (which arises) from the land which God cursed” (Gen 5:29)

It is a deliberate reminder of the story of Adam and Eve and their given roles to bring forth new life (both human and plant) with as much creativity and manipulation of the environment as they needed. It is a reminder that God changed the role of the land through the curse, which gave humanity the challenge to provide themselves with food as creatively as they could. It is a signal that another creation is about to happen, Noach will be part of that change, though quite how that was to work out was not clear to his father Lamech. He was hoping for N.CH. for rest. He was hoping for the accompanying and phonically similar comfort. But this isn’t what God was going to do, as anyone who had read the earlier chapter would know. Creativity, forming new people and working the land is not a restful or a comfortable experience. It is backbreaking work physically, it is emotionally draining and challenging. Anyone who has worked so much as a window box will know how things grow that you don’t expect, how plants carefully fostered will not necessarily flower, or even if they do may not be the one you anticipated. Anyone who has nurtured a child will find that they are no blank slate, that they have their own views and their own desires. The children of Adam and Eve provide the first fratricide in bible – surely not something their parents wanted.

So – if we read this difficult passage in the light of the first creation story in the first chapter, where it is abundantly clear that God created humanity with diverse gender, equally, at the same time, and in the image of God, and we choose not to look through the lens of the patriarchy, then we can see that neither man nor woman are cursed, that instead they are blessed with itz’von the ability to form, to fashion, to manipulate and create in their environment in the same way that God had done. We see that the hard work of bringing forth the future is both challenge and blessing. We see that there are always problems – the thistles and the thorns among the grain, the children who learn very quickly to assert their own personalities and say no – and that it is our role to negotiate these problems and grow a good crop/teach good values to the next generation. We have taken the power to form and to fashion our world, for good or for ill. And after the new creation and the covenant with Noach God is leaving us to do it for ourselves. I am pretty sure that that did not include one gender dominating the other, or one people ruling over another.  We left Eden in order to create a world where we had ability and agency. As we start the torah reading cycle once more, it is down to us to use our creativity and our agency and work hard to make our world the best place we can.

Bereishit: two questions to two generations – where are we now?

The Torah begins with two separate stories of creation. The first one is a very structured and ordered story, with each stage (or day) developing order out of the tohu vavohu, the chaos of the beginning. God creates by speaking words which then bring forth the thing – light and dark, and day and night. The heavens and the earth, each surrounded by their own watery boundaries. Sea and dry land.  Grass, herb yielding seed and fruit trees. Sun moon and stars. Water living creatures and those that fly in the air. Cattle and land walking creatures. Human beings. And Finally – Shabbat. God declares the goodness of each category in this physical world being created, and with the creation of humankind God sees that everything created is very good. And God blesses the Sabbath day.    The second story is a different narrative, and can be read as either complementary to the first adding details, or else as an entirely different tradition. In this story, human beings are created first rather than last, and man is created before woman, instead of them being created together. We are told the story of the Garden of Eden, with its trees of knowledge of good and evil, and of eternal life. The human beings eat from the first tree and are expelled from the garden lest they eat of the second. Their relationship is clearly not ideal, yet they produce children. Cain and Abel each offer a sacrifice to God, but while the sacrifice of Abel is accepted, the sacrifice of Cain is not. Cain, rejected by God, kills Abel his brother.                                                                                                                                The generations continue. Agriculture and technology become part of their worlds. But by the time of Noah ten generations after Adam, the world is a terrible place and God  has had enough of this creation. God is ready to destroy it…

Dvar Torah

Vayikra Adonai Elohim el ha’adam vayomer lo “ayekah?”  And the Eternal God called to the human beings (hiding in the garden) “where are you?” And the human said: ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ (3:9-10)

Vayomer Adonai el Kayin, Ei Hevel achicha? Vayomer ‘lo yadati. Hashomer achi Anochi?’ And God said to Cain, where is Abel your brother? And he said “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9)

Two questions that God puts to two generations in the beginning narratives of Genesis.  In the first the people respond in fear, having understood just how vulnerable they are. In the second Cain tries to brazen out the fact he has murdered his brother, hoping somehow to get away with it. The first is a sin against God, the second a sin against another human being. We are learning in these stories the limits of behaviour. But we learn something else that is quite startling. What becomes clear in God’s response to Adam and Eve is that while they have disappointed God by taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, worse is that they do not take responsibility for their actions – the man blames the woman and the woman blames the serpent. They want, they desire, and they will lie in order to try to fulfil that craving. When they are sent from the garden the woman is told (3:16) that her desire will rule over her (yimshol). Humankind will always be trying to master their own selfishness and wants, it will be an ongoing struggle. But Cain, he seems to struggle rather more than his parents, he responds out of disappointment and rejection when God does not accept his offering, but does accept that of his brother Abel – God says to him ‘Why are you angry? and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? and if you do not well, sin couches at the door; and to you is its desire, but you may rule over it.’ Ve’ata timshol bo (4:7). Cain is given the possibility of triumphing over his selfishness – albeit he only takes it up after the awful event, when he repents and says that his punishment is more than he can bear.

