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Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism: A complete guide to beliefs, customs, and rituals, published by Pocket Books.
Bereshit begins with the creation of the world by God, from tohu v’bohu, chaos and nothingness. God calls for light, separates the darkness from the light creating day and night, creates the “great waters,” separates land from sea, and eventually fills the earth with creatures—fowl, fish, land animals, and finally man and woman. In fact, Bereshit tells the story of the creation twice, with significant differences between the two versions.
Almost immediately after the creation of humans, problems begin. Eve is tempted by the serpent and violates God’s explicit orders, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and encouraging Adam to do likewise. They are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Eve bears children, Cain and Abel, and eventually Cain kills his brother and is condemned to wander the earth.
After several more generations, God decides that humanity was a bad idea and resolves to obliterate man and woman from the face of the earth, save for Noah and his family. Noah and his kin are saved and with them is an assortment of the animals as well. Eventually, after the floodwaters have subsided, Noah will offer a sacrifice to God, who promises never to repeat this mass extermination. However, it is not long before humans again test God’s patience, building the Tower of Babel. The Almighty responds this time by scattering them across the face of the earth and confounding their language; they will now speak in many tongues and be unintelligible to one another.
All of this is but a lengthy prelude to the main story of Bereshit, the story of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who founded the Hebrew people: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Each of these stories pivots on a covenant between the Creator and the Patriarch of his generation, each involves wandering and exile ending in redemption and, finally, a gentle but poignant death. In at least two key cases, central figures are given new names by God, indicating the transformation that their covenant requires.
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