Thursday, October 19, 2023

Parshat Bereshit - by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein - 2023/5784

Bereshit, Genesis I
, by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein


I want to apologize first for not giving a d’var related to the tragedy in the Middle East. Bereshit comes around just once a year and I’ve been waiting 2 years to give this d’var, since the slot was already taken last year. However, wrapped up in this d’var—but perhaps not so explicit—is the resilience of the natural world, so I hope that in this time of great sorrow, she can whisper some measure of comfort to you.

My decision to take Judaism seriously and my entire career in the field of religion and ecology is a result of my first encounter with Genesis 1 as a young adult. In college in the 70’s, I studied in one of the first environmental studies programs in the US at Berkeley. Science seemed like only part of an answer to our environmental crisis, so I also embarked on a spiritual search that led me to studying the parsha with a friend; Having no prior relationship with the text, I was stunned to find such an elegant environmental manifesto in this very first chapter of the Bible.

In case you have never studied this chapter before—a brief overview. God creates light on the first day, divides up air and water on the second; earth and trees appear on the third, stars and planets on the 4th, swimmers and flyers on the 5th, land animals and people on the 6th ; and on the 7th, God rested, creating Shabbat. In an elegant design the habitats/elements of air and water on day 2 and earth on day 3, give rise to their inhabitants--the air creatures and water creatures on day 5, and land creatures on day 6. If you plot out the creations of the days, you will see this simple and orderly design.


Significantly, God sees everything that comes into being as “good.” In Genesis 1, the goodness of the biodiverse world is the pre-eminent value. Each creature is inherently valuable—each has value in and of itself—whether or not we humans deem it useful or valuable. The rabbi, philosopher, physician Maimonides, writing in the twelfth century, said that the goodness of all the creatures is a testament to their intrinsic value. Each organism has integrity, each contributes to the whole and is required for the whole. The world is built on the foundation of the goodness of the creatures, without which it could not exist.

This alone is a fundamental ecological idea, but there are several more that permeate the text.

The centrality/agency/meaning of Earth: Eretz

Go to Gen I.11; The idea that the Earth is alive in some way—is a second fundamental ecological idea in Genesis 1. Many environmentalists argue that our environmental problems are rooted in our haphazard treatment of the earth. Since we don’t regard the earth as alive or life giving, we can innocently exploit and pollute her with no thought of the damage we may be inflicting or the consequences of our lifestyles. The scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulies understood earth as a self-regulating living system and called this idea the Gaia hypothesis—after the Greek goddess of earth, Gaia, mother of all life. This was considered a radical idea in its time about 50 years ago. And yet Genesis I portrays the earth as the mother of life, generating life, centuries before Lovelock, but most of us don’t recognize the aliveness of earth in the Bible, just like we don’t recognize the aliveness of earth beneath our feet. The construction of the Hebrew in verse 1:11 points to her lifegiving nature. On the third day, the text proclaims, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation.” The earth here has agency; she partners with God in the “bringing forth.” The earth has the ability to grow the creatures that will inhabit her. She is prolific. She is alive. We see this unusual construction again on the sixth day when the earth partners with God to bring forth animals. The 12th century rabbinic commentator Nachmanides recognized the aliveness of the earth, stating that the very word for earth, eretz, suggests a force that causes growth.

Its worth noting as well that the word eretz occurs 10 times in the creation story—a kind of magic number—again highlighting her significance.


Third, the ecological idea of sustainability or flourishing appears over and over throughout Genesis 1. Sustainability is communicated in several ways—first, through the attention to seeds, or zera, given on the 3rd day in Genesis 1:11-12. Most people familiar with the creation story will tell you the third day is all about the trees and vegetation, and while all this green growth is incredibly significant, what is actually emphasized on day 3 is the word zera or seed. Zera, in various forms, is repeated 6 times in these 2 verses, telling us to pay attention; seeds are significant. The plants will seed seeds and fruit trees will make fruit with seeds in them. Seeds are, after all, the way that life is able to sustain and diversify itself from one generation to the next; This is what the biblical author seems most eager to convey on the 3rd day.

