God’s First Instructions
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Genesis is God’s first communications with mankind. But by no means does Genesis cite a complete history. Thus, God must deem these selected stories more crucial than all other events. What are their vital lessons?
6 “Days” of Creation
As the sun was not set in place until “day” 4, we are forced to interpret the word “day” as not referring to 24-hour periods. Rather, “day” refers to this: a “significant phase in creation.” Significance in creation is given to heaven and earth, land and oceans, luminaries, vegetation, animal life and finally, humans. With these phases, God highlights creations of importance. But what is the importance of each?
As God instructed man to dominate Earth (Gen. 1:28), we understand why Rashi explained (Ethics 2:8) that if mankind would abandon knowledge (Torah), God would revert the world to primordial chaos. Man is the only earthly creature that can perceive the creator, and is therefore the goal in the creation of Earth. Just as a rock or a plant does not exist for itself as they are inanimate, animals too which process no soul, exist only for man, just like all else on Earth. The only creation existing for itself is man. This is because the purpose in creation is the recognition of the creator; on Earth only man can perform this. God needs nothing, so His creations must be for something outside himself. Purpose exists only in a being that can perceive God's wisdom. This expresses God's kindness in creating angels and man.
We must now ask why is it that only that which perceives God has purpose, while inanimate and soulless creations do not have a purpose of themselves? We ask this as we already understand that God is behind all creation, and all which God does reflects great wisdom and purpose. Therefore, God intentionally embedded His wisdom into all creation, but not for naught. The depth of wisdom displayed in all His creation must be made observable with intent for a being to observe, and appreciate. Those beings are only man and angels. As we cannot conceive of any purpose in a flower existence—if that was the only thing that God created—we would call this purposeless and not something which God would perform. Therefore a flower must exist for another creation’s purpose. Even an inanimate entity like a rock must have a purpose. The wisdom embedded in minerals, botany, zoology and all sciences cannot be perceived by rocks, plants or animals. And as does God does not perform futile actions, God expressed His wisdom for intelligent beings to observe and appreciate. Earth exists for man to discover God’s wisdom.
Day & Night
God changed the names of 5 phenomena. On day 1, God called light “day,” and darkness He called “night.” On day 2 He called the firmament “heavens” and on day 3 He called the dry Earth “land,” and the collection of waters He called “seas.” However, God does not rename the substance of water, mountains, sun, moon, stars, man, animals, vegetation or any other creation.
Interestingly, these five names relate again to heaven (day, night, heavens) and Earth (land and seas): His first [primary] creations. Furthermore, these 5 are prioritized, addressed first before all other creations. Also, what is the concept of “renaming” one thing and not another: Is the renamed thing thereby highlighted as more significant, and if so, in what manner?
“And it was evening and it was morning, day X,” is repeated many times. Why this emphasis of night transitioning into day? Primarily, what is the purpose of day and night? What in man’s path towards perfection demands this regulated transition between light and darkness? Why must night exist?
These phenomena of light and darkness and day and night are highlighted by the Shima’s blessings:
Blessed are you God, King of the world, forming light and creating darkness…
Blessed are you God, King of the world, with His word He sunsets the evenings…with understanding He changes times, and exchanges the moments…creating day and night, You expire day and bring night, and divide between day and night…
With “day,” “night,” “heavens,” “land” and “seas” God renamed these—and no other creation—to focus man on the purpose of creation, and our purpose in life. Constraining our ambitions (through darkness) and our geographical confinement (land—not water or heaven) intend to constrain our involvement in a purely physical life—time and space—and steer us towards the higher pursuit of Torah and perfection, matters of the soul. The physical serves only to enable the perfection of our souls. Day and night differ from light and dark, in that day and night are “human measurements of activity,” not visual phenomena of light or dark. God renames light and dark as “day and night” to impose this perspective upon us, preventing our lives from being spent on only physical pursuits. Not only due to lack of light, but night also effects us psychologically, when we recoil from our endeavors. Maimonides says that whomever desires to attain the crown of Torah should not let his nights go without Torah study. This is because with fewer distractions at night, we have greater focus on knowledge and gain so much more wisdom during these hours.
Thus, God organized creation to restrict man from overindulging worldly pursuits and travel, thereby directing him towards greater wisdom.
