This coming Shabbat, we return to the beginning of Torah with Parashat Bereishit. The Jewish calendar’s narrative cycle dovetails well with the spiritual renewal celebrated at this season. Having commemorated Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the new year and celebration of God’s Kingship), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (the final of the three pilgrimage festivals), we begin whole and fresh. And part of this commencement is reading Torah anew—discovering new messages through new lenses. Parashat Bereishit places us once again in the Garden of Eden—a paradise of fullness and ideal balance: “From the ground the Lord caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen. 2:9). Yet, just a few verses earlier, humans are blessed by their Creator and told, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it” (Gen. 1:28). How are we to understand this notion of “mastering” or “conquering” the earth?
Professor Ze’ev Falk (z”l), who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, notes that this phrase of “mastering it” does not repeat itself in the blessing given to Noah after the destruction of the world. God repeats the same blessing of Genesis 1:28, but the omission is glaring: “God blessed Noah and his sons saying to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). Why the abandonment of “mastery”? Professor Falk explains that the notion of mastery was an ideal by which the first humans were blessed in the Garden of Eden. Once they perverted their ways and spoiled the earth, “this uncategorical merit was stripped from them.” Falk goes on to write, “Ecology teaches us today that the freedom of man upon the earth is bounded and therefore this concept of mastery is no longer tenable” (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 4). In a post-Eden world, we must learn to recognize the limits of our power, embracing a healthy dose of humility.
Interestingly, Falk also points out that the next time the idea of mastery appears in Torah, it is in the context of the Israelite conquest of the Land of Israel. He sensitively writes that in coming to the Land of Israel, the Israelites return to a special status of adam ha-rishon, the first human. Dwelling in the Land entails subjecting one’s self to special conditions. Falk enumerates, “Caring for the stranger, accepting a servant who requests refuge, being vigilant not to contaminate the land, not destroying trees, and recognizing the rights of Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and perhaps others who dwell in the land” (4). Clearly, Professor Falk’s reading of “mastery” encourages us all to envision and to aspire to an ideal of harmony in our relationship between ourselves and the earth (ecology) and between ourselves and the Other (seeking peace and pursuing it).
May this coming year be one of constructive mastery—as we conquer wasteful drives and indifference on the way toward building a better Israel and better world.