Sustainability is also communicated through the phrase “after its kind” used repeatedly throughout Genesis 1 after almost every creature is created, pointing again to the biblical regard that life must be able to perpetuate itself.

The concept of blessing is another way in which the sustainability—the perpetuation of the species line—is articulated in Genesis 1. Most people assume that the Torah’s first blessing was given to humans—but in fact it is given to the fish and the birds. Take a look at verse 1:22 . God blesses the flyers and swimmers with the ability to be fruitful and multiply.

With so many references the idea of living beings reproducing themselves, it’s clear that the biblical author was concerned—perhaps first and foremost—with the perpetuation of life on earth. The first creation story concludes with Genesis 2:3, and those of you who are facile with the Hebrew should be able to find a clue that this whole story ends with yet another declaration of the significance of sustainably. We can come back to this later if we have time.

Very Goodness=Kol

One more ecological idea that I want to mention today comes at the conclusion of the 6th day. While on all other days, God sees each creation as good, on the sixth day, God makes a proclamation that God’s creation is “very good,” tov maod. Without looking at the text, what category of creation do you imagine is called “very good”—or lets’ say, what would most people who have not studied the text say?

Verse I:31 clearly declares: And God saw everything –kol—that God had made and behold it was very good. Each individual creation was called good and now all the creatures, everything altogether is deemed “very good.” The repetition of the two-letter word kol or everything seven times in verses 29 and 30 evinces the importance of all the creatures, all together. There is a sense of indivisibility of all the creatures involved as one living breathing whole. Every organism is bound up in the life of every other organism.

Commentators and many readers of the text have long presumed that the designation of “very goodness” on the sixth day referred to the human creatures who were created on this day. They assumed that humanity was the crown of creation, and that the creation was established solely for people to use for their own benefit. Such an assumption leads to a utilitarian and anthropocentric stance towards the world. Curiously, human creatures, unlike all the other animals, do not receive the designation of “tov.” From the beginning, the biblical author was circumspect about humanity. Indeed, the midrash teaches that God consulted with the angels to determine whether or not to even create human beings. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:8).

There’s more I can say about Genesis 1’s ecological vocabulary (I wrote a whole book on it 20 years ago: The Splendor of Creation) but I want to make sure to leave plenty of time for a discussion of humanity’s role Genesis 1:28. Perhaps—if you are familiar with the text, you will recall that when humanity was created—last after all the rest—God gives them mastery over the earth and dominion over the other creatures. Read Gen 1:28.

In 1969, the historian Lynn White wrote a famous article in Science Magazine, “The Historical Root of the Ecologic Crisis,” blaming the Bible and the Judao-Christian tradition for our environmental crisis: He claimed that God’s giving humanity dominion meant that God gave humanity a mandate to dominate and exploit nature. This has become a very common reading in liberal and environmentalist circles, including among environmentalist rabbis.

For example: The esteemed Israeli soil scientist and irrigation expert, Daniel Hillel, (author of The Natural History of the Bible and many other books) referring to Genesis I:28 wrote, “His [the human’s] manifest destiny is to be an omnipotent master over nature, which from the outset, was created for his gratification. He is endowed with the power and right to dominate the creatures toward whom he has no obligation.”

There are legitimate reasons that so many people are suspicious of Genesis 1.28. The idea of dominion as domination has endured a long and dark history that has led to terrible suffering and disastrous consequences. The verse was appropriated by the pope in 1493 to justify the Doctrine of Discovery and legitimize the confiscation of native lands everywhere. Tragically, this ideology persists.

Lynn White’s assumption that the Bible—and the idea of dominion—was responsible for the environmental crisis had a profound effect on a whole generation of environmentalists and their students and it had a profound effect on me. It caused me to question how Judaism understood our relationship with the natural world. Yet once I began studying the parasha with a friend, I realized pretty quickly that those who argue that dominion means domination take the verse out of context, paying no attention to the verses that precede or follow this one. Many of them are biased against the Bible to begin with.