Eden & Human Nature
Once we have earth, man and all creations, what need is there for this garden? This question is compounded by the discussion of a river which exited the Garden of Eden and then separated into four individual rivers, with great detail of their names and where they traversed. We never again hear about these rivers in the rest of Bible (Torah). Therefore they must be germane to Adam who was placed in the Garden of Eden. In a separate essay in this issue entitled “Have we found Eden?” I suggest the meaning of these rivers and their names. But briefly, these rivers allude to the human mind, for it is only with this knowledge that we can truly understand our make up, manage our personalities, fulfill our purpose, avoid fantasy and attain happiness. What is a marvelous parallel, we see that King Solomon too commenced his book about attaining happiness (Koheles) with the discussion of “rivers.” Man’s energies flow like rivers. King Solomon also refers to the sun shining and then setting, i.e., as Rabbi Israel Chait explained, paralleling man’s search for happiness, chasing one fantasy after the next:
King Solomon continues his illustration of man’s psyche, now engaging metaphor. The metaphor of the sun describes man’s search for lusts. Man obtains the object of his desires, “the sun rises.” But then the experience passes, “the sun sets.” Man then chases the desire again, “and hastens to its place where it rises again.”
Adam, Eve, the Snake, the Sword and the Cherubs
God then teaches us about our subservient role to Him, expressed in his command that Adam and Eve abstain from that one tree. We are taught that initially, Adam and Eve did not possess a conscience, explaining why nudity was not a concern. God did not wish man to be distracted by morality: thoughts only possible with a conscience. He wished that man be solely involved in higher knowledge, of truths and rejecting falsehoods (not morality: good vs. evil). God’s desire that man pursue scientific and philosophical knowledge is expressed in God bringing the animals to Adam for him to study and classify: naming the animals. It was only due to man's inability to control his desires that the conscience was created and placed in man's mind, generating feelings of guilt, to avert man’s self-destruction through sinning. After this we see nudity became a concern which is an expression of morality and guilt. God’s concession to man of the conscience intends to help man continue life; guilt helps one refrrain from what he deems as evil. And with the punishment of mortality for man’s violation and man's immediate desire for the Tree of Life, we see the dominant role that the fantasy of immortality plays in man. This fantasy again is addressed by King Solomon in his great work Koheles. As Rabbi Chait explained, all human fantasy is appealing only due to man feeling immortal, that his fantasies could be endless.
The story of the snake is also a metaphor. Maimonides states that the snake never spoke to Adam:
It is especially of importance to notice that the serpent did not approach or address Adam, but all his attempts were directed against Eve (Guide, book iii, chap. xxx).
This indicates that the snake was not a physical creature. For if it was, it could address Adam too. But the snake is in fact Eve’s instincts, explaining why her “snake” cannot appeal/talk to Adam; our instincts entice only ourselves.
Sforno follows this metaphor explaining man’s “crushing of the snake’s head” to mean that man conquers his instincts at the “head” of the battle. But if man allows his instincts to go unopposed, they eventually swell and overcome man drawing him to sin, the meaning of the snake “biting mans heel” — i.e., at the “heel” of the battle, the instincts overcome man.
The spinning flaming sword is an allusion to the threat of mortality and the childlike cherubs give man a sense of immortality. This means that man senses both immortality and mortality, thereby creating a balance to keep man equidistant from both damaging poles: with the punishment of death, man can no longer fantasize that he is immortal, and with a sense of immortality, man will not feel morbid that he's dying tomorrow.
Cain and Able
Now we learn of religion and competition. Cain was jealous that God favored his brother’s sacrifice. Thereby, we learn that man seeks validation for his religiosity, and that he is intolerable towards those whom God favorites; Cain murdered Abel…the seeds of anti-Semitism. From God’s punishment of Cain, we derive that no prohibition against murder was needed: morality and the evil of murder can be derived from God’s creation of a species. As God made many men, His will is disregarded when we treat others worse than ourselves. A species means God desires multiple beings to exist. Therefore we cannot mistreat them.
Although not commanded in sacrifice, Cain and Abel recognized man is subservient to God and that it is proper to embody this in sacrifice: the giving of our efforts to God, who gave us the fruits of our efforts. God responding to their sacrifices teaches that it is necessary for man’s dignity that God validates man’s proper actions. Similarly we read “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:24). Here too, God endorsed man’s upright acts.
Additionally God's response to Cain that he can overcome his sinful nature rides on the coattails of Adam’s sin, teaching that sin is not something coerced or inevitable.
As we progress in our Torah studies, we must be sensitive that all stories and laws target vital lessons. We must not dismiss a story or a single detail as minor. Maimonides taught that in some Torah accounts, each item in a section teaches something new, while in other cases, many particulars may be providing context, without new lessons for each word or phrase. We must discern when to apply each rule, but recognize that all that is written in Torah is for a purpose.