B’reishit: A glimpse of what might have been

Parashat B’reishit has the allusive quality of Midrash Aggadah, and calls forth a truth in the listener that is far deeper than anything amenable to the rational mind.

Those who insist on taking the creation story literally not only run aground on hard scientific facts, but also miss the deeper meaning. Trying to explain a midrash in the language of science is like trying to “explain” poetic symbolism or allusion, or trying to rationalize the way Bach’s Toccata and Fugue affects our emotions the way it does. One can no more reduce midrash to fact than one can ask whether the symbolism of a dream is “real”.

The account of human creation in B’reishit speaks to that part of us that is touched by music. Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun teaches that the Torah is meant to be sung. This is especially true of the creation account in B’reishit, as he illustrated in a lecture at the Tanakh Study Days at Herzog College two years ago.

B’reishit as midrash

The creation story very likely predates the giving of the written Torah. But then, so do many aggadic midrashim. And even the simpler midrashim may point to a truth beyond fact. Take the oft-cited midrash that “Yitzhak studied in the yeshiva of Shem”. Are we to conclude that Yitzhak put on a black suit and hat and sat studying Torah? The deeper meaning is both richer and more ancient—it alludes to knowledge handed down over generations. Just as Shem was the physical ancestor of Yitzhak, so was he the progenitor of Yitzhak’s cultural identity.

B’reishit, in the way of any truly rich midrash, takes us into a frame of reference that is often inaccessible to our rational side. It leads us into the deepest layers of human consciousness, before we were recognizably human. It points to truths that cannot be named but are nevertheless known with some deeper part of the mind: that we were once other than human, that we lived in balance with other animals, unconscious of death, careless of the future.

It is an awareness that we too often know only from the outside, through studying the paleontological remains of our pre-human selves. B’reishit takes us inside our own seminal moments and shows us to ourselves from the position of what might have been.

The Tree of Large Brains and Opposable Thumbs

One of the distinctive features of the story of humans in Gan Eden is the role of woman in precipitating “the fall”. Of course, from our standpoint as evolved beings—as the products of our chosen evolutionary path—we tend to see this not so much a “fall” as an ascent up the evolutionary ladder. We will come back to why we might see our evolution as a wrong turn a bit later–for now, let’s stay with the idea that women had some special role in it.

One intriguing exploration of this idea is the Grandmother Hypothesis, which sees our larger brains as a result of our valuing our elders enough to support them in their old age. The theory goes that while elderly men do not engage in nurturing, elderly women tend to share their resources with their direct kin, freeing mothers to support larger families with less effort.

Kristen Hawkes ran mathematical models that showed that “even weak grandmothering drives the evolution of longevity from an ape-like value into the human range.”

With the kids provided for, natural selection was free to favor those with larger brains, thus paving the way for those apes to evolve into humans. And grandmothers’ style of upbringing, with its emphasis on social dependence, gave rise to “a whole array of social capacities that are then the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.” Grandmothers, Hawkes says, are what make us human.

The Curse of Adam

But there are no free lunches; accelerated evolution had to be paid for. While most animals are not greatly encumbered by pregnancy, and give birth with relative ease, the prodigious growth in human brain size resulted in difficult childbirths. The lengthier childhood of human development also led to changes in family roles, as mothers were dependent upon their men to support them for longer periods.

Further, the natural growth of human societal groupings as a result of our increasing sociability inevitably led to radical shifts in lifestyle. As societies became larger, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle no longer provided enough to fuel the increasing number of dependents. The agrarian society was the logical next step, and allowed human populations to spread to less hospitable climates.

These changes are clothed in the allusive poetry of B’reishit, which sees these natural consequences through the subjective lens of a species torn asunder, forced to adapt to a new inner reality in an evolutionary blink of an eye:

אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה אָמַר, הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ–בְּעֶצֶב, תֵּלְדִי בָנִים; וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ. ….וּלְאָדָם אָמַר, כִּי-שָׁמַעְתָּ לְקוֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ, וַתֹּאכַל מִן-הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לֵאמֹר לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ–אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה, בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ, בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכְלֶנָּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.


