The opening words of B’reishit are exhilarating. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Each day, as God creates the world and everything in it, we are told that it is good. On the sixth day, when God creates people, we are told that it is very good. From the chaos comes order, goodness, and endless possibilities. But the parashah ends with the world on the verge of destruction: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened” (Gen. 6:5–6).
How did we move so quickly from “very good” to “nothing but evil all the time”? How do we hold on to our sense of possibilities in the face of God’s regret? How do we come to terms with the exile which we are sent into only hours after we are placed in the garden?
The rabbis give us some guidance on these key questions when they pair Parashat B’reishit with this week’s haftarah, from the book of Isaiah. The haftarah begins:
(5) Thus said God the Lord,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread out the earth and what it brings forth,
Who gave breath to the people upon it
And life to those who walk thereon:
(6) I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you,
And have grasped you by the hand.
I created you, and appointed you
A covenant people, a light of nations—
(7) Opening eyes deprived of light,
Rescuing prisoners from confinement,
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:5–7)
Verse five, which echoes the first verses of B’reishit, brings together the creation of the world and the creation of human beings, which comes into focus through the story of Adam and Eve. In a telling twist, Isaiah speaks of God giving breath to the people (noten neshama la’am)in contrast to the verse in Genesis which describes the creation of a single person, Adam. In Genesis we read: “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life (vayipach b’apav nishmat hayyim)”(Gen. 2:7). So we have to wonder at the meaning of focusing on the creation of a single being versus focusing on the creation of the people. In Genesis, we understand that all people come from this one person. We understand that, despite our many differences, we are all linked through this single creative act. The rabbis teach that since we can all trace ourselves to one common ancestor, we have to recognize our equality in God’s eyes. The miracle of the creation of Adam is that God took some of the earth (adama) and turned it into a living being (adam).
What then do we understand from Isaiah’s version of creation? God gave breath to a people. Instead of pausing over the miracle of the creation of human life, Isaiah moves us directly into the question of meaning. Isaiah focuses on the purpose of this creation:
I created you, and appointed you
A covenant people, a light of nations.
And what is this covenant people supposed to do? To open the eyes of the blind and rescue prisoners from confinement, to make this world the place it should be. The creation story as it’s told in Isaiah is a creation story that already knows what it is to live in a broken world. It is a story that is infused with a dark reality, steeped in the experience of a post-destruction, exiled community. The hope for that community involves seeing that the brokenness is not the end of the story. God wants them—wants us—to see that redemption is possible, that the brokenness can be transformed into wholeness and freedom.
But this role of “light of nations” becomes difficult to understand when, a few verses later, God promises to redeem God’s people.
All who are linked to My name,
Whom I have created,
Formed, and made for My glory—
Setting free that people,
Blind though it has eyes
And deaf though it has ears. (Isaiah 43:7–8)
These verses seem to say that God’s people, Israel, are blind and deaf. That poses a problem for us. How can it be that this people, which is to be “a light of nations” is blind and deaf to God’s truth? How can a people be both blind and entrusted with the task of bringing sight to others who are blind? Some commentators don’t need to wrestle with this problem because they interpret the early verses of the haftarah as referring to an individual servant, either the prophet Isaiah or a messenger who will reestablish the people of Israel. But the rabbis who shaped this haftarah, by starting it at verse five of the chapter, leading right into the reference to “a covenant people, a light of nations,” have privileged the reading in which God’s servant is Israel. So we are back to our problem. How can a people be both blind and help others out of their blindness? The paradox of that challenge captures an essential aspect of being human. God does not make the people of Israel “a light of nations” because we are fundamentally different than the nations. If we were different, then what kind of light would we be shining? The nations would write us off and say that our reality and theirs have nothing to say to one another. In order to be a light of nations we need to recognize our own captivity and find the strength to trust that God will set us free; we need to recognize our own blindness and make our way in the darkness until some light becomes available to us. It is not some essential difference between us and them that sets us apart, but our commitment to the covenant—a covenant that fosters hope when we are in darkest despair—that enables our drama to inspire others to a similarly redemptive trust.
Ultimately we come to understand that chaos and possibilities, exile and the yearning to be restored, are present in both B’reishit and Isaiah. While the creation in B’reishit starts with “very good” and moves towards God’s regret, the creation in Isaiah starts with the broken world which makes God want to scream (Isaiah 42:14) and gives us the challenge of partnering with God to make it “very good.”Ken yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
By Mychal Springer, Director, Center for
Pastoral Education at JTS