In the Beginning the Lord Created Heaven and Earth

  • Rav Michael Hattin

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


In the Beginning

By Rav Michael Hattin


In the beginning, the Lord created heaven and earth. The earth was formless and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of the Lord hovered upon the surface of the waters. The Lord said "let there be light!" and there was light. The Lord saw that the light was good and the Lord separated between the light and the darkness. The Lord called the light "day" and the darkness He called "night," and there was evening and there was morning, one day (Bereishit 1:1-5)

This week, we begin the reading of the Torah anew. Scarcely have we completed the account of Moshe's tearful ascent to Mount Nevo and then of his tranquil death, as Israel stood encamped at the parched plain of the Arava poised to enter the verdant new land. His impassioned addresses and soaring song, his pained recollections of Israel's indiscretions as well as his hesitant hopes for their impending success, continued to reverberate in their collective mind for some time after his demise. But with the beckoning of their ineluctable future, his words necessarily faded into the red rock of the surrounding Moavite hills, and Israel completed their preparations to cross the swollen River Jordan. Of course, the story of that traversal, Israel's subsequent entry into Canaan and their awesome struggle and ultimate failure to strike down permanent roots in its soil, are the more foreboding subjects of the other later Biblical books, and thus it may be said that the account of the Chumash ends on a more sanguine though cautionary note.

From that end we immediately turn our attention back to the beginning, to the origins of the cosmos and to the steadfast lives of the progenitors of the people of Israel. The overall effect is one of organic wholeness, as if the account that we have just completed cannot be left standing alone but instead must be intrinsically linked to its starting point. Moshe dies and is buried in the dust but Adam and Chava are then created from it; the people may have already planted the seeds of their eventual exile from Canaan but the Patriarchs and Matriarchs will journey to that land and there fashion the embryonic nation anew. Ever optimistic then, the High Holidays and their moments of awe, inspiration and gladness safely stored away in their hearts as the Torah is begun anew, Israel marches on, never despairing of one day achieving their destiny: "Happy are you O Israel, a nation delivered by God. He is your saving shield and the steel of your pride. Your enemies will come to you in submission and you shall tread upon their high places" (Devarim 33:29).


What verse could be more straightforward that the very first one in the Torah? Who does not know it by heart and who could not recite it without a moment's hesitation? "In the beginning, the Lord created heaven and earth…" (Bereishit 1:1), and from that beginning laden with promise and potential the epic tale of God's absolute transcendence and humanity's utter uniqueness unfolds. But the medieval commentaries, in a prescient development that heralds for the student the entire endeavor of attempting to comprehend the word of God and explaining the Biblical text, could not agree concerning the meaning of this very first verse! While their discussions may seem at first glance to be textually pedantic and of little practical consequence, there are in fact foundation principles that are at stake. This time, we shall consider the commentary of the great exegete Rashi (11th century, France).

It is Rashi (11th century, France) who first shatters our preconceptions with his adamant assertion that reading this first verse as "In the beginning, The Lord created heaven and earth" is a fundamental error. With characteristic flourish, he introduces his commentary with homiletic material, an uplifting message (especially relevant in our times) that Israel's claim to Canaan is both legitimate as well as yet valid. He goes on to speak of God's inspiration for having created at all, spelling out the centrality of both the Torah as well as its champions Israel in His primordial plans.


But then the discussion turns decidedly more lengthy as well as more complex:

The straightforward reading of this verse is as follows: In the beginning of the Lord's creation of heaven and earth, the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; the spirit of the Lord hovered upon the surface the waters, and God said "let there be light!"…The text does not come to indicate the order of creation, to tell us that these things preceded the others, for then the passage should have stated "Barishona – at the outset, the Lord created the heavens etc." This is because there is not a single instance in the Bible of the word "Bereishit" that is not joined to the word that follows. For example, "At the beginning (Bereishit) of Yehoyakim's reign (Yirmiyahu 26:1), "the beginning (reishit) of his reign" (Bereishit 10:10), "the first (reishit) of your grain" (Devarim 18:4). Here too, you must explain that "Bereishit bara Elohim" is like "Bereishit bero Elohim" – In the beginning of the Lord's creating of heaven and earth…

