Parasha Notes: B’reishith (5775)

I. When is the Hebrew word adam a name for mankind and when is it used as a proper noun referring to the first man? This is a difficult question to answer, especially considering that in many stories when the plain meaning is referring to a single man, those stories are mostly an allegory for all of mankind. (More on that later.) The Abarbanel (more on him later too) claims that there is a distinction between adam and ha-adam with the definite article, but I do not believe his claim holds up. As we shall see, naming others is a theme of this Parasha. (See here for more details.)

II. Adam is different from the rest of the personalities in B’reishith in that his general species name is the same as his personal name. This is not so with God, who is only referred to by His personal Name, the Lord, once man is created, nor for the snake (personal name), who is the most cunning of the wild beasts (general term), nor for Eve, who is first called “woman” by an exuberant man (2:23):

And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

and only later given her name (3:20):

And the man called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

The entire story of the snake and how the people ate from the Tree of Knowledge, which is one paragraph in the traditional texts, is framed by these contrasting verses. Why couldn’t Eve remain like her husband, and have her species name also serve as her personal name? I have not yet found an answer to this question, but I believe it has something to do with how Eve had a part in leading Adam to eat from the forbidden fruit.

III. Eve names both Cain and Abel. Maimonides expounds on the nature of both of their names. The entirety of Chapter 4 is also one paragraph in the traditional texts, and it has a noticeable chiastic structure:

1. Eve gives birth and names her offspring. 4:1-2

2. The Torah describes what the children chose to do with their lives. 4:2 Cain’s handiwork is displeasing to God. 4:3-5

3. The Lord tells Cain how he can improve his behavior. 4:6-70

4. Cain murders his brother. 4:8

5. The Lord tells Cain how he must now improve his behavior in the wake of his brother’s murder. 4:9-15

6. Cain leaves God, and the Torah describes what his children did with their lives. his descendants’ handiwork is displeasing to God. 4:16:24

7. Eve gives birth and names her offspring. 4:25-26

IV. This paragraph also teaches that mankind’s downfall included the three cardinal sins: Immorality, Murder, and Idolatry.
1. The immediate consequence of Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree was their changed view of their nakedness. Nudity was suddenly shameful, and sexual activity was no longer innocent. Later, Cain and Abel must marry their own sisters. 2. Cain and his descendants commit murder, with the eponymous Tubal Cain boasting about how his technology makes him even more fearsome than Cain. 3. During the third generation, that of Enosh, mankind first worships idolatry.
The following paragraph (5:1-31) lists the main descendants of Seth, who, unlike the Cain line, are not steeped in sin. However, the verses after that (5:32-6:4) come to describe how this line also became corrupted, when the sons of God (the Seth line) began to indiscriminately marry with the daughters of man (the Cain line).

V. Who named Seth? 4:25 says Eve did, ‘for God has appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him,’ while 5:3 says Adam did: ‘And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.’ Of all the classic commentaries that I saw, only Abarbanel addresses this issue. The editor of this edition apparently was unaware of 5:3, because although he appreciates Abarbanel’s comment to 4:25, he seems to be unaware of 5:3 (See footnote 9).

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VI. Abarbanel also discusses to what extent a number of the classical Rishonim, like Maimonides, Ralbag, and Ibn Ezra, considered the pre-Abraham stories to be allegories and non-historical accounts. Although there was much disagreement back then, I find it amusing that Abarbanel, who lived during the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and was a much older contemporary of the Beth Yosef, was free to discuss ideas that in his time were the mainstream rabbinic views of Genesis, with much basis in the writings of Hazal, but nowadays would be considered “heretical” by the mainstream. I can imagine many other scholars maintaining positions in confidence that while, yes, the opinions of our Rishonim were once discussed, today it is too dangerous to let them be known to laymen and even aspiring rabbis. I believe that such people are less afraid of what those ideas could do to others and more afraid of how those ideas threaten their own fragile belief systems. And then we have this piece from Rabbi Riskin. It is amazing how ideas that started among the Christians have taken the place of the wisdom of our predecessors. Needless to say, aside from Rabbi Riskin’s ideas about how a billions-of-years-old universe fits with Genesis, the more important ideas of Genesis, what the allegories are all about, do not figure in most Jewish school curricula of any grade, let alone that of the Rabbis. Although Rabbi Schachter has said that Rabbi Soloveichik said he would not have wanted Abarbanel to have been president of YU, that was because of Abarbanel’s views on biblical authorship and not because of his views on the meaning of the creation stories. Rabbi Soloveichik’s true views on those are uncertain, but one would think they would be in line with the classic Rishonim when he considers that Rabbi Soloveichik did the most of any 20th-century scholar to expound the hidden meanings of those stories and that close students of his, like Rabbi Riskin, about whom Rabbi Soloveichik said he “was very proud,” have similar views.

VII. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man. (2:21-22)
These verses teach derech eretz, namely that if you are going to conduct invasive surgery on someone, it is best to heavily anesthetize him.

IIX. Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. (3:1)
What does “than all the other beasts” mean? Were there some animals that were even as remotely sentient as this walking, talking snake with a theological agenda? The answer is that just as the primordial snake was meant to serve man, God created other creatures with more intelligence, like apes and dolphins, which can be trained to interact and communicate with humans, and dogs.

The sages elaborated on how the snake represents the evil inclination. Before man sinned, the evil inclination was there to serve man, i.e., merely to help him reproduce, but he was not to heed its counsel in any other manner. Once man showed that he could be swayed by the evil inclination, God decreed concerning it, “cursed are you from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life, and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel,” meaning that  we should treat the evil inclination as the most despicable of beings. One may not compromise with the evil inclination by just sinning a little to satisfy himself. He has to treat it like a mortal enemy.


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