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Clouds over Israel as seen from the Beresheet spacecraft. April 1, 2019
  • Why does the narrative of Creation presented in Parshat B’reishit appear to conflict with leading scientific theories?
  • What failure of Hevel led to his murder at the hands of Kayin?
  • What is the secret meaning of the genealogical verses tracing the descendants of Kayin and Shet?

 

The approach to understanding our Torah presented in this podcast primarily comes from the teachings of Rav Yehuda Ashkenazi, better known as Manitou.

Manitou was born in Algeria roughly a century ago. His father was the chief rabbi of Algiers and made sure that his son received a deep Torah education. As a young man, Manitou fought against Nazi Germany during World War II, first as part of a clandestine underground and later as part of the French Foreign Legion. Following the war, he moved to France to help rebuild Jewish life there. But roughly two decades lates, after the Six Day War, he made aliya to Israel in order to participate in the rebuilding of Hebrew civilization.

In addition to being strongly influenced by Rav Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook and the teachings of his father Rav Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook, Manitou had learned a kabalistic interpretation of our Torah from his own father that had been passed down in his family for centuries since the time one of his ancestors had been a close student of the Ari HaKadosh.

For generations, the family had kept these teachings hidden, believing that the broader Jewish public wasn’t ready to receive them. But during his own lifetime, Manitou decided that the generation of Jews that had successfully returned to self-determination in the land of Israel was ready for this approach.

Manitou’s approach was taught to me by Rav Gavriel Reiss, who founded the Vision movement together with us and had been a student of Rav Oury Cherki – who learned directly from Manitou himself and has since developed a systematic method for teaching his Torah.

During his life, Manitou taught mostly in French and although his teachings have recently begun to be published in Hebrew, they have yet to penetrate the English-speaking Torah world – which is unfortunate because we see these teachings as possessing answers to many of the philosophical challenges currently facing Jews in English-speaking countries.

Manitou’s ideas have had a powerful impact on the development of the Vision movement and on the work that we do and we see it as crucial to bring these teachings to our people in the Diaspora. To that end, I’d like to also recommend the sections of the Bible Dynamics series by Rav Pinḥas Polonsky – also a student of Rav Cherki – that have already been translated into the English language.

It’s also been my experience that Manitou’s ideas tend to flourish best in the minds of those already intimately familiar with the teachings of Rav Kook. So I highly recommend engaging with that Torah as a means of better understanding many of the teachings presented here.

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While most of Sefer B’reishit focuses on the nation of Israel’s birth and development, the first two parshiot focus on the creation and development of humanity more broadly. This can be understood as a preface to the story of Israel in order to help us better understand the context for the Hebrew mission.

For thousands of years, our sages have related to the early sections of Sefer B’reishit – especially the narrative of Creation – as possessing deep secrets. We traditionally don’t take the surface level text literally or find much value in trying to compare or contrast it with scientific theories.

The Torah isn’t trying to teach us science or even history here. Parshat B’reishit should be related to as prophecy meant to help us better understand the essence and structure of humanity, the internal mechanisms that drive the universe and our place in that universe. Therefore it offers a prophetic perspective on our world that could appear at first glance to conflict with the perspectives generally put forward by science.

One of the reasons for the ostensible contradiction between science and the Torah’s narrative of Creation is that they’re actually teaching us two different things. The purpose of studying the Torah’s narrative is not to hold it up against scientific theories but rather to extract from it wisdom that will help us to better know ourselves and to find the most meaningful and productive ways to live our lives.

The Torah begins with the letter bet rather than with an aleph because we appear to live in a world of multiplicity and having the numerical value of two, bet is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet to represent variety. Our sages teach us that behind this multiplicity is a hidden unity – behind the bet is a hidden aleph – which has the numerical value of one. The revealed world as we experience it is a world of fragmentation. But hidden behind the ostensible fragmentation is a single Divine Source. And everything in Creation is a unique expression of that Source.

In the Torah’s narrative of Creation, the first three days appear to be the world in static form whereas the next three days appear to be the same aspects of the world but dynamic. On the first day, the light is created and separated from darkness. On the fourth day, we see light and darkness in motion. On the second day we see the waters and the skies. On the fifth day, we see creatures that swim in the waters and fly through the skies. On the third day we see dry land and on the sixth day we meet the creatures that inhabit that land – including man.

