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Friday, October 22, 2010

In the End, It's All in the Beginning

I know you have all been dying to understand how Chazal figured out that the word 'reishit' means 'Torah.' Probably you have suffered through sleepless nights, tossing and turning, especially since I promised to explain this nearly two weeks ago.

Well, dear reader, wait no more. I will explain it all to you—well, as best as I can, anyway.

This gets a bit technical—my apologies up front.

Ironically, to understand the beginning of the Torah and the meaning of b'reishit, one must look deep into a much later part of Tanach, namely Mishlei Proverbs.

To the rabbinic mind, there is no real beginning or end to the Torah. It is not a continuum; rather it is that all aspects of the Torah exist (and know each other) simultaneously. While the rabbis recognize that there is an historical chronology to how the books of Tanach were received and that has significance, there is also a notion of Torah that is not rooted in time and matter.

What is found in the written Torah is a kind of transcription of this Divine Torah and while it may inherently contain all aspects of Torah Wisdom, we find this Wisdom explicated in and expounded upon in many other places beginning with other books of Tanach.

Just as we can look at any one thing in the universe as a point of departure for examining all of Creation, so too, we can look at any one part in this expansive notion of Torah to understand the rest of the Torah. Where in particular we begin is not necessarily important.

As it happens, the beginning point of this explanation of b'reishit begins in Mishlei. If you read through the book, particularly the first several chapters, you will see a very clear relationship established between wisdom/understanding and the Torah.

For example, the third chapter of Mishlei begins:

משלי פרק ג (א)בְּנִי תּוֹרָתִי אַל תִּשְׁכָּח וּמִצְוֹתַי יִצֹּר לִבֶּךָ:
Mishlei Chapter 3 (1) My son, do not forget my Torah, and your heart should guard my commandments.

A little later in the chapter it says:

משלי פרק ג (יט) יְקֹוָק בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אָרֶץ כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם בִּתְבוּנָה:
Mishlei Chapter 3 (19) God founded the earth with wisdom, he establishes the heavens with intelligence.

A bit later we read:
משלי פרק ח (כב) יְקֹוָק קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז:
Mishlei Chapter 8 (22) God made me as the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old.

Reading the straightforward message of Mishlei would yield an understanding that the universe was created with Divine wisdom/intelligence and that this is also known as Torah.

With this last verse from Chapter 8 we can add in that another name for this primal source of Creation is reishit. We get that by parsing the sentence a little differently, to wit:

God has made me, The beginning (reishit), His Way, as the first of His works of old.

In other words, ראשית reishit, is another name for 'me' which is wisdom. Wisdom in this context is another way of saying 'Torah.'

When the rabbis were confronted with the multitude of options in understanding the word b'reishit, what they knew already about the nature of the Creation from Mishlei (i.e. that the creation was done with the Torah) gibed with one of the meanings of the word b'reishit.

So, a kind of possible flow chart of this explanation of b'reishit would look something like this:
  1. Read first word of Torah: b'reishit
  2. Deconstruct that word into various possible meanings
  3. Recall concept of how the universe was created from verses in Mishlei
  4. See how that concept coincides with one of the explanations of the word b'reishit
Dear reader, if you have come this far in the posting, please let me know what you think. Did this get too technical? Or would you like to hear more about the mechanics of midrashic thought?

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Beginning for B'reishit

Dedicated in memory of Jeannie Rittner ז”ל – see below for important and appropriate comments!

Those of us who are familiar with the English language, namely everyone who happens to be reading this blog, are certainly familiar with the opening line of the Torah: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Seems straightforward enough.

On the other hand, everyone who is familiar with the Hebrew text cannot assume understanding so blithely.

The first word of the Torah in Hebrew is בראשית b'reishit. The ב is a prefix (we'll come back to it later). The rest of the word, ראשית reishit comes from the word ראש rosh which literally means head and by implication means beginning or start as in ראש השנה rosh hashannah, the head or start of the year.

The word ראשית reshit appears nearly fifty times in Tanach. In nearly every case the context shows that the word ראשית attaches itself to the word following as if it said 'the beginning of.' That being the case, the word that follows reshit should be a noun so that it would read 'the beginning of something'. 

An example comes in Parshat Noach (ahem—this means I am now exempt from further comments on this week's parsha proper) when the Torah says about Nimrod:

בראשית פרק י (י) וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:

B'reishit 10 (10) And the beginning of his kingdom was Bavel and Erech and Accad and Chalneh in the land of Shinar.


The problem we have here is that the word B'reishit is followed by a verb!

That is, if we read the first three words literally it would come out “In the beginning of created God.” Yuck. That is a terribly awkward start for what has come to be the most popular book in history. Surely the author could write better than that!

Or surely we could understand it better.

Another problem is that this first verse implies that God created the heavens and the earth from the get go, rendering the later verses which discuss the creation of the heavens and the earth rather perplexing.

The commentaries worked overtime to bring various plausible and grammatically acceptable explanations to answer all of the above. I will not even attempt to bring them all in here. Rather, I will focus on one of the seemingly more playful midrashim which comes to answer this contextual conundrum and at the same time reveals a deeper truth.

It is time to examine the prefix ב bet of בראשית b'reishit. The bet usually means 'in' but it can also mean 'with' and even 'for' in the sense of 'for the sake of.'

An example of this latter meaning is found later in Parshat Vayetze:

בראשית פרק כט (יח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה:

B'reishit Chapter 29 (18) And Yaakov loved Rachel. And he said, “I will work for you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”

An example of ב meaning 'with' is found in Parshat Vayishlach where we find Yaakov praying to God to save him from his brother Esav. He says:

בראשית פרק לב (יא) קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת:

B'reishit Chapter 32 (11) I am humbled from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You did with your servant (i.e. Yaakov himself) for with my staff I crossed over this Jordan and now I have become two camps.

Let's take this second meaning and apply it to our word: B'reishit. It would now mean 'with the reishit.'

So what would 'reishit' mean in this context?

The Midrash Rabbah here looks at the word reishit in various contexts and comes up with different possible meanings. One of them is that reishit means the Torah itself.

Thus, the first word now means 'with the Torah.' And the first verse can now be understood to say:

God created the heavens and the earth with the Torah!

I will explain how the midrash came to this understanding tomorrow. But let's savor the moment. We now have a profoundly different way of looking at the origins of the universe. We started by thinking the word b'reishit was merely telling us when something happened (in the beginning). Now we understand that the Torah is telling us that the tool for creation is, in fact the Torah itself.

This raises other conceptual issues such as what exactly is this Torah which was used to create the heavens and the earth? Was it a literal sefer Torah (Torah scroll)? Or was it some essence of Torah which could have pre-existed creation? I hope to talk about this in later postings.

I had the privilege of getting to know Jeannie Rittner a bit during my extended stays in Dayton. As her daughter told me, she was a 'force to be reckoned with!' Everyone who knew Jeannie knew her to be vivacious, smiling, outgoing, deeply caring and engaging. She suffered through quite a bit of physical pain in recent years yet I never heard her complain; she was far more likely to make light of her situation or to explain how she was doing so much better than before.

However, it was only in my last months in Dayton that I came to understand Jeannie's close relationship with Torah. She was always trying to study and her studies were based on an education which included an intimate understanding of classical Hebrew texts. She was thirsty for learning and would engage me in my classes and, whenever she had the opportunity, outside of class, as well.

She showed me what it meant to begin everything with Torah and infuse that in one's very being. She was a great inspiration to me and to many and she will be sorely missed for many years to come. יהי זכרה ברוך May her memory be a blessing.