Parashat Bereishit 5776 (On living in a garden)

Devar Torah given at Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland, OR

What was it like in the very beginning? As if to emphasise that no-one knows for sure, our parashah offers two distinct perspectives.

In the first few verses of the Torah, the earth is tohu va-vohu. Biblical scholar Richard E. Friedman half-jokingly translates these two rhyming words with one basic meaning as “chaos shmaos”. There is also darkness, tumult and the primordial matter in this account is water, which is fluid and without form. As the days of creation proceed, God tempers the darkness with light, separates out the matter into earth and sky, land and sea, day and night. Each of the categories of plants and animals is created to populate this new world, “lemino” — according to its species. Humanity, with its diversity of genders, and then, at the culmination of these six days, shabbat is created, and we have what we call a week. The week is entirely artificial. Whereas years are a response to the passage of seasons; months–to the cycle of the moon, weeks are imposed as a way to organise and order our lives. Thus the Creation is complete–from absolute chaos to total order.

But the Torah continues. In this week’s JTS Torah Commentary, the publishing of which I have the honor of overseeing, Professor Ben Sommer argues that the Torah highlights its multivocality by clearly presenting two contrasting Creation accounts. After the seven-days version of Creation, the second story begins in Genesis 2:4. This time, the primordial substance is solid earth, out of which humanity is created and the water automatically comes up to irrigate the land so that no labor is needed, neither by man or by God. And God plants a garden full of fruit trees and places the human in it.

A garden. We have a coffee table book at home called The Garden Book, created by Phaidon, (apparently “the premier global publisher of the creative arts”), and it is organised not by flora nor by climate, but alphabetically by designer. This organising principle hints at the essence of a garden: it is ultimately a place designed for human enjoyment. The Garden of Eden is the polar opposite of the turbulent, watery darkness in Genesis chapter 1. Gan, Garden, was translated into Greek as paradeisos — paradise — but things don’t stay so paradisiacal for long.

I’d like to consider this second story, starting in Genesis 2:4, as continuing all the way until the end of this week’s parashah, excluding only a list of genealogies. (According to some academic analyses, this whole section of the Torah is all originally from one source.) And what happens to this seemingly perfect world? The deception of the snake; Adam and Eve disobey God’s command; they try to hide from God; they are exiled from the garden; Cain kills Abel; and in a final episode of departure from the intended order of the Universe, the divine beings who are of heaven interbreed with humans on earth. And God regrets creating humanity.

Two stories: one begins with chaos and ends with perfect order. The other begins with order and descends into complete chaos. These two accounts present us with contrasting models of how we should see the post-Creation world that we live in: are we in a world of chaos and disharmony, or are we in a world of order where everything has its place? And what responsibilities follow from each of these? Must we drag ourselves out of disarray and redeem a broken world, or do we have to attune ourselves to and live in harmony with an existing natural order, recognizing that the world is, in the language of Genesis 1, essentially “very good”?

I think we tend to over emphasise the world-is-in-chaos model, especially during the High Holidays: We tell ourselves that we should be doing more to solve the world’s problems and push ourselves to change into new, different people. And in contemporary America, this approach also gets a lot of air-time, whether from hard-core individualists on the right or social justice advocates on the left.The problem with this view is that it just seems too hard. The task of returning to Eden is, at certain moments, inspiring, but for many of us is bound to be overwhelming in the long term.

Last week in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof shared some key data about the state of the world and how we see it. 95% of Americans believe that, globally, extreme poverty has increased or stayed the same in the last 20 years. He argues that our impression of poverty as an intractable part of the world makes us think that there’s little that we can do.

What about the alternative suggested by the other story in our parashah? The first, chaos-to-order, account of creation is credited by Bible critics to another source, this one designated “P”, as it is considered to be representing a tradition centered on the priesthood. This priestly outlook, reflecting the same ordered approach to the world as that implied by the first Creation story in Genesis, can be seen in one particular part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Amidst all the accounting of our sins and promising to be better people in the future, we have the Avodah: the service of the High Priest. The version of the Avodah that we read in my community actually opens with the creation, and works its way through Jewish history until it reaches the building of the Temple and the high priest. This has the effect of making every aspect of the universe and the generations of the world seem to be all part of the same divine design as the Temple rituals.

Rabbi Eliezer Diamond suggested that the precisely choreographed Avodah is included on Yom Kippur “to remind us . . . that there is an order to the world” and that the aspiration for our lives to be orderly is not so far-fetched, even if we sometimes see the world as more chaotic than orderly.

Psalm 104, Barekhi Nafshi, which praises God for creating the natural world, gives us different example of this ordered approach to creation. Creation for the Psalmist is not just a taxonomy, as we might read Genesis 1 to be describing, nor is it epitomised by the hierarchical and ritual priestly service. Rather it is a celebration of nature, a harmonious ecosystem where everything has its place: Springs provide water for animals, grass grows for cattle, trees provide homes for birds, and the sun and the moon provide a rhythm for all living things, including ourselves. (see A. Berlin & M. Brettler, Oxford Jewish Study Bible)

Kristof’s article in the Times had a twist: Despite the overwhelming public opinion to the contrary, in reality, extreme poverty has fallen by more than half. There have been similarly dramatic improvements in rates of childhood mortality and primary education. And why does it matter that we’re wrong about the numbers? He suggests that awareness of the truth of how quickly the state of the world is improving might be what it takes to galvanise our efforts to help, as “We know that the challenges are surmountable.”

Some days, we may feel that we are living in a chaotic world: war, disease, violence, corruption. But the first narrative we read in the Torah is, I think, telling us that a properly ordered world is not just a distant primordial state, one that we can never really imagine attaining in our lifetimes. Rather, that the world we live in already has much of what we aspire to.
My hope is that, whether prompted by ritual choreography, ecological appreciation, or even international development statistics, we can transform our desire for a better world into a reality when we reorient ourselves to the order around us, and our realise our part in perfecting the world’s design. Because, despite moments of darkness, we are living in a garden.