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Parashat Bereishit: Man and Nature

  • Rav Yair Kahn


This year's Parashat HaShavua series is dedicated 
in loving memory of Dov Ber ben Yitzchak Sank z"l.


1. The Creation of the Universe


Volumes have been written about the opening chapter of the Torah, which describes the creation of the universe. Some refer to "the Biblical theory of creation," and present it as an alternative to "scientific" theories, such as "the theory of evolution." In general, the scientific world has embraced "scientific" theories, while religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Jewish, adopt Biblical theory. Indeed, if we were to view the Torah as a book whose goal is to describe historical reality, we would be pressed to accept one of the approaches described above. We would be forced to choose between a science-based thesis, which contradicts the Biblical account, or ignore scientific data and adopt the Torah's account. Neither one of the aforementioned options is comfortable. The only alternative would be to find some way to reconcile the Biblical account with scientific data and principles. There have, in fact, been fascinating attempts to harmonize the two.


On the other hand, we must question whether faith in the Torah forces us to accept the Biblical description of creation as accurate from a scientific perspective. It is possible that the Torah's documentation of creation is not intended to inform Man how the world was factually created, but rather why it was created, or more specifically why Man was created. For what purpose were we placed on planet Earth? What are our obligations vis-א-vis the Creator? What are our responsibilities with respect to the rest of creation? What should our relationship be to our fellow man? Even those who try to reconcile the Torah's account with scientific theory must concede that the Torah's description by itself is not very informative as a scientific document. Therefore, it is difficult to assume that the description of creation was included in the Torah in order to enlighten us as to how the universe came into being from a factual perspective.


This of course raises broader issues: Is the Torah a historical document or a religious one? Does it come to describe factual truths or spiritual truths? In our context, does the Torah intend to inform us about how the world was created or rather for what purpose it was created?



2. The Creation of Man


Much has also been written about the first two chapters of Bereishit, which document varied and seemingly contradictory descriptions of the creation of Man. Some commentators attempted to resolve the contradictions and paint a harmonious portrait. Biblical critics, on the other hand, highlighted these seeming discrepancies as proof of the Documentary Hypothesis. Indeed, were we to view the Torah as a book whose goal is to describe historical reality, there would be no room whatsoever for discrepancies. We would be forced to either resolve or reject. But is it so clear that the Torah was given at Sinai to document the history of Man? Our Sages already noted that the Torah is not written in accord with linear chronologically. This is obviously not because the Torah is inaccurate, but because the purpose of the Torah is not to document history.


Long before the critics, our Sages noted discrepancies between the first two chapters of Bereishit. Rashi, based on the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 12), commented on the use of the Name Elokim in the first chapter, as opposed to Hashem Elokim found in the second.


Because at first God intended to create it (the world) to be placed under the attribute of strict justice, but He realized that the world could not thus endure and therefore gave precedence to Divine mercy allying it with Divine justice. It is to this that what is written in (Bereishit 2:4) alludes: "In the day that the Hashem Elokim made earth and heaven." (Bereishit 1:1)


In other words, the first chapter describes a pure ideal, which can not be maintained in our world, while the second chapter corresponds to the complexities of reality.


R. Soloveitchik ztz"l, in his Lonely Man of Faith, showed how the variant descriptions actually reflect a basic duality that exists within Man himself. The first chapter describes Adam I – "majestic man" - while the second chapter deals with Adam II – "covenantal man." While the article is homiletic, the Rav made a major contribution with regard to Biblical interpretation. He utilized the discrepancies noted by the critics not to undermine the divinity and unity of the Torah, but as a tool of interpreting the divine message. In fact, R. Dr. Mordechai Breuer ztz"l pointed to Lonely Man of Faith as a source for his methodology of adopting the method of Biblical criticism while rejecting its conclusion. Based on numerous discrepancies found in the Bible, Bible critics argued for the Documentary Hypothesis, denying the divinity of the Torah. Dr. Breuer used those very same discrepancies to show the complexity of the Torah's message.


3. Man and Nature


One of the more significant differences between the first two chapters concerns the relationship between man and nature. In chapter one, Man is created within the context of the entire natural world. He is no more than an insignificant speck in the vast universe. True, he is the final and perhaps greatest creation, insofar as he is the only creature fashioned in the image of God - "be-tzelem Elokim." Nevertheless, the story of his creation is told within the context of God's creation of the entire world. He was created on Friday, together with the rest of the land creatures. While he is blessed with dominion over the animal kingdom, he seems closer to Plato's featherless biped than a human being, unique and separate from the rest of creation, capable of wrestling with angels.


In chapter two, the creation of the universe is told from a human perspective. The Torah quickly zooms in on Man. The impression is that the entire universe was created for Man, or perhaps more accurately, that Man should serve God. The world, the sun and stars, the land and water, all plant and animal life, is merely the context that allows man to thrive and fulfill his role. The verse that accentuates the uniqueness of man as an intelligent creature, capable of communication through speech (see Targum Onkelos), is found in this chapter (verse 7).


