"Bereishit bara"; with these words the Torah embarks on an epic theological journey. The word Bereishit seems simple to define and translate: "genesis" - "beginning" - the origin of origins. Many classical and modern commentaries and translators alike have opted to translate "Bereishit" with this meaning in mind. The word Bereishit has the word "rosh" or "head" as its root. "Be'Reishit"- in the beginning.
Yet, as usual when it comes to Jewish theology, even when words or ideas enjoy a consensus, there are dissenting voices whispering in the background. While the more celebrated Targum Onkoles translates Bereishit as "B'kadmin", which means beginning, the more obscure Targum Yerushalmi renders the word as "B'chochma" ? with wisdom. "With wisdom Elokim created Heaven and Earth." Instead of telling us when the world was created, this rendering of the text has the Torah describing how the creation unfolded.(1)
This alternative understanding of the text hinges upon the first letter of the Torah, the bet of Bereishit. In the more familiar reading, that adopted by Onkoles, the bet means "in", whereas the Targum Yerushalmi understands thebet as "with." This particular usage of the letter "bet", the letter that here serves as the link from primordial existence to our version of reality, is not unique. The Rambam writes that on Yom Kippur, the very essence of the day affords forgiveness, citing a "proof text":
"Ki bayom haze y'chaper aleichem" - "For on that day you shall be forgiven of all your sins."
Based on the context, the Rambam must understand the word "bayom" not as "on that day" rather "via that day"; the bet describes function, not chronology.(2)Likewise in the first verse of the Torah, Onkoles discerns chronology, while the Yerushalmi discerns mechanics.
While this translation and explanation may seem strange ? especially to those of us weaned on the