The second chapter of Genesis describes the spiritual analogue to the physical description of creation given in the first chapter. The text explains that the earth was static and essentially dead:
Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created. When G-d made earth and heaven when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the fieldhad yet sprouted, because G-d had not sent rain upon the earth and there were no human beings to till the soil.
What made life possible? Water comes up from beneath.
“And a flow would well up (oleh) from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth.
The consequences of that upwardly flow of water were that life was created:
G-d formed Adam from the dirt of the ground, blowing into his nostrils the breath of life: Adam became a living being.
All as a consequence from a single verb: oleh.
This first use is echoed and deepened in meaning through the rest of the Torah. The word does not necessarily mean a physical lifting or elevating at all – as we will see, there is another word for that in the text. Instead, oleh refers to life-enabling changes like that first use: it is the word used to describe the leaves used by Adam and Eve to make garments that eases their minds, as well as the leaf that the dove brings Noah to end his worrying. It also is used to describe Noah’s offering to G-d, the oleh, elevation-offering. Following Noah’s oleh are 19 verses of blessing for mankind, indicating that man should understand that oleh is of central importance in the Torah. The “elevation offering” (also called a burnt offering in some translations), is the model for offerings we are to bring at the Tabernacle.
The word similarly refers to changes in spiritual state: Avram goes up, oleh, out of Egypt, Lot is oleh from Sodom and Zoar. Even the smoke from Sodom under destruction is oleh, telling us that the change to the city was a spiritual improvement over the evil that existed there beforehand.
We are commanded to engage in oleh – because we are partnered with G-d in creating and maximizing life in our world. Oleh is the enabler for life itself, for G-d to become involved in the physical world around us. The life that we seek to maximize is not merely biological existence; it is primarily, like the ensoulment of Adam, about bringing G-d into this world, spreading holiness everywhere we can.
By way of contrast, the text gives us another word for physical elevation: The word is rume, or, in its noun form, terumah. This word is used to describe the flood waters rising above the world, Jacob building a pillar, Potiphar’s wife raising her voice to yell, Moses’ rod being lifted to split the sea. Terumah also describes physical contributions to create the tabernacle and as food gifts to the priests.
In summary: The direct object of oleh is a soul or G-d. But the direct object of rume is something physical. We are commanded and encouraged to spiritually elevate ourselves, our loved ones, and the world, because in so doing we are emulating G-d and his creation of life and the ensoulment of man.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]