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Parashat B’reishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

“And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21)

Parashat Breishit tells the story of creation. It’s an orderly process, in which everything comes into being in proper sequence: light and dark; heaven and earth; plants and trees; sun, moon, and stars; fish, water creatures, and birds; mammals, other land creatures and humans; Shabbat. But Breishit doesn’t account for many elements of life. Where do beauty and art fit in?

God creates gan eden, the Garden of Eden, as an ideal home for humanity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; German rabbi and father of modern Orthodox Judaism) notices when
Breishit describes the trees planted there, it first comments they are “pleasing to the sight” and only afterward states they are “good for food“ (Gen. 2:9). Aesthetic considerations come before pragmatic concerns. An appreciation for nature’s beauty (rather than an instinctive response to nature’s bounty) separates humans from animals. An aesthetic sensibility, of course, is one of the building blocks of culture.

Breishit amplifies the importance of art and culture in describing Adam and Eve’s expulsion from gan eden. God posts cherubim and the fiery and ever-turning sword, “…lish’mor et haderech, to safeguard the path to the Tree of Life.” (Gen. 3:24) Hirsch suggests the cherubim are there not to bar entry, but to protect the path so humanity can find it again in the future. He relies upon a rabbinic opinion claiming derech eretz, the way of the world, preceded the Torah by 26 generations (Vayikra Rabah 9:3). Hirsch equates derech eretz with culture and claims engagement with the larger world is simply another opportunity to incorporate Torah (represented by the Tree of Life) into daily life. Ars longa.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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