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“Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it…”

BS”D

Bereshit 1:28

One of my favorit Parashot, if not my absolute favorite (well, I love the whole Torah) is Bereshit. Every time I study this Parashah I’m amazed of all the new details that jump to my eyes. You can study this text a thousand times, and yet there are still new things to be learned.

One of the verses that has taken my focus often, though somehow unconscious, is 1:28, which in its Hebrew original goes:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

This is a very interesting verse. A simple translation is going like this (according to the JVP 1999 translation):

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

 

I will be looking at some other translations shortly, and later on focus on my own translation and understanding of the verse, but for now let us look at the plain meaning, the pshat:

This is in the end of the six days of creation. G-D has just created man in His image (verses 26 and 27) and now He gives His Commandment to man, namely to be fertile, increase, fill the earth, master it, and rule all the living things on earth. It seems like a Commandment, which is also a kind of prophecy, man was created and from being a very primitive but intelligent being, we today rule and suppress the earth to a degree, which is almost destructive for us. We have become fertile, we have increased, we have filled the earth, and we are ruling all the living creatures of the earth, both on land in the ocean.

But something more is hinted at in this verse. First off, let us turn an eye to verse 26 as well as in the second part of verse 28. Verse 26 goes like:

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

The word I’m focused on is “rule.” Both in verse 26 and verse 28 the Hebrew verb is ירד, and is presented in the two forms וְיִרְדּוּ (verse 26) and וּרְדוּ (verse 28). The former is in the future form, “they will,” whereas the latter is imperative, “do it!” But the verb is weird, odd. The root points to something which is either fallen or has gone down, it can be both physical and spiritual, but here it is used about ruling? And this is happening even before the sin, which put man outside Gan Eden, what is going on here? Maybe another meaning of the root can give an understanding, namely that it also can mean “to oppress, to tyrannize, to subjugate.” When one rules, there are various levels in which manner one can rule. One can be including, one can be dictating, and so on. One of the lesser ways of rule is tyranny or oppression. And if we understand the meaning of the word in this manner, then maybe it is more of a prophecy, an expectation of what will indeed be?

Rashi, the famous commentator, also put note to this usage, explaining that there is a double meaning to this, that of oppression and that of falling, namely if man does not know how to oppress his animal nature, then he will fall and the animal nature will rule him, instead of him ruling it. For Rashi this word is indeed about oppression, but about the oppression of the “animal” inside us. This is very interesting, especially when we look at another keyword, namely וְכִבְשֻׁהָ (verse 28), which is translated as “master it [the earth]” (other translations have “subdue”). But the interesting thing is that if we take Rashi’s rendering of “rule” and understand וְכִבְשֻׁהָ based on that, then there is a new meaning. The word actually has more to do with controlling of instincts that it has with rule, namely meaning “to restrain oneself, to overcome one’s inclinations, to hold back.” So we are not talking about “ruling” or “mastering” the earth, as much as we are talking about overcoming “earth.” But what does that mean? Let’s take a look on yet another word in this verse, namely אֱלֹהִים. “Elohim” is plural for “elohah” which means god, but also “judge.” The meaning of this word is that of a power with a definite authority in some matter. For example a judge is understood as being an “elohah.” This is also the meaning of the word, when it is applied to G-D, namely that of the Divine strict Judge. When we read how the verse is put up, then a strict translation of the first part would be:

[He] Blessed them, Eloqim, [He] said to them elohim…

Is G-D actually talking to man as being “elohim,” that is, as having some definitive authority? It doesn’t seem too far stretched, considering that the context is about ruling, so maybe G-D is relating to man’s role as a definitive authority on earth? If that is the case, then when we continue, we can read that man is supposed to be fertile, increase and fill the earth, and to “restrain, overcome or keep it back.”

Let us put it together. Rashi told that the word for “rule” is about ruling our own nature, controlling, oppressing our animal instincts, so we will not be controlled by it. We are supposed to be with definitive authority, and the world is to be overcome or restrained. It seems like G-D here puts a very important note to us, namely that though we have definitive authority here on earth, then we should NOT fall to the level of being mere animals in our rule of earth. Our “earthly” side should be overcome, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to give into our inclinations, but keep restrain on ourselves, when we act as rulers. This is leading us back to the first verse, which – when read a little alternative[1] – tells us that we are both of the Divine and the earthly.

When we rule the world, we should do so with restrain and understanding. May G-D bless us with wisdom and understanding in our relation to each other and to his creation.

Kol Tuv


[1] See my article on Bereshit on Judaic Awareness.


6 Comments

  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    It is nice to see other blogs containing parasha summeries such as this. Very well written – Hazaq!

  2. Tincup says:

    We rule the Earth alright…and we have done a grand job of extinguishing nature and putting up a wall…but this is all temporary…either we evolve into something more or we will return the Earth for the next species to take the reigns.

    • qolyehudi says:

      Hi Tincup

      I agree with you. Power demands responsibility, and we – humans – don’t live up to that. It is interesting that there is a Midrash, which tells that G-D created worlds many hundreds of times, since they all failed to live up to their responsibility. Now, we can discuss for a long time what this means, why it was so (if it was so), and so on, but for me it tells a lesson, that everything has consequences, also the way we tread the earth.

      Too often people seem to forget this, that we cannot take things for granted, and when we do receive the consequences of our bad choices, then we don’t get it, get frustrated and complain, instead of researching what we did wrong, and then correct it. This is both when acting as religious people (I live in a very religious country), but also as human beings in the general.

      This is exactly what this Parashah teaches us, from the outset we are warned not to indulge into our “earthly” inclinations. Animals can’t stop to eat, since they have this instinct that tells them to eat when they can, and as much as they can, since they don’t know when they’ll get something to eat next time. This is understandable, they are only animals, but we are above that, we should control these instincts when dealing not only with food, but in general with all resources. If not, then we surely will feel the consequences,

      • Tincup says:

        Indeed. I fear we may differ on religion…but contained within religion are many valuable principles that man can build upon.

  3. qolyehudi says:

    Dear Tincup (don’t know why I can’t answer directly to your last post)

    For me a person’s religious belief or lack of it isn’t so important, but how he/she acts in this world and in relation to others. I know far too many Jews, even religious (and so-called frum) who has proven to me, that the term “religious” isn’t a security for him/her being a descent person. But as you say, within every religion there are many valuable principles to build upon, but it is the religious person’s responsibility to do it. For me the question is how to do it?

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