2006Parshat Bereshit begins the Torah by detailing the creation of the world, describing the timing and substance of each step of creation with extreme care. Each element of creation begins with God’s direction and then highlights that the action was completed. “God said ‘let there be light’, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3), etc. God created the entire universe with His voice, except for humans, whom God formed in His own image from the dust of the earth and a breath of divine spirit to provide life. God gives humans reign over all other creations. Man would have eternal life and endless Shabbat in the Garden of Eden with a single caveat: do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We all know what happens next, the serpent (understood by many as a representation of our Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination) tempts Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit. Eve feeds the fruit to Adam and they became aware of their nakedness. God commanded the first man and woman to perform just a single mitzvah, commandment – not to eat the fruit -- and they break that mitzvah within the same day.
Words that Build, Words that Destroy
Throughout the parsha, people repeatedly use the gift of speech – that selfsame action that God used to create the universe – in a non-productive way, making excuses and not holding themselves accountable for their actions. For example, instead of appreciating Eve, Adam blames Eve (Genesis 3:12 – “The woman whom you gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree, and I ate”). Similarly, after the sin of eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve blames the snake (Genesis 3:13 – “The serpent deceived me, and I ate”). Then later, Cain refuses to address God’s question about Abel after Cain murders him (Genesis 4:9 – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”). We can learn much about human nature from these events, namely that it is so easy for us to fall into the habit of Lashon HaRah, evil speech, rather than to positive speech.
There is a stark dichotomy between the creative force of God’s voice and the destructive force of Lashon HaRah. Our sages teach that in His image relates to the attribute of choice over our actions and our ability to communicate. While we should choose to use our voices in creative and not destructive ways, our evil inclination is crafty and helps us find the wrong ways to communicate. Our sages state that one who profanes the sacred (e.g., embarrasses his friend publicly) denies his share in the World to Come (Pirke Avot 3:11). God made man in His image (Genesis 1:26) and each person is therefore a sacred image of God. To criticize, neglect or otherwise harm another person is to act destructively toward God’s creation and thereby to God himself. For example, sarcasm is a way of life for many of us and is a very selfish form of communication. Sarcasm makes others feel as if they are somehow less than they should be. It is demeaning and potentially demoralizing, yet it has become a standard mode of communication in our culture.
We have made it through the Asseret Y’Mei Teshuva (Ten Days of Awe) and are moving forward into the new year. I hope that we will each merit blessing this year of spiritual growth and positive experiences, and that we will use this next phase of creation to perfect ourselves and our world through acts of kindness toward others and the elimination of evil speech.
Written by Ron Mizrahi, Associate IT Director of Hillel’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Bereshit at MyJewishLearning.com.