Ma tov helkenu, ma yafa yerushateynu. How good is our lot, how beautiful is our heritage. A mere three weeks ago we celebrated the anniversary of creation, and last week we gave thanks to God for His sheltering protection of His People Israel and of each of us personally in his Sukkah. On Tuesday night we read of the death of our great teacher and leader, Moses -- and today we plunge right back again into the first portion of the Torah, the story of creation.
Please note the text of the first verse of the Torah:
"Beresheet bara elohim et hashamayim veet haaretz In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." There are a number of issues about this verse that the Jewish sages needed to investigate: First, and maybe most unnoticed is the fact that this book of religious instruction does not introduce its "Hero" -- which is, of course, God Almighty! Listen to the way that other religious books begin: The Koran, the Moslems holy book, says, "In the name of the merciful and compassionate God. Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds, the merciful, the compassionate, the ruler of the day of judgment! Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid. Guide us in the right path, the path of those Thou art gracious to; not of those Thou art wroth with; nor of those who err."
The New Testament, in the book of Matthew, reads, "(1:1) The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (1:2) Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; In Mark we read, "(1:1) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; (1:2) As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. And in John we find, "(1:1) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (1:2) The same was in the beginning with God. (1:3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (1:4) In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (1:5) And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (1:6) There was a man sent from God, whose name [was] John. (1:7) The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all [men] through him might believe.
Yet, our book, the Torah, begins with "Beresheet bara elohim et hashamayim veet haaretz In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." I hope you notice the difference! You notice that "elohim" is made a part of the sentence between Bara and Shamayim vaaretz -- he is squeezed, as it were, between "created," the verb, and "shamayim vaaretz" -- heaven and earth, the object of the verb. The great thing about this text is that it does not need to build up an image of God, nor does it feel compelled to issue proclamations about His might, His ability, or His origin. He is God, and God needs no introduction. This is an essential lesson of Judaism. This is the essence of Monotheism, and what we have introduced to the world with the life and teachings of Abraham, of Moses, and of the Jewish people.
Why should the Jewish religions book begin with creation? Would it not be better to begin with the formation of Israel at the time of the Exodus? If we look up "beginning" in the (Hebrew-English) dictionary, we find two Hebrew words: Hathala, and resheet. Furthermore, we need to understand that, in the Hebrew, as a rule, words that end in "it" are a "construct" that is, they connect to another word to "make up" one concept. (e.g. Resheet darko the beginning of his path, which in Proverbs 8:22 refers to Torah; Resheet tvuato His first fruit, which in Jeremiah 2:3 refers to Israel; Resheet hokhma The beginning of wisdom, which in Psalms 111:10 is said to be the fear of God but in Proverbs 9:10 the fear of God is Thilat hokhma, from the root Hathala! But lest you think that Proverbs didnt know the term you will find in 1:7 "the fear of the Lord is Resheet daat the beginning of knowledge!" Thus we establish Gods "ownership" of this world, and His intent to relate to Israel even when He first perceived of creation.
Now we look at this word, beresheet, and recognize that its first consonant is a prefix "b" for "in" and its end is a suffix "it" for the construct "of" which leaves us with "Rosh" which means head. Thus Beresheet is "in the beginning" in the sense of "at the head of things." As you know, "Rosh" is the place where thinking takes place, and THAT gives us a whole new message of how creation started. It all started with a thought! As we say in the hymn recited on Friday night, Lekha Dodi, "Sof maaseh bemahashava thilah -- the end of creation was first thought out." God did not create a world haphazardly, nor did it happen by chance. There may have been a "big bang" -- but it was not an accidental "oops." We may further consider the unique nature of the word Bara which is not just "created" but rather "created something out of nothing." Elohim, as we know, is the Hebrew word for God, in the plural form, denoting majesty and sovereignty. Thus "Beresheet bara Elohim" means so much more than "just" the English "In the beginning God created."
The first three letters of Bresheet are bet resh alef which make up the word BARA created something out of nothing! Thus we are told that the very beginning of thinking "in the head," or conceiving of the creation is in and of itself already part of the act of creation!
What exactly was it that God created? To be sure, in the word bara we are informed that he created something out of nothing and that something, the text continues, was "et hashamayim vet haaretz -- The heavens and the earth." He created Shamayim, which means heavens and aretz, which means earth or land. The "ha" prefix is the definite article, and `et is the conclusive construct for the object of the verb. In Hebrew we use the expression "mealef ad tav" -- from Aleph to Tav, to say that something is complete and whole, as we say in English from A to Z. Thus, God created the whole world from Aleph to Tav -- complete. Now the text will continue and the story will unfold of the details of creation!
Shabbat shalom to each and every one of you. I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to see you and to celebrate Shabbat with you. You may be surprised by my statement. You may say, Rabbi, you have seen me more in the last month than I care to think about. Why this kind of comment? Well, it is precisely because of the last month that I make this comment. We have completed the most intense, strenuous and demanding period of holiday observance in the Jewish calendar - almost an entire month of observing, celebrating and introspection, in both solemn and joyous manner. It brings to mind an experience I had the first year I had a pulpit in Indiana, Pa.. On December 26 I was invited to the home of the president of the congregation for a party. Most of my congregants in Indiana were merchants, and they were celebrating the end of the "selling season." The president of the congregation raised his glass in a toast, "Well, were through for another year" For me this is a symbol of the attitude of so many people who, as the High Holy Day season ends, leave the synagogue saying, "Well, were through for another year." So, your being here is an affirmation that for some the year is not over -- it is still "Bereshit" - in its very beginning.
Since this is the Sabbath of Bereishit, beginning, I choose as my theme a passage from the Book of the same name: "Vayvarekh elohim et yom hashvii vaykadesh oto ki vo shavvat mikol mela'khto asher bara Elohim laasot -- And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it because on it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." So reads the English translation. But the Hebrew reads, "Which God created to make." Here is a literal translation: "Because God rested on it from all His work which He had created to make."
What does that mean, and what do we learn from this text? Our sages, the great Rabbis of antiquity, say that the Bible thus indicates that there was still work to do even though God had finished His work. Even though God had completed one stage of creation, creation goes on endlessly. We are never finished with our work. There is no end to what we must do -- even as there is neither end nor limit to what we can do.
People have a tendency to look upon life as a task which can be finished. They see the "finish line" in one of two ways: If they are successful, finishing means a kind of arriving. In fact, we speak that way. When we say that someone "has arrived," we mean that his goal has been attained. Everything that he sought to accomplish is concluded. Sometimes we use the word "finish" to express despair. The unsuccessful person will say, "Im finished. There is nothing more for me to expect. Life has brought defeat and has come to an end." Our religious tradition tells us that there is no point which may be considered the place of arrival, and there is no place that is called the end. There are landmarks and milestones, but no person who is really alive can ever say, "I am finished". Even God said, "la-asot" there is still something more to do, more to accomplish.
