Drash on Beresheet
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, New South Wales
In his classic work, Legends of the Jews, Rabbi and scholar Louis Ginzberg arranges midrashim found in a variety of post-biblical Jewish sources into a narrative. The work reads like a story – a sort of extended and embellished Torah. In this volume, Beresheet is not the creation story we all know and love, with the waterfalls and the garden and the fig leaves. This is Creation, the B side. (For those under 40, the “B side” was the lesser known side of a vinyl record that didn’t get as much airplay as the smash hit on the A side.) The images in these creation stories are shocking:
One says that there were seven heavens created and seven earths corresponding (a multiverse?), the last of which is attached to God’s arm! Tevel (whence we get the term v’kol yoshvei tevel) is the first earthly level inhabited by living creatures—a species of human being that has two heads, four hands and feet, and two of every organ. This species’ parts quarrel with each other, especially over food.
Cheled is the earth we inhabit, separated from Tevel by a formless void, and by water. The wind blowing from the south brings such heat to this earth that “were it not for an angel, who “holds the south wind back with his pinions, the world would be consumed.” The waters of the earth are rebellious, like a monster. They threaten to overflow the entire earth, and God has to force them back into the sea and encircle the sea with sand, from which the water recoils.
The sun is so powerful, that it could travel south to north in a single instant. 365 angels restrain it from doing so, and each day one angel loosens his or her hold on the sun, so that it takes a full year for the sun to make this circuit. Because of the sins of humankind, however, the sun grows weaker, until it finally drops from the horizon as a sphere of blood, the sign of corruption.
On fifth day, God made the creatures of the sea, including the Leviathan, who rules the sea. Leviathan needs all the water from the Jordan to quench his thirst, he’s that big. When hungry, hot breath blows from his nostrils, making the waters seething hot. His fins radiate brilliant light that obscures the sun. He has a foul smell that makes him repulsive, however he will be served up as a delicacy to the pious in the world to come. Once the Leviathan is defeated, in a bloody battle with behemot (a giant land animal), his skin will be used for tents to shelter the pious while they eat his flesh. The rest will be stretched out over Jerusalem as a canopy, and the light from it will illumine the whole world.
Birds were also created on fifth day, including the Ziz, who is monstrously tall. When its ankles touch the earth, its head rests in the clouds. When its wings unfurl, they darken the sun. Once an egg from the Ziz crashed to the ground and broke, flooding sixty cities and felling three hundred cedars (which, in those early days, were also horribly enormous). The Ziz, like the Leviathan, is also destined to be served as delicacy to the pious at end of days.
On the sixth day, the mammalian equivalent to the Leviathan and Ziz is created, called behemot. The behemot had to be prevented from multiplying, or else the world would cease to exist, so God deprived them of the desire to propagate. Each creature requires the produce of a thousand mountains for its daily food. Its fate is to battle Leviathan to the death (of both), and then be served to the pious as an entrée.
There are many other monsters mentioned in these creation stories, like the re’em, a huge, horned creature. The world can only endure one couple of re’em at once, and only if they live at opposite ends of the earth. So they copulate only once every 70 years, at which point the male dies from the female’s bite.
Suffice to say, the universe was perceived as a scary place, replete with frightening creatures bearing the power to destroy all of creation at any moment. There are in these stories, however, some animals that are more constructive than destructive, like the shamir, who is tiny like a barley corn, but has the power to slice through materials as hard as diamonds. The shamir was put to sacred work, cutting the gemstones on the High Priest’s breastplate, and eventually hewing the stones from which the Temple was built, since iron tools (used for weaponry) could not be used. There was also the tachash, a creature whose skin was used for the Mishkan (tabernacle).
Which types of creatures are we? The horrible ones with destructive impact on the world, who need Divine or angelic restraint in order for the earth and its inhabitants to survive? Or the tiny productive ones – the shamir and tachash – whose nature is well suited to building a sacred life and the structures that make that sort of life possible? Like the Creation story itself, humanity bears both an A side and a B side. Which will be our enduring legacy?