And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and became a living soul.


Is this a contradiction, evidence to the existence of variant documents, or rather an additional reflection of the inherent dualistic nature of Man? An appreciation of this dualism will help us understand the flood, which is foreshadowed at the end of our parasha and more fully explicated in next week's portion.  


4. The Flood


Our parasha concludes with the sorry state of man and the world, which eventually led to the flood. After the flood, the Torah describes how the Earth is recreated. The waters subside and the land appears, as it appeared on the third day of creation. The separation of day and night is re-affirmed, mirroring the fourth day of creation. The birds return to the skies, as on the fifth day. Like the sixth day, the animals re-inhabit the land. Man returns as well, and is blessed by God to be fruitful and multiply, as he was during creation. In effect, the earth was destroyed by the flood and then recreated.


Was the Earth recreated exactly as it had been before the flood? Did nothing change except for the fact that before the flood, Man failed, while after the flood, Man (perhaps through the instruction of Noach) learned his lesson? Or perhaps the Earth had to be destroyed, so that it could be recreated along different lines.


Following the flood, God promises that he will never again destroy the earth because of the iniquities of Man. "I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done" (8:21). In other words, Man had not learned his lesson and may continue to do evil. However, God now realizes that he should not destroy the entire world because of Man. Did God, who created heaven and earth, who molded Man and breathed life into him, only realize at this point that Man has an evil inclination? Wasn't it God Himself who implanted this inclination within Man (see Targum Yerushalmi 2:7)? Was the deluge and destruction of life on the planet all an error? Or, to phrase the question differently, why was earth destroyed because of the sins of Man in the first place? What is the meaning of the very strange verse found at the end of our parasha: "And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man, and beast, and creeping things, and the birds of the air" (6:6)? If man sinned and should be wiped out, why should the decree include all wildlife? Why does the destruction of man include animals and birds?


Before the flood, there appears to be a continuous spectrum of creation that stretches from Man to beast. They are members of the same set. The ruler of that set is Man. He, not the lion, was king of the beasts. He is charged with redeeming his life ethically and religiously, and thereby redeeming the entire animal kingdom. However, instead of realizing his potential, he was influenced by the brute. Man prior to the flood is primitive. In this caveman-like existence, power rules. Earth is governed by the principle of survival of the fittest, not justice. What is mine is not what I acquired or created, but what I want and can take. "And the earth was filled with violence" (6:11). There is no respect for material property. Man, like the beast, is driven by passion.


And the powerful saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took them wives of all whom they chose.


He satisfies this passion through force. In order to bring redemption to the world, this order is destroyed. A new order is created in which Man is separated from the beast.


In this context, it is instructive to contrast God's blessing to man before the flood with the blessing following the flood.


Before the flood –Bereishit 1

After the flood – Bereishit 9

And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. And God said, Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, on which is the fruit yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb of ford; and it was so.

And God blessed Noach and his sons, and said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon all that moves upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.



The similarity between these two blessings is one of the aforementioned indications that Earth had been recreated following the flood. However, our current focus is on the differences. Before the flood, Man rules over wildlife, while after the flood, he imposes fear. Before the flood, both humans and animals are vegetarian, while after the flood, Man is permitted to eat animals, and animals are allowed to kill Man. The distinctions between these two blessings suggest a different order.


In the pre-flood order, Man exists as a member of the animal kingdom, albeit as its ruler. He is not permitted to eat animal flesh, and animals are not allowed to feast on humans. After the flood, there is a new order. Man is separated from the animal world. He doesn't rule over the animal kingdom, because he is no longer one of them. He is alien to the world of animal, an outsider, and as such he imposes fear. Man lives off animal flesh and animals prey on humans.


Once separated from the animal world, Man can create a human society based on law and justice. As opposed to the pre-deluvian anarchy, when women were taken by the powerful at will, after the flood, family units, the basic building blocks of any society, are respected. Rules are developed to protect the individual and his property against the more powerful.


From a universal perspective, there may be a preference to a unified existence. As an integral part of the natural order, Man could use the gifts given to him by God to redeem the entire natural world. However, this ideal is only theoretical. Man, who is inherently complex, whose creation was described in chapter one as a member of the animal kingdom and repeated in chapter two as an exclusive creation, who is both uniquely human as well as a featherless biped, cannot express his singular human qualities within the animal context. When Man exists together with the brute, he himself becomes a brute. Like the beast, he rules with power and is ruled by passions. There are no ethical or legal restrictions that prevent the rule of power. The pre-flood order had to be destroyed and a new order created, an order in which Man is separate from the beast. In this order, civilization is born and humanity can achieve greatness and realize its destiny.


Indeed, even in the new order, the road to redemption is long and tortuous. Man will stumble many times along the way. However, in the new order, even if Man stumbles, the earth will no longer have to be destroyed. In next week's lecture, we will take a closer look at the new order established after the flood.