Parashat Bereishit –

Rabbi Steve Greenberg –


The starting point of the Genesis story is God.  Before creation, God fills existence.   There is no-thing else, no place for an-other.    God’s oneness is without division or separation.  One is always all-powerful without needing any power-over to be so.   One is stable and sure, unchanging and whole.   One is before creation.   The seed of creation is the idea of more than one.   At the moment of creation, the magisterial oneness of God, according to Jewish mystics, concentrated itself to leave room for an-other.   Creation begins with the possibility of two.


Two is a rickety thing, a temptation, a suspicious thing, an ecstatic, thrilling, dangerous thing.  Two always have a history.  The pain and pleasure of difference, the tragedy and glory of the lines that separate things are the subtext of the first chapters of Genesis.   Separation between things inaugurates creation.  Light and dark, day and night, the waters below and above, the dry land and the seas are all separated.  It is by these separations that creation unfolds.  Much like the infant separates first physically and then psychically from its mother, little by little, the world comes to be by separations amid the chaos.


This birthing of the world was not without resistance.   As the waters above and below separated, they suffered to be split.  Rabbi Berchia said: The upper and lower waters separated from each other in weeping.[i] The waters long to be as they were, undifferentiated in the Godhead.  Creation sunders them apart. It appears that matter is not indifferent to its condition.  All things want union.   And so, creation struggles against a resistance.  Like a newborn, the waters above and below come into the world kicking and screaming, salting the seas with their tears.


Lights and Monsters


Twos pose another problem.  Separation is a birth pang that passes, but once there are two, how are they to relate?   On the third day of creation two great lights are created and on the fourth day two great sea monsters are created.  Of all the creations in the first chapter of Genesis, only the great lights and the great sea monsters, are called great (gedolim).  What’s more, both words in Hebrew for lights (meorot) and for sea monsters (taninim) are missing a letter in their plural endings.  The missing letters are not crucial for the meaning of the words, but the irregularity seems to suggest that something is wrong.   In each case, the sages explain that the pair of lights, sun and moon, and the pair of sea monsters, male and female, was unstable in some way related to their being two.  These twin creations became so highly problematic that God had to alter the original plan.  For now, we will draw our attention to the great lights.


And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, and the stars. (Genesis 1:16


On the third day, God made the two great lights.  However, after introducing the sun and the moon both as great, the text adds that, actually, one light was great and the other was lesser.   The contradiction between the verses generated a legend that is recorded in the Talmud.


“And God made the two great lights,” but later it says: “the great light and the lesser light”!   The moon said before the Holy One: Master of the world, is it possible for two kings to share (literally: to use) one crown?  God said to her: Go and diminish yourself!  She said before God: Because I asked a good question, I should diminish myself?  God said: Go and rule both in day and in night.  She said: What advantage is that?  A candle in the daylight is useless.  God said:  Go and let Israel count their days and years by you.  She said:  They use the daylight [of the sun] to count seasonal cycles as well…Seeing that she was not appeased, the Holy One said: Bring a (sacrificial) atonement for me that I diminished the moon!   This is what R. Shimon ben Lakish said: What is different about the ram of the new moon that it is offered “for God” (And one ram of the flock for a sin offering for God…Numbers 28:14).  Said the Holy One: This ram shall be an atonement for me that I diminished the moon. [ii]


The problem of two great rulers sharing a single crown is a problem that God does not anticipate.  The problem is raised by the moon and the Creator solves the problem with a fixed hierarchy.  The moon complains that she got the raw end of the deal just for asking a tough question, one that ostensibly might have been thought out in advance by the creator.  Failing to appease her, God accepts the duty to offer a sin offering on the occasion of every new moon, a monthly atonement for the lesser status he forced upon her.


For asking a question to which God has no answer, the moon is diminished.  If the problem of two equals managing to share power requires a resolution, then why didn’t God simply begin with a hierarchy in place?   Or to put it another way, why were the sun and moon both created equal to begin with?  If hierarchy is inevitable, then why not start with it?   Was there a way to avoid the sin that is now in need of atonement?   Perhaps the Holy One too quickly turned the moon’s question into an answer.  Only after an extended conversation with the moon in which she does not accept any of the consolation prizes offered her is God led to the awareness that a wrong has been committed.   If so, then why does God not right the wrong and restore the moon to her original size?    What is the meaning of offering a sacrifice without the return of the stolen property?   For the time being, we have encountered a creation much less perfect and finished than we might have expected.  God appears to be an artist, learning by trial and error.


Among the lessons that God learns[iii], so to speak, is that twos seem to require power arrangements to make them safe.  Otherwise they might just destroy each other.   Two are stable only when the rules of power are made clear from the outset.    One might ask why the Creator needed to make two lights in the first place.  Why not just one?   It seems that the whole point of creation involves struggling with the problems of two.   The waters weep, the moon is unfairly diminished and the story carries forward toward the one and two of humanity.



