From Rabbi Riskin: Parshat Bereishit

And the Lord God took the human being, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and to preserve it’ (Genesis 2:16).

Parshat bereishit painting. (photo credit:YORAM RAANAN)

The beginning of our communal Torah readings once again with the Book of Genesis on the first Shabbat following the intensive festival period from Rosh Hashana through to Shmini Atzeret-Simhat Torah is much more than a calendrical accident; the first chapters of Genesis serve as a resounding confirmation of the true nature of the human being on earth and what it is that God expects of him.

In his groundbreaking work Family Redeemed, my teacher and mentor Rav J.B. Soloveitchik typologically defines two aspects of the human being emanating from each of the first two chapters of Genesis. The first chapter is a majestic description of the Creation of the universe in six days (or epochs), with the human being emerging as an integral aspect of an evolutionary process of creation; the human may be the highest expression of this process, emerging as he does towards the conclusion of the sixth day after the earth has “brought forth every kind of living creature: cattle, reptiles and wild beasts of every kind” (Genesis 1:24), but he is and remains part and parcel of creature-hood nevertheless.

This becomes patently clear when the Almighty declares, “Let us make the human being in our image and as our likeness” (ibid 1:26), and Nahmanides (Spain, 12th century) interprets that God was addressing the animals and beasts: The human being will be subject to the same physical strengths and limitations, to the same cycle of birth, development, desiccation and death, to the same requirements of nutrition, procreation and elimination of waste, which characterizes the animal world formed together with him on that primordial sixth day.

Rav Soloveitchik calls this aspect of the human being Natural Man, and I would suggest calling him Bestial Man. Herein lies the source for viewing the human being as no more than a complex animal, devoid of true freedom of choice to truly change himself or change the world; bestial man is naturally programmed, the world is based on a “survival of the fittest” and “to the victor belongs the spoils” mentality. War is an ideal because it tests physical prowess and courageous bravery, and the weak and feeble are there to be enslaved or snuffed out.

Morality is merely the hobgoblin of little minds and even weaker bodies, vainly attempting to curb the appetites of the truly powerful. This mind-set paves the way for totalitarian states, Aryan supremacy, Stalinist Soviet subjugation and the power of jihad to dominate the world. Might makes right. But this too must pass, for even the most powerful human being is after all only physical and mortal, a broken potsherd, a withering flower, a passing dream, so that a lie becomes “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Chapter 2, however, tells a very different story of the genesis of man, of a world created not only by a powerful Elohim but rather by a loving Hashem Elohim.

This chapter begins “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted because there was no human being to till the earth” (Genesis 2:5), and so the loving “Hashem Elohim formed the human being from dust of the earth into whose nostrils He exhaled the soul of life.” It is as though the entire physical world is waiting for the human being to activate it, to complete and perfect it, to redeem it; the human being, “the last for which the first was made.”

And yes, the world is physical and the human being is physical, with all the strengths and the limitations of the physical, but it is an eternal and spiritual God who created the world, and it is an eternal and spiritual God who inspirited part of His own spiritual being within the human physical form; and how meaningful are the words of the sacred Zohar and the Ba’al Ha- Tanya, “whoever exhales, exhales from within Himself, from His innermost, essential being” (as it were).

This is the creation of Celestial Man.

And to “The loving Hashem Elohim….placed (the human) in the Garden of Eden (the world at that time) to till it (Hebrew: le’abed, to develop and perfect it) and to preserve it (Hebrew: le’shomrah, to take responsibility for it, as in Genesis 4:9 when Cain asks, “Am I responsible for my brother?” with the word hashomer in Hebrew). Yes, the world is an imperfect creation, filled with darkness as well as light, with evil as well as good (Isaiah 45:7) and the human being will engage in a perennial struggle between the bestial and celestial within himself. But the Bible promises that “at the door of life, until the very opening of the grave, sin crouches, its desire energized to conquer [the human], but the human will conquer sin, will overcome evil” (Genesis 4:7).

And so we conclude Yom Kippur with the exultant shout that Hashem is Elohim, the God of Love is the essence and the endgame of the God of Creative Power, that Right will triumph over might and Peace will trump jihad.

And every human being must find within himself the God-given strength to be an emissary towards perfecting this world in the Kingship of the Divine (Aleynu): to recreate himself, to properly direct his/ her children, to make an improvement within his/ her community and society. May we not falter on this God-given opportunity to bring us closer to redemption.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.