Skip to main content

In the Beginning

Rav Michael Hattin




This Shabbat, we will begin the reading of the Torah anew.  With the awesome days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur well behind us, and the festive joy of Sukkot beginning to fade, it is the autumnal coolness, the waning sunlight and attendant prayers for precipitation that now occupy our thoughts.  Soon, the parched earth, its dry foliage a monotony of beige and dusty brown, will be again fructified by the restoring winter rains, as the inexorable cycles of decay and growth, death and birth that hold even omnipotent humanity in their clasp, unfold unabated.  In the land of Israel, the onset of the rainy season is a time of promise and hope, a tangible expression of our own yearning for life and restoration, even as the distressing reality around us is dyed with despair. 


It is entirely appropriate, then, that the Torah reading that ushers in this season of rejuvenation describes the creation of the cosmos, God's mighty and majestic act of fashioning material existence out of absolute nothingness and then imposing meaningful order where lawless chaos had once reigned.  But God's awesome deed of suddenly calling into being primordial energy and primeval matter and then promptly reshaping them to become sky and earth, sea and dry land, inanimate rock, leafy tree and sentient life at last, is much too concisely narrated to satisfy our existential need to comprehend the cosmogony.  Frustratingly but with good reason, these first seven "days" are only presented in indistinct outline, for the thrust of the Torah's account and the real subject of these initial narratives is in fact the concluding and decisive event in the process: the creation of humanity.  After this brief and obscure first section of the Torah, the focus of the narratives will be abundantly and only too painfully clear: the spiritual destiny of man, and the attendant responsibility that is the direct consequence of his special relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth.


This week, we will consider the critical opening verses of the parasha from the perspective of one of the commentaries, who must grapple (as in fact all of the commentaries do) with the dearth of descriptive language in a passage that the Torah seems to have consciously transmitted with vagueness and ambiguity.  In the end, we may discover that while this first section of the Torah optimistically concludes with a paean of endless praise to man's uniqueness, it also solemnly declares his inherently limited capabilities to comprehend a transcendent, incorporeal Creator and the boundless material universe that is the deliberate product of His effortless endeavor.




     Bereishit Bara Elohim – in order to explain this first verse according to its straightforward interpretation, say thus: in the beginning of God's creation of heaven and earth, the earth was wondrously desolate, darkness was upon the face of the deep abyss, and God's spirit hovered upon the waters.  God said: "let there be light," and there was light… the text does not attempt to recount the chronology of events and to suggest that certain things preceded others, for if that were the case then the verse should have stated: "Barishona" (in the beginning), God created heaven and earth.  "Bereishit," however, is a construct form that is always joined to the word that follows… here too, one must read "Bereishit bara Elohim" – "in the beginning, God created…" – as "Bereishit bero Elohim" – "in the beginning of God's creation…."  If one were to insist that the verse in fact comes to indicate an order, as if to say "in the beginning OF ALL, God created heaven and earth"… then that raises a question, for the waters preceded heaven and earth!  Does the following verse not state that "God's spirit hovered upon the waters"?… this implies that the waters preexisted heaven and earth… rather, one is forced to admit that the passage indicates nothing concerning the order of creation (Rashi, 11th century, France, commentary to 1:1).


Rashi's commentary on the first verse of the Torah is a striking study in exegesis.  "Bereishit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-aretz" is most often translated as "in the beginning, God created heaven and earth."  But Rashi disagrees with such a reading, for it would imply that the text is indicating a SEQUENCE to the act of creation.  "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth" implies that heaven and earth were the very first items that were fashioned by the Deity, to be soon followed by all else. 




However, says Rashi, if it is the order of things that the Torah wished to communicate, then the more appropriate choice of words would have been "barishona," where "rishon" means "first," and "barishona" means "at the first," "at the outset" or "in the beginning."  For example, when the people of Israel break up camp and prepare to travel from Sinai to the promised land, the text states that: "the ensign of the tribe of Yehuda traveled 'barishona' according to their host, and appointed over them was Nachshon son of Aminadav" (Bemidbar 11:14), for it was the grouping of Yehuda with its associated tribes that was assigned the first place in the line. Now it is true that here "barishona" is used in the spatial sense, but it is often employed in the temporal sense as well.  Thus, for instance, when forefather Avram leaves Egypt and retraces his steps on his northward trek back to Canaan, the Torah states that he eventually returns to the "location of the altar that he had prepared 'barishona'" (Bereishit 13:4), which is to say "at the first," for it was east of Beit El that he had first erected an altar to God's service (see Bereishit 12:8).


But, explains Rashi, the word "Bereishit" is a construct form that is always joined to the word that follows, unlike "barishona" that can stand alone and be understood as simply "in the beginning."  To what, however, is "Bereishit" affixed?  Is there perhaps an implied word that is omitted from the text but nevertheless present in potential?  Might we perhaps read "Bereishit HAKOL bara Elohim" and then translate accordingly as "in the beginning OF ALL, God created heaven and earth," thus preserving our desire to assign an order to God's creative act?  Impossible, says Rashi, for heaven and earth were surely not the first items fashioned by God!  Didn't the waters cover all, long before the earth was exposed?  Didn't the waters precede the heavens in creation?  What were the heavens if not the firmament that divided between the upper and lower waters that preexisted them (see 1:6-8)?