To the woman He said: “I will increase the distress of your pregnancy and in pain you will bear children. Your desire will be for your man and he will rule you. To the man He said: “Because you listened to the voice of your woman to eat the fruit of of the tree which I commanded you not to eat from, cursed will the land be because of you and in sorrow will you eat all the days of your life.”

The word for sorrow or distress–etzev–is used in both curses, hinting perhaps at the pain of what might have been.

But there are other consequences that are not so obvious, and yet they too are hinted at in B’reishit:

מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע–לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ:  כִּי, בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ–מוֹת תָּמוּת.

“From all the trees of the garden you may eat. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it you will die (mot tamut).”

The Hebrew emphatic infinitive—mot tamut—begs for interpretation. On the p’shat level, it is simply an artifice of language, a way to emphasize the seriousness of the command. But let us indulge in the type of midrashic interpretation taught us by our tradition… Might the doubling of the word for death hint at the shift in consciousness which grew from our evolution? After all, every creature dies; that didn’t change when our ancestors took their first step on the road of human evolution.

But something did change. For most animals the instinct for self-preservation is unvoiced and unreasoned. They are not conscious of their impending death; we are. Our knowledge of our own mortality is a subtle consequence of the purely human brain—its ability to map out the future, to imagine, to empathize and live vicariously through others. We die twice, once actually, and once when we truly understand that there is no escape.

Would this consciousness have come to us in a gentler manner had we not “jumped the gun” and chosen the fast track of evolution? Would we have remained a little longer in the Garden had we waited for the fruit of knowledge to ripen and fall at our feet on its own—waited for God to hand it to us freely?

We have no way of knowing. We know only what did happen: we chose our evolutionary path and accepted the consequences. We left the Garden.

The curses of Adam would certainly look like terrible punishments to pre-exilic Adam, and yet, from our standpoint in that Adam’s future, they are seen merely as the natural consequences of our evolution. But that isn’t to say that they must be accepted for all time. They are descriptive, not prescriptive.

As Berel Dov Lerner points out in this very thoughtful article:

Although God may have made work difficult for man, it is no human’s job to insure that weeds choke my vegetable garden. The Torah does not depict these punishments as a penance to which we must dutifully submit, but, rather, as objective difficulties against which we must struggle. Although God has caused childbirth to be painful and dangerous, the Torah has nothing but praise for the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who served the Jewish women in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-21). Later Jewish tradition also supports the efforts of those who could try to lighten the burden of God’s curses. Rashi explains that Noah eased the toils of his generation by inventing agricultural implements (see his comments on 5:29).

Shabbat: a glimpse of what might have been

What might we have become had we not eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and precipitated our own evolution? And if it was inevitable that we do so, did God have a backup plan? An answer to both questions is hinted at in our observance of Shabbat. It’s no coincidence that Shabbat is connected with the process of creation, and specifically with the end of the process.

What is the common denominator of all those categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat? I might be tempted to say that they all involve the changing of one thing into another, but that alone is insufficient. We change the chemical composition of substances just by eating!

No, the common denominator is more subtle: it is that all of the 39 categories of Melachah involve conscious transformation—tool making! If you are putting conscious effort into making something into a usable tool—transforming it into something else with which to accomplish yet a third thing—then you are doing something that most non-human animals don’t do. And it is just such things that fall under the heading of melachah.

Shabbat is a time when we turn back the clock and return to the Gan Eden phase of our development. No tool-making, no fire-making, no willfull reshaping of our environment. On Shabbat we may have a wistful glimpse of ourselves as we might have been, had we taken our evolution in a different direction—had we not eaten from the Tree of Large Brains and Opposable Thumbs!

But perhaps we can see the same answer in other places as well. For example, the ocean! Here is a social creature, the dolphin, that forms families and societies similar to our own, where dependents are cared for, where stories and knowledge are shared, a society where individuals have names for one another. And yet, they do not make tools, and use them only in limited fashion. They live in a perpetual Shabbat. They never left the Garden.

Might dolphins have their own equivalent to B’reishit, one in which they waited patiently to be given the fruit of the tree of knowledge from God’s open hand? Perhaps one day we will be able to ask them.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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