Creation of one by One


The human is presented in the first story of creation as the end achievement of a grand evolution of matter toward God.  From the start of creation, there is a movement of inert material to the magnetized essence of divine life.  Pulled along by divine will, matter takes on life forms more and more complex, and so, more and more like God.   From random atoms to molecules, from molecules to life cycles, from primitive life forms to warm blooded mammals, and from beasts to sentient beings, all creation aspires to become like God.  The stage of creation that most fully embodies God is the one that most expresses life and movement, individuation and relationship, mind and feeling, self-consciousness, freedom and love.[iv]


Since God is One, the human, made in the image and likeness of God, is created alone in the world.  Single.   Among the sages of antiquity there were those who thought that creation of the human could not possibly begin with a pair.[v]   The singularity of human consciousness speaks of a primordial being alone with God in the universe.  While a straightforward reading of the stories seems to suggest that in chapter one a pair is created while in the second chapter a male human and then a female human are created in succession, the rabbis read both stories together as a single overlapping story of one becoming two.   From what we have seen so far, this should not come as a surprise.   The path from one to two is central to very purpose of creation.


The Mirror


(a) And God made adam/ (b) in his image

(b) In the image of God/ (a) made He him

(b) Male and female /(a) made He them.


R. Yirmiyah b. Elazar said: When the Holy One created the first adam, he made it androgynous. That’s what it means when it says “male and female he created them.” R. Shmuel b. Nachman said: When the Holy One created the first adam, he created it two faced and then (later) sawed it (in two) creating for it two backs, a back here and a back there.  They asked him:  But what of the verse “and he took one of his ribs (tzela)?”  He answered them, [it really means that] “he took one of the flanks (tzela).”  The word [tzela] is also used to describe the flank or side of the tabernacle in Exodus.


After the operation…


And Adam said, “This one is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called isha (woman) because from ish (man) was she taken.  Therefore shall a man leave his mother and his father and cleave to his woman and they shall be as one flesh. [vi]


Unlike the sun and the moon created as independent entities, the human begins as one and becomes two. The tensions of twos earlier in the creation story begins here as Adam’s presumption.  Two cannot share a single crown and he has taken charge, for the time being.


He gives her a name.  She is called Hava (Eve), meaning Life.  The mixture of earth (adama) and life (hayim) are the two ingredients in the creation of the human.  We have been told in Genesis 2:7 that God formed the human from both earth (adama) and the breath of life (hayim).   The two names, Adam and Hava are these two elements which they both possess.  However, the male has already taken the role of speaking, possessing, of claiming a past, and in doing so appears to have silenced Hava.


There is a good deal of confusion in regard to way the names work.   The adam before the split is an earth-creature, as we have suggested according the sages, an androgynous being.  Following the split, the male appears to retain an original connection with the prototype adam in a way that the female does not.  Only he is called Adam.   He speaks, she does not.  She is “his” (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh) not he hers.     At the moment of their separation/creation we might have expected an original equality.  Perhaps when God splits the original adam creature into two he already expects trouble, the trouble of equals sharing a crown.  Before the sin which will fracture everything, there is already a problematic hierarchy between the male and the female.


As the story progresses Hava will actually act decisively and will take charge in her own way.   It is she who engages the serpent, who entertains the existential, aesthetic, philosophical and legal questions about the one prohibited tree in the garden.   The snake does not tempt her as much as he questions her about what she really knows.   Independence from God is interesting to her and its risky powers and pleasures alluring.   It is she that needs to test the limits, to know truly where she stands in relation to things.  Like the moon that is bold enough to ask how power works between two who share a single crown, she, too, dares to expose the true power-relations between God and human.


After the sin in the garden, innocence lost, the two sense their nakedness, clothe themselves and hide from God.  The sweet tending of the garden will become back- breaking work, the earth freely giving of its fruit will yield thorn and thistle, friendly relations between the animals and humans will become vicious, and the joyous union of one flesh will now be given over to passion and domination.  The diminishment of the moon now parallels the subjugation of the woman.  The couple is banished from the garden to a world of incongruities.


While companionship remains, there is no romance in two.  The biblical account of the creation of gender is not an answer to a question, but a question to question.  There is no sweet maiden waiting for her knight in shining armor.  The pain of loneliness is not fixed with the healing of heterosexual union.  The experience of being one flesh does not defend them against the recriminations.  At first they hide from God in solidarity, but very quickly they feel the need to hide from each other.  With a great deal of effort, the earth can be made to bear fruit, children can be born, a life of partnership can be negotiated and even love can be sustained, but nothing in this picture is whole or certain.