Therefore, avers Rashi, there is only one way to read the verse.  "Bereishit" is in fact a construct form that is joined to the word that follows it.  But rather than taking that following word "bara" as a past tense, third person, singular verb (as in "In the beginning, God CREATED heaven and earth"), Rashi interprets it as an absolute infinitive, "bero," an entirely plausible interpretive approach when one is working with the unvowelized text of the Torah scroll.  Therefore, the passage yields "Bereishit bero Elohim et ha-shamayim ve'et ha'aretz" – "In the beginning of God's creating of the heaven and the earth…"


According to Rashi then, the entire first verse of the Torah, as well as the one that follows it, serve an introductory function, for they usher in the first of God's acts – the calling into being of energy and light.  The entire passage therefore reads as follows:  "In the beginning of God's creation of heaven and earth, when the earth was wondrously desolate, darkness was upon the face of the deep abyss, and God's spirit hovered upon the waters, God said: "let there be light," and there was light…"  Or as the Rambam (13th century, Spain) explains in his review of Rashi's comments, "all of it leads up to the creation of the light" (commentary to 1:1).




Rashi's position is therefore clear: the Torah does not record the exact order in which heaven, earth, and the deep were fashioned.  All we do know is that at some indeterminate point in the progression, God brought forth light and began to shape the created matter according to His will. 


It is important to bear in mind, however, that Rashi does indicate more than once during the course of his commentary to the account of the seven days of creation that all matter in the cosmos was brought into being at the outset of the process.  Thus, concerning the firmament he explains: "even though the heavens were fashioned on the first day, they were unstable until God gave them permanent form on the second day…" (commentary to 1:6).  With respect to the celestial lights, Rashi says: "they were created on the first day, and on the fourth day, God commanded that they be suspended in the firmament.  SIMILARLY, ALL OF THE CONTENTS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH WERE CREATED ON THE FIRST DAY, AND EACH ONE WAS SUBSEQUENTLY SET IN ITS PLACE ON THE DAY THAT GOD DECREED.  This is the meaning of the amplification in the text – 'the heavens' comes to include all of its host, and 'the earth' comes to include all of its host." (commentary to 1:14).  Finally, concerning the fashioning of the beasts on the sixth day, Rashi says: "the Torah says 'let the earth bring forth living creatures' to indicate that which I have already explained, namely that everything was created on the first day, and later required only to be brought forth" (commentary to 1:24).




Rashi thus leaves us with an unusual ambiguity.  While the entire material universe, heaven and earth and all that they contain, was brought into being on that first day, and all of the created matter was then given final shape on its appropriate subsequent day, THE MECHANISM BY WHICH THAT ORIGINAL MATTER WAS BROUGHT INTO BEING, AS WELL AS THE EXACT SEQUENCE OF ITS FORMATION, ARE MATTERS THAT WE KNOW NOTHING ABOUT.  To put it differently, the Torah's record of God's creative endeavors begins with the calling into being of "light."  Everything previous to that "let there be light," which Rashi understands to include the initial creation of all matter in the cosmos, is not spelled out in the Torah whatsoever. 


The Divine record of the cosmogony is therefore intentionally lacking, for it nowhere tells us anything about the initial moment of God's creation!  It is as if we have been ushered rather late into the inner chambers of comprehending God's mighty works, far too late to grasp anything about the awesome mystery of creation ex nihilo – the bringing forth of the primeval matter from absolute and utter nothingness.  The most we can hope for, therefore, is an understanding of God's works as they unfolded in the (immediate?) AFTERMATH of that singular moment in time, but as for that moment itself, it remains shrouded in complete inscrutability.


Rashi's position is in fact well grounded in Rabbinic tradition.  According to the Talmudic tradition preserved in Tractate Chagiga 11b and amplified in more colorful terms in Midrash Rabba 1:10, there are (or ought to be) natural limits to human investigation:


The Torah states: "Ask therefore concerning the first days" (Devarim 4:32)…but may a person enquire about matters that pertained before the creation of the universe?  The verse therefore continues: "from the day that the Lord created humanity upon the earth."  Does this then imply that one may not enquire concerning the six days of creation?  Therefore the verse clarifies: "ask therefore concerning the first days that preceded you."  Shall a person enquire concerning what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after?  Therefore the verse concludes: "from one end of the heavens unto the other" to indicate that one may enquire concerning matters from one end of the heavens unto the other, but not concerning what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after.


Thus, concerning the state of affairs before the creation of the universe, concerning the nature of God's utter incorporeality and absolute timelessness ("what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after"), a polite and humble silence on our part is what is called for.  And appropriately so.  The heart of mortal man, although his mouth may recite the formulas and his hand may compute their mathematical value, cannot fathom the existential meaning of the speed of light, the true import of the lifespan of a star, or the vastness of interstellar space.  How shall we understand the import of a billion, or ten billion, or a thousand billion stars?  How can we appreciate time that is expressed in billions of years when our own allotted years typically number eighty or less?  We are possessed of finite minds inhabiting finite bodies that will return to dust long before the stars blink an eye; how, then, shall we grasp eternity?  Our ignorance, however, need not be a source of aggravation.  Quite the contrary.  The recognition of our limitations may serve as a meaningful impetus to come to appreciate God's transcendence, while at the same time highlighting the extraordinary fact that He nevertheless takes special interest in our destiny.  


How humbling but strangely reassuring then are Rashi's words: "Bereishit Bara Elohim – in order to explain this first verse according to its straightforward interpretation, say thus: in the beginning of God's creation of heaven and earth, the earth was wondrously desolate, darkness was upon the face of the deep abyss, and God's spirit hovered upon the waters.  God said: 'let there be light," and there was light…the text does not attempt to recount the chronology of events and to suggest that certain things preceded others…


Shabbat Shalom

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!