Too often we commit this tragic error of trying to conceive of life as something that can be finished. So many people consider retirement as their goal. What does retirement mean? When I lived up north, many would say, "It means that Ill go to Florida." What will happen when you get to Florida? "Ill walk barefoot on the beach counting the sea-shells. I want nothing more to do no responsibilities, no time clock." A doctor friend of mine commented, "If that person wants to sign his death warrant, hell go to Florida and count sea-shells. It is one step away from the grave."
Yet, do we not think of life in terms of completed goals? We go to school to receive a diploma which certifies that we are finished. I would warn, however, against using a doctor whose learning was completed when he received his Doctorate in Medicine. The same would be true of a lawyer, of a teacher -- or of a rabbi. Our studies are never completed. We may occasionally pause to rest, but we must go forward to avoid stagnation and obsolescence.
I often think in these terms when we celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the congregation. I have a lump in my throat as I bless a young celebrant who has worked hard to reach this high point in life. I fear that in the heart of this youth there is the feeling, "Today I am finished. This is the end of my drudgery. My religious education has been accomplished, and from now on I am an adult ." Really!
As patriots, we believe that this is the best of all possible countries. When criticism of our country is voiced, some will ask, "Where is it better? Where have they achieved more?" When suggestions are made about amendments to the constitution or new legislation that is needed, some prefer not to tamper with our existing way of life. The historian Arnold Toynbee voiced a theory about the fall of great empires. When a country reached a high stage of development, its people began to think of it as the best. Their job was finished. They rested on their laurels, while younger states rose with new strength and new energy, to overthrow them. We, the United States, sat back and declared that we have arrived, that we had no interest in "world problems, after the first world war, that "war to end all wars." Because we withdrew from world community, possibly we precipitated World War Two. That was when Germany "arrived," as we all remember!
Our schools face a tremendous crisis. Great cities cannot provide decent schooling for kids who want to grow up to live in safe, clean and wholesome surroundings. Why are we faced with this catastrophe today? There was a period when we stopped building, when we failed to replace obsolete school buildings, when we didnt train sufficient teachers and administrators. For two or three decades, there were those who thought that our great schools will remain great forever. Because we failed in our education, today we have to build more jails. Indeed, if we continue along this path, we will be finished. There is still work to be done. We dare not ever look upon ourselves as having finished our task.
How does one designate a learned man in Hebrew? There is a word for wise, it is hakham. A learned man is not called by that word. There is a hint of sarcasm when we call someone a hokhem (which comes from the word hakham). We generally mean the opposite, which is a fool, of course. We call a learned man a Talmid hakham, a student or disciple of the wise. What is the difference? A hokhem has already arrived. He thinks he knows everything; and that makes him a fool. A Talmid hakham is the eternal student. He knows that he needs to learn more. He is willing to sit at the feet of others. The Talmid hakham is the symbol of wisdom because he never arrives; he is always striving toward a higher goal. He follows on the path to wisdom.
The attitude of completion may be the mark of conceit; it may also be the symbol of defeat, which is by far more dangerous. When we visit and try to console those who are bereaved, how often a grieving person will say, "My life is finished." A distraught parent, sibling or child will say, "My life is ended. I cannot think of enjoying anything. My life has come to an end." Some people suffer defeat. A young boy in high school, at age 16, failed an examination and committed suicide. He left a note: "For me life is ended." A young girl who aspired to be accepted by a sorority of "high social standing" was rejected. She ended her life, leaving a letter informing her parents that she could not continue after rejection by her best friends. Some friends, we would say... Some problem, the parents say. So many look upon defeat as the end. Where did they learn this?
The Torah reminds us that there must be no end. As long as we live, there is something more to do; there are new challenges to be met, new chapters to be written. In our daily prayers, we thank God "Who renews in His goodness every day the work of Bereishit, of beginning." No day is an end. Every day has its new beginnings. Life can always offer new beginnings. Life must not be dulled by conceit nor frustrated by defeat. Each one of us, in his own way, can face the new day with joy, dignity and the expectation of happiness. We must remember the words of Pirkey Avot: "Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, velo ata ben khorin libatel mimena -- you are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it." The lesson to be learned is that what is important is not to arrive, but to travel on the road, Gods road, His path, which leads to growth, to achievement, and to appreciation of His love and His blessings.
We are back to "Square one" -- we begin reading the Torah all over again -- with the first portion in the first book -- with Bereshit. Listen to the words of the Torah: "Bereshit bara elohim et hashama'yim ve'et ha'aretz... In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day."
Many so-called modern people, in the scientific and academic community, and those who revolt against God and religion, like to say that this part of our scriptures prove how out of date and primitive religion really is. "Everyone knows," they proclaim, "that the world was created in a long and protracted way over millions of millions of years, in a manner that is called "evolution." One can study earth history and Darwin's theory of evolution -- or one can follow blindly the teachings of creation...
Well, my friends, I am here to inform you that this is not quite so. You see, all those pundits and experts assume to understand what Darwin postulated -- and presume to know what Torah teaches... They are wrong on both counts. Let me deal with Torah first: The story that is told in Genesis chapter one is not a scientific account. It was not written for academicians. It is a religious tract teaching a religious principle. It tells us a basic story -- that God created the world -- and it teaches a moral lesson -- that God wants His creation to rest of Shabbat. God had Shabbat in mind when He created the world. He thought that to make a day of rest every seven days it would be necesary to have six work-days. Hence the account of Genesis 1.
But let us look for just a fraction of a moment at Darwin's Theory. Charles Darwin, a 19th-century English naturalist, argued that natural selection guides evolutionary change. Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, another English naturalist, stated a similar theory of evolution independently of Darwin. The theory of natural selection is based on the idea that living things are in constant competition for limited but essential resources in their environment such as food, places to hide, and opportunities to breed. Accordingly, natural selection favors any trait that helps an organism or its offspring survive. For example, the daring shown by birds in the face of a predator near the nest involves the risk of death. Nonetheless, natural selection compensates the risk by increasing the offspring's chances of survival.
