Parashat Bereisheet / Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Rabbi Levi compares those who seek to conceal their plans and actions from God to those who try to hide from the tax collector in the very city that was constructed in accordance with the royal plan.

After the two stories of the creation of the world and after the tale of Cain and Abel, the Torah proclaims, “This is the book of the generations of Adam” (Genesis 5:1). The reader is then presented with a detailed and fairly long genealogical list, starting with Adam and ending with Noah and his offspring. Against the background of the major creation stories with which the Book of Genesis opens, the list stands out because of its sparseness of plot and its shattering of the mythological sequence with which Genesis begins.

Although the midrash that appears below is from Bereisheet Rabbah, its primary focus is a brief passage from Isaiah. Nonetheless, its culmination returns the reader to the opening chapter of Genesis and ultimately places the above genealogical list in a wholly different light, while providing it with meaning.

In chapter 29 of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet declares, “Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say: ‘Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?’” (Isaiah 29:15). He mocks people who foolishly – and vainly – try to conceal their plans and actions from God: “O your perversity! Shall the potter be esteemed as clay?” (29:16). Although their fate is in God’s hands, they claim that they are capable of hiding their plans and actions from him; however, Isaiah points out, this claim is akin to the argument put forward by an artisan’s creation “...that the thing made should say of him that made it: ‘He made me not’; or the thing framed say of him that framed it: ‘He hath no understanding’” (29:16). Concerning such individuals, Isaiah prophesizes, “Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest? And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of a book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness” (29:17-18). Just as God can turn his creations back into clay, similarly he can turn Lebanon into a fruitful field, and a fruitful field can be thought of as a forest. On that day, those who have been deaf to God’s words will hear the “words of a book” and will be granted wisdom; similarly, the eyes of those who have been blind to God’s presence will be opened.

Concerning the above verses from Isaiah, Bereisheet Rabbah states, “It is written in the Torah, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam.’ That verse refers to those ‘that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord.’ Rabbi Levi said, “The head of the artisans and builders, who was the one that constructed all the rooms, sewers and caves in the city-state, was, after a certain period of time, appointed the king’s tax collector. Some of the king’s subjects sought to hide from the tax collector in those very same rooms and caves. He said to them, ‘After all, I am the one who built these rooms and caves. So why are you using them as hiding places?’”

Rabbi Levi compares those who seek to conceal their plans and actions from God to those who try to hide from the tax collector in the very city that was constructed in accordance with the royal plan. The head of the artisans and builders planned the city’s structures and therefore scorns the tax evaders’ attempts to hide from him. The parable transfers Isaiah’s images to the semantic field of the carefully planned Hellenic city-state with its systematic system of tax collection; it does not, however, deviate from the framework of a literal reading of the verses in Isaiah. The chief innovation in this homily is to be found in its second part.

“This also holds true for those ‘that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord.’ How astonishing! It is written, ‘their works are in the dark O your perversity! Shall the potter be esteemed as clay?’ These individuals liken the object shaped by an artisan to the artisan, and the tree that is planted to the planter. Furthermore, it is written, ‘that the thing made should say of him that made it: “He made me not” Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field,’ that is, into a royal house, while the ‘fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest’ – that is, it shall be turned into a forest of human beings. It is also written, ‘And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of a book.’ Which book? The book of the generations of Adam, as it is written, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’” (Bereisheet Rabbah 24:1).

These sinners imagine the object that has been shaped as if it were just like the artisan who shaped it, and they imagine the tree that has been planted as if it were just like the planter. In other words, they imagine God as if he had the same attributes as a human being, and vainly believe that, like human beings, he will be unable to find them if they conceal themselves.

Rabbi Levi interprets Isaiah’s prophecy, “Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest?” as a reference not to God’s reaction toward sinners who seek to conceal their sinful thoughts and actions, but rather to the sinners’ explanation why God will be unable to find them. According to Rabbi Levi, the transformation of Lebanon to a fruitful field is a reference to the construction of a royal house – perhaps in the wake of the verse from the Song of Songs, “Thy head upon thee is like Carmel (or, a fruitful field)” (Song of Songs 7:6).

In the next stage, explains Rabbi Levi, the royal house will be thought of as a forest – or, as he terms it, a forest of human beings. Lebanon represents the single individual, perhaps Adam, who will turn into a family – a royal house or royal family, which will multiply until it becomes a vast multitude of human beings. The continual increase in the number of human beings is the reason why, according to the sinners, God will be unable to monitor everyone and it will be possible for sinners to hide their sinful plans and actions from God.

Then, the midrash comes to Rabbi Levi’s punch line, which connects the above verses in Isaiah to the opening chapters in Genesis. It is written, “And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of a book”; according to the Aramaic translation and Rabbi Levi’s interpretation, the “deaf” in this verse refers to the forests of human beings (the Hebrew for “deaf” – haresh – is spelled the same as the Aramaic word for “forest” – horesh) the many human beings directly descended from Adam. Those who thought that God cannot see them if they hide themselves well will hear the words of a book – not just any book but rather a very specific one, namely, the “book of the generations of Adam,” which is found in the second segment of this first Torah portion, Parashat Bereisheet (Genesis 1:1-6:8), and which contains a genealogy that begins with Adam and ends with Noah. The moment these sinners hear the words of this book, they will understand that God can see them, even if they are part of a vast forest of human beings.

The first half of Parashat Bereisheet could lead the reader to conclude that God was able to monitor the actions of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel because there were so few human beings in the world at the time, and that sinners can now hide their sinful plans and actions from God because there are today so many. The role of the genealogical list in the second half is to teach human beings that their lives are mapped and classified, and that no one is excluded from God’s list. Thus, every person must understand that it is impossible to hide one’s plans and actions from God and to proclaim, “Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?” This genealogy is the obverse side of the coin whose face depicts the creation of the world. On the one hand, all human beings are the descendants of Adam, while, on the other, God monitors each and every one of them every moment.