If you read the context of this chapter, as we have been doing, you might ask, as the farmer poet Wendell Berry did, “Why would God want to give humanity a mandate to exploit nature after God worked so intentionally to create such a beautiful world”— a world that could sustain itself on its own in perpetuity, without any interference from people?

The Bible itself hints that dominion is not given to people arbitrarily. It appears that dominion is conditional as it certainly is later in the Bible. Dominion is given and can be taken away. The Hebrew word for dominion, RDH, points to this conditionality. Since Hebrew words are built on a system of three-letter roots, and one root can lend itself to multiple meanings, sometimes even a word and its opposite share the same three-letter root.

In certain grammatical forms (in the imperative form and the plural imperfect for 2nd and 3rd person) RDH looks exactly like another Hebrew word, YRD “to go down.” When RDH appears in one of these ambiguous forms as it does in Genesis 1:26, you must determine the word’s meaning by its context. Rashi, the foremost medieval rabbinic commentator, points out the wordplay inherent in this 3-letter root and explains that if we consciously embody God’s image, if we stand up-right and rule responsibly with wisdom and compassion, we will RDH, have dominion over, the creatures, insuring a world of harmony; but if we are deny our responsibility to the creation and thoughtlessly take advantage of our position and the creation, we will YRD, go down below the other creatures and bring ruin to ourselves and the world.[1] If we upend the blessing to further selfish goals, the blessing becomes a curse. If dominion becomes domination, then we are no longer worthy of the role we have been bestowed. We lose our kinship with God, and we lose our kinship with earth.

Significantly dominion is bestowed as part of a two-fold blessing or bracha. The word bracha in Hebrew is related to the word beracha, a pond of water. A blessing is enlivening and regenerative, like an oasis in the desert. The blessing in verse 1:28 is for both fruitfulness and dominion. It lays the foundation for the two basic necessities of life. Fruitfulness promises generativity of the body and dominion—through the human creature’s benevolent rule—promises generativity of the earth and its creatures. Barrenness of body and barrenness of land (famine) would be the greatest threats to the Israelite people, while fruitfulness in both would be the greatest gift. The two-fold blessing for fertility and land reverberates through the Torah in the promise that God makes to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Israelites.

Notably the verses that follows add further context to the meaning of dominion. Immediately after God grants dominion to the human creature, God assigns the seed plants for food for the humans, and the leafy greens for the animals. Dominion, then, ensures that not just people, but that animals too, can eat and thrive. Notably, dominion over the animals does not include the right to eat them.

Some of the rabbinic sages, read dominion allegorically and suggested that people must have dominion over their own desires, and master the tendency towards gluttony. Dominion over the earth first requires dominion over our selves. Seventy years ago, the great environmentalist Rachel Carson eloquently wrote "We, in this generation, must come to terms with nature. We're challenged as [hu]mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

There’s much more to say about all of this and I’m happy to refer you to resources if you are interested.

I want to conclude by saying that I always had this idea that Genesis I is an overture to the whole bible. You know the book, “Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten,” That’s how I feel about Genesis I.

I always intuited that if Genesis 1 offered such a profound ecology, that these ideas must—like invisible mycelia--undergird the whole Torah, but I had never heard any Jews talk about a creation theology before—Creation theology isn’t even a thing in the Jewish world. If anything, the very language of creation is off-putting to most people I know. Mentioning creation theology in certain circles, and people assume you are a fundamentalist. There are many reasons that these ideas haven’t found their way into contemporary Jewish thought, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Questions for discussion:

Are there certain ideas in Torah that you recognized as an adult that have caused you to change your mind about something? In other words, have you had an insight from the Torah as an adult that caused you to change your mind and your behaviors?

Is there a time when you changed your mind to take a new position on something? Want caused you to change your mind?

How are you influenced by ideas? In what way do they affect your life?

[1] Rashi, Commentary on Genesis I:26

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