So, you see, the very name, "theory of evolution," is erronious or incomplete. We should call it, properly, the "theory of evolution by chance." And this is where we, who read the Torah and believe it to be true, differ from the Darwinists. We have no argument with the principle of a developing (or evolving) world that is ever changing and improving. What we refuse to believe, because it is less likely than the divinity of a frog, let alone God Almighty, is that chance has anything to do with this world that we live in. Can it be chance that puts together more than two thousand chemicals in a particular mix and a particular sequence to create the simplest DNA of a one-cell organism? Now, imagine for just an instant a further little detail of spinning millions of cells in a particular order and form to make "systems" that are specifically "cats," or "dogs," or little baby humans -- more complex than the entire map of the stars in a cloudless bright night... Can this be chance? It is as likely, or even less likely, than to expect a twister to descend upon a junk yard and assemble out of its contents a Boeing 747 airplane!
So let's keep our lab-coats nice and clean and wrinkle-free -- and properly hanging in the laboratory, and let us keep the Torah in our minds and in our hearts, to teach us not the nuts and bolts of science -- but the truth of life, both here on earth and in the infinite eternity that is God's. Let Torah teach us how to live our lives so that we may have the disposition and the frame of mind to seek knowledge of God's great handiwork -- this world that we live in. Let us marvel at His accomplishments, and let us have reverence and admiration for His ability and capacity that are so unending, and for His love, with which we are blessed.
Once again, Shabbat ushers in a time-out from our busy schedule of work and extra-curricular activities, as we give ourselves to the worship of God and the pleasure of family and friends. This is the difference between us humans and the rest of God's creation. We are capable of abstract thought, and we are capable of abstract relationships. We strive to relate to those we love, to our family, to our close friends, to our heroes -- and to our Creator!
What a presumptuous and vain idea it is for a human to relate to God! We don't even understand the total measure of this God -- and we try to relate to Him! It is a little like the flee who fell in love with an elephant -- only much more so, ever so much more so. And yet, and yet maybe not so much, because, as you know, the acorn does not fall far from the tree, and we are God's acorn, as it is written, "Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." [Gen. 1:26] We are a special creation of God, made "in our image, according to our likeness" and therefore must be considered 'close to God' in our attributes.
Except... Except that a little further on we read that before anything had yet been created upon this earth, "then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." [Gen. 2:7] In this verse man is nothing more than a clay vessel which God formed out of the dust of the earth. We don't even know what God had in mind when He made man -- until we read that he placed the man in the garden He had planted, to work in the garden and to guard it. In this particular story man seems to be doing everything all wrong. First he is alone, then God gives him a 'helpmate' that makes him break God's command not to eat of certain trees -- and man is quick to blame his transgression on the woman. Then we have the first human conflict -- that of Cain and Abel, with its attendant transgression -- the first case of homicide in human history.
Yet, a little further on in the text, still in this week's reading in the Torah, we read, "This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created." [Gen. 5:1,2] Once again we are raised from the ranks of the ordinary creation to the level of a unique and singular type -- created "in the likeness" of God. So which is the "real" story of creation. Is it chapter one, chapter two, or chapter five?
Strangely enough, we in Judaism, whose book this was from its origin, see no conflict between the different passages. We do not speak of "the first creation" story, the "second creation" story, etc. -- not at all! To us, creation was something that happened once, and only once. However, like Rashomon, the famous Japanese film that tells a story from the experience of different people, whose impressions of the same event vary widely, so also do we understand the story of the origin of man to be told in the Torah from different aspects of the issue of the beginning of human life upon this earth.
The Torah is unique and different in its approach to telling the story of creation because it does not tell it from the viewpoint of a manipulative and capricious God -- as so many ancient lores did; nor does it tell the story of creation from a view point of humanity, where humans are the center and crowning glory of all creation -- as other cultures did. The Torah presents an account that purports to report a natural event with a moral, ethical and religious foundation. A world came into being -- that is an empirical fact. We teach that God creates the world, in Genesis, chapter one, in an orderly sequence, in steps of evolutionary change that begin in a nebula that is 'void and unformed' and ends (figuratively speaking) with the first ever celebration of Shabbat -- by God himself. In this first chapter, in its "right" time frame, man appears on the scene of God's world late in the afternoon of the last day of creation.
The second chapter of Genesis gives us an accounting of the development of humanity, from an animal with a potential for intelligence -- but without the tools to develop and hone that potential -- to the time when man is capable of remembering the past and planning for the future. This 'assent of man' is of necessity a story of misconceptions and missteps, where humanity tries to rise out of the mire of ignorance, only to slide back again and again, blaming circumstances, blaming other humans, even blaming God for their shortcomings. Finally, man is ready for his destiny as a human being, and Torah takes us on to examine and learn from his history, as we read in the fifth chapter, "This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created." [Gen. 5:1,2]
Ma tov helkenu, ma yafa yerushateynu. How good is our lot, how beautiful is our heritage. "Beresheet bara elohim et hashama'yim ve'et ha'aretz -- In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." God was capable of creating this world without humanity, and He could have created it in a blink of the eye. Yet, He took six days, to make Shabbat on the seventh, and just before He made Shabbat, He made humanity, to celebrate the Shabbat and keep its holy nature, which is an aspect of God and His holiness. We thank Him for giving us the chance to be a part of His holiness and of His eternity.
Barukh hashem, thank God, we are done... I mean, we are starting all over again... Beginning, end, and renewal are all mixed together in this week's portion. Nothing beats the experience of Simkhat Torah morning, when we read from three scrolls of the Torah, and the Haftara we read is from Joshua, chapter one, which is the first chapter of the first book that comes right after the end of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah. We are so thrilled by the event and the continuity of our religious life that we take the scrolls of the Torah and dance with them around the sanctuary (and sometimes in much wider circles around the synagogue building or the block on which the synagogue is or even further than that). We call this 'hakafot,' and we go around seven times. But that was then, and this is now. Shabbat Beresheet is a most impressive and instructive opening to the study of Torah. We can look at our portion in an overview, what we would call these days the 'macro' view: we start with a time before the world began and go on to cover creation, evolution, the origin of man, the beginning of crime, the beginning of society, and the despoiling of the earth.
We can also look at our text in great detail, or the 'micro' view, and recognize the absolute genius of its inspired author. The first two words of the Hebrew text encompass a universe of information and profound truths that have not been stated before or since in a manner quite as clear and succinct. Consider these three words: Beresheet bara Elohim. Notice that the first and second words, though they are not related and don't have the same root in the Hebrew, have the same three letters -- the first three in the first word, and the only three in the second. This is not a coincidence! The message rings loud and clear to us -- the first word, whose root is rosh, meaning head, none-the-less incorporates within it the entire second word (and the verb of the sentence).
