The Journey Toward Knowledge B’reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8
This week, we return to the start of the Torah, to the creation story. Or rather, we return to the creation stories, plural. The first story of creation is one of an orderly unfolding of events: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void” (Genesis 1:1-2). All creation emerges at God’s spoken command over seven days, starting with light.
Biblical scholars tell us that this narrative reworks other creation myths that date back to a time before monotheistic Judaism evolved from the polytheistic Canaanite religion. In these older versions, the god of creation fights with the god of chaos to create land. We see hints of these myths in the Psalms, where chaos is represented by the god of the sea. For example, we read in Psalm 74: “O God, my sovereign from of old, bringer of deliverance in all the land, it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters.” The reworked narrative reflects the worldview that God is in control and that the world follows predictable patterns. This timeline is a poetic metaphor: the world is orderly and purposeful, reflecting the will of a creator.
There’s also a second creation story in the text: the one about Adam and Eve. We tend to read the two stories as a continuous narrative, but they’re distinct. The order of creation varies. In the first story, male and female are created together, but in the second version, Adam is created before Eve. They enjoy the Garden of Eden together until their sin causes them to be evicted. Many commentators have worked to make sense of these events.
Maimonides, the medieval philosopher and legal scholar, suggested that when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they spent their time basking in the glory of God. This “glory” is energy that flows from God and animates all things. This energy, known to Maimonides and Aristotle as the “Active Intellect,” is also the source of wisdom. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they shifted their attention away from God’s glory to the world around them. Adam and Eve’s turning from God was the reason they lost their immortality. Before, they had been contemplating pure truth, but now they were thinking about mundane things. Maimonides asserted that even though Adam and Eve turned away from truth, we can still perceive it in isolated moments.
But is that the only way that the story could be understood? The medieval mystics of Lurianic Kabbalism read the story as an explanation of how evil entered the world. First, God created holy light. After creating the light, God created vessels to hold that light. But when the light poured into the vessels, they shattered. The second creation story describes the processes within God that unfolded during creation. In the Lurianic Kabbalists’ view, our role is to redeem those scattered rays of primordial light by observing each of the commandments with focused intention. This is the original meaning of “tikkun olam” or “repairing the world.” Though the original meaning tended to focus heavily on ritual practice, the Reform Movement interprets this concept as requiring us to engage in social action work such as feeding the hungry. We are co-authors of creation when we help those in need.
We can also read the Adam and Eve story as a narrative about the human condition. When we are children, we live in Eden: all our needs are met, and we are not required to till the soil. Eventually, we grow up, become adults, and must work for a living. We begin to learn the ways of the world. We must leave Eden to know what it means to feel pain.
However, growing up also means gaining knowledge. When we gain that knowledge, we become aware of our ability to affect the world around us. We learn to take responsibility for our lives, leaving behind the familiar as we venture into a new, unfamiliar realm. Viewed in this light, Adam and Eve’s misbehavior is part of the human condition. We all fall short and have to face the consequences of our behavior, but we have our family, our community, and our relationship with God to show us the way.