And so we begin again. Just as we do every year a few days after the celebrations of Simchat Torah, this week we will read again the very first parsha of the whole Torah – Bereishit. We read about the creation of the world, the creation of animals, the creation of human beings. We read about the first day and the first night and the first people. And then we read about the first sin.
The sin of Adam and Chava eating from the one tree that Hashem had forbidden them to eat from. However, there is an inconsistency within the text. G-d’s command to Adam is “but from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you shall not eat from it, because on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die” (Bereishit, 2:16). However, when the snake questions Chava about the command, she relates it as “from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, G-d has said you shall not eat from it and you shall not touch it in case you die” (Bereishit, 3:3). Rashi explains the additional prohibition against touching the tree as arising from Chava herself adding to the command (Rashi, Bereishit, 3:3). However, the Midrash Aggadah explains that Adam added to the command and relayed Hashem’s instructions with an additional warning to his wife (Midrash Aggadah, Bereishit, 3:3:1). However, Adam did not make it clear to Chava what Hashem had commanded and what was an extra level of stringency. This led to the snake being able to trick Chava and persuade her to sin.
This incident is interestingly linked by a different Midrash to Matan Torah. There, Hashem tells Moshe “so you shall say to the house of Yaakov and tell to the children of Yisrael” (Shemot, 19:3). The Midrash addresses the seemingly repetitive language of the pasuk, explaining that the “house of Yaakov” refers to the women whilst “children of Yisrael” refers to the men (Shemot Rabbah, Shemot, 28:2). The Midrash develops this idea further, explaining why the women were addressed first and linking it to our parsha. Only Adam was commanded not to eat from the tree; he added to the command and this played a role in causing the sin. Therefore, when Hashem gave the Torah, He first gave it to the women, to reduce the likelihood of women misunderstanding – and therefore nullifying – the words of the Torah.
The irony would be amusing if it wasn’t so frustrating. We read this parsha less than a week after Simchat Torah – a day which highlights many controversies in our communities about women and their relationship to Torah. And now comes Parshat Bereishit, warning of the dangers of denying women access to Torah. And warning of the consequences, not just for individuals but for all of humanity, when women are barred from encountering G-d’s word and understanding exactly what He wants from them.
This parsha marks a beginning, a blank slate. All is yet to be decided. Like the cycle of the Jewish year, the cycle of the Parshiyot is not linear; it spirals upwards and encourages us to keep learning and growing more each year. Each time we read a parsha or encounter a chag again is a chance for us to learn more about it, to gain something new. Just because it is familiar, we are not exempt from increasing our understanding more each year. We think we know how the story goes – the story of the parsha, the story of the entire Torah, the story of the women in Orthodox Jewish communities. But perhaps we need to approach these stories with fresh eyes, with new perspectives (within the bounds of halacha and mesorah) and ready to learn more.
When we encounter Parshat Bereishit this week, we are not starting again. We are starting anew.