Waters above, waters below

Considering Creation Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

As a baby, my grandson could easily identify cats and dogs out and about, and in books. Although he had cats and dogs as pets, one might have expected some confusion, since his 200-pound American mastiff was named Kitty and his smaller shaggy rescue was named Bear. But he never confused kitties or bears with dogs.

Research spanning the past three decades suggests why: infants as young as three months can reliably distinguish between cats and dogs based on faces and head shapes.

However, experiences and gradually learned visual cues are only a small part of the learning process. Recent findings suggest the human brain is actually hardwired to differentiate, separate, and categorize regardless of experience or even ability to see.

These innate capabilities are part of the brain’s framework upon which learning and behavior are built.

Just imagine if every time we encountered something novel, we had to learn from scratch how to respond!

That would be chaos, the very state of Creation at the beginning of the second day.

A windswept, watery, undefined Earth was enveloped in darkness in a cosmos infused with supernatural light. Immediately, God began to bring about order:

“God said, ‘Let there be an expanse (rakia) in the midst of the water (mayim), that it may separate water from water.’ God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. God called the expanse Sky (shamayim). And there was evening and there was morning, a second day (Gen. 1:6-8).”

Like the hardwiring of an infant’s brain, Earth’s primordial architecture is designed for creating order and making distinctions.

This unusual sequence of increasing order on Earth seems to contradict the law of physics that disorder increases over time if left unchecked.

Candace R. Kwiatek

But the ancient biblical text reveals what modern science is only now discovering. While the ordered universe began devolving into chaos shortly after the Big Bang, natural forces were propelling some space matter into localized clumps, like Earth, that inexplicably became increasingly ordered and eventually produced complex life.

More than one scientist has concluded there’s no way increasing order in just parts of the universe could occur by random chance.

Jewish commentators across the ages have struggled to understand the central element of this primordial structure, the substance and significance of the rakia.

It appears infrequently in the biblical text and lacks kindred words in related languages. There are few clues about its essence. However, its root conveys notions of spreading, expansion, thinning.

The rakia’s earliest rendering was a domed structure housing the Sun, Moon, and stars over the watery deep, a design similar to that of many ancient peoples around Israel.

Later commentators suggested the rakia was one of seven similar expanses spreading across the heavens.

In the Late Middle Ages, the Kabalist Ramban envisioned the rakia as a separation between the tangible world and the spiritual aspects of Creation, while the sages Radak and Sforno described it as a misty-domed sky essential for a habitable Earth.

Among modern commentators, some maintain the rakia is the atmosphere stretching around the globe, while others claim it embraces Earth’s atmosphere outward to the boundary of the universe.

Despite variations, every interpretation emphasizes the elemental order brought to Earth and perhaps even the universe during the second day.

Equally obscure is the Bible’s use of water to describe the embryonic Earth, since water has long been regarded as a latecomer to the universe.

However, recent studies at Tel Aviv University suggest water appeared in significant quantities just a billion years after the Big Bang, or nine and a half billion years before Earth formed. So the text could very well be read literally. On the other hand, water is universally familiar and can be a powerful metaphor for explaining things no one has ever seen.

Water can communicate unfathomable depths, mimic the electromagnetic radiation waves in space, and appear as dewdrops, atmospheric mists, and rain in the sky.

Water also adds a symbolic dimension: beginnings, separation, life, and blessing. And water’s repetitiveness points to the fundamental interconnectedness of Earth, sky, and space.

The entire second day of Creation is dedicated to the important task of building Earth’s primal architecture, characterized by order and distinction.

Yet on this day alone God does not say, “it was good.”

Unfinished until the next day, the earthly waters had no purpose or value — the whole point of existence — until they could irrigate the vegetation on dry land, Rashi explains. And Midrash Rabbah suggests the primal waters act as a mirror, reminding us that separation, distinction, and categorization without a moral purpose break the bonds that unite people, causing strife.

Order and distinction may be necessary, but alone they are not wholly good.

So what do we learn about how to live? Overcome entropy and engage: make order out of chaos. Infuse your days and your activities with purpose: stop wasting time. Avoid separations, distinctions, and categories empty of moral and ethical aims: unite, don’t cause strife.

How will you live? Will you create order or generate chaos?


Literature to share

Third Daughter by Talia Carner. A fictionalized account of the shocking true story of the Jewish prostitution trade in the 1800s, Carner’s novel reveals the tricks, routes, and historical circumstances that allowed this travesty to flourish. With varied and engaging characters, Carner portrays the lives of the immigrant girls and women enslaved in America by fear and poverty. Heartbreaking and sickening in turn, this tale is sure to heighten interest in the current sex trade in America and around the world. Highly engaging, eye-opening, and perfect for book club discussions.

Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin. Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, Irving Berlin captured the cacophony of the city, the rhythms of ragtime and blues in the air, and the spirit of America in music. Just out of his teens when he wrote the international hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, he became one of America’s greatest songwriters. Among his 1,500 songs are God Bless America, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and White Christmas. Targeted to elementary and middle school ages, this engaging biography is complemented by lively, colorful illustrations that bring Berlin’s story and music to life.

To read the complete December 2020 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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