Torah | ‘In the beginning’ means a new start, again and againby michal kohane
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Seven is a favorite number — the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the seven branches on the menorah, the seven days of Creation. But how about the first verse of the Torah, which has exactly seven words, and the first word, which has exactly seven letters? A coincidence? Perhaps.
But wait. Are there really seven days of Creation, or just six? Was the seventh day merely for doing nothing, or was Shabbat a creation in itself, bringing to the world a new concept, the idea of making space for a soul day?
And what about the fact that the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis don’t seem to make sense together? Chapter 1 tells the story of Creation in a very orderly manner: On the first day, there was light; on the second day, a separation of the water below and water above, mayim (water) and sham-mayim (literally “there water” but it’s the Hebrew word for the skies); then on subsequent days dirt and plants; a pretty starry sky; fish to swarm the seas and birds to fly in the sky; mammals; and humans. The world by the end of Genesis 1 is as perfect as can be, and God, described as “Elokim,” presides over the masterpiece. We would expect Chapter 2 to take it from here.
But instead, we’re thrown back to yet another beginning: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created … When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:4-7). Indeed, a different beginning, and God here has a different name.
How can that be? Not only is there now nothing after Creation, but once man is created he is formed out of dust! Hasn’t he already been made in God’s image? And then there is the mystery of the woman. First, she’s created along with the man — “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27) — but then all of a sudden God takes flesh and builds her up from the “man’s rib” (Genesis 2:21-22).
Seeing the seeming contradictions, it’s tempting to label these and other more complex Torah sections simply as stories written by different authors that are not for our sophisticated mindset, maybe more suitable for small children. But it would be much more beneficial for us to give the Torah, its readers and commentators of thousands of years (all of whom surely noticed these issues before us) the benefit of the doubt and dig a little deeper to find greater meaning.
It would have been easy to write a book that made sense, or at least one that was more consistent. Lots of people, ancient and modern (not to mention other religions), have done so successfully. If Hamlet and Harry Potter can tell a good story, why can’t we?
Perhaps because we’re asked not to treat the Torah as a “story,” not to think simply with this text, not to settle for easy answers and a quick way out, and not to hand it to our kids without honestly opening our hearts and struggling with the challenges first.
The first word of the Torah might shed some light. “Beresheet,” often translated as “in the beginning,” literally means “in a beginning.” It therefore implies more than one start. When we unscramble it, we get the words “alef betishrei,” which is the Hebrew date for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Alef betishrei is the day we celebrate the beginning of the year, the birthday of the world and Creation itself.
The opening letter of the word “beresheet,” the bet, is closed to three sides and open toward the left side, the side of the text. It asks us to look ahead with a fresh gaze as we renew our learning.
Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah.
Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.
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