On the sixth day, the Creator is recorded as saying “Let us make Adam.” This is the only place in the narrative of Creation when the Creator’s actions are described in the plural. Who does HaShem mean when He says “us”? And why is this said only in regards to the creation of man?

Several answers have been offered in response to this question. And many of these answers are valuable in achieving a deeper understanding of the text. The Ramban, for example, teaches that the Creator is speaking to the earth. Adam’s body would be physical and come from the earth while his soul would be spiritual and come directly from HaShem. Unlike malakhim – angels – or animals, human beings would constitute a unique creation that’s comprised of both the material and the spiritual.

But the explanation I’d like to focus on is that the Creator is referring here to humanity – to Adam the first man but also to every human being that will descend from him. HaShem is telling us that as partners with Him in creating this world and in bringing history to its goal, we must live our lives in such a way that causes us to merit being called human.

Unlike animals, plants or even angels, human beings aren’t created able to just live our own nature. We’re the only creatures that need to grow and develop and learn to be what we are created to be.

Adam spent only one day – the sixth day – in Gan Eden. The world at this point was not yet complete. We should therefore look at the events that took place in Gan Eden as relating to the process of Creation rather than the story of human civilization that began after the Creation narrative. Before being removed from the garden, Adam participated in forming his own nature through his own free will and his soul acquired new properties. Therefore Adam completed himself in partnership and in dialogue with the Creator.

This is the most important characteristic of the human being – to be able to develop and grow – to remake oneself. It applies to each of us individually and it also applies to humanity as a whole. Throughout the course of our lives, each of us has the ability to dialogue with HaShem and continue to remake ourselves in order to become increasingly worthy of being called human.

When the Torah informs us that the Creator makes human being in His image and likeness, it’s not only teaching us that the Creator loves us and helps us develop but also that we can struggle to be like HaShem through emulating His traits and attributes. We don’t know the Creator through any physical image. We don’t even say His name. We know Him through His actions and traits and emulating these increases our closeness to Him.

In B’reishit 1, verse 31, the Torah tells us that the Creator saw all that He had made and that it was “very good.” On the other days, we see the Creator stating that every component of Creation is good – but here on the sixth day the Torah states that it is “very good.” When the individual parts of Creation are properly combined into a single holistic system, it reaches the level of “very good” – a level that can only be achieved by the interaction of the various parts within a single complex whole.

Our sages also provide us with another way of looking at this idea of “very good” – which appears after the introduction of humanity into the system. According to this approach, “good” signifies that Creation has a tendency to goodness but “very good” means that it also has the potential for evil. As noted earlier, humans are the only creatures capable of going against our own nature – which makes the potential for evil one of humanity’s unique features.

This potential for evil exists in our world precisely for the sake of us becoming not merely “good” but “very good.” This level of “very good” can’t just be a gift from the Creator. It requires free will, a process of development and actively overcoming the potential for evil. Evil is a necessary feature of Creation because only by overcoming it can individual humans and humanity as a collective grow and advance.

We then see the Creator bless the seventh day and declare it holy, because on it He ceased from all the work of Creation that He had done. On Shabbat, Creation is celebrated. We celebrate that the world is created by a Divine Being and that the world has meaning and a goal to ultimately reach. This idea of Creation and history having a purpose is a central component of the Hebrew worldview.

After having completed its narrative of Creation, the Torah zooms in on the story of man, who is meant to cultivate and transform the world as a partner with HaShem. When Adam is first created, he’s placed into Gan Eden – which can either be translated into English as “Garden of Eden” or “Garden at Eden.”

The second translation indicates that the garden and Eden are two different places. B’reishet chapter 2, verse 10 tells us that a river flows from Eden and waters the garden, indicating that the garden is next to Eden but isn’t Eden. The verse further provides us with some metaphysical geography. We’re informed that this river that comes from Eden and irrigates the garden as a single river then branches off into four parts. The unity of Creation appears to be preserved in the garden. Only one river leaves Eden to water it. But then this river splits into four separate rivers that each manifest a different direction of civilization.

I already mentioned that while most of Sefer B’reishit focuses on the building of Israel, the first two parshiot deal with the inner workings of humanity. The sudden injection of these rivers into the story of Adam in Gan Eden indicates that there’s something we should know about them in relation to the inner workings of humanity in the structure of Creation.

Our sages identify three of these four rivers with the great rivers of ancient civilizations. But there are different opinions regarding the identity of the first one – which the Torah calls the Pishon. The controversial historian Yosef ben-Matityahu – better known as Josephus Flavius – identifies the Pishon as the Indus or the Ganges, which would connect this first river with India.

