Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

There’s something about switching from a largely unscheduled summer to a new fall schedule plus holiday activities (including miserable weather for most of Sukkot) plus having to make up tasks I let go because of said holidays (7 weekdays’ worth) that puts me on edge.  I should shortly be back to normal.  At least I wasn’t silly enough to volunteer to chant the haftarah for Bereishit, like two years ago.

Here we go again.

This week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, contains many seminal stories stuffed into 146 verses and 1500 years: The seven days of Creation plus Sabbath; the Garden of Eden and expulsion therefrom (sorry, 11 years of legalese haven’t quite worn off); Cain, Abel, and fratricide; the long line of long-lived folks from Adam to Noah, with lifetimes ranging from 350 (the mysteriously divinely taken Enoch) to 969 years (Methuselah); and ending with corruption on earth so great that the Lord decides to wipe out current inhabitants and start over.

There are all sorts of riffs your local rabbi could do with these.  For example, the translation, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth,” while shiveringly majestic, isn’t quite accurate.  The Hebrew for 1:1-3 indicates it’s more like “When God began to create heaven and earth —the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water —God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”  That is, what God is doing is bringing order out of an existing chaos, not creating the universe ex nihilo (from nothing), a post-Biblical theological concept.  Then there are the two views of creation, cosmic (those 7 days) and human-centered.  And there’s the meaning of the whole Eden business (Adam to sons, “your mother ate us out of house and home) vis à vis the status of women (no, Jews do not go in for “original sin”).  And many, many more, some of which I’ve explored here previously.

But this year, I want to focus on the idea that humans are made in the image (tzelem) of God.  This is mentioned three times (1:26-27):

“26 And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.’ 27 And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

What does this mean?  What is the “likeness” of God?  Surely not an actual picture?  And if this refers to behavior, what, specifically?  Man seems to be created, in male and female forms to rule.  So is Man simply to be like one of those agents that run the estates for landed gentry (I watch a lot of English period dramas)?  That’s rather a narrow job description.

Various commentaries are captured in Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Bereishit (Genesis), pp. 1-8. (Long-time readers will recognize that Nehama Leibowitz’s writings are one of my go-to sources for Torah comments.)  For example, Rashi (11th c. France) has an interesting take, that Man was stamped from a mold, like a coin, and that tzelem refers to this image as indeed being the image of Man’s Maker.  Other commentators are largely devoted to showing how Man is designated as something special.  Ramban (13th century Spain) notes that only Man’s impending creation is announced before it is carried out.  Also, Man is created last to show he was created to be in charge of everything that came before, the crown of creation (Radak, 12th-13th c. Provence, Solomon Dubno, 18th c. Russia).  Julius Guttmann (20th c. Germany) posits that tzelem refers to a relationship between Man and God which is only possible if Man, like God, is an entity unto himself, and not merged with nature. Thus, every individual, being made in the image, of God, is equally significant before God, and if you destroy (or save) one human, it is as if you have destroyed (or saved) a whole world (Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a).

The idea of being made in the image of God is used today not really to show how great we are, but as a prod toward ethical behavior, as a means of imitating God (Imitatio Dei), thus living up to the image.  This is strongly implied in the Conservative version of the morning blessings (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1985, p. 11), which praises the Lord “who made me in His image…who clothes the naked, who releases the bound, who raises the downtrodden…who provides for all my needs…”  The natural follow-up is that, since we are made in the image of God, we too should clothe the naked, release the bound, raise the downtrodden, and provide for the needy.  That’s our responsibility, going all the way back to Genesis.

Shabbat shalom,


From 2006, now at

In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Quickly, God was faced with a class action suit for failure to file an environmental impact statement. God was granted a temporary permit for the project, but was stymied with the cease and desist order for the earthly part.

Then God said, “Let there be light!”  Immediately, the officials demanded to know how the light would be made.  Would there be strip mining? What about thermal pollution? God explained that the light would come from a large ball of fire. God was granted provisional permission to make light, assuming that no smoke would result from the ball of fire, and that he would obtain a building permit and to conserve energy, He would have the light out half the time. God agreed and offered to call the light “Day” and the darkness “Night”. The officials replied that they were not interested in semantics.

