Commentary on Bereshit 2
In my comment on commentary last week, I set out a few of the premises of MY reading of the Torah:
- I believe in doing what commentators have done over the centuries, retelling the story in my own words.
- The story is about creation, about coming to be, about the beginning of that process through the interaction of God and earthlings.
- I pick up on one stream of interpretation that sees this creative activity, once nature has been organized, as the result of a partnership of a non-material Being and earthlings: “Let us create…” The process of creation is the story of the creation of two worlds, heaven and earth.
- I then take from this stream another even rarer stream – that the story is about God becoming; God not only creates history in partnership with man, but creates Himself in the process. God is
- Though I told the tale as if God is characterized as masculine without explication, this is also a premise that will be developed and explicated.
- I am fully within the tradition in seeing the narrative as being about tov and ra, goodness and evil.
- Then I became really idiosyncratic in depicting the character of God, for, in my understanding, God has the hubris to congratulate himself on what he does as Good, and in the case of creating human beings, as “very good,” a pronouncement that will soon prove to be not only very incorrect, but the first lesson: Let others pronounce and recognize the quality of what you do. It is not only a curse to make that pronouncement oneself, but it is itself a moral failing.
- So as I read the story, God in the process of co-creation has to also create the moral world and to make Himself as a moral being who has faith and compassion and a capacity for respect and reverence for the sanctity of life.
- But as I will again try to show, He only does so primarily through the mistakes of humans living in history as embodied creatures.
- God begins the process of creation by giving order to chaos; since humans are made in the image of God, they too have a responsibility to give order to chaos.
Ironically, as I will try to show, chaos and order turn out to be, not polar opposites which admit of degrees, but a process whereby chaos follows from order as well as precedes it. Put simply, as soon as we think we are on the verge of creating a new world order, beware for we will be introduced to a new type of chaos. This interpretation is offered, not because I have mastered Hebrew and Aramaic, know the Torah intimately and have thoroughly studied the commentators. It should be very evident that I do not write this commentary as a result of any claim to be an expert on either the text or previous commentators, but it is the way I find coherence and meaning in the text as well as a correspondence between what I read and how I interpret it.
The narrative does not move forward because men have an inherent propensity towards evil in the most customary interpretation. The new chaos emerges out of the limitations of what has previously been created. But, as in most traditional interpretations, it is about responsibility, beginning with God assuming all responsibility for what happens and assuming, because He is the creator, it must be good. Human beings initially assume none of the moral responsibility, but also assume that because God was the creator, what takes place must be good. Both have to learn that the true source of evil lies within this nearsightedness, this myopic view of the world.
So how do we reconcile Chapter 1 and chapter 2, for as everyone knows who reads the text, they appear to be contradictory? Chapter 2 begins with the consecration of the seventh day as a day of rest. The whole text is a process of embedding in the repetition of time, in embodied existence, the metaphor of the Torah story. But look how it starts, in complete contradiction to what I just wrote. Instead of a dynamic story about creation, that process is said to be finished; the heavens and earth were a totally completed product. The Torah is then not a tale of a process of both Heaven and Earth coming to be, but of what has been completed. Further, instead of worshiping and celebrating that dynamic process, the most celebrated day of the week emerges, shabat, the day that is said to be about rest. Further, it is rest, not creativity, that is made holy.
But read the text again. On shabat, God “rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Not from the process. It was a day to look back, to reflect, to analyze what had just been completed. As we shall see, this applies to every new lesson and is why we read and re-read the text in an annual cycle. It is that reflection, that evaluation, which is holy. For it is a very different order of creativity, not one which ends as each of the first six days did in dogmatic conviction, but one which will challenge those dogmatic convictions in the most fundamental way. And the challenge is not one which proceeds sequentially – He created this, then He created that. Rather, it is about subordination rather than conjunction. Instead of this and that, we find: when this then that. Each action has consequences.
Further, the Creator has a new name, Yahweh rather than just Elohim, the Lord God and not just God. He has a name with two yuds and two hehs, a God that doubles up on Himself, a world which is abbreviated and to the point as a yud, and open to interpretation as a heh. Instead of a story of coming into being, of creation, of bara, it is a story of fashioning, of constructing, of yatsar, in fact, of reconstructing. Words do not bring the world of material being into existence. Rather, through massaging words themselves, existence is given form and order. We are presented with a moral rather than a material order, the world of adam and not just adamah. The action, the verb is followed by its noun form. To die – a process – is followed by death, a final state. Ironically, that very fixed state will be the source of a new stage of creativity.
In reflection, as in commentary, the same story must be re-told, but now from a retrospective perspective. That retrospective focused on the last day of creation after God turned a planet into a thriving greenhouse from a moonscape. But suddenly instead of simple interpretation, we get a midrash, a story about the original story. In this version, God hives off a Garden called the Garden of Eden, seemingly rich and perfect in every way – most perfect because there is no apparent death, no awareness of death, just the richness of nature.
Second, instead of this day of rest being about a celebration about what had been created, God continues to create, but what God creates on the day of rest, on the day of reflection, on the day of re-examination, are not dichotomies and opposites, but particulars: the Garden of Eden first, then soon two unique and very different trees. But first the creation of earthlings is re-envisioned.
