Bereshit: Back to the Beginning

"Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created..." (Bereshit/Genesis 2:4)


There's probably no other parsha that's received the same amount of analysis as Bereshit (literally "in the beginning"), probably because the entire thing is incredibly mysterious. The Hebrew is ambiguous and often difficult, there are references to stories that must have been well-known at the time but now are lost to us, and good luck trying to identify what literary genre most of it belongs to! The parsha covers creation all the way up to the intro to Noah.

Illustration from Camille Flammarion's 1888 L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire)

There is an infinite amount to say about this bit of text, but I don't have an infinite amount of time to blog and you probably don't have an infinite amount of time to read, so I'll just give you a few of my favorite highlights:

  • During the first of the two creation stories, three things get a divine blessing: the creatures of the air and sea, humans, and Shabbat. Shabbat's an obvious choice, and so are humans, given that the Torah is human-centric. But why the air/sea creatures? My theory: whales are sentient and the ancients knew that.

  • Just for the record, the Hebrew makes it very clear that Adam is standing right next to Eve the entire time the serpent is talking. Food for thought: every time you hear about Eve "tempting" or "deceiving" him, remember he was standing there like a [insert your favorite term for a useless person here; extra points if it's in Yiddish] and could have said "I think this is a bad idea," at any time, but instead decided just to keep his mouth shut and blame his wife later.

  • In the opening to the second creation story, the Tree of Life is clearly identified as being in the center of the garden, while the Tree of Knowledge (by the way, טוב ורע literally means "good and bad" but gets used in Classical Hebrew as an idiom for "everything," so knowledge of what isn't as clear as it seems) is in an undefined location. Later, when the serpent asks Eve if it's true they're not allowed to eat of any tree in the garden, she jumps in and identifies the tree in the center as the one that's forbidden. So which tree is she actually talking about? Midrash goes bonkers with this one: two trees with one root system, they're the same tree, Schrodinger's tree, the Tree of Life was growing inside the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Life was aboveground and the Tree of Knowledge was below like a root system, etc.

  • We really should talk about the nephilim but this blog entry is already longer than all the others, so consider joining us for Torah study.

Join us at 9:00 am this Saturday for coffee, donuts, and what's always a lively discussion.


Other lenses

Want to know what other Jewish thinkers are saying about this parsha? Wikipedia has an incredible treasure trove of geekery about the weekly portion, laying out everything from the number of Hebrew letters in the parsha to summaries of classical commentaries. Prepare to go down a very deep rabbithole.


Sefaria is an amazing free resource--an ever-growing library of Jewish texts in both Hebrew and English. In addition to the Hebrew text and translation, it provides the text of most of the classical commentaries (not all of which have been translated... yet). The parsha is one of the first links on the main page.


Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, does a podcast called Ten Minutes of Torah--perfect for when you're time-constrained. The Union for Reform Judaism has a whole page of resources for the parsha, ranging from beginner's guides to pieces on the contemporary relevance of the portion. The Women of Reform Judaism site has a glorious archive of the entire text of The Torah: A Women's Commentary divided up by parsha.

My Jewish Learning has a summary of the portion, the parsha itself and the haftorah, and commentary.


For a Reconstructionist take, visit Reconstructing Judaism's weekly learning page. T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has a weekly d'var that looks at the parsha as a starting point for contemporary political issues.


The World Union for Progressive Judaism has a parsha commentary archive.


Keshet's Torah Queeries page provides commentary from an LGBTQ perspective (search on the portion name).


The Jewish Theological Society (the Conservative Branch seminary) provides weekly commentary at JTS Torah Online.


Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women, has a collection of Divrei Torah written by women and organized by parsha, on its site.


Limmud, a 35-year-old grassroots Jewish learning event that started in the UK and has become an international phenomenon, maintains an archive of commentaries.


Liberal Judaism's Thought for the Week provides concise but thoughtful analysis of the portion. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of England, engages in profound commentary on the weekly portion in Covenant & Conversation.


InterfaithFamily puts out an animated Torahlog including contemporary reactions, poetry, folk music, and Jewish scholarship on the parsha.


The Jewish Renewal movement's site maintains an archive of commentary. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi--an author and Jewish Renewal rabbi--does commentary on her site.


The #parshachat hashtag on Twitter marks a constantly-running social media conversation on the parsha.

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