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Noah 5774

Haftarah Parshat Noah
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
(Isaiah 61:1-24)
October 5, 2013

1 Heshvan 5774

The cultural battle in America over creationism, namely, whether the world was created according to the parameters of the creation story in Genesis chapter one has a reflection in the discussions of the rabbis concerning the nature of creation. One major difference, though, is that the sages were aware of the fact that the Tanach (the Jewish word for the Bible) itself contains a number of disparate accounts of creation. They (at least some among them) were also aware of different “scientific” accounts from their own day. This makes the study of biblical and rabbinic cosmology an exciting enterprise which could enhance the banal debate in our day.

In this week’s special haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, God declares regarding creation: “All this was made by My hand and thus it came into being” (Isaiah 66:2) If taken literally (or perhaps super-literally), this verse would seem to indicate that God physically fashioned the world. The following midrash questions the discrepancy between this portrayal of God and that found in Genesis 1: Rabbi Berehiah in the name of Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon [said]: “Without toil and without exertion, the Holy One Blessed Be He created the world and you say: ‘All this was made by My hand?’” (Bereshit Rabbah 12:2 Theodore-Albeck ed. p. 99-100) This question implies that the creation took place effortlessly through divine fiat as described in Genesis 1 and not as described by Isaiah. Elsewhere in this midrashic collection, the midrash attempts to resolve this inconsistency: “[The description of creation found in the verse from Isaiah] is brought in order to justify punishing the wicked who come to destroy the world which [is described as having been] created through great toil as well as to justify rewarding the righteous who work to maintain the world which was created through great toil.” (Ibid. 10:9 pp. 85-6)

This midrash asserts that the Isaiah verse was not brought to describe the actual manner of creation. Instead, its purpose was to express the world’s great worth so that those who seek to destroy it or to preserve it will know the significance of their acts and hopefully act accordingly.

From this discussion, it is easy to see that this midrash is theologically and ideologically driven. Its author wants to affirm, on the one hand, the ease with which God created the world, while, on the other hand, making clear the worth of what God created. One might think that since the creation of the world was effortless, “trashing it” morally and/or physically is no big deal. Therefore, the other verse comes to tell us that, we should behave in this world “as if” it was created through great toil. The rabbis, then, have turned the Tanach’s different descriptions of the world’s creation into a means for teaching us how to live in this most precious of God’s gifts.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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