There are at least two words for 'beginning' in Hebrew, of which the more common is not our word from the text but rather the word 'bahatkhala' meaning at the start of things. Why is the words 'beresheet' used? Precisely because of its root, 'rosh,' meaning head. The author wants us to know that this beginning is not merely a start-up. It is a process that began with forethought. The second word of the text, like the first, has a number of synonyms -- asa and yatsar both equal Bara, but only 'almost,' not quite completely. Our sages tell us that unlike the first two, 'bara' means creating something out of nothing! It is also possible that the author of the text was inpired to use these two words, "beresheet bara" precisely because the second is the first three consonants of first, and thus we get the message, and learn the lesson, that by the very thought of God, His first glimmer of an idea about making this world -- the act of creation already began!
"Beresheet Bara Elohim -- In the beginning God created..." There are a number of 'issues' about this verse that the Jewish sages needed to investigate: First, and maybe most unnoticed is the fact that this book of religious instruction does not introduce its "Hero" -- which is, of course, God Almighty! Christianity's New Testament begin with the book of Matthew, which reads, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;" And, the book scholars consider to be the oldest in the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark, states similarely, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee." The Koran, the Moslems holy book, begins with the words, "In the name of the merciful and compassionate God. Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds, the merciful, the compassionate, the ruler of the day of judgment!"
Our book, the Torah, begins with "Beresheet bara elohim -- In the beginning created God [Shamayim vaaretz -the heavens and the earth]." I hope you take notice of the difference! You notice that "elohim" is made a part of the sentence between Bara and Shamayim vaaretz -- he is squeezed, as it were, between "created," the verb, and "shamayim vaaretz" -- heaven and earth, the object of that verb. God is introduced by His deeds in our text. Examination of the first chapter reveals not only the sequense of creation -- the evolution of matter and of life upon this unique planet -- it reveals the system which God put into action to insure the purpose and direction of evolution, so that it is not haphazard and chance but reason and purpose.
Beyond the creative genius of God, we read of the purpose of man, who was put upon this earth to tend to God's handiwork and insure its continued existence and well being. In chapter one, looking at God's creation from the view point of physical existence, God creates humanity on the very last moment of creation, and blesses it with the challenge of living up to His specifications, as we read that humanity was created by His image. If humanity can live up to the high standards of the Holy One, it will achieve dominion of the earth. If it cannot, it will bring about its own destruction. Mankind begins by making a series of bad errors: they break God's rules for proper living and lose the previlege of living in Eden; They refuse to bear responsibility for their actions both in the case of Adam eating from the forbidden tree, and in the case of Cain having caused the death of Abel. Finally we read in the text that humanity's developing depravity reached such a point that God was saddened about His very creation of humanity, and it was only Noah who became a ray of consolation for God in the dark age of the time of creation.
This Shabbat is unique even among Shabbat Beresheet celebration -- which, of course, is unique because it is the Shabbat on which we read the first portion in the first book of the Torah -- all over again! Why is it special? I'll tell you: It is because the Shabbat is the day before Rosh Khodeh, the "head of the month" -- the celebration of the beginning of the second month of the Jewish calendar!
We have just concluded the most religiously intensive month in our calendar -- the month of the Time of Judgement -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the time of living in sukkot, the temporary habitation of the harvesters, the temporary shelter of our generation of the desert; we have stretched our conscience and put it out to shake in the wind as we sang 'hoshana' prayers with etrog and lulav; finally we ran circles around the inside and the outside of the synagogue with Torah scrolls, as we read the last segment in the fifth book of the Torah and the first segment in the first book of the Torah. All this in the space of one month.
This Shabbat we read the portion of Beresheet, about creation, about the origin of all life, and particularly about the origin of mankind. We read the account of the six days of creation that lead to the Hallowing of the Sabbath. Normally we would have read a portion from the prophets that complements the Torah portion, but not this week! Because tomorrow is the beginning of the month, the second month, we read a special portion, called "makhar khodesh," that recalls a time in our history when the day before the new month played a pivotal role in the life of David, the shepherd who would become the second king of Israel.
The story is a true drama of good and evil, court intrigue and innocent friendship, of hate and love, of persecution and perseverance. It is a story of a royal lad, Yehonathan, who is more concerned with justice than with his own future -- and a God inspired boy who was anointed by Samuel to be king, who was willing to forgo his promised destiny for the sake of his friendship with the king's son.
Why do we read this portion at this time? Maybe as a lesson of how uncertain the future is for all of us. "Tomorrow is the new month," Yehonatan says to David, and I shall sit at my father's table and try to discover what he has in mind, to warn you if he has malice towards you -- or to assure you that he has no ill planned for you, so that you may return to sit at our table and continue to be part of the king's retinue. How nice it would be if each of us had a "friend in court" who could spy-out our future. Will this month be our last, or will we last to celebrate another Rosh Hodesh... Will we prosper or will we fail in our attempt to earn our daily bread. Will we find rest and satisfaction, or will we be disturbed and unseated from our place of tranquility.
So, as we get ready to begin the second month of the year in our own special calendar, we are made aware of continuity. There is something special and grand about beginning -- but there is also something solid and important about the mundane and 'usual' times of that which is not spectacular but only the daily doing of the stuff of life. Yehonatan continues to be prince, and David continues to be the gifted outsider. Both know that with time everything will change -- and yet they stay true to the facts as they are at this given time.
David and Yehonatan are an example for us of true friendship and fraternal love. We, who know how their story ends, marvel at their fidelity and humanity, and we are affected by their tragic circumstances. Yet we can't help but marvel at their deep and abiding faith as we read their parting words: "And Jonathan said to David, "Go in safety, inasmuch as we have sworn to each other in the name of the Lord, saying, 'The Lord will be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.'" [I Samuel 20:42]
May our faith be as strong as theirs, and may we be as steadfast and loving as they were to one another. May we learn from them the value of friendship and the sanctity of human life.
This week we begin anew to read and learn in the Torah. Allow me to read to you a letter I received:
Dear Rabbi Elie,
I have just returned from a solidarity trip to two nations where Jews suffer from Arab violence. One has been in the news constantly, the other has not been reported on very much in the news, but seems to be in trouble.
I first went to France. Did you know that from October 1 to October 18, in the space of just two and a half weeks, 6 synagogues were burned down and another 24 synagogues and Jewish schools were targets of attempted arson. Stones were thrown at people outside synagogues, and Jewish kids were hounded or molested on their way to school. There was even a rare shooting: On October 9, a sniper fired an M-16 automatic rifle into the Paris Great Synagogue during the Yom Kippur service. Fortunately, nobody was hit. The police quickly sealed off the Rue de la Victoire and searched the building from which the shot had come, but the sniper was gone, leaving behind only some shell casings. Nothing like this has happened not only in France, but in all of Western Europe since World War II.