The name of the second river is Giḥon, which our sages identify as the Nile. This would make Egypt the second of the great original civilizations. The name of the third river is Ḥiddekel, which our sages identify as the Tigris. It flows east of Assyria – the third civilization. And the fourth river, the Euphrates, is associated with Babylon.

When suddenly informing us of these rivers, the Torah isn’t teaching us geography. It’s not as if tracing these rivers to their source would help anyone discover the physical location of Eden. But what we are being shown is the internal structure of the universe and the spiritual source of these major ancient civilizations.

According to B’reishit chapter 2, verse 15, HaShem placed Adam in the garden “l’ovda ul’shomra” – “to work it and to guard it.” But what kind of work is this referring to if we know that Adam will only start having to preform manual labor after later being expelled from the garden?

Adam’s work inside the garden was spiritual and intellectual. Our sages teach that in the garden, the Divine Presence was so strong that the spiritual and material features of reality weren’t separate. Man could use his intellect and spiritual level to act on the material world. It was only outside the garden that the implementation of an idea would require physical effort in the way that we currently understand.

Another question we can ask is who Adam was meant to protect the garden from. There’s no indication that the garden was in any danger from any of the animals. The one creature we see capable of threatening the garden was Adam himself when he violated the Creator’s instructions regarding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. So here it appears that Adam was tasked with protecting the garden from himself.

We should understand the commandment to “protect the garden” not only as pertaining to Adam at the metaphysical level he was operating on, but also as an instruction given to all of humanity to guard our planet from our own destructive potential. Protecting our biosphere should therefore be understood as a Divine commandment.

After being instructed to work and guard the garden, Adam was told to eat of all the trees of Gan Eden except for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was prohibited to him. This idea of eating should not be understood as mere food consumption but rather cognition – the study and understanding of the external world and making it part of oneself. Adam was told to eat in order to assimilate knowledge into himself. But there was one form of knowledge – the Knowledge of Good and Evil – that he was not yet ready for.

Adam went through a process of assigning names to all of the different creatures – with each name describing the essence of that creature in relation to man. But it was clear from this experience that none of these creatures were the appropriate partner for Adam.

From a Hebrew grammatical perspective, the female form of the word Adam is adama, which means “land” or “soil.” Human beings are essentially coupled with the earth itself, from which Adam was created and which he works to cultivate.

Determining that it’s not right for Adam to be alone, HaShem put him to sleep and created from him a partner. Continuing to name the world around him, Adam calls this partner “isha” – “woman.” This name wasn’t a proper name but rather a function, indicating that Adam didn’t yet relate to her as an independent person. It was only later, after experiencing failure and growth, that Adam would name his partner Ḥava.

The snake, who we can understand as either an actual walking and talking snake or as the evil inclination within human beings, successfully convinced the woman to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She in turn shared this fruit with Adam. And as a result, they assimilated complexity into themselves. Prior to this, they had an intellectual understanding of good and evil which was very black and white. And external to them. But once they ate from the forbidden tree, this knowledge and all of its gray complexity became part of humanity’s internal essence.

Although we can argue that this constituted an advancement and higher stage of human development, it had taken place through the violation of the Creator’s command and was acquired prematurely. This required that Adam and his partner become mortal and leave Gan Eden so as not to harm the inner workings of our universe.

In our world, man would have to perform physical work and could no longer impact the world with the power of his intellect in the way that he was able to in the garden. Because Adam and his partner had consumed the Knowledge of Good and Evil before being ready for it, it became necessary for the Creator to limit their destructive capabilities by removing them from Gan Eden.

After sending Adam and his woman from the garden, HaShem stationed kruvim and a fiery rotating sword at the garden’s entrance to guard the Tree of Life, which the couple had not yet eaten from.

The role of kruvim appears to be to stand at the border between different worlds in order to guard the entrance of the higher of those worlds. We will later see two kruvim atop the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, marking the place from which Divine revelation enters our world.

The fiery sword constantly rotating in a circle can be understood as a straight line outwardly appearing like a circle. Our sages understand the straight line, the kav, to represent Divine guidance and participation in our world. The circle, the igul, represents the natural world. A spinning fiery sword – a straight line disguised as a circle, represents Divine Providence disguised as the natural course of events. The secret to accessing Gan Eden and the Tree of Life is therefore a deep recognition of HaShem’s active involvement behind the mask of nature and historic events.

