Does a Bere’shit in the woods?

October 19th, 2009

Whether they are Reform or Orthodox, all religious Jews are literally on the same page: we all read the same section of the Torah every week, broken up so that we read the entire Torah (i.e., the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) every year. Each Torah portion is named after its first word or phrase. We finished the Torah, this year, on October 10, and started it again in Genesis this past Saturday.

Genesis begins with “In the beginning,” which in Hebrew is Bere’shit, so that is what we call it. Four years ago, I’d started writing a little essay on Sundays, a personal reflection on that week’s portion. Because I couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing these, that didn’t last too long. But I thought I’d share the one I wrote on Bere’shit with you. Even if you’re not religious, I think it speaks to something about the nature of creativity and otherness. Or maybe it will leave you cold. I don’t expect every post to hit home with every reader.

This week’s Torah portion, Bere’shit, contains one of the oddest and funniest scenes in the Torah. In Genesis 2:18-21 we read, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a fitting helper for him.’ And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found.”

Now this, to me, clearly indicates that HaShem* may not have known exactly what it was He’d created when he made Adam. The issue of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, as well as the entire question of how we can have free will if God already knows everything we will do—that I will leave to theologians. But taking a purely literary or theatrical approach to the passage, there is no doubt that HaShem is, at this point, a bit confused about what he might have on His divine hands, if He seriously thinks that He can find Adam a suitable mate from all the animals in creation.

It’s a scene I’d love to see the old Monty Python crew perform (John Cleese as God, of course, and Michael Palin as Adam). “All right then, Adam, let’s get you some company, my boy. Giraffe? No, no, too tall. A tiger, perhaps? Erm, might be a bit dangerous, that. Sheep? No, you’re not from New Zealand, are you … Bother, I’m not quite sure what is going to work here …” And when He does finally decide He’d better just make another human, He creates her from the original model, as though He’s not quite sure what might happen if he tried that “breathing life into dust” thing again.

To suggest that God may have been a bit unclear about the nature of His creation is not to take away from His authority or wisdom. Parents, and artists, can all attest to the “shock of the new,” the awareness that this thing you made has a life, and a spirit, entirely of its own. I think this is what’s going on in Parashat Bere’shit, and it shed light, for me, on why, perhaps, God created us.

Here’s what I think: I think He wanted to be surprised. Look at verse 19, in which God brings the animals before Adam not just to see which might make him a suitable mate, but “to see what he would call them.” What’s he gonna do? That’s what God is asking Himself. I feel a sense of play, of experiment, in HaShem at this point. What will Adam make of all of this? It’s the same delight you see in a parent giving her baby a new toy. Will he like it? Will he be afraid of it? Will he do something utterly surprising and funny, and take my breath away with delight?

Of course, as the Canadian folk singer Jane Siberry so wisely noted, “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.” And I suspect having gotten a new dog—on Simchat Torah, no less—is strongly influencing my reading of this passage. Milo pleases me when he obeys me. But he delights me when he surprises me—by doing something so purely and ineluctably him, that for all my superior wisdom and learning I could never have predicted it. When he jumps straight up in the air, almost as high as my shoulder. When he decides for his own obscure canine reasons that he must, right now, protect us from the evil, menacing bunch of bananas lying on the kitchen shelf. When he puts the side of his head on the floor and rotates himself around in a circle like Curly from the Three Stooges. His obedience pleases me, his affection warms me, but his ability to surprise, to always be the unique creature that he is, breaks me out of myself and into sheer joy.

So obey God. And love God. But just as importantly, always, always be yourself and hope that somewhere up there He is laughing in delight at you.

*HaShem is Hebrew for “The Name,” and is one of the ways we refer to God. So please, people, if you’re trying to be all interfaith and tolerant, stop writing things like “Whether you pray to God, Allah, or Yahweh …” For one thing, Allah is God. It’s the Arabic word for “God.” Arab Christians pray to Allah, too. It’s not like some whole different character. For another, no one prays to Yahweh, at least no Jews do. If you want to come up with a Jewish way of saying “God,” it’s “HaShem.” We don’t say “Yahweh,” and we don’t say “Jehovah,” either, except when we’re quoting “Life of Brian.”


8 Responses to “Does a Bere’shit in the woods?”

  1. Fillyjonk on October 19, 2009 10:51 am

    1) You should have seen my face when I read the title of this post.

    2) Are you planning ever to write a book on Judaism? I’d buy it.

    3) We should come up with a replacement for “whether you pray to God, Allah, or Yahweh,” which drives me spare for both the reasons you mention. I would suggest “no matter what language you pray to god in…” but it ends in a preposition.

  2. Robin on October 19, 2009 11:36 am

    1) That’s the kind of joke you have to be a convert to see, I think. People who were raised in the tradition take that extremely weird title for granted.

    2) I hope to!

    3) I like yours. I’m not fussy about that preposition thing.

  3. occhiblu on October 19, 2009 12:21 pm

    One of my favorite creation stories is a tantric Hindu story in which Shakti creates humans because she’s basically bored of being omnipotent and so she creates us so that she can experience and take joy in the world through our limitations.

  4. Shulamuth on October 19, 2009 1:19 pm

    Great drash. Keep it up.

  5. Dmajor on October 19, 2009 1:46 pm

    Didn’t even notice the pun in the title until I went back and looked a 2nd time. Now I’m probably gonna think of that every time. Thanks.

    Also, don’t some congregations read around on a three-year cycle? Do they make sure to include the very first verses each time around, no matter what?

  6. jenandmolly on October 19, 2009 7:13 pm

    Imagine my surprise as a protestant that Jews don’t call God Yahweh! I did not know that! Anyway – I love your interpretation of God as being playful and taking delight in us as we do our children (or pets). That’s the God I’d prefer…over the one I was raised with (damnation all over the place!) I’d love to read a book by you explaining your way through the rest of the Bible!

  7. E.A. Week on October 20, 2009 10:04 am

    As somone who has read the MC book cover to cover a couple of times (and quotes bits of it at unsuspecting strangers), I would happily read anything else she happened to write, especially anything on religion. The religion chapter in MCMOM was my second-favorite (after the one about dogs), and this post was incredibly thought-provoking. And funny. I would love to see a book (or an article or a blog entry or whatever) on why people change religions. I have a couple of friends who made some pretty radical faith changes, and I’ve done some exploring myself, and it’s a fascinating topic.

  8. Jay on October 20, 2009 11:45 pm

    This is marvelous. Just marvelous. Thank you. I’d love to see you do a d’var on every parshah. One more data point – I’m a born Jew and I loved the title. Made me giggle. My husband converted, so that might affect my perspective, though.

    Dmajor, we read the beginning of bere’shit every year on Simchat Torah. I don’t know for sure if it’s always part of the regular Torah reading on the three-year plan but I don’t think so.

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