Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: In the Beginning . . . of What?

Did you know that the Torah begins with a grammatical impossibility?

The first sentence of the Torah, "Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz" cannot possibly mean "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" although that is how it is most often translated. Forgive me a little lesson in grammar, if you would.

The "be" part of "bereshit" is a participle which means "with" or "at" or "in" or "for." "Reshit" is what is known as a construct state and best translated as "beginning of." As an example of a construct state, look at the phrases "Simchat Torah" or "Birkat HaMazon." Simchat Torah means "joy of Torah" and in a non-construct state we do not say "simchat" but rather "simchah". Birkat HaMazon means "blessing for the food" and in a non-construct state we do not say "birkat" but rather "b'racha." So a literal translation of "bereshit bara Elohim" has to be "In the beginning of, God created." An accurate translation, to be sure, but one which makes no sense. In the beginning of what?

Since this is a "two-minute Torah" and not a "two-hour Torah," I will not explore all the possible understandings of why the Torah begins in this way and what those greater than I have said about this over the millenia. I'll just share with you the comment of Rashi, who says that in order to make sense of this you have to understand the verse not literally but rather midrashically. Rashi breaks the word "bereshit" down into its two components. He says what the Torah means to teach us here is that the world was created "with reshit" or "for the sake of reshit."

Rashi finds other examples of the word "reshit" in Scripture. Torah is called "reshit chochma", the beginning of wisdom, and Israel is called "reshit t'vuato," the first of God's fruits. So, Rashi says, the Torah wishes to teach us that God created the world for the sake of Torah and for the sake of Israel.

In other words, the key "take away" is that creation has a purpose. God created the world for a reason, and life is not meaningless.

Bear this in mind the next time you hear someone insist that the only possible understanding of Genesis is a literalist, creationist reading. More than 900 years ago, the greatest of all Jewish biblical commentators thought otherwise. The Bible is not about history, Rashi says, it is about theology. This does not mean the Bible "isn't true," it just means that the Bible's truth is symbolic and midrashic.

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