Bereshit/Genesis as metaphor

In the modern version of pagan idolatry – narcissism and selfworship – we have become our own idols.

AN ANCIENT manuscript sends Russell Woolfe on a surprising journey‘IF I didn’t grab this moment, I was never going to quit.’‘BERESHIT,’ AS painted by the writer’s mother, Anne Dann. (photo credit: Courtesy)
AN ANCIENT manuscript sends Russell Woolfe on a surprising journey‘IF I didn’t grab this moment, I was never going to quit.’‘BERESHIT,’ AS painted by the writer’s mother, Anne Dann.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Torah begins with descriptions of a world without form, the evolution of distinctions and differentiation – light/darkness, day/ night, sea/dry land, and the origins of life – and with rules, what is permitted and what is forbidden.
The purpose of this narrative is not to teach us how, but why. It is meant not as a precise record of the world’s creation and the way it works, but as a guiding metaphor: Life has meaning because it has order, structure and rules that define purpose and link us to transcendence.
From a Torah perspective, the origins of the universe and life are not scientific questions, but moral obligations. It’s irrelevant whether the world is 5,776 years old or 50 million years old. What matters is how one lives – and the structure the Torah provides is what shows us how to do so in a way that connects us to God.
This approach is apparent in God’s commanding Noah to build an ark – not only what to build, but how to build it, the type of wood, dimensions, etc. Yet the size of the ark is not important. It is significant only as a God-inspired vessel, a metaphor for our own bodies and our lives. Noah was building a ship not only to save himself and his family, but to create a new civilization, one that would eventually produce Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – followed by the Jewish people – and influence mankind.
This idea of a God-ordered universe is intended to counter pagan ideas that nature and natural forces occur randomly. In the biblical pagan societies, there were no moral or ethical boundaries. In contrast, Judaism is based on the belief that everything and everyone has a divine purpose in the world. Regardless of difficulties and tragedies, one is obligated to fulfill that purpose.
Essentially the Torah is concerned with the development of the Jewish people, its mission to transmit a set of values to mankind and its connection to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
The great 11th-century sage Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known by the acronym Rashi, brings a midrash (an insightful story from the rabbis of the Talmudic period) on the first word in the Torah, bereshit (in the beginning). According to Rashi, if the people of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” Israel can reply, “Earth belongs entirely to the Holy One, Blessed be He. He created it and He gave it to whomever He wished, according to His will.”
But what is the connection between the creation of the world and the right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael? Did these sages foresee the problems that the State of Israel would face today? Linking the two issues seems somewhat out of place, and to some, politically incorrect.
Rashi brings this midrash to teach us how we can learn the practical application of Jewish law from the idea that God created the world. While other nations base their sovereignty on force, the claim of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is based on God’s sovereignty. In order to realize their mission, the Jewish people require a specific place to build a society and institutions that reflect their purpose, creating sacred space in a holy land, a symbol of God’s presence in the world.
ULTIMATELY, THE Torah’s moral cosmology shifts our attention from random nature to human perfection, to an awareness of the inherent spark of divinity, a spirituality that separates man from animals. By reaching out to God, the all-encompassing infinite unity of the universe – past and future – man transcends his animal instincts and creates holiness.
The word kadosh, translated as “holy,” refers to something separated for a divinely intended purpose. It is a humanly activated process that creates holiness, reaching out to God. At a Jewish wedding, for example, when the groom says to his future wife, At mekudeshet li (you are holy/dedicated/set aside for me), it is an act of creating holiness. The sexual act that confirms this commitment becomes holy because it is meaningful – not meaningless.
From a Torah perspective, human life is only important when it serves a higher purpose, when self-sacrifice overcomes selfishness. Self-discipline and self-limitation are the building blocks of integrity and maturity. In practice, belief in God means setting boundaries, rules and restrictions, learning right from wrong, what is permitted and what is forbidden, and the difference between holy and profane as tools for developing consciousness and morality.
The shift from paganism to Torah-inspired life marks a new civilization and a new definition of human potential. It is the promise that is represented in the rainbow, a covenant with humanity; the covenant between God and the Patriarchs and Matriarchs; and God’s eternal bond with the Jewish people, which is connected with the Land of Israel.
Pagan religions not only worship inanimate objects and animals infused with macabre rituals of witches and warlocks. They represent cultures that glorify animalism. They are based on satisfying one’s most primitive desire – unrestrained sexuality. Modern forms of paganism objectify sex and sexual images as ends in themselves. Sex is nothing more than a commodity.
Hollywood exploited this and turned it into an art form, while advertisers use it to make money. People in power use it to take advantage of those who are vulnerable. It has infected our civilization, and we are all its victims.
In the modern version of pagan idolatry – narcissism and self-worship – we have become our own idols.
In contrast, Judaism does not deny sexuality, but gives it a meaningful context: marriage and family, transcendence and connection to God. Judaism teaches how to make order out of chaos through acts of self-restraint rather than self-indulgence.
That is what creation is all about – an awareness of where we came from and why we are here.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist. His book of short stories, As Far As the Eye Can See, was published recently by the New English Review Press.