The rabbis notice the difference in the taking on of responsibility. According to the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 22:13) Cain later meets Adam who asks him about the punishment he received, and Cain tells him “I repented and am reconciled”. At that point Adam began to weep and to keen, saying “so great is the power of repentance, and I did not know”.

The power of God’s words to Cain is proved – while we will always struggle with behaving well, while the willingness to behave selfishly and thoughtlessly is always close by and ready to come to the fore, we can indeed take responsibility for our behaviour and choose NOT to behave in a damaging and egotistical way. We can think of others, we can choose to forgo what we want for the benefit of our community or wider society, we can decide not to take, not to hurt, not to ignore.

So soon after the yamim noraim the lesson is driven home in torah. Repentance is always the path back to God, who waits for us patiently, hoping to be found. And Torah reminds us of our human frailty – that we might rather lie than take responsibility for our actions, that we may prefer to brazen out what we know to be unacceptable behaviour, or deny our accountability or liability – human beings will always try to find a way to get what we want or what we think we deserve. But it is the taking of responsibility, the true acceptance of what we do and the genuine desire to become better people that will help us to win the struggle so that we too will be able to overrule our baser natures and become a little more like the divine.

Bereishit

One of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity derives from the story of Adam and Eve and their leaving Eden. According to Christianity, this is a story of a fall from grace, and is linked to the doctrine of original sin – that human beings are born in a state of impurity which derives from the pride and disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the garden. Judaism is emphatically opposed to this idea – indeed our morning prayers include the words “My God, the soul which You gave me is pure, You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me. You preserve it within me and You will take it from me…” a prayer that can be found in the Talmud (Berachot 60b).

The story of the leaving of Eden is not a tragic event, something that should never have happened; and we should not spend our lives yearning to return there – after all, why would God create a garden in which there are two trees that we should not eat from, if not to challenge us and to provide a catalyst?

Adam and Eve in the garden are innocents, they are like new-born children, and if kept in that state they will never be able to grow and learn and develop their own ideas and identities. Making mistakes is part of growing up and becoming who we are. The story of leaving the Garden of Eden is a story of maturation, of acquiring independence, of leaving home in order to become one’s own full self. Making mistakes is how we learn.

Jewish teaching tells us that we are born with a pure soul, and that we are responsible for its state. We will make mistakes, we will – in common parlance – sin, and we have a mechanism in order to remedy those mistakes, Teshuvah. Often translated loosely as ’Repentance’, in fact Teshuvah means to turn back, to return to God and become our best selves.  Judaism further teaches that we have two competing drives, the Yetzer haTov and the Yetzer haRa – the inclination to do good by acting selflessly, and the inclination to act selfishly. We have free will and can make our own decisions about which inclination we might follow at any given time. And sometimes the more selfish choices are important ones too, as understood by the Midrash (rabbinic exegesis on the bible)

“Nachman said in R Samuel’s name “Behold it was very good” refers to the good desire (Yetzer haTov), “and behold it was very good” also refers to the evil desire (Yetzer haRa). Can then the evil desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the evil desire however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

So we need to have a selfish inclination, we just have to keep it in check, develop and practise a sense of morality. As we mature, it is this sense of responsibility to others, this moral code that influences the choices we make.  And this is the sense of responsibility that Adam and Eve lacked in the garden; it is arguably something they could only acquire with experience.

We are born with a pure soul. And we are born with two competing urges – to act for our own good and to act for the good of others. Sometimes these are compatible, sometimes they are not; sometimes that is obvious to us, sometimes it becomes obvious only in retrospect.

We become responsible for our own actions and our own choices, but we have the possibility always to return our souls to the pure state in which they were given to us, by acts of Teshuvah, of implementing the moral code. The story of the leaving of Eden is the story of both Eve and Adam choosing to follow the Yetzer ha Ra, to act according to a more selfish need. Had they not done so, one assumes that humanity would never have grown and developed, never exercised free will and made moral choices.

An important message of this story is NOT that people are evil by nature, that we are flawed from birth and spend our lives attempting to attain a state of goodness, but that we should use our more selfish as well as our more selfless impulses for creating a better world.  Both are necessary, it is how we balance these impulses, how we moderate our behaviours with our moral and ethical understandings that matters. We are never cast away from God  with no route back – the door is always open, our souls are given from God, preserved by God and will return to God. But the state they are in during the time we have them, that is a continuing and constant choice for us to make.