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Just One Word

Parshat Bereshit

This week’s Torah Portion, Bereshit, contains perhaps the most famous line in literature EVER! “In the Beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” It’s the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Torah. Now, if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that the Torah is a fairy tale because of this Parsha, I could have retired comfortably long ago. Yes, I saw Jurassic Park and know that the world was not created in 6 days, 5783 years ago; and yes, I read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and understand the Big Bang but, in our tradition, the literal level of the Torah is considered the most simplistic understanding of the text. Judging the Torah from its literal meaning is like judging a person by the clothes that he or she wears. It’s just the surface. There is so much more to the person than their clothes, just as there’s so much more to Torah than the literal text. There’s always something more to learn when we look deeper into the Torah. The question is not what the Torah says on its literal level. The question is what do we learn from the nuance in every word? Because one word can make a world of difference.

According to the Parsha, on the fifth day of “creation” the first living beings were created: “And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with schools of living beings, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky.' And God created the giants of the Sea, and every living being that creeps in the waters according to its kind, and every bird according to its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the sea, and let fowl multiply in the earth.' ” Gen. 1:20-22

The last thing to be “created” in the first chapter of Genesis, were humans; a male and a female together (not just one man, that’s in the second chapter). Interestingly, the exact same blessing that was given to all the life in the water was bestowed upon humans as well, with one small difference. After humans were created the text says: “And God blessed them, and said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, fill the earth… and subdue it.’ ” (Gen. 1:28)

In Hebrew it says: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ. The only difference between God’s blessing of the sea life and God’s blessing of humans is the last word, כִבְשֻׁהָ which is generally translated as “subdue it.” However, the beauty of language is that one word can have several meanings. How we understand such a word depends upon the context in which it’s found. If we think humans are the pinnacle of creation then OK, we might think of כִבְשֻׁהָ as “subdue it,” as in the earth, and have dominion over it. This anthropocentric view sees everything that was created, as having been created for us.

On the other hand, there are other meanings of the word כִבְשֻׁהָ. Of course, it means “subdue it” or “occupy it” but, it also means “preserve it.” With this understanding we see humans, not as the center or pinnacle of creation, but rather as just the final piece in the beautiful puzzle of creation. We are not the only beings created by God, and we are not the only beings blessed by God.

The distinction between humans and the other parts of creation, is that we have free will to choose how we live and what we do. The fish are blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the Sea. The birds are blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the sky. Why are they not told to subdue or preserve their environment? Simple. Because a fish will never destroy the environment in which it lives. A bird will never destroy the environment in which it lives. In fact, this is the beauty of creation: according to the Divine Laws of Nature, everything lives in harmony, in a symbiotic relationship with its environment to make up this glorious planet on which we live. Everything, that is, except humans. Sure, a lion will eat a zebra, and a shark will eat a seal, but the lion will never eat the entire herd, and the shark will never consume the entire pod. Only humans have the capacity to subdue and destroy our environment. Which is why that one word makes a world of difference.

As we enter the New Year, I hope we all will accept the responsibility that was placed upon humanity to preserve our environment. If we do, together we can make a world of difference.


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