Behrman House Blog

The Genesis of Adam's Animals

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz , the director of the Jewish Publication Society, is the author of Adam's Animals, coming August 1 from Apples & Honey Press. 

 I am an animal-lover and a nature-lover.

 I grew up wishing I could be Dr. Dolittle, who could walk with the animals and talk to the animals.

 I grew up thinking I might be veterinarian. Instead I became a vegetarian.

 I went to college intending to study neuro-biology, but became a rabbi instead (a long story).

 While in college I was backpacking in the Great Smokies when I came face-to-face with a black bear.

After my wife Debby and I married we added three children…and a dog and a cat and an aquarium and a koi-pond…and that is not counting other assorted pets that did not last very long.

Once we were all hiking together near Lake George when Omri, our Golden Retriever, saved our son from a timber rattlesnake right in the middle of our path.

Another time an indigo bunting, one of the most beautiful songbirds you will ever see, crashed into our window. My daughter Talia insisted that we say kaddish for the bird when we buried it in the backyard.

We still love to hike and travel and look for birds and beasts.

Last summer we fulfilled a life-long dream to go on a safari in Africa. In the course of one awesome morning in Kruger National Park in South Africa we saw the “big five”: elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion…and last and least, because it is so stealthy…a leopard. It was my Debby, not our guide, who spotted the leopard!

Not to be left out, we also saw giraffe, zebra, hippo, cheetah, kudu, antelope, gazelle, wildebeest, and wart-hog…yes, all in the same day! And that does not include the fabulous birds; my favorites being the lilac-breasted roller, the southern yellow-billed hornbill and the purple-crested turaco.

I’ve always loved that line in Genesis (2:19): “And God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and birds of the sky…and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.”

One day I decided to write a story based on that verse. I knew it would be called, Adam’s Animals. The story is a midrash, following in the time-honored tradition of commentary that “fills in the gaps” of Torah. It elaborates on how Adam named all the creatures, great and small. My story also portrays Adam waking up to Eve’s presence, because in one place in Genesis (2:22) we are taught that Adam was created first and Eve was “fashioned from the rib” of Adam. But in another account in Genesis (1:27) the Torah tells us that they were created simultaneously, “male and female God created them.” So we depict Eve fully formed, with her name, and personality, already in place.

Genesis celebrates the incredible variety of life on earth. The Torah describes each stage of creation and labels it tov - good. That includes every creature “of every kind,” from the “winged birds” to the “wild beasts,” from the “great sea monsters” to the “creeping things.” “And God saw that this was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and increase the birds in the sky…and all living things.” (Gen.1:20-28).

As someone who loves the Torah and the environment, I wanted my story to celebrate this astounding variety of life - what today we call “bio-diversity.” We sure do need to take better care of our planet to preserve this wonderful diversity. The rate of extinction is accelerating, and our world will be all the poorer if we lose the astonishing array of Adam’s animals.

 Of course, Adam’s Animals would be just a bunch of words on a page if it wasn’t for the marvelous artist who brought this story to life. Steliyana Doneva lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. We have never met, but I feel we are kindred spirits. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Steliyana did an amazing job of painting all those exotic animals! So did editor Dena Neusner in putting words and pictures all together.

And finally, Adam’s Animals might have remained just another figment of my imagination if it were not for the children of my congregation in little Leonia, New Jersey. Each Sunday morning I lead a religious school service and like to say something interesting about the Torah portion. From time to time I would spot an animal in the Torah portion and make up a story about that animal. So I also have stories about : Noah’s Dove, Abraham’s Ram, Rebecca’s Camel, Joseph’s Cow, Moses’s Sheep, Pharaoh’s Frog, Balaam’s Donkey, Jonah’s Whale, Haman’s Horse, Daniel’s Lion, and Isaiah’s Wolf. They are all descendants of Adam’s animals!