Lawbooks don’t open with a history of the universe. Why does the Torah begin this way?
Table for Five: Bereshit
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being astonishingly empty, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God hovering over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated between the light and the darkness. God called to the light, “Day,” and to the darkness He called, “Night.” And there was evening and there was morning. One day. -Gen. 1:1-5
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
Man’s knowledge is vast, but God’s knowledge is infinite, making Torah infinitely deep. The first word of the Torah makes this point when understood through the prism of “Pardes,” a Hebrew word that alludes to four levels of Torah learning: Pshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod—simple, hint, exegetical, and secret.
Simple refers to the most obvious explanation of a verse or idea, hint to allusions, exegetical to discussions like those in the Talmud or Midrash, and Sod to Kabbalah. For example, the first word of our verse, Bereishis, simply means “in the beginning.” Or at least it would if a different form of the word was used: Berishonah. Such a misspelling would be a mistake in a person’s book, but in God’s book, it hints to a deeper meaning (as Rashi explains).
Exegetically, Bereishis can be read “Bara-shis,” or “He created six.” This indicates that at the first moment of Creation, God made everything that would emerge throughout the next six days, indeed, the next six millennia of history!
Kabbalistically, “Bara-shis” also means “He created six,” but the six refers to the sefiros or Godly attributes of Chesed (Lovingkindness, Gevurah (Judgement), Tifferes (Beauty), Netzach (Eternity), Hod (Splendor), and Yesod (Foundation), which are the cosmic DNA, if you will, of our 6,000 years of history. The Tikunei Zohar actually has 70 interpretations of the word Bereishis itself! Needless to say, Torah learning is endless and it just gets better with time. Considering that Torah was God’s blueprint for Creation, learning it provides incredible insight into our world and the people in it.
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar-in-Residence JMI/Aish
Dedicated in loving memory to Rabbi Shaaya Seidenfeld
“Astonishingly Empty”. What a visceral description! The question is, what made our world feel so utterly empty “in the beginning”?
A number of years ago I came across a quote attributed to Albert Einstein who claimed that if honeybees disappeared from the planet, all organic life would disappear within four years. I remember being blown away by the realization that the whole ecosystem was dependent on the presence of an insect. Then I discovered that Einstein probably never said it.
The authenticity of the quote notwithstanding, my realization and thesis still remained. Remove an earthworm, a bee or any other seemingly peripheral life form, and the planet is significantly impacted. With that reality still in play, my mind then pivoted to a disturbing thought. What creature, I thought, was that statement not true of? What creature’s disappearance might actually benefit the planet? You know where I’m going. HUMANS! You remove mankind from the planet, the oceans would be cleaner, the skies clearer, there would be no violence, no predatory instincts. Earth would be a paradise. Are you kidding me? Aren’t humans supposed to be the most enlightened life form?
So here’s the truth. An idyllic world and a bio-programmed life, one without choices, without light and darkness, without mistakes and triumphs, would be purposeless. Such a life wouldn’t be paradise, it would be irrelevant. We are here to rise, fall, rinse and repeat. Without that dance, the air would be clearer but life would be astonishingly empty. Shana Tova!
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat,VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
Each year, my mother-in-law cooks an elaborate Thanksgiving feast. Some years ago, she was away for the holiday. We weren’t sure what to do because we didn’t know how to make any Thanksgiving foods. We asked for her recipes and hosted Thanksgiving ourselves. The next year, I was glad she was back but grateful to have learned how to cook the meal in her absence.
These verses begin a story of tsimtsum — God contracting to make room for creation. According to Rashi, the first day is called “day one” because God was alone. God only created the angels on the second day.
In this pandemic, we too are experiencing tsimtsum — our lives contracting into smaller spaces. Our usual ways of celebrating are unavailable. From this painful process, new creations emerge.
On Rosh Hashanah, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Ikar created the Shofar Wave, where 50 synagogues sent shofar blowers to over 65 locations across L.A. County. Hearing the shofar blasts move through the neighborhoods block by block was incredibly moving.
Likewise, on Simchat Torah, B’nai David-Judea Congregation organized community-wide “Apart-But-Together” neighborhood singing, outside on balconies or in backyards with masks and distancing. I am heartened by how the community is coming together across denominations to celebrate in new ways.
Next year, hopefully this excruciating pandemic will be over and our sanctuaries reopened. In the meantime, we are learning new techniques to take our faith into our hands. We may even find a few angels along the way.
Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy
If the Torah is a Book of Law, why not start with the first commandment? Why do we begin with the story of creation?
Seen simply, the Torah is a book of laws by which we should live – a nuts and bolts set of instructions. But by beginning with the story of creation, we get a reminder of how to live.
Rashi shares that the story of creation is not told in chronological order. While we want to understand each moment of creation, we also need to accept the mystery that surrounds creation — and with that mystery comes a sense of wonder. As Albert Einstein said, ““There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
By beginning with the story of creation, we are taught that it’s not enough to follow the other mitzvot – we should do so with wonder. It’s not enough to go through the rote actions of our day – we should observe the world around us with awe. Experiencing wonder in our everyday lives allows us to feel connected and a sense of belonging. When we experience wonder, we feel humility and gratitude, and we can see beyond ourselves.
Our Torah then, is not simply an instruction manual for the commandments we are to follow, but its very beginning is a reminder of the mindset with which we should approach those commandments.
Justin Levi, President of The Community Shul
A careful analysis of the first passage of the Torah reveals something interesting. G-d’s first act is to “Let there be light” – a rather obvious allusion to the Big Bang. But after that, the order of creation gets muddled. G-d separates the light and darkness into “Day” and “Night.” But day and night, as we know them on Earth, do not occur until billions of years later. In fact, later in the passage, we are told that the land and seas are created before the sun and stars.
With this rather strange chronology, G-d is telling us something crucial – the Torah is NOT a history book. Rather, the Torah is a guidebook based on G-d’s teachings.
According to the Torah account, the sun and stars are not created until the fourth day. This was to deliberately communicate to the idol worshippers of the time that the sun is not god, and it is not the center of the universe. G-d is the ultimate power in the world. We are enjoined to follow Him, and not any other false idols.
This wisdom is critical as we navigate our new reality. Never before have we felt such a collective lack of control over our world. Our false idols – money, fame, success – are powerless. But if we follow G-d’s path of morality and adhere to his commandments – rules that demand treating others with respect, dignity, and kindness – we will make it through this difficult period. And we will be better for it.
With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Dr. Erica Rothblum, and Justin Levi
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