Members of the French Jewish community explained to us that, to be sure, from time to time there are anti-Semitic incidents in most European countries, occasionally there are even lethal attacks on Jews. In France, two major anti-Jewish actions took place in the early eighties: a bombing at the Rue Copernic Liberal Synagogue in Paris in 1980, and a killing at the Goldenberg restaurant in the old Marais district in 1982. However, these were clearly the work of an extremist fringe or of terrorists sponsored by rogue states. What is happening now is protracted domestic terrorism on a large scale.
It was explained to us that investigators believe that nearly all of the attacks have been carried out by Muslims. There are about 7 million Muslims in France and fewer than one million Jews. Most French Jews are of North African origin, with a small Ashkenazic remnant of Jews who lived in France from before the Second World War. Most Muslims are of African origin they are first or second generation immigrants from North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, or Turkey. Most are French citizens, either through naturalization or by virtue of their birth on French colonial soil. Their numbers are growing, thanks to legal and illegal immigration and to a high birthrate. Most live in Greater Paris or big cities like Lille, Lyon, and Marseilles, where they make up between 20 percent and 30 percent of the population and, more important, sometimes as much as half of the teenage population. In contemporary French parlance, the term "les jeunes" (young people) refers to this large cohort of predominantly Muslim Arab and black teenagers.
In many neighborhoods, Muslim immigrants from North Africa have close dealings with Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent. And the principal organizations of the Jewish community (notably the Consistoire, a uniquely French body established by Napoleon, which represented Jews up until the separation of church and state in 1905 and still runs most synagogues; and CRIF, the French equivalent of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) have long supported French Muslims' chief demands, ranging from public funding of mosques and community centers to official recognition of Islam as France's second religion. So it is not surprising to learn that most French Muslims are neither fanatics nor Jew-haters. In fact, some moderate Muslims actually express support for the Middle East peace process and show interest in visiting Israel or doing business with Israeli companies (or at least they did before the recent crisis.)
As you can well imagine, though, there is also a fundamentalist element in French Islam, with links to organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Afghan Taliban, and Usama bin Laden's group, and for this element, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are articles of faith. Moreover, its influence is growing. The radicals virtually rule the inner cities, the public-housing complexes where most low-income Muslims live. They manage most of the mosques. And they maintain symbiotic relations with groups of delinquent or semi-delinquent immigrant teenagers. It is believed by Jewish communal leaders and the Surte, the French F.B.I., that most of the recent attacks on Jews have come from this source.
It is perhaps only natural that Muslim extremists and their cohorts, rejecting as they do any law other than Sharia (fundamentalist Moslem law), and steeped in the crudest anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric, should have reacted to the news of a revived intifada in the Middle East by attacking their own Jewish neighbors. One has only to sample the sermons of the Palestinian muftis and preachers widely broadcast by satellite and quoted in print throughout the Muslim world, including France, to understand this. On October 13, for example, as synagogues were going up in flames across France, Dr. Ahmad Abou Halabiya, a Sunni theologian in Gaza, was reminding Muslims on Palestinian television that "Almighty Allah" desired them "not to ally themselves with Jews and Christians, not to love them, not to enter into partnerships with them, not to support them, and not to enter into any contract with them." He went so far as to instruct Muslims "not to pity the Jews but to fight them and to kill them wherever they are to be found."
For all their antipathy toward Jews, however, the radical Muslims of France probably would not have unleashed a pogrom without what they saw as the backing of the powers that be. The fact is that most of the political class in France has sided with the Palestinians in the current Middle East crisis. President Jacques Chirac, a conservative, blamed the Israelis for "deploying tanks against the feelings of a nation." The Socialist foreign minister, who had previously called the policies of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak "reasonable and realistic," lined up behind Chirac, rather than with the more measured Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Pro-Palestinian activism was even more conspicuous on the far left, among the Communists, the Green party, the blue-collar unions and even such "antiracist" organizations as the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme (League for the Rights of Man) and the MRAP (Movement Against Racism).
There were many reasons for this sentiment. French people of every political stripe are broadly anti-American, and have long resented Israel's special relationship with the United States. Also, ironically, some public officials and citizens who might otherwise have been supportive of Israel were persuaded to look kindly on the Palestinians by "peace-loving" and Likud-hating left-wing Israelis. As for the media, many of them mistook self-righteous David against Goliath preaching, where the Arabs are David, to be more appropriate than responsible reporting. This was true of both of the state-run TV channels, France 2 and France 3, as well as of the state-owned and state-controlled news agency, Agence France-Presse, and many privately owned dailies and magazines. Over and over, France 2 broadcast pictures of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed in a shootout between Israelis and Palestinians at the Netzarim junction near Gaza, pictures that made the Israelis look like cold-blooded murderers. France 3 showed Palestinian children and mothers taking pleasure in provoking Israelis and getting killed in the process, but commented only that "Palestinian resolve had not weakened."
The media also gave extensive coverage to pro-Palestinian rallies all over France, carefully editing out the fact that many of the demonstrators, a colorful mix of rank and file Muslims and far-left militants were shouting, "Death to the Jews!" And the same media ignored or gave minimal coverage to a large pro-Israel rally held in Paris on October 10. It appears that Muslim fundamentalists, hearing from authoritative sources on all sides that Israel was very, very bad, failed to register that they were not thereby entitled to harm Jews. But even more shocking than the violence itself has been the slow and embarrassed official reaction. It took the president and prime minister 12 days to issue statements. And even then, they refrained from the customary symbolic gestures, such as a visit to a burned synagogue or an address to the nation. This was a sharp departure from past practice. In 1982, after the killing at the Goldenberg restaurant, President Mitterrand attended a service at the nearby Orthodox synagogue. And in 1990, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery at Carpentras in southern France, both President Mitterrand and then leader of the opposition Jacques Chirac attended protest rallies. The French government's official reaction contrasted, too, with German chancellor Gerhard Schreoder's response early this month to attacks on Jewish buildings in Dusseldorf and Berlin: Schreoder promptly paid a visit to a synagogue.
Some of the media waited as late as October 15 to report extensively on the anti-Jewish violence. L'Express, France's widest-circulation news magazine, was still running an anti-Israeli cover on October 12, after a dozen synagogues and schools had been attacked. And when reporting finally began in earnest, most of it was biased. A common approach was to call the trouble "interethnic" or "interfaith" and to urge "both communities," Jewish and Islamic, to rein in their extremists, as if the incitement and assaults were evenly distributed.
