15 Oct 2014

Bereshit 5775: You Name It

If there is one consistent idea throughout rabbinic literature regarding the Parasha of Bereshit, it is that it is not meant to be taken at face value. Bereshit is more than a simple story of how G-d created the world and how the first human beings came to be. It is meant to be questioned, carefully examined, responsibly scrutinised and explained.

Maase Bereshit is a deep secret that cannot be understood from simply reading the verses… (Ramban[1])

Maase Bereshit refers to nature…[it is] presented to us in parables, riddles and extremely enigmatic phrases. (Rambam[2])

The primal protagonist of our story,  HaAdam[3], or ‘The Human’, as ‘he’ is called throughout the first and second chapters, suggests that this entity is representative of all of humankind[4]. We thus see the story of HaAdam in Bereshit as a story of all of us, presenting us with essential aspects of the underpinnings of our humanity. It is intriguing, then, to note that the very first act performed by HaAdam is to name animals:

“G-d formed from the soil every living thing of the field and every fowl of the heavens and brought each to The Human to see what he would call it; and whatever The Human called it…that became its name.[5]

The rabbinic commentators saw the act of naming as more than just an exercise of human judgement, but also as a deep interaction with animal life. According to the Midrash[6], the sacred act of naming continued beyond the animal kingdom and ended with G-d Himself:

“G-d asked, ‘And yourself — what is your name?’ ‘I am Adam, for I am of Earth (adama).’ ‘And I’, asked G-d, ‘What is my name?’ ‘You are Adonai, for You are master (adon) of all.

What is most intriguing about the episode of naming is that G-d does not command HaAdam to name the animals. G-d is quite passive in the story, only presenting the animals to HaAdam in “hopes” that he might engage and name them.

“G-d brought each to The Human, to see what he would call it.[7]

The Human does name them, and we are told that whatever The Human called itbecame its name. Thus, making the human interface integral to the nature of reality.

The act of naming is the first human act in the Creation narrative, because it is the essential human act. Naming is the primal act of definition and connection. It is our first step into building a world with unique creativity and personal meaning. Thus, the world is presented to us — as the animals were presented to HaAdam — miscellaneously; without definitions and categorisations. We are the definers and categorisers, and we, through study, interaction, care and connection, find meaning in the world. By engaging in the act of defining and discovering meaning, we find the world to be personally precious. G-d looks forward to seeing what the world might mean to us personally, and thus, He presents us with a wide-open world that awaits our individual input. The first act of humanity teaches us that we are meant to impact the world with our own perspectives. As partners with G-d, we build a world together with Him that bears the unmistakable mark of the human mind and creative spirit.

[1] Commentary on Torah, Bereshit, 1:1

[2] Introduction (Petiha) to Moreh Nebukhim.

[3] It is not until leaving Gan Eden that the personal name ‘Adam’ is used.

[4] In accordance with this, the talmudic sages understood HaAdam to be both male and female (Yalkut Shimoni Bereshit, 2:7, s.v. Vayitser) until male and female was separated into different bodies. (2:21-22)

[5] 2:19

[6] Bereshit Rabba, 19:3

[7] 2:19