If you nevertheless insist that the verse comes to indicate that these were created first, and one may read the text as "In the beginning of everything – Bereishit hakol – He created these," and there are many instances of Biblical verses that are concisely stated and leave out a single word…then you must indeed wonder, for didn't the waters precede all else (and not heaven and earth)? Didn't the verse state that the "spirit of the Lord hovered upon the surface of the waters" without indicating when the waters had been created? This must mean that the waters were already extant before the creation of heaven and earth. Also, the heavens were fashioned from fire and water! Therefore, one must submit that that the verse teaches nothing about the order of the earlier and later creations.


The critical word in the verse is of course the very first one: "Bereishit." This word is composed of the preposition "b'" that means "in, at, or when," the elemental root "rosh" that means "head, top, or beginning" and is concluded with the suffix "eet" that often indicates what is called the construct form. It is this later point especially that is critical to Rashi's interpretation.

In Hebrew, we often distinguish between what is called the construct state versus what is called the absolute state. The former describes a situation in which two words are so closely united that they together constitute one compound idea, but in the latter the word stands alone and is independent. For instance, one may speak of "ben" – a son, or else "bnei" – sons of. The former is an absolute state, since the word "son" is readily comprehensible in and of itself. But "bnei" – sons of – must be completed by some sort of noun, such as "Yisrael," in order to make sense. In the compound term "Bnei Yisrael" or "children of Israel," the dependent word "bnei" is said to be in the construct state, while the word upon which the construct depends is said to be in the genitive.

If the Torah wanted to state that "In the beginning, the Lord created heaven and earth," then the Hebrew word for "beginning" should have been presented in the absolute state. After all, "In the beginning" stands alone, indicating that at the outset of the entire process of creation, heaven and earth were fashioned first. But the absolute state for this word, Rashi maintains, is not "Bereishit" but rather "barishona." Thus, when Ya'acov prepares to meet his brother and nemesis 'Esav, he organizes his camp in order to ensure the survival of those most precious to him: "He placed the maidservants and their children first ("rishona") (Bereishit 33:2). When the Iscamp moves through the wilderness, it is the ensign of the tribe of Yehuda that leads: "…they shall journey first ("rishona") (Bemidbar 2:9). Had the verse stated "Barishona bara Elohim" then we would have understood it to mean "At the first, at the outset, in the beginning, the Lord created heaven and earth."

But the verse instead employed what Rashi assumes to be an exclusively construct form "Bereishit." This dependent form must be joined to a genitive in order to be meaningful, what Rashi means to say when he states that "…there is not a single instance in the Bible of the word "Bereishit" that is not joined to the word that follows." What is difficult here, however, is that this second word is lacking from the text. It is as if the Torah has used a grammatical from that by its nature depends upon another word, when that other word is absent from the verse! Now Rashi entertains the possibility that the missing word may be IMPLIED, as in "Bereishit hakol" – "In the beginning of everything –– He created these," and by extension, heaven and earth were indeed the first things Divinely fashioned. But he rejects that thesis in favor of a reading that, although somewhat awkward, does not depend upon the supplying of any missing text. This he accomplishes by relating to the verb "bara" – "He created," as if it were an infinitive construct or verbal noun – "the creating." Thus, Rashi's reading yields: "In the beginning of the Lord's creating of heaven and earth…"