Our sages teach that Kayin and Hevel had been born in the garden during the sixth day. Because there was no gap between knowledge and realization in Gan Eden, pregnancy wasn’t yet the long process that we know it to be today.

The name Kayin is grammatically derived from the word “kinyan” – “acquisition” or “kaniti” – “I have acquired.” Kayin yearns to acquire the world. To fill and conquer the earth as the Creator commanded humans do in B’reishit chapter 1, verse 28.

The name Hevel actually means futility or emptiness – at least independently, indicating that Hevel’s role was as a supplement to Kayin. When introducing Hevel in B’reishit chapter 4, verse 2, the Torah makes a point of calling him Kayin’s brother. Hevel isn’t self-sufficient and has no ability to build human civilization on his own. His purpose is to be a brother to Kayin – to help make his older brother the best he can be. Kayin is the central character who takes upon himself the mission of humanity. Hevel is an educator meant to help Kayin correct his mistakes and reach his full potential.

The same verse that introduces Hevel tells us that Hevel became a shepherd and Kayin became an “oved adama” – a “worker of the ground.” When Adam was removed from the garden, he was told that he will acquire bread to eat by the sweat of his brow. Kayin assumes this responsibility upon himself. And while this should be seen as praiseworthy, farming also carries the danger of one becoming so narrowly focused on his own piece of land that he has trouble noticing the broader world around him.

When telling us of Kayin’s profession, the Torah writes the word oved without the letter vav, which allows us to read it as eved – implying that he’s an “eved adama” – a “slave to the land.” A farmer treats the land like a slave and in the process runs the risk of developing a slave mentality. But with Hevel’s help, Kayin could potentially develop a broader outlook.

A shepherd isn’t tied down to any particular tract of land. His work requires constant movement and he’s able to observe and analyze the world around him. A good shepherd also needs to be able to nurture the proper behavior in his sheep and to persuade them to follow his instructions. He therefore develops the traits of an educator. Hevel’s mission was to educate Kayin to be the best version of himself and to properly approach his task.

In the ancient world, farmers and shepherds had completely different worldviews that often seemed to be in conflict. Farming is far more lucrative and would often serve as the basis of ancient civilizations like Egypt and Babylon that became great empires.

The shepherd, on the other hand, is less wealthy but freer to travel and broaden his horizons. Shepherds tend to be wiser, more worldly and spiritually stronger than farmers. But at the same time, the shepherd lacks roots and stability.

The correct balance between the approaches of the farmer and the shepherd would only be realized with the Hebrew civilization that would later flourish in the land of Israel. This prophetic synthesis would be achieved by an agricultural society with a national culture and worldview developed by cherished shepherd ancestors. And there would always be one Hebrew tribe, the tribe of Levi, that possessed no farmlands and focused on spiritual matters. And unlike the great agricultural civilizations like Egypt that relied on the Nile river for irrigation, Hebrew farmers would be dependent on rainfall and thus maintain a constant awareness of the Creator’s active control over the success of their harvest.

Humanity was destined to ultimately create this prophetic identity. But we are taught that in order to achieve prophecy, one must be ashir, ḥakham and gibor – wealthy, wise and mighty. Kayin the farmer represented wealth. Hevel the shepherd represented wisdom. If they could compliment one another and find the right balance between these values, they could become giborim. But this would require Hevel to successfully educate Kayin.

Following the harvest season, Kayin brought an offering to HaShem from the fruit of the ground. This was actually a very positive act and demonstrated an understanding for the correct positioning of human life in relation to the Creator. The only problem was that he brought it not from his first fruits or choicest produce but from his leftovers.

Hevel appears to have been influenced by Kayin’s example and also brought an offering. But he did so from the very best of his flock, which was also meant as a lesson to his older brother.

As a firstborn and primary character in the story of humankind, Kayin might have centered himself to the point that it was difficult for him to relate to the Creator as more important than himself. But Hevel, as a younger brother used to Kayin being at the center, had less trouble placing HaShem before himself.

The Creator accepted Hevel’s offering but not Kayin’s, which distressed Kayin. HaShem warned him that instead of being overwhelmed by disappointment, he should work to improve. And Kayin then actually turned to Hevel for help. He overcame whatever feelings of resentment he might have had and attempted to engage his younger brother in dialogue.

