Thoughts on Bereshit (5779/2018)   

(Genesis 1:1 – 6:8) [dvar torah given Friday evening 10/5/18]

[On the occasion of Jake W. becoming a bar mitzvah]

In the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, which is part of this week’s first Torah Portion of the yearly lectionary cycle, God creates אָדָם  )”Adam”)[1] .  The name Adam first appears as a generic term for human beings – male and female.  As we learn in Genesis 1: 26-27:

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; …

26 And God said: 'Let us make ADAM in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'

כז  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

27 And God created the ADAM in [God

s] own image, in the image of God did [God] create it; male and female [God] created them.

In Genesis 2, which has a somewhat different version of the Creation story, the androgynous species of Genesis 1 becomes a particular individual character --- Adam – who, along with his companion Eve – eat the forbidden fruit and are banished from Paradise.  

Then their first son Cain murders their second son Abel, and Cain, like his parents before him, is banished from his home to wander the earth as a marked man.

Later on, Adam and Eve become parents to a third son, Seth (or, in the original Hebrew,  שֵׁת  [Sheyt]).   

And Seth later has a son called Enosh..

The name “Enosh”, like the name “Adam”, functions as both an individual character and as a generic term for humanity. 

As a character – we read that Enosh is the son of Seth.  He is next in a line of ten generations from Adam to Noah.

But “Enosh”, like “Adam” is also a symbolic name designating human beings in general.

As the Psalmist writes (and as our choir sang during our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur):

אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כֶּֽחָצִ֣יר יָמָ֑יו    כְּצִ֥יץ הַ֝שָּׂדֶ֗ה כֵּ֣ן יָצִֽיץ׃
כִּ֤י ר֣וּחַ עָֽבְרָה־בּ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶ֑נּוּ    וְלֹֽא־יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃
וְחֶ֤סֶד ה׳ מֵֽעוֹלָ֣ם וְעַד־ע֭וֹלָם    עַל־יְרֵאָ֑יו
וְ֝צִדְקָת֗וֹ    לִבְנֵ֥י בָנִֽים׃

The days of man[2] are but as grass :
 he flourishes like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone :
 and its place will know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Eternal endures for ever and ever
   toward those that fear God :
 and God’s righteousness is upon their children’s children;

(Psalm 103: 15-17)

(Though, ironically, Enosh, the biblical character, is reported to have lived for 905 years!) 

What else do we know about Enosh?

The Torah adds a side comment right after it reports his birth, the last five Hebrew words of which are ambiguous:

As we read in Genesis 4:26:  ---

  וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה

26 As for Seth, to him too was born a son, and he named him Enosh.  Then it was that people began to invoke the Eternal.

Well, maybe the English translation I just read, from our Plaut Torah Commentary[3] doesn’t sound ambiguous but that’s because the translators have already made a decision about how to resolve the ambiguity of the Hebrew phrase ----

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

The ambiguity is that the Hebrew word “huchal” can mean either “began” or “profaned”.  The translation in our Plaut Torah commentary follows the reasoning of medieval commentators like Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. 

They argue that the phrase אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'.  means “Then they BEGAN to pray to God.

Other commentators of the middle ages follow Rashi, who bases his commentary on still older midrashim.  Rashi argues that “Huchal” is a term related to the word “Chulin”  [meaning “profane”].

Rashi explains that the verse means that God’s name was being profaned (huchal) הוּחַל  through the actions of people who would (likro beshem Adonai) לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה' --- that is to say, people who would call various things and other people by the name of God.  In other words, people were committing idolatry by worshipping other people or other things  --- as deities. 

Accordingly, the Artscrooll Chumash, an Orthodox Torah commentary[4] – translates

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

as “Then, to call in the name of Hashem became profaned.”

So, comparing those two possible interpretations of Genesis 4:26 side by side, the verse could mean that the birth of Adam and Eve’s first grandchild – the birth of Enosh  --- which as we have seen can also symbolically be understood as a new beginning for all of humanity – that this was a time when either (A) people began to invoke the name of God or (B) people committed profanity and idolatry when they invoked the name of God

Both of these interpretations seem to me to have merit.

First there’s the approach of the Midrash and of Rashi:  As far back as the earliest days of humanity, people were already committing evil and yet claiming to do so in God’s name.

There are too many examples to recount of how this flaw in humanity has extended through the ages to the present day!

Genocides have been committed -- purportedly in the name of God.

Discrimination has been perpetrated -- purportedly in the name of God.

Hatred has been fanned -- purportedly in the name of God.

It’s enough to turn a person off from religion entirely – and, indeed, that’s what we find in a large swath of the population today.

But here we all are today, gathered in this House of God, celebrating the holy Sabbath, as a kehillah kedoshah/ a holy congregation  -- rejoicing as another member of the Jewish people reaches the age of religious maturity.

Whatever that earlier generation of Enosh ben Sheyt  (“Enosh, son of Seth”) was doing --- our generation of Enosh – the human race --- must seek holiness not profanation.

When we read in the Torah in Parashat Bereshit

  אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

We hope to identify with huchal as “techilah” – a new “beginning” and not with huchal as “chullin” a “profanation”.

If Enosh symbolizes all of Humanity – we want to be among those following in the footsteps of the generations upon generations of people of good will of all nations, faiths and backgrounds of whom it could have been said

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'. 

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

in the sense of “It was then that people began to call upon the name of the Eternal.”

To call upon God -- לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'  (likro beshem Adonai) --is to call upon the best and most humane values we can draw from our hearts, our souls, our beings and our sacred heritage.

As it says in tractate Sotah of the Talmud:

Just as God clothed the naked [referring to Adam and Eve], so too you should cloth the naked.

Just as God visited the sick [referring to Abraham after his circumcision], so too you should visit the sick.

Just as God consoled the mourners [referring to Isaac after Abraham's death], so too you should console the mourners.

Just as God buried the dead [referring to Moses], so too you should bury the dead."[5]

Each of us continues to develop morally and spiritually throughout our lives.  However, Jewish tradition teaches us that reaching the age of 13, the age of becoming a Bar Mitzvah, is an important milepost on that journey.  Jake has already been blessed with a loving family who have instilled good values in him, and with friends within and beyond our congregation who are proud of him and rooting for him. 

We all are confident that he will do a great job tomorrow morning as he takes his place as a full member of the Jewish community.

Life is all about choices.

Torah teaches

אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'

(az huchal likro beshem Adonai)

Then it began that people would invoke the name of the Eternal.

For us too, on this Sabbath when we begin once more our Torah reading cycle, and when one more young man begins this new stage of his life, may it be an auspicious beginning with only the best yet to come, not just for Jake but for all of us.

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2018/ Tishri 5779)

[1] In the original Hebrew pronunciation both “a”’s in the word “Adam” are like the “a” in the English word “mop” or “stop” – but as an American would pronounce them…

[2] Hebrew: “Enosh”

[3] https://www.ccarpress.org/shopping_product_detail.asp?pid=50297

[4] http://www.artscroll.com/Books/9780899060149.html

[5] https://www.sefaria.org/Sotah.14a?lang=bi

Posted on October 10, 2018 .