None of this should be taken to mean, of course, that France is an incipient Fourth Reich. The government has, at long last, condemned the violence and taken steps to stop it. And the public, genuinely troubled, is demanding a more balanced approach to the Middle East crisis. A few political leaders have even started to question the country's pro-Arab stand. Still, the symptoms are alarming, both for French Jewry, and for France.
We spent the next 36 hours in Israel, meeting the President of Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Likud Leader Ariel Sharon, Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, Knesset member Natan Sharansky, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, the family of one of the kidnapped soldiers in Lebanon, experts on Israeli Arabs, US Ambassador Martin Indyck, and many others, too many to mention. We traveled to the Western Wall, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo where shooting goes on all the time, and two small Jewish villages in Northern Israel that neighbor an Israeli Arab village where there has been unrest.
Life in Israel goes on, and most of the time you feel safe. If you dont hear the news, and we didnt have time to, you would think that nothing exceptional was happening. But of course, exceptional things are happening. Arafat has resorted to violence as a strategic tactic. Even the left wing Peace Now advocates seem to have given up on him as a negotiating partner. The level of trust for Arafat is zero, absolutely.
I want to make a comment about Ariel Sharon and his alleged provocation of the whole unrest by visiting the Temple Mount. Sharon's visit was nothing more than the excuse Arafat was looking for to turn on the violence. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF, Major General Yaalon, gave us a briefing in which he said that he had written a policy paper in November of 1999, and presented it again this summer, in which he predicted Arafat would negotiate as far as he could and then turn to violence and use the TV cameras to draw sympathy to his cause. This idea was expressed by most everyone we spoke to. Everyone expressed amazement at the flexibility and extent of concessions Barak had offered Arafat -- including major concessions involving Jerusalem and allowing the United Nations to control the Temple Mount. Yet Arafat was not willing to compromise. Instead he made a calculated effort to use violence, children, CNN and the media as a way to pressure Israel.
The president of Israel told us that when Sadat came to Jerusalem in the 70's he said "no more war, no more bloodshed." What is Arafat saying? He asked us, If we don't achieve what we want through negotiations, we have other options.
We were shown violence data on a day by day basis, and it was clear Arafat was turning the violence faucet off and on when it suited him depending on other events in the area. We were shown photographs of some of the 40,000 illegally armed "Tanzim" or tiger troops of Arafat...a direct violation of the Oslo accords. We saw photos of Arafat's "summer camps" for young kids where they were learning to fire rifles. We were shown video, and saw that the pattern was often the same. Kids came out throwing rocks and behind them were armed Palestinian adults. Eventually, shots or Molotov cocktails would be hurled toward the Israeli forces and fire would be returned. We saw on the front page of the October 23 USA Today a report of a journalist and photographer who went with an Israeli patrol and saw Palestinian ambulances delivering buckets of stones and bottles for use as Molotov Cocktails. They also describe Palestinian sniper fire in frightening detail. This is all true, and not often reported.
Hours before our departure, we met with Prime Minister Barak, who looked so somber you would have thought he lost his own son in a skirmish. He was obviously tired and sad. Yet he said to us to carry home the message that Israel will and must make peace with the Palestinian people, there is no other choice since we both live here and violence is definitely not an option. He went on to say that, apparently, the current leadership of the Palestinians is not prepared to make peace. So we must be strong and wait for our chance to make peace. The tragedy in all of this, aside from our casualties, of course, is what Arafat is doing to the Palestinian people.
I asked myself, did our mission accomplish anything? I think that it did. We got to show the French Jews and the Israelis that American Jews are with them, that we care. We provided a bit of a morale boost to Israelis who understandably are feeling isolated and alone. Also, we picked up facts that CNN and other media sources dont report and the UN don't discuss. We can share this news with our communities.
Be well and pass this report on. If at all possible, go visit your fellow Jews yourself. They need your support, and if you go, youll appreciate what you have a heck of a lot more. Shabbat shalom - its beresheet, so we start over again, right?
I am so amazed every time I hear people say that they can learn the secrets of a classic text without being able to read it in the language in which it was written. I have been told by Russian experts that Tolstoy and Dostoevski are twice as powerful and exciting in their original tongue. I have read and know for a fact that no translation of Shakespear can do justice to the original - and I can also witness to the special quality of Hugo and Rousseau in the French. And if this is true of those classics, imagine, oh yes, just imagine how much more true it is of the most classic text in the most ancient tongue: the Torah! I just fail to understand how anyone can suggest that the Hebrew text is even remotely open to in-depth translation.
This week we start again the reading of the Torah from the beginning. Well said, you may say - for that is where we start from: "In the beginning the Lord created the heaven and the earth." Our sages looked at the book, at the first word, and asked "Why?" Why did God bother to create a world, why do it at all, why do it in the sequence He did, why begin the book with "In the beginning," and not in some other way, in some other style. They added some questions that pertain to the original language: this all-important text, the "book of books," God's book - should it not begin with Him? How about "God created the world in the beginning?" That would be a real classic! It would be a beginning to begin all: start with the first letter of the Alphabet, the letter Aleph, and the word "Elohim," God!
Well, God did not consult the sages. He began with "B'resheet." All that was left to the sages was to seek and find His reasons. For this purpose they employed the three manners of looking at the text: "P'shat," the simple and direct meaning of the word; "d'rash," the meaning one has to search for, the meaning behind the meaning, which takes a little work to unveil; and "seter," the secret meaning, which is deeply hidden, to be deciphered by those who know all the ways of the Torah to pass on its message.
So the sages asked, "why did God create this world?" They found the answer in the first Hebrew word. "B'resheet" is not one but two words: "Resheet" and the prefix "B" which is a word all by itself. While most often that word is "in," or "in the" - there is a place in the Torah text where it has a different meaning: when Jacob strikes a deal with Leban for the hand of his beloved, Rachel. The text tells us that Jacob pledged, "E'evdekha sheva shnim b'Rakhel bitkha haktana - I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter." [Gen. 29:18] "For Rachel" is "b'rakhel." Similarly, the sages said, "b'resheet" should be read "for resheet' did God create."
However, once they had this answer, they had a bigger mystery on their hand: what is "resheet?" Yes, it means beginning - but the word is in the possessive form - so, the beginning of what? We read, "Adona'y kanani resheet darko - The Lord created me, the beginning of his way, the first of his acts of old." [Proverbs 8:22] We read further, "Resheet khokhma - The beginning of wisdom is the reverence of the Lord; a good understanding have all those who do his commandments; his praise endures for ever." [Psalms 111:10] Finally we find in the text, "Kodesh Yisrael l'adona'y resheet tvu'ato - Israel is holy to the Lord, and the first fruits of his produce; all who devour him shall be held guilty; evil shall come upon them, said the Lord." [Jeremiah 2:3]
"The beginning of his way" is his teaching, the Torah. For Torah God created this world.
