In the Beginning
Considering Creation: A New Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek
The Dayton Jewish Observer
For centuries, scholars and scientists, clergy and commoners have argued about the Creation story.
Are the Bible’s opening verses about the unfolding of the cosmos, the origins of life, and the birth of humanity meant to be taken literally? How could it have taken just six days? Why do light and darkness appear before suns and stars? Is it possible for something to come from nothing? What role does science play?
But we’re asking the wrong questions. History answers the questions of what happened and when. Science answers the questions of how did it happen and why.
So what questions does the Torah answer? In his commentary on Genesis, Rashi offers an answer in the form of a puzzle posed by Rabbi Isaac: “As the Law book of Israel, the Torah should have begun with the first commandment to the Israelites (Ex. 12:2), ‘This month shall be for you the first of the months.’ So why does the Torah begin with Creation?”
Rabbi Isaac’s point is that a book’s purpose and the questions it will answer become apparent in its opening pages.
The Creation narrative teaches the purpose of Torah is to answer the questions: What exists? What can we know? How shall we live? What kind of person should I aspire to be?
If we really want to understand it, we must read the Torah as Torah — not as science or history or even law.
“Bereshit — In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water (Gen. 1:1-2).”
How are we to understand the first sentences of Genesis? Midrash tells us the oversized first letter, Bet, closed on three sides and open in front, is a visual reminder that we cannot know what came before time zero.
Unlike pagan cosmologies, the Torah has no interest in the question of God’s origins; its interest is only from the moment of Creation onward.
Professor Leon Kass observed that science, normally full of theories and calculations, is also surprisingly silent on what came before Creation and its ultimate cause.
The remaining Hebrew word, reshit, connotes “the part that stands for the whole, the foundation, the principle,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasizes, rather than chronological sequence.
The Hebrew for “God created,” rendered as a singular verb with a plural noun, reflects the universal abstract God of Creation who embodies all the “powers, mights, and influences used to create and maintain the universe,” explains theologian Charles Ellicott.
Exclusive to the Divinity, biblical scholar Nachum Sarna adds, the Hebrew word for creation here, bara, connotes creation of a novel product, unlike anything previously known, and beyond human capacity to reproduce.
“The Heavens and the Earth” expresses the totality of the universe and its cosmic wonders, or perhaps the spiritual world and the physical world, as Dr. David Medved prefers.
The enigmatic second sentence zooms in on the physical world, perhaps primordial earth, variously described as chaotic, unformed, and lifeless, even intolerable and full of contradiction and struggle — tohu vavohu — whose origins are shrouded in mystery. An enveloping darkness, a physical presence like that described by Isaiah, is mirrored by a watery deep, broken only by the vibrating of a Divine spirit, a life-giving, sustaining energy. And perhaps all very, very tiny.
Modern science says so. “As theoretical physicists attempt to describe the very early universe,” Dr. Gerald Schroeder writes, “they describe a condition in which all the matter is pressed into a space of zero size and infinite density.”
They have some catching up to do. Over 700 years ago, the Jewish philosopher Nachmanides — and others — repeatedly asserted that the only physical Creation was at the beginning of Creation Day One, when it was the size of a mustard seed. But that’s just the beginning of the one day.
The Torah’s first two verses suggest answers to questions like what can we know and how shall we live?
What can we learn from Genesis 1? What did you learn? Disorder is the natural state of the universe. Chaos becomes more and more dense, and ultimately explodes.
Bring order to the chaos. Stand on good principles, not whims, to direct your life and decisions.
There are at least two dimensions to everything in the universe: heavens and earth, physical and spiritual, chaos and order. There are also two sides to every story. Look and listen to both sides, and choose well.
Look forward, like the letter Bet of Bereshit. Don’t be like Lot’s wife, looking back, because the answers aren’t there.
Everything in the cosmos has a beginning and comes from something. Treat others as you would like to be treated, with respect, kindness, and generosity of spirit, for we are all made of the same stardust.
According to a midrash, the very first letter of Genesis embodies the Torah’s purpose.
When God was about to create the world, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet approached God to plead, “Create the world through me!”
One by one, no letter was found suitable. Eventually, Bet approached God and said, “May you create your world through me, for through me all the world will bless you daily.” God agreed and began, “Bereshit.”
May your new year be filled every day with blessings.
Literature to share
A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum. All Albert Einstein needed in 1914 was a photograph of the Russian eclipse showing that gravity bends light, and he would have had the final proof for his theory of relativity. Inspired by this remark in a 2014 Scientific American, A Bend in the Stars is an improbable but beautifully-crafted tale of a young Jewish Russian physicist and his assertive physician sister who attempt to beat Einstein to the proof. Filled with love and adventure alongside animosity and disillusion, this novel explodes with both Jewish and Russian history, culture, science, and — above all — memorable characters.
Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story by Lesléa Newman. Based on a true story, this expressively illustrated book for elementary grades exquisitely captures the experience of leaving home and family in Eastern Europe and immigrating through Ellis Island from a child’s perspective. It raises notions of bravery, kindness, and the power of traditions. At the end is an adult explanation of the original journeys of the author’s relatives, with photographs, upon which this story is based.
To read the complete October 2020 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.