We don’t know what Kayin actually said to Hevel because B’reishet chapter 4, verses 8, appears to jump from Kayin trying to engage his brother in conversation to killing him. Our sages have suggested several explanations for what the brothers might have fought about but what’s clear from the text is that Kayin failed in his attempt to dialogue and ended up killing Hevel.

The fact that the verse twice states that Hevel was Kayin’s brother might indicate that Hevel’s failure and ultimate death resulted from not properly fulfilling this role. Kayin attempted to engage him for help. But instead of relating to Kayin as a brother – or even as a person – trying to have a real conversation, Hevel may have instead treated Kayin as merely an object to educate.

In any case, Hevel failed as an educator and Kayin in turn failed by killing him. As a consequence, HaShem removed Kayin from agricultural work and made him a wanderer – something that might help him acquire some of Hevel’s traits. HaShem also put a unique sign on Kayin to protect him on his new mission.

The Torah proceeds to tell us of Kayin’s descendants and of their great success in building human civilization. We’re then told that Adam and Ḥava had another son – Shet – and shown his decedents and their accomplishments.

Shet should be seen as a new improved version of Hevel. The name Shet connotes stability, which accounts for the error of Hevel being too airy in his personality and approach.

It’s important to note that the names recorded at this time – especially names given by Adam and Ḥava – are meant to teach us something either about the essence of a person or what their parents are attempting to accomplish through the name. Hevel failed as a counterweight to Kayin and now a more stable Shet is being introduced to replace him.

While Kayin’s descendants had much material success and characterized the value of wealth, Shet’s descendants manifested the values of wisdom and spirituality. But it would be a mistake to view one of these civilizations as good and the other evil because both had strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses of Kayin’s progeny led to harmful behavior towards other people while the weaknesses in Shet’s line led to problematic spiritual ideas and the practice of idolatry.

The key for properly integrating these two civilizations into one would be to unite the best and strongest elements of both. We even see in the names and professions of some of these descendants attempts by both lines to integrate the attributes of the other into their offspring.

Yaval, Yuval and Tuval-Kayin, for example, are descendants of Kayin with names phonetically close to Hevel. Yaval appears to have industrialized Hevel’s profession of shepherding and Yuval seems to have created the music industry. Both can be seen as applying the organizational skills of Kayin’s family to the spiritual pursuits associated with Hevel and Shet’s line. Kayin and his descendants appear to have built a technologically advanced civilization that had incorporated features of Hevel’s values and worldview.

We also see the name Keynan appear among the children of Shet, indicating that they too are seeking some form of synthesis between the material success of Kayin and the spiritual wisdom of Shet. By uniting the forces of the ashir and the ḥakham, it seems they hoped to create giborim – the prophetic identity able to fully integrate the values of the ashir and the ḥakham in order to achieve the goals of human civilization.

In B’reishit 4, verse 22, the Torah tells us of a female descendant of Kayin named Naama – which means “pleasant” and highlights the very best qualities of Kayin’s line. According to our sages, Naama will be taken as a wife by a well known descendant of Shet named Noaḥ.

In B’reishit 6, verse 2, we are told that the “b’nei HaElokim” – the “sons of G-D” – saw the “b’not HaAdam” – the “daughters of man” and took for themselves wives from whoever they chose. There have been many explanations for what this means – especially due to the fact that it’s presented to us as a prelude to the devastating flood that will occur in Parshat Noaḥ.

One popular interpretation is that the “b’nei HaElokim” are the privileged sons of rulers and that the “b’not HaAdam” are women from the more vulnerable general population. According to this explanation, we’re being shown an example of the wealthy exploiting the poor and taking their daughters without consent.

But there’s another way to look at this verse that might make more sense within the context of integrating the two civilizations. The “b’nei HaElokim” could be the sons of Shet and the “b’not HaAdam” could be the daughters of Kayin. This could actually be referring to the union of Noaḥ and Naama and possibly other marriages synthesizing the two lines as well. But because Noaḥ and Naama represented the best of their respective civilizations, humanity would ultimately continue through them and their descendants.

B’reishit 6, verse 4, actually strengthens this perspective by telling us that when the “b’nei HaElokim” – the ḥakhamim – would consort with the “b’not HaAdam” – the ashirim – the result would be the giborim – a new line of mighty humans able to productively combine the traits of wisdom and wealth in such a way that could advance humanity forward and ultimately achieve the goal of Creation.

[Published on Vision Magazine]

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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.