Though we watch the natural world fade toward winter, autumn in Judaism represents a series of fresh starts. It begins while we are usually still in full summer mode with the Hebrew month of Elul, a month to prepare us for the new year and the high holy days and ready ourselves to achieve a clean slate for the new year.
Then of course, we actually do it.
We bring in the new year on the birthday of the world, wishing for a sweet new year. We enter the Days of Awe, a final intensive period of preparation dedicated to achieving a clean slate, a fresh start. And on Yom Kippur, we find that new beginning for the year to come; a clean page for another year well written into the Book of Life.
But we don’t stop there! Throughout Sukkot, we embrace the new season and when we end with Simchat Torah we celebrate yet another beginning as we restart the Torah reading cycle. Finally, we arrive at Shabbat Bereshit and our 57-day long period of new-beginning rituals concludes as we settle into a new year.
But on Shabbat Bereshit we are reminded: Yes, we are in a new year. Yes, we have a fresh page in the book of life. Yes, we get a new chance to build a better cheshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting) with our deeds. However… what we are supposed to be doing hasn’t changed a bit. We just have another shot at meeting the same, unchanging expectations. And that is a good thing!
Parshat Bereshit tells us not once, but twice, the basic core of human responsibility: We are in charge of the world and its maintenance and destiny is up to us.
The Torah portion contains two separate narratives to explain the creation of the world, Genesis Chapter 1, and Genesis Chapter 2. They are very different. Chapter 1 focuses on teaching that the entire world, the world we know and live in, is orderly because it was created in an organized way by a God of order, and Shabbat is part of that order. And people are created as a group just like birds, fish, or creepy crawlies (no, not just one individual, check Gen. 1:27-29).
The creation narrative in Chapter 2 is very different. It is concerned with the nature of being human (loneliness and companionship, curiosity and choice) and a mythical part of creation that we do not know or live in (Eden).
But both share one particular moral imperative. OK, fine, they share two because Genesis Chapter 2 also mentions Shabbat. But the main point is that when we read Parshat Bereshit, we read not one but two creation narratives that share a major lesson. Humanity has been gifted a fully functioning world and humanity alone has dominion over it; what happens to our world is up to us (Gen. 1:26-28, 2:15, 3:23).
It really is that simple – but just because something is simple doesn’t mean it is easy. And let’s take a moment to remember that this injunction isn’t specific to the Israelites or any one group among the people of the earth. Genesis is, after all, pre-Sinai and pre-Abraham. It applies to all citizens of the world. And we do need to take care of it. The world is a large and robust place that has been able to take a lot of mistreatment, but these days the world is seeming much more like a fragile sukkah than any sort of self-sustaining paradise. And God teaches us not once but twice that we alone are its caretakers.
If we think about it, it’s really more of an observation of reality than a commandment. Humans alone on planet earth have the ability to shape our world to our will. That, by default, gives us power – and with great power comes great responsibility. I (hope that I) don’t need to go into specifics from here, but what happens with our world, from human conflicts big and small to climate change and our current climate crisis, is on us. We evolved into a world that was ready made for human dominion. What we achieve and what we lose is completely in our hands. As we reread these stories and injunctions on Parshat Bereshit we may have a clean slate, true. But the world, and our responsibility over it, is the same. What happens to it is up to us.