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Parshat Bereshit



And so we begin reading the Torah again. On Simchat Torah, we read the final verses of Deuteronomy, but instead of stopping, even temporarily, we immediately round the circle back to the beginning of Genesis. Our life in Torah goes on; the cycle of revelation and reflection, choice and challenge, continues without end. 


We begin again with Genesis 1:1: “When God was about to create heaven and earth. . . .” But that beginning could have been different. The God-inspired creators of Torah could well have opened with Abraham and Sarah or with the commandments of Exodus. Instead our Torah opens on a universal note, not a particularly Jewish one. This opening surely influenced the Torah’s place in world culture as a whole. 


Nachmanides insists that the purpose of beginning with Maaseh B’reishit , “the Work of Creation,” could not have been to teach Jews about that process, even if it is “the root of faith.” No, for Nachmanides “the process of creation is a deep mystery not to be understood from the verses, and it cannot truly be known except through a tradition going back to Moses our teacher who received it from the mouth of the Almighty, and those who know it are obligated to conceal it” 


One can sympathize with and even learn from Nachmanides’ awe before Creation without following his approach to the opening of Sefer B’reishit . Surely we Reform Jews want to embrace the universalistic grounding that this opening chapter provides for our people’s national history. 

Through it, the Torah teaches that we Jews are part of human history and that we worship the God of all creation and all humanity. Of course, the opening chapters of Genesis may not speak to other cultures in the compelling way they speak to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But still, our Torah clearly reaches out with open arms and heart to all b’nei adam , all human beings, across time and space. 


And what, most fundamentally, does it say? What are the large spiritual and philosophic messages in Parashat B’reishit? First and foremost comes the message picked up in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Surely, this ringing declaration could not have been proclaimed without the prior existence of Genesis 1:27: “So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female.” 


Even before the Hebrew of these words was inscribed on rock and parchment, people must have been pondering their meaning. What, after all, does it mean for us to have been created b’tzelem Elohim , “in God’s image,” and to embody that image for generation after human generation? Whatever divine attribute, we who are “created in the image” share—language, creativity, love, holiness, immortality, and freedom have been suggested—we share it or them together. In short, we are all in the same basic position. 

That position is a high one. How can it be otherwise if God is God? 


In Gunther Plaut’s  Modern Torah Commentary we read, “Our likeness to the Divine . . . stresses the essential holiness and, by implication, the dignity of all humanity, without any distinctions. Rabbi Leo Baeck states: ‘Above all demarcations of races and nations, castes and classes, oppressors and servants, givers and recipients, above all delineations even of gifts and talents stands one certainty: the human being. Whoever bears this imagine is created and called to be a revelation of human dignity’ Each of us is called, then, to convey the revelation of having been created b’tzelem Elohim. But also, and even harder to actualize, we are called upon to regard our fellow human beings in that light. 


Sometimes it’s easy to follow this teaching, but much of the time it’s nearly impossible. What about the inconsiderate neighbor, the impossible former spouse or the terrorist who attacks us? What does it mean to regard them too as being made in the divine image? For Christians, this teaching correlates nicely with “turning the other cheek.” But we Jews require an approach that is more active, and I believe that our sense of ourselves as God’s partners in the ongoing act of creating the world can provide this.


Of course, we’ll soon re-encounter Noah, with whom God endeavors to start over. When that effort runs afoul, the nugget of Jewish people-hood is born with Abraham and Sarah. Through practicing mitzvot and becoming a holy, God-connected people, we Jews will model godliness for others.

And so the Torah and other Jewish teaching continues. And so we continue, Shabbat after Shabbat, year after year, trying to fulfill the promise of being God’s image-bearing partner in the work of Creation. May our powers of will and insight be increased as we join others in that holy endeavor. 

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