October 5, 2002
By Susan Robertson
In the beginning:
In the beginning of:
When God began to create:
This is a story of beginnings. How do I begin this d'var? I begin terrified. I've never given a d'var. I'm afraid of being presumptuous and ignorant. So I'll talk to you about my fear.
I think we all know the story. It begins with the beginning — creation. God creates the world in six days, sanctifying the seventh. Man and woman are created, expelled from the garden, their children introduce us to sibling rival and murder, the lines proliferate nonetheless, our wickedness continuing till God repents of his creation and decides to destroy the word. But this is not where the parasha ends. We have one final sentence: "But Noah found favour with the Lord."
The story begins with a letter — bet:
It begins with bet, not aleph, because, the Midrash tells us, enclosed as it is on three sides, but open to the front, it leads us to look forward. And being the second, rather than the first letter in the alphabet, it urges us to begin where we can. And so I begin. I'm here today despite my fear.
The story begins with words: God speaks and the word becomes the world.
According to Elyse Goldstein in Re(visions) the Genesis story tells us that we too, can create, but not with words. Only God's words can be become physical reality. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden and create new life, not through their words, but through their bodies.
Earlier, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, suggested that we humans create through our actions. Here's Arthur Green's translation in The Language of Truth, the Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet:
"In the beginning" (Gen. 1:1). RaSHI opens his commentary by quoting Rabbi Isaac, who asked why the Torah did not begin with: "This month is the first of months for
you" (Ex. 12:2) (since that is the first commandment to Israel). He answered by quoting, "He declared to His people the power of His acts" Ps. 111:6).
Now we have to understand how this applies to all that takes place in the Torah, from "In the beginning" all the way down to "This month." Its meaning is as follows: Indeed, Torah was revealed primarily for the commandments. That is the written Torah. But God also wanted to make it clear that all of Creation, including this world itself, had come about by the power of Torah. "In the beginning," we are told, means that "He looked into the Torah and created the world." That is called oral Torah — and it depends upon human acts.
All the sections that tell of the patriarchs are there to show how Torah was made out of their actions. This is "the power of His acts' — the power that God placed within (human) deeds.
We cannot create with our words, but we can create with our deeds. And it is an awesome responsibility.
Kushner, in his commentary to Etz Hayim notes that Midrash tell us when God saw all that he made and found it very good(Genesis 1:31), God found all of His creation good — even the yeitzer hara, the egocentric drive that leads us to construct and succeed, (Genesis Rabbah 9:7) even death, the knowledge of which leads us to weigh our actions more carefully (Genesis Rabbah 95).
Which of us can judge all of our creations good? Our own, flawed creations even require a different vocabulary. According to Chaim Potok in Etz Hayim, the root of the word bara, (bet/reysh/aleph) the verb used to describe God's act of creation, is used only for God's creative acts. Our own creative acts can reverberate with beauty or resound with harm. And we gained the ability to discriminate between the two once we could discern good from evil. Nothing states this more poignantly for me than a poem by Yevgeney Vinokurov, translated by Daniel Weissbort:
On the first day, gazing idly around,
He trampled the grass down and stretched himself
In the shade of the fig tree.
His hands behind his head,
Sweetly he slept, untroubled was his sleep
In Eden's quiet, beneath the pale blue sky.
And in his dreams he saw the ovens of Auschwitz
And he saw ditches filled with corpses.
He saw his own children!
In the bliss
Of paradise, his face lit up.
He slept, understanding nothing,
Not knowing good and evil yet.
And so, here I am. A woman who knows good from evil, yet must act and create through my actions, knowing I am bound to do some wrong. Nothing so horrible, I hope as what's described in the poem, but wrong nonetheless. Some I'll wrong intentionally, others without thought. Look at Cain and Abel. We all know the wrong done by Cain to Abel. But what about the pain caused by Abel to Cain? Which of us has not brought something precious to a friend or parent, only to have someone else's offering preferred? No real wrong has been done to us, but our pain is very real. Midrashists have attempted to explain God's seemingly arbitrary preference by slighting Cain's actions — he brought only an offering "from the fruit of the soil," whereas his brother offered God "the choicest of the firstlings of his flock." I prefer a story of the arbitrary, unavoidable hurts in life and, in God's response to Cain's disappointment —"Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin couches at the door" — our obligation to deal with our slights responsibly. The story of Cain and Abel reminds me that sometimes I may harm another simply through my presence, simply by being preferred.
I remember the d'var Susan gave a few weeks back when we discussed the Biblical injunction to both love and fear God. This very gift of creation, and my own ability to create, exemplifies for me that love and fear. It is a gift I both cherish and fear.
But my fear abates when I realize that I'm not alone, that before God sent Adam and Eve from the Garden, He clothed them. And He continues to clothe us with Torah. As he spoke to Cain, He speaks to us. The very first Adath Shalom event I attended was a Shavuot study session a few years back led by Rabbi Ben Hollander. The text was the revelation at Sinai, and Rabbi Hollander remarked on the unusual wording used to describe Israel's encampment. Israel was camped under the mountain. He went on to relate the Midrash in which God raised Sinai over Israel and said "Accept the Torah, or else." Once again, I prefer my own story.
With several ageing relatives, I find myself facing an increasing number of medical crises. Not much inclined to belief in a punishing or rewarding God, but much inclined to pray, I can find myself tongue tied in such situations. My standard prayer has become, "please make it bearable." And to me that is what Torah does. Life can sometimes feel like a mountain hovering above us, but Torah makes it bearable. Torah guides us, comforts us, and opens for us the wonder and beauty of creation. Torah gives us the strength and joy to create our own righteous life and become ourselves a part of the living Torah. Through our responsible but flawed actions, God's words can once again become real.