It is a very specific process: “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is also self-evidently a different process. First, man is formed, that is fashioned and shaped rather than brought into being through words, So the dichotomy of male and female become a story of priority and subordination. Because we are now in the realm of reflection, in the realm of historical reconstruction of what has already taken place, in the realm of midrash, Second, instead of apparent dichotomy, it is our reconstruction of original creation that is taking place. Equality is transformed into a moral hierarchy through a different kind of temporal ordering such as occurs in dreams as well as nightmares. Third, the dichotomy is internalized, for instead of two from one, we have one out of two, man made from shaping his earthliness at the same time as he is infused with God’s spirit. This will be a story not about the coming to be of a natural creature alongside all the other animals, but of a unique being, about what it is like to be made in the image of God.
But first the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, two unique trees among all those that were created. Then the Garden of Eden is described as having four headwaters of one river. And we should recognize that we are being introduced to the four orders of interpretation, the four lenses through which the recreation of what has come about materially can be understood on the reflective plain. They are the headwaters of creative reflection:
- Havilah – gold, but also the precious onyx and aromatic resin – interpretation must be rich; it must smell right and sensible; it must pass the smell test;
- Gihon – comprehensiveness;
- Tigris – the boundary river for interpretation is not arbitrary, but has limits and is an example of order itself, not of sequential order but of framing;
- Euphrates – the longest of the rivers in Western Asia, u-fra’-tez, “the good and aboundingriver” and, together with the Tigris, the defining river.
So in addition to interpretation being rich and sensible, in addition to it being comprehensive, it must have an order in space, a frame clearly defining an area of reflection, but, as well, an unfolding in time that goes on and on, an openness, a heh and not just a yud. We are now in a specific location of earth, in western Asia, but boundaried on the east to define the world of the Middle East.
We have our frame. What happens? Man is placed in the garden. Though resting from making the world, it is clearly a garden of enormous richness. The conversion of the natural world into a civilized and ordered one must be reconsidered, must be reflected upon, for that is the work of Eden. That is the work of shabat. But in doing this work, man is given a very specific warning – not a command. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (TKGE), for when you eat from it, you will surely die.” But, of course, as in all such narratives, a warning is merely a prediction of what is to come.
Then we have a sudden disjunction, or, at least, the appearance of one. God discovers everything is not very good. For, as He observes, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helpmeet suitable for him.” Adam does not seem to feel he is alone. God recognizes it. But why is woman characterized as a helpmeet, an ezer to and for him? Does this simply mean she is a helper, or does it mean she is someone who will help him meet both himself as an other, both to see himself as an object of reflection and not just an agent, and the other as an agent and not just an objectification of himself? If eating of the TKGE means having sex, why is there a warning of the great risk of sex?
Suddenly another switch. We are back in the natural world of the garden. Or so it appears. Adam is doing his proper work, giving order to the world in terms of language. He is a botanist and zoologist naming the various species of plants and animals. Using language, he is re-creating the world as experienced in front of us into an intellectual order, into a taxonomy. But he is a nerd who does not even have the sense to know he is alone. But his dreams tell him. In his dreams, God took one of his ribs and made woman. Woman is made from tsela, from man’s protective but fragile shield, from that which gives the body its structure, from that which embodies flesh and internal organs. Woman was seen and imagined as a projection of one side of man. Which side? Surely not consciousness, not the scientific side that went around the garden naming the animals and plants. Not the conscious side that saw the world as objects needing to be ordered. It must be the side of which he himself was not conscious, the protected side, the hidden side, the side that he did not recognize, the side that felt but was not even recognized by the other side. Adam did not even know he felt lonely.
So in his dreams, Eve was projected to be a person of feeling, an .objectification of a side of himself that he did not recognize. Eve was feeling; he was thought. In his objectification, Eve was not recognized as a subject, an agent in her own right. And he did not recognize himself as having feelings, as having passions, as a man who would leave home and marry and thereby make himself whole again. Man, not woman, is a bifurcated being, a being with no intercommunication between his right side and his left side, a being who does not know he has desires, but in his conscious life thinks that he is only a scientist who gives order to the world by means of language.
As an arrogant aside, when I read the Talmudic commentaries, it seems that virtually all the commentators are as pedantic and nerdy and oblivious to the plain meaning of the text as Adam was to his own feelings. This is not entirely accurate. Many of the commentators do note specific technicalities of the text which have a mine of revelations. For example, Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabi Jose the Galilean, noted the rhythm within chapter two moving back and forth between what he thought was generality and particularity, much as I described the shift from chapter one to chapter two. Where I described disjunctions, he noted connections. And there are connections, but not simply a connection between generality and particularity, but between a depiction of a state of being and the content of that state.
For example, verse 6 described a mist or fog rising from the earth and watering the whole garden while verse 7 moves to God forming man out of the dust of that same earth. I read this as first offering a clue that this is a dream sequence – we are in a fog. In the content of that dream sequence, God is seen as making man alone, not man and woman, and in the dream, man is an earthling into whom the breath of the holy spirit must be breathed. That breath gives life to the “dead” being that Adam has thus far revealed himself to be. In the dream, there is the world that the conscious self does not recognize, his embodied being, his being as a man of desire and passions, a being when the air and the earth combined to form fire, to form what can never be given form, fire and passion, a world that is first glimpsed in the fog of dreams.
In this type of pilpul of literalness, of the detailed analysis of the bark and the leaves of each individual tree, we do miss the forest for a tree. We miss the sweep and scope of the tale, the richness, and sensuousness, is missed, the real understanding of the headwaters of the long river of life are be missed. It begins with the period before the conjoining of man and woman when both, not just Adam lacked any shame.
So sex, pain, temptation, desire and most of all death – not the objects of consciousness but the subjective state of experience – now has to be brought forth.
Next week: Sex and the Origin of Shame