Heterosexuality is not original.  If anything was original, it was the androgynous adam, the first effort of creation.   This first androgynous adam was perhaps too whole, too much like God.   Having no distance to overcome, the creature perhaps began to long for longing, for a distance to overcome, for a wholeness not to possess but to achieve.   The prohibition to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil introduced to Adam the very possibility of lack; the death threat to the desire for an achieved union, a loneliness overcome whose history cannot be erased even by death.  Love, partnership, community, sexual union, and ultimately generation are portrayed in this rabbinic reading as a partial answer to death.    The sages have not freed women from the domination of men in this rereading of Genesis nor have they provided a positive mythic foundation for homosexual love.  But what their reading offers is immensely important for us.


The sages honor with brutal realism the hard work of making any partnership work in the world.  It must not be denied that in the larger corpus of the rabbinic tradition the rabbis most often enforce the power hierarchy between the genders.  In various and sometimes contradictory ways, women are silenced and controlled, infantilized and disempowered, as they are cared for and protected.


The dominant discourse cannot be denied.  Women are deprived of subjective presence in the tradition in most every way.  However, the cracks in the fortress are visible, and the same sages point them out to us, reminding us that this is not the world as it ought to be.  Since the gender hierarchy is a broken condition, try as they may, they cannot fully contain the desire to fix it.  For all the limitations of their efforts, the sages increased the powers of women bequeathed to them in the biblical texts.   Later generations of rabbis found ways to provide even greater independence for women than did their predecessors.   While the rabbinic record is not without its active repression of women’s freedom and independence, one finds the desire to see the hierarchy healed, and the moon restored.


Restoring the Moon


The moon’s diminishment is understood by the sages as a sin committed against the moon for which God must atone.  The midrash is an invitation by the rabbis to project toward a world of restored harmony and equality.  A mystical liturgy of sanctifying the new moon was introduced into Jewish custom by R. Yitzhak Luria in the 16th century.  If God brings a sacrificial atonement for the diminishment of the moon, then there must be some desire on high to truly repent of the violence done to her.  The laws of repentance require it.   We learn that there is no forgiveness for sins between parties until the offended party has been appeased.  A sacrifice alone cannot right a wrong done.   Pregnant in the midrash of the first century is Luria’s prayer for the moon’s restoration.


Kiddush Levana


Kiddush Levana, the sanctification of the moon, is generally recited during the second week of the lunar cycle.   Commonly, the prayer is said at the conclusion of the Sabbath falling out during this period.   On this Saturday evening following the end of the prayer service, the congregation files outdoors, and underneath a visible moon chants kiddush levana.   The sources of the liturgical text are biblical and rabbinic, but the messianic prayer that concludes kiddush levana is pure Jewish mysticism.


They taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael:  Were Israel able to greet their Father in heaven only once a month, it would be enough.  Abaye says: For this reason it should be said standing.  “Who is she, coming up from the desert, leaning on her lover?”(Song of Songs 8:5)  May it be your will, O Lord, my God and the God of my fathers to fill in the darkness of the moon that she not be diminished at all.  And let the light of the moon be as the light of the sun, and as the light of the seven days of creation, just as she was before she was diminished, as it is said: “the two great lights.”  And may we be a fulfillment of the verse: “And they shall seek out the Lord their God and David their king.” (Hosea 3:5) Amen.


Jewish feminists have used this imagery to restore and to build upon women’s traditions and rituals associated with the new moon.   The quote from the Song of Songs, we will see soon, is a reference of union and restoration.   It may be that the moon is a veiled reference to the feminine in the world, or perhaps, as mystics might say, to the feminine face of God, the Shechina.   This prayer chanted before a waxing moon imagines an increasing feminine light that will someday be restored to her full equality with the masculine light.   Based upon the sages’ suggestion that God atones for diminishing the moon, Rabbi Isaac Luria just assumes that if diminishing of the moon (and the subjugation of Eve) for asking questions about power is a sin for which God atones monthly, then perhaps this is not the way things ought to be or will be.   The disharmonies of the creation story are a work plan, a set of duties, the last act of which will include God’s joyous restoration of the moon.


Quoted in the prayer above, the Song of Songs is the evidence that the world of hierarchy and disharmony after the exile from Eden is not the world God wishes us to enforce, but a world we are called to transform back into Edenic bliss.

[i]           Bereshit Raba, 5:3

[ii]           BT Hullin 60b

[iii]          While God learning is an audacious idea for a God who is presumed to know all, the rabbis are comfortable saying such things given that they remind us that the text itself is crossing the line. “Were it not written I would not dare say” is one such introduction.   Another way to mark an audacious expression is with the Hebrew word kev’yachol which means “so to speak” or literally “as if this were possible.”

[iv]          This idea is original to my teacher, mentor and friend, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.

[v]           Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[vi]          Genesis 2:23-25