Having established on grammatical grounds that the first verse of the Torah cannot be indicating any sequence to the initial act of creation, Rashi then seeks to bolster the argument on exegetical grounds as well. How could it be, he reasons, that heaven and earth were the earliest things created, if the first mention of water or the deep in the subsequent verse (without any further elaboration) implies its preexistence to those other things? Besides, says Rashi, according to an ancient Rabbinic tradition (see Talmud Bavli Tractate Chagiga 12a), heaven was created out of fire and water, and these latter simpler materials therefore predated the creation of the heavens. Once again, we cannot read the verse as "In the beginning the Lord created heaven and earth" since He did not fashion these at the outset, but only after the formation of fire and water. But if we instead read the verse as "In the beginning of the Lord's creating of heaven and earth…" then the difficulties outlined above are neatly obviated. Thus, Rashi maintains on grammatical as well as on exegetical grounds that "Bereishit bara Elohim" cannot mean "In the beginning, the Lord created…" but rather must mean "In the beginning of the Lord's creating…"


The perceptive reader will have already understood the import of Rashi's interpretation. While Rashi confines his discussion to technical matters of grammar and syntax, there is an astounding inference from his words. If the first verse of the Torah means "In the beginning of the Lord's creating of heaven and earth, the earth was formless and void…" then the real subject of the initial part of this section is not the creation of heaven and earth, but rather the fashioning of the light. The first two verses that speak of heaven and earth, of chaos and emptiness, of darkness and of the deep, are entirely introductory, and are meant only to set the stage for the creation of the light that follows. Or, to quote the Ramban (13th century, Spain), "according to Rashi's reading, everything leads up to the creation of the light." In other words, the Torah begins its chronological recounting of God's creation of the cosmos only from the fashioning of that supernal light and forwards, but concerning the INITIAL act of creation by which He transformed utter nothingness into matter, the Torah is completely silent.

It is as if the account of these six days has provided us, the human readers, with a glimpse into the early stages of God's work. But with respect to His original acts, by which the first elements were brought into being and manipulated by Him to form the primordial matter, we are told absolutely nothing. We cannot fathom, according to Rashi, God's first acts, nor can we ever hope to garner any insights from the text. All we can say with certainty is that at the outset, the earth was formless and void and the spirit of the Lord hovered upon the dark surface of the waters. But how it was that earth, those heavens or the deep waters – the elemental materials from which all else derived – came into being, we cannot know.


The inspiration for Rashi's reading is derived from much earlier sources. The Midrash in Bereishit Rabba, in delineating the parameters of human enquiry into the mystery of God's creation of the universe, expresses a similar sentiment:

Bar Kappara said: The verse states "Enquire concerning the earlier days that preceded you, from the day that the Lord created…" (Devarim 4:32). One may enquire from the day of their creation, but not concerning the time before. "From one end of the heavens until the other" (IBID) one may enquire, but not concerning the time before…(Bereishit Rabba 1:10).

Rashi, then, in insisting that the very first verse of the Torah purposefully omits the account of the creation of the primordial matter, introduces us to a crucial principle as we embark anew on the journey of studying God's word. Although we have been Divinely endowed with wisdom, knowledge and understanding as well as the mandate to plumb the depths of the earth and to scale the heights of the heavens, to comprehend the Torah and to grasp its profound truths, it is best to approach the task with humility. Some things, suggests Rashi, must remain beyond our ken; to recognize our limitations and, consequently, to embrace the text of the Torah with reverence, is the first step in acquiring true knowledge.

Shabbat Shalom

For further study: see the commentary of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who disagrees with Rashi's insistence that "Bereishit" is exclusively a construct form and hence arrives at a different conclusion concerning the meaning of the first verse. For the Ramban, the Torah does indeed describe the initial moment of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), but the terms "heaven and earth" are not to be taken literally. Even according to his formulation, however, there are investigative boundaries that must be respected. Ramban in fact concludes his introduction to the Torah with a paraphrase from the rabbis in Midrash Bereishit Rabba 8:2, who had themselves adopted it from the apocryphal Wisdom of Ben Sira (3:21) also known as Ecclesiasticus (!):

Rabbi El'azar said in the name of Ben Sira: Do not search out that which is beyond you, do not investigate that which is too difficult, do not attempt to ascertain that which is too wondrous, and do not ask about that which is concealed from you! Ponder that which is permitted to you, and do not busy yourself with hidden matters…