And I will wait upon the LORD, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him. Isaiah 8:17

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How to Read Jewish Commentary

[NOTE: everything written inside of brackets [ ] is MY OWN or explanations selected by ME to clarify what someone else has written

[This commentary is taken from a Hillel website. Hillel is the international Jewish college student organization, like LDS Institute. It is named for Hillel, a rabbi from the time of Jesus. Born in Babylon traditionally c.110 BC , died 10 AD in Jerusalem, Hillel was a famous Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school. Hillel lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus.]

Parshat Bereshit
[ a parsha is the weekly portion of Torah to be read: Bereshit is the name of this first portion : it is the first word of the parsha ]

All Beginnings are Hard
Jewish tradition teaches that "kol hatchalot kashot/all beginnings are hard" (Midrash Mechilta [ a rabbinic commentary from the 3rd-4th cent AD]). We might well then expect that the Torah's first weekly section, (Parshat Bereshit) would recount the difficulties of the beginning of beginnings, the first beginning, the act of creation. This week's text is filled with mystery and challenges, especially on a campus environment. The parsha raises as many questions as it gives answers and often seems to teach us by what it chooses not to reveal rather than by what it does reveal. It is a parsha that speaks to and about people who are at the junction of faith and history, of science and future promise. The Hebrew text is so pregnant with meaning that it can fill whole libraries dedicated to speculation, Midrashic [midrash is commentary on scripture] thought and interpretation.

It seems only fitting that in a section dealing with beginnings we address the text's very beginning. The first verse in Parshat Bereshit appears to be straightforward. It reads:

Genesis 1:1
"Bereshit bara Elokim et ha'shmayim v'et ha'aretz".

This verse contains no more than 6 (or if you count the conjunctive vet as a word, 7) words. Yet once again the beginning is hard. Scholars have long argued over how to translate the first word of the first verse. The text is often translated as "In the beginning G-d [Remember, many Jews will not write or erase or even say "God" so instead they write 'G-d'] created the heaven(s) and the earth" or even "when G-d began to create the heavens and the earth". What then appears to be a simple phrase may not be so simple. The word "bereshit" is commonly assumed to be in the "smichut" or genitive case: thus we would translate it as "In the beginning of - what? The absence of a noun has forced Bible scholars to ask: What was there before creation? If there were nothing, from what would G-d have formed the something? Why is the verb "barah" (to create out of nothing) in the past tense rather than in some other tense? Does this mean that G-d finished creation? Some Kabbalists [Kabbalah is a discipline and school of thought concerned with the mystical aspect of Rabbinic Judaism. It is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and mysterious Creator and the mortal and finite universe (His creation)]. found a way around this problem by seeing the nothing as the "ayin" or verbal gerund form of "there-being-nothingness" and the something as the "yesh" or gerundive form of "there being-ness". These are concepts best understood in quantum mechanics or higher forms of physical mathematics.

Your Genesis Navigator
1. The rabbis teach us that the letter bet, which is open on one side and closed on the other side, is the first letter in the Torah as a reminder that we should not look up nor down nor back, but only forward, from creation onward. What scared them?
2. Is creation an ongoing process or a completed process? If it is completed, might the discoveries of creation be ongoing?
3. Might God have created several worlds in several dimensions at the same time? Thus we who live in a three dimensional world are unaware of other creations that may be for example, four of five dimensional?
4. If the statement "All beginnings are hard" is true? How was creation hard for God? What does our view of creation tell us about ourselves?

A Word
Many of these same questions intrigued our classical commentators. For example, "Sefer Ha'Agadah" [Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) is a classic compilation of aggadah from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds and the Midrash literature. It was edited by Bialik and Ravnitky and was first published in 1908-11 in Odessa, Russia] quotes Rabbi Samuel be Rabbi Isaac as saying that the "thought of creating Israel preceded all else". In other words, thought precedes action. As such, we are forced to ask the question "how does G-d think?" Does thinking define life? If so, how does a baby think without the gift of language? How do animals think?

When seen from this perspective, Bereshit becomes a series of challenges. Each act of creation forces us to join faith to philosophy. It is a text, like the new academic year that teaches us to question and to believe.

In next week's parsha, Noah, we see that even G-d wondered if creation had been such a good idea, when God brings the flood that nearly destroys the entire world. The message then may be, that none of us should ever be too sure of ourselves, that creation once done can be a double-edged sword. All beginnings are hard, but as Pirke Avot teaches: "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from doing it."

Prepared by Rabbi Peter Tarlow, Director, Texas A&M Hillel.

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