"The beginning of wisdom" is the reverence of God. For His reverence and His glory He created the world.
"The first fruits
of his produce" is Yisrael, the Jewish people, whose purpose in being is
to carry His message to all mankind. For Yisrael God created the world.
Next, the sages asked, "what is the secret of creation?" How did creation come about, which came first and what came last. Again, they looked at this first word, "B'resheet," and they said, how very meaningful is this word! This word, written in the Hebrew alphabet, can be read as one whole word made up of six letters. We can also read the first three letters as a word, "bet, resh, aleph" - which is, in fact, the second word of the Scriptural text, "bara" - meaning created. Therefore, "created" is actually a part of the first word. So, the sages reasoned, [Hebrew] "beginning" is already an act of creation. But how does one begin to create? How do we begin to make anything? We must first have a plan. The first four letters of "B'resheet," "bet, resh, aleph shin," make the word "b'rosh," meaning "in the head" - which is where plans are formulated. Thus we have the answer to the questions "how" and "which came first." God began creation with a plan which He formulated in his "head" or mind.
What was God's plan, "B'resheet" - in the beginning? Again, the sages told us that it was all right there, in the first word. They said, "God wished to make a Shabbat - a day that he could hallow and call His own'!" To do this he needed to "work" at creation for six days - so as to make the seventh day a day of rest and holiness. Furthermore, he needed to make a world that is a habitation for mankind, unlike all the other planets in our universe that seem inhospitable to humanity. So, one more time, the sages turned to this powerful and meaningful first word of the Torah.
"B'resheet" is a secret message of the seven days of the week, and a "countdown" to the holiness of Shabbat. The first word is a sign for the first day; the first three letters, making up the second word (see above), is a sign for the second day. The place of the planning for creation, "b'rosh" - in the head, is a sign to the third day. The Hebrew letters have a numeric value, the first ten - one through ten, the next nine - twenty through ninety, and the last four - one hundred through four hundred. The word B'resheet has a final sum numeric value of four, for the fourth day of the week. "Bara" (created) has a value of five - for the fifth day of the week, and "Rosh" (mind) has a value of six, for the sixth day of creation. Which leaves the Shabbat.
When you remove the "rosh" (mind) from "b'resheet" - you are left with "bet, yod, tav," making up the word "ba'yit" - which means "home." The final sum value of this word is (I'm sure you are not surprised) seven! Thus God planned and executed the creation of the word in six days plus the Shabbat, by a master plan which He had in His mind right from the igniting instant of creation. For this, and all of His revelations of care and love, we worship and adore Him.
the holidays are all over, and we are free to celebrate Shabbat at the
end of a week that was not interrupted with some holiday or another. What a
great heritage we have in Judaism! A mere four weeks ago we celebrated the anniversary
of creation, removed from our traditional place of worship to the TPC, gathered
among some of our members that we very rarely see among us. Three weeks ago,
we stood together at sunset on Sunday, with the Torah scrolls in the hands of
our founders and leaders, and heard the haunting and dirge-like Kol Nidrei melody
chanted. Two weeks ago we prayed for the end of the rainstorms, to make it possible
for us to celebrate in the Sukkah and just last week we read of the death
of our great teacher and leader, Moses and we "changed scrolls" and
plunge right back again into the first portion of the Torah -- we danced around
our synagogue in celebration of the unending message and lessons of our Torah.
Now here we are, back to the beginning, back to Beresheet. Once more we read the first chapters in the first book, and we try to make the words fit our modern times sensibilities and our current knowledge of earth history, geology, zoology and all the other "logies" that we can think of. It is not easy! Trying to square off our knowledge with the six days of creation well, it requires a "leap of faith"as it were.
Even with enough faith to span the difference between "Let there be light" and the Big Bang Theory, we come up short when we read, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; " [Gen. 1:26] How can this be? We affirm the article of faith "e'yn lo demut haguf v'e'yno guf He has no visage and is not a physical being" and yet we read "in our image" and "after our likeness." How are we to understand this?
The great sages of our people, from the time of the great Rabbis who are quoted in the Talmud to those who live and teach in our own times have grappled with this issue and came up with excellent answers for this seeming dilemma. How is a human "made" in the image and likeness of that which has neither? We reply, "In the spiritual qualities."
1. The human mind - which is a function of the brain but is not the physical aspect of that brain. No living thing in the animal kingdom can be said to have a mind such as man possesses. Only man is capable of pure reasoning and sequential abstract thought leading to problem solving.
2. The quality of rule and governance. Only humanity is capable to surrendering some of our natural abilities (power) to insure our peaceful existence.
3. The quality of uniqueness. We, alone in the animal kingdom, maintain our individuality, even as we believe God to be one, alone and unique. Humanity numbers in the billions - and yet we are all individuals, and each of us has his unique qualities which we oft-time call "the spark of the Divine."
4. Last, and certainly not least in fact, probably the most important is the quality of free will. One must almost say that God imposed a limitation upon Himself, reducing His control over everything in His creation, by giving humanity this dangerous and often misused right to do whatever we please.
Indeed, one can argue that free will contravene God's total control over His creation. If God has it in his plan that all Jews would be in their homes at the Shabbat table this evening - then you who are in synagogue are contravening His will... (Is this what is meant by the saying "the devil is in the detail?" I doubt it...)
Many philosophers argue the issue of free will. They will tell you that there is no such thing! Man is a product of his environment, his roots, and his upbringing and education. A Genghis Khan would have been an Einstein had he been born to Jewish parents in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century and vice versa. Judaism, however, speaks of a shared circumstance - nature and nurture, brute force and intellect. It is all presented in the Torah in the words of the text, "and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." [ibid 2:9] Free will is related to the knowledge of good and evil. A person who knows no evil cannot do evil. At best he can avoid doing good. A person who knows nothing but evil cannot be blamed for doing evil, because that is the only possible course of action opened to him. It is only when we are aware of good and evil that we come into possession of a choice between the two.
God is the source of all that is good. If you see something in nature, and you consider it to be evil you are not aware of the full scope of what you see. There is no evil in God, it is a contradiction in terms.
