Parashat Bereishit – Erev Shabbat 21 October 2022 (5783)
Week of 16-22 October 2022
Torah portion: Genesis 1 :1-6 :8 Haftarah: Isaiah 42 :5-43 :10
Theme: A world both good and fragile
For Jewish tradition it has been clear all along that the Creation narrative in the Torah is not a scientific account but a document of faith, emphasizing among other things, that God has created a “good” world which at the same time remains very fragile.
Jewish sages do not speculate on the existence of God, neither does the Torah. Far more important is the discernment of God’s will and purpose for creation. Thus, some rabbis read the first word of the Torah Bereishit as bishvil reischit: “for reischit”, meaning “the world was created for the sake of the things that are called “reishit/beginning”; i.e. for those things, that the Torah deems of basic importance: Torah and Israel. Accordingly, the main purpose of creation would be to enable Jews to live a life in the service of God (Chumash, Stone Ed., p.3). The Midrash (Gen.R.1:1.6) interprets the word reishit (beginning) as a synonym for Torah, meaning God created the world by consulting the Torah (cf. Prov. 8:22), fashioning everything based on Torah values (cf. Etz Hayim, p.3).
Conventional translations usually render the opening lines of the Torah: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, like a headline or summary for what is to come. However, due to the unusual grammar of the very first word Bereishit, Jewish sources offer alternative translations, such as: “When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.” (Etz Hayim). The text does not reflect on how this tohu va-vohu, the “desert waste” and the “darkness” over “the deep” (t’hom) came into being. These entities are mysteriously there when God starts the creative process; though clearly, God alone has the power over heaven and earth, the whole universe, including the deadly, life-threatening chaos waters. From this position of sovereignty, God initiates the creative process by creating light and separating it from darkness. What follows now is a narrative about God creating a good world by the power of his word and by making distinctions and separations: light from darkness, sea from dry land etc. (Etz Hayim, p.5). Interestingly, the theme of separation and distinction as a means of preserving order and God’s will for creation will come up again in the book of Leviticus, with its many regulations on unauthorized “mixing” (sacred and ordinary time, permitted and forbidden foods, ritually pure and impure persons, garments etc.). However, this newly created, ordered world remains fragile. The chaos waters have not lost their potential to harm life, as told later in the narratives about the flood and the exodus. But just as God’s serving wind is hovering over the primordial chaos waters, holding them in check, God’s wind will also be ready to calm the waters after a catastrophe, helping to restore God’s good creation and enabling life again (see Gen. 8:1; Ex 14. 21) (Jacob, with ibn Esra and Raschb., p.28).
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Where do I experience “chaos waters” in my life? 2. What holds them in check?
Bibliography: Etz Hayim Thora and Commentary (New York: 1999); Benno Jacob, Das Buch Genesis (Berlin: 1934). Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Chumash with commentary, Stone Edition (New York: 1995)
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Barbara Kauffmann, Germany, Bat kol Alumna: 2010, 2011, 2012