B'reishit (October 10, 2015)
When God began to create
heaven and earth —
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
One of the earliest biblical commentaries explains that this world was not, in fact, the first one that God created. Rather, God created one world after another, but each one was disappointing:
God split and rent and tore them apart with his two arms, and ruined whole worlds in one moment. One after another, God created a thousand worlds, which preceded this one. And all of them were swept away in the wink of an eye. God went on creating worlds and destroying worlds until God created this one and declared, “This one pleases me, those did not.” (Midrash Rabbah 9:2)
From this perspective, creation should not only be understood as the ultimate start of our existence but also as a kind of culmination of Divine experimentation. Our world is, as Gottfried Leibniz wrote and Voltaire popularized in his novella Candide, “the best of all possible worlds.” When I was a teenager in the youth group NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth) in the 1980s, there was a song we used to sing that interpreted this midrash to be a message of environmental responsibility: We need to take care of this planet, for it’s the only one we have.
Yet, I wonder if this first word of the Torah, “in a beginning,” also could be understood as a recognition that there are multiple ways to think about how the world came into being. Could this be an acknowledgement that what we read in the first chapter of Genesis is only one story, among others, of the creation of the world?
This would fit with the text of the book of Genesis in an interesting way because biblical scholars have noted that the first two chapters of Genesis seem to offer two different accounts of creation. Chapter 1 tells how God makes the world in seven days, beginning with light and concluding with Shabbat, while Chapter 2 describes the establishment of the Garden of Eden and the creation of Adam and Eve. While traditional commentators reconciled these differences by suggesting that each chapter focuses on a different aspect of God’s work, modern scholarship observes that there are apparently incompatible elements in each of the stories. Many contemporary biblical critics believe that each chapter arises from a separate narrative tradition, preserved in our biblical text side-by-side. Each of the two stories offers a unique way that our ancestors tried to understand and make meaning of their existence and see in it Divine purpose.
From its very first word, the Bible might be hinting to us that there are multiple ways of imagining how the world came into being. Perhaps no single way of telling a story can ever do justice to anything truly significant. After all, when we tell stories about how our lives came to be what they are — say, why our family lives in New York City or how our parents met — we never tell it exactly the same way twice. Sometimes, different storytellers describe entirely different versions of the same events, with Grandma recalling it one way while Grandpa shouts from the other room, “That’s not how it happened at all!” But in each of those stories, we hear about their aspirations for themselves, their hopes for the future, and their ideas about what truly matters in life.
As Jews, we are known as am ha-sefer, the “People of the Book.” In Hebrew, the word for “book” — sefer — is connected intrinsically to the word for “story,” sippur. Abraham Joshua Heschel called us “textpeople,” but I would say we also are intrinsically storytellers. When we read the Torah, we recall our ancestors’ encounters with the sacred and their attempts to understand God’s intentions for us. As we begin this new year of reading the Torah, may we find in its words the guidance our ancestors hoped we would find and be inspired to see in our own lives stories worth retelling to the next generation.
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