Man, though, is not God he has that "image and likeness" of God, but only in measure. Hence, we are capable of good and of evil. Because God gave us free will, he can no more prevent our evil than he can influence our good. To do so would totally rob us of our freedom of choice. It is interesting to note that our great sages taught that the most devout servants of God, Moshe and Joshua, and His angels and heavenly host, surrender free will in order to better serve Him.
Religion, the practice of the teaching of Torah and the fulfillment of God's mitzvot, train us to subdue our evil inclination, our "knowledge of evil" and increase our knowledge of good, which is living in harmony with God's creation and avoiding the temptation to follow our heart into paths of contradiction of God's will.
Finally, we have to ask, "is surrender to God's law and God's way a negation of free will?" I believe firmly that it is not. God has given us those qualities that we define as his "image and likeness." Free will is one, maybe the main, quality. We cannot give it away, we cannot remove it from our essence of being. We always have that free choice, even when we are enslaved, even when we were persecuted in Egypt in antiquity and in the concentration camps a generation ago. Our bodies may have been under duress but our spirit was always free. That is why we never lost hope, that is why we could not be destroyed. Even in the vortex of death and destruction, we held steadfast to our faith in God, and we came through. Yes, we suffered, and yes, we were cut down. The Thousand became a hundred, and the hundred were cut down to ten. However, we are here. The enemy is gone and we are here and we are free, and we celebrate.
Thank you God for making us in Your image. Thank you for Your great gift of free will, and your gift of Torah that teaches us how to use that free will to benefit ourselves and our progeny, our time and all future time. May your image continue to ennoble us and allow us to find ourselves in Your service, doing Your will and increasing Your glory and fame.
The holidays are
over at long last, and we are back to our routine – which is very comforting
and exciting at the same time. Once more I am struck by the magnificence of
our Hebrew tradition, and I feel a need to teach you from the Hebrew, to show
you an enlightening lesson that can only be gleaned from the Hebrew.
“Beresheet Bara elohim et hashama’yim v’et ha’aretz – In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” [Genesis 1:1] The first three Hebrew words are translated into the first five English words – “In the beginning God created” – and as we look at those first words we can agree that they are an introduction to “the story of creation.” And here comes the “big question,” namely: what was it that He created?
In English, the question is simple to answer – one might almost say that the question is moot – just look at the words that follow: “the heaven and the earth” – there’s your answer. In Hebrew, “the heaven” is “hashama’yim” and “the earth” is “ha’aretz” – which leaves us with a word that followed in the Hebrew text the three words for “In the beginning God created” – the word “et.” What is this word and what does it mean and why is it found here?
Hebrew has a special way of marking the direct object of the verb. This direct object is a noun that answers the question “what” or “who” for the verb. “I see” is a short sentence with a subject and a verb, and we can ask, “what do you see?” “I see a sunrise” is a sentence with a subject and a verb – and an object of the verb. However, it leaves us with a question, too – namely, “which sunrise?” If, on the other hand, the sentence read, “I see the sunrise” that last question is answered. “The sunrise” is a direct object – a previously defined object that is accepted by the speaker and the listener to mean one and only one particular thing. In Hebrew we have a special tool to define the definite object – the word “et.”
Since “the heaven and the earth” are the definite object of the verb “created” – it is only natural to see the word “et” appear at this point. It is proper grammar, nothing more, and nothing less. However – our sages looked for the message within the text in the choice of the words. Just as they interpret the placement of the first three Hebrew words in the particular order we see in the text (and about which I have spoken before and will not repeat here), so, also, do they look and question the fourth word, the word “et.”
This word, “et,” is made up of two Hebrew letters: “aleph” and “Tav.” It just happens to be a fact of the Hebrew alphabet that “aleph” is the first letter, and “Tav” is the last letter. So, the sages tell us, we can read our text, “Beresheet Bara elohim et – In the beginning God created et” – and this word will mean “from “a” to “z,” everything, or in other words, “hashama’yim v’ha’aretz – the heaven and the earth.”
Now here is a strange and perplexing revelation about the Hebrew text of the story of creation: if you examine it in great detail, you will discover that the text is made up using all but one of the Hebrew letters of the alphabet! The Hebrew alphabet is made up of twenty two consonants and five “final letters” – and all but one are used in telling the creation narrative! This is very strange – and there is more: The letter that is least repeated in the Torah is the ninth of the Alphabet, “tet.” It is repeated in the Torah 1805 times – and to our surprise it appears eight times in the first chapter. The third least repeated letter in the Torah is “gimel.” It is repeated in the Torah 2111 times – and, again, to our surprise and it appears in the first chapter five times. The fourth least repeated letter in the Torah is “za’yin,” appearing 2199 times in the Torah, and in this chapter eleven times. Only the second least repeated letter in the Torah does not appear even once in the whole story of creation. That letter is “samekh,” and its symbol is “O” – a circle.
In fact, the letter “samekh” does not appear until the eleventh verse of the second chapter, describing the boundaries of the Garden God planted: “Shem ha’ekhad pishon, hu hasovev et kol eretz hakhavila asher sham hazahav – The name of the first is Pishon; that is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.” [Ibid. 2:11] It is interesting that the word with the “samekh,” the round symbol, is “sovev” meaning “flows around.”
Our sages had a number of lessons drawn from this observation. They stated that one letter is missing from the entire alphabet to teach us that God’s creation is not complete, and that man has a chance to interact with God in completing the task. They also state that there is a special reason for the choice of the “samekh” as the only letter not to appear, and it has to do with the shape of the letter and the word that first introduces it, “sovev.”
They teach us that creation was a linear progression of the development of our world and our universe. In such a creation there was no place and no need for “going around in circles,” as it were. God had a plan and a direction, and even the letters that were used to tell the story had to “behave” in a certain, positive way to reinforce God’s "labor" of creation.
There is another interpretation, which teaches us a lesson of the importance of marriage in the human participation in God’s creation of the world. In the story of creation there is mention of the first humans, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.” [Ibid. 1:27] However, these humans were not wedded to one another. In fact, we are told that man, in the garden, was quite alone: “but for Adam there was not found a help to match him.” [Ibid. 2:20] God then had to fashion a helpmate for Adam, who concluded, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman” [Ibid. 2:23] The second chapter then concludes, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh.” [Ibid 2:24]
This leaving of parents and cleaving to the wife is consecrated before God with a ring, whose shape is round like a “samekh.” Therefore, when God created the world, His work of creation was not complete because there was not yet a wedding ring, nor a wedding, to create family, to create the harmony of bride and groom, and the beginning of the human family.
For His great care in creation, and for the gift of marriage, of bride and groom, of love and friendship, we thank God and praise Him every day of our lives.
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