God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plant yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit.”  The EPA agreed, so long as only native seed was used.

Then God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth.”  The officials pointed out that this would require approval from the Department of Game coordinated with the Heavenly Wildlife Federation and the Audobon Society.

Everything was okay until God said the project would be completed in six days.  The officials said it would take at least two hundred days to review the applications and the impact statement. After that there would be a public hearing. Then there would be ten to twelve months before…

At this point God created Hell.


tph raised by wolves


People Who Are Messy Aren’t Lazy, They’re Imaginative And Bold (excerpts)

We live in a very formulaic and predictable world. Almost everything is neatly packaged and systematized. Society perpetually seeks to maintain order, in every sense of the word.

But it’s all an illusion.

We have been taught to value superficial notions of symmetry.  Organization is a comfort pillow that lies to us and tells us life isn’t really the random, chaotic mess we secretly know it to be.

As physicist Adam Frank states:

It’s a law of physics.  The hard truth is that the universe itself is dead-set against our long-term efforts to bring order to the chaos in our lives.  That’s because the universe loves chaos.

Disorganized people have seen the light. They won’t allow their lives to be dictated by propriety and convention.

This is not to say we should allow every aspect of our lives to fall into complete havoc. Organization can be necessary, convenient and even beautiful. But it’s also overrated, and those who live in clutter are often unfairly judged.

Messy people aren’t lazy, they’re actually very imaginative and bold.

Conventional wisdom might tell us we need order to foster productivity, but this isn’t necessarily true.  According to Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,”

Mess isn’t necessarily the absence of order. A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system.  On a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense.

In other words, a messy desk can actually help boost efficiency, depending on the person.

Correspondingly, research conducted by Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, found that cluttered environments help induce greater levels of creativity.  In one of the experiments conducted for this study, Vohs split up a group of 48 participants and asked them to find new ways to utilize a ping pong ball. One half was placed in a tidy room, the other half in a messy room.  In the end, both groups came up with the same number of ideas, but the ideas produced by those in the untidy room were determined far more innovative by a panel of independent judges.  As Vohs puts it:

Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity.  Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.  Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.

This doesn’t come as much of a surprise; disorganization has often been associated with genius. Many famous thinkers and writers have worked in extremely messy environments, from Albert Einstein and Alan Turing to Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.  They all achieved greatness in spite of their messiness.

Simply put, messy people are adventurous and adaptable. There is simplicity and beauty in living a messy life, which is precisely why it produces such enlightened and innovative individuals.

Life is a disheveled, unpredictable and wondrous gift. Act accordingly, and enjoy the ride.

Little Johnny’s Pain

At Sunday School they were teaching how God created everything, including human beings.  Little Johnny seemed especially intent when they told him how Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs.
Later in the week his mother noticed him lying down as though he were ill, and said, “Johnny, what is the matter?”
Little Johnny responded, “I have pain in my side. I think I’m going to have a wife.”

Oldie but goodie
A cat’s view of creation

On the first day of creation, God created the cat.
On the second day, God created man to serve the cat.
On the third, God created all the animals of the earth to serve as potential food for the cat.
On the fourth day, God created honest toil so that man could labor for the good of the cat.
On the fifth day, God created the sparkle ball so that the cat might or might not play with it.
On the sixth day, God created veterinary science to keep the cat healthy and the man broke.
On the seventh day, God tried to rest, but he had to scoop the litterbox.


A Kindergarten teacher was observing the children while they drew their art. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s work. As she got to where one little girl was working diligently, the teacher asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused and said, “But honey, no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat or looking up from her drawing, the little girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

A little girl was sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story. From time to time, she would take her eyes off the book and reach up to touch his wrinkled cheek. She was alternately stroking her own cheek, then his again. Finally she spoke up, “Grandpa, did God make you?”
“Yes, sweetheart,” he answered, “God made me a long time ago”.
“Oh,” she paused, “Grandpa, did God make me too?”
“Yes, indeed, honey,” he said, “God made you just a little while ago.”
Feeling their respective faces again, she observed, “God’s getting better at it, isn’t he?”


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