The website of Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Bereshit-Chapter 1

"Genesis, with its less than 100 pages, need not fear comparison in content and form, in its inexhaustibility and in its impact on human thought and art, with any other book of any length in any tongue."

The book of Genesis (Bereshit in Hebrew) purports to answer several momentous questions regarding Judaism’s understanding of human life and how it should be conducted. One could say that the first words of Bereshit are there to answer the question of what it means to be a human being.


           This is because the initial words of the book, which inaugurates the Torah (the first of the three divisions that constitute the TaNaKh, i. e. the Hebrew Scriptures), address questions about the creation of the world, human life, and God.


While it is clear that the Torah teaches God’s existence as the Creator of the universe and human beings, its objective is not to examine God’s nature. Bereshit, or any other book in the TaNaKh, does not speculate about God’s activities before the world’s creation or, quite generally, with anything that does not affect human beings. The Tanakh’s concern with God is only in God’s relationship with human beings. Thus, one wishing to understand the Biblical concept of God can only do so by exploring what it means when it describes humanity as “His image and likeness.”

In the ancient Near East, literary works were named by their initial word or phrase. In this case, the first book of the Torah is called in Hebrew“Bereshit” (“In the beginning”), as this is the first word with it starts

However, in the third century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), the Greek translators of what is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) named it Genesis 


because this first book of the Torah starts with an account of the origin of the world.

The book is divided into 50 chapters—a practice initiated by Rabbi Solomon ben Ishmael (ca. 1330) and borrowed from Christian Bibles.

The Hanging Threat of Chaos

When God began to create heaven and earth-the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water

There is an ancient rabbinic interpretation that explains why the Bible opens with the letter bet (ב ): “Just as bet is closed on three sides and open only in front [ to the left, in the direction of the ensuing text, as Hebrew is written from right to left]. So, you are not permitted

 to investigate what is above in the heavens and what is below [the deep], what is before  and what is [to happen] after [the world’s existence- you are permitted only from the time the world was created and thereafter [the world we live in.” Genesis Rabbah 1:10

The creation story in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis would be misunderstood if it was read simply as a report about a moment in the remote past when the world was created.

The Book of Bereshit (“Genesis”), the first book of Israel’s foundational literature, begins with a general description of what was there before the first word was spoken: It was tohu va bohu: “the earth being unformed and void.”


Accordingly, Genesis doesn’t say that the world was created out of nothing but that a progressive process of separation, division, and differentiation made possible an ordered and viable place for life to take root.

Most modern scholars understand the creation story in Genesis chapter 1 as reflecting the idea of creation out of chaos.

The term” chaos,” often used to suggest a breakdown of order and reversal of role performance in the TaNaKh, remains residually present and active as a threat to the created order.


Hebrew Scriptures posit that creating an ordered universe out of primordial chaos is not enough. Unless order is maintained, chaotic forces will overwhelm the cosmos.

“Chaos,” to be sure, is not an independent entity, a “force,” but instead, it is the result of the mismanagement of forces.

Confronting chaos is the cosmos: the universe, the intelligent solutions constantly elaborated by human beings to keep chaos at bay.


 The 13th-century biblical commentator R. David Kimhi (Radak) reads the verse in Genesis, “God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done” as “God ceased the work of creation for human beings to continue it: God created the world and human beings; from that point onwards, it is up to human being’s to transform chaos into cosmos, disorder, into order.

Taming of Creativity

As we learn every day, the universe is not a permanent structure but a constant flux of bringing into being what wasn’t. The world is constantly being created. In the words of the first of the benedictions of the Morning Services, the “Yotzer” prayer: “‘in goodness, the work of creation is daily renewed” (an idea taken from the Talmud, based on the prophet Isaiah)


If to create means to bring into being something that had not existed before, “creation” in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis refers not to the end of a process but to the unending creative process.


The “Creation Story” in the book of Genesis tells that creativity is part and parcel of what makes the universe what it is: Creativity is one of the universe’s characteristics.


The first two chapters of the Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, are not so much an answer to the question: “How did the world come to be?” as to the question, “What is the world?”


Bereshit’s answer is:  The world is “creativity.”


At the risk of being prosaic, it is good to remember that unless there is an uninterrupted flow of the new, there is no world possible. No life is possible without constant creativity and bringing the new.


However, creativity must be directed toward bringing goods into the world, not evils. Thus, the first chapter of the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Scriptures, correlates “creativity” with “good.” Not all that is created that is brought upon is good. The fallacy, however, is to think that because some creations are bad, the new is bad.


The first two chapters of Bereshit say that there must be creativity if there is going to be a world. The rest of the 305,500 words that conform the Hebrew text of the 24 books of the TaNaKh, Israel’s foundational literature, are mainly dedicated on how to tame creativity so that it is “good.”

The Meaning of Life

And God said, let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness

Almost in the same breath, as it utters these words, the Torah clarifies what it means to be the “image and likeness of God;” it means having to fulfill a task:

…fill the earth, and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the creatures that move of the ground

As the account progresses, even more, mundane claims for humanity’s purpose are made.

The Lord God took the human being and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it

What the TaNaKh is saying is that it is not enough for human beings just to exist and to live; human beings must live for something. And that something is being responsible for the upkeeping, the continuity, and the development of creation.


If it is not easy to reconcile oneself with the idea that there is a purpose, a plan, and a task intended for our existence is it, then, more acceptable to believe that the only reason for our existence is to work, procreate, build houses, struggle with nature to wrestle another year, another month, another day in our life?


           One of the biggest human dreads, as shown by human behavior, is the idea of living a vain life and vanishing like a shadow. No matter how expressed, a human being’s whole life is a struggle to avoid despair, to understand who we are, how our mind works, and what we can and cannot change. And, maybe more poignantly, how we can make our life a value to ourselves and others.


           Whether or not one believes that the Creator of the universe wrote a book, the TaNaKh is still Israel’s greatest creation. It is the foundation that frames all Jewish understandings of how life works and how every human being should look at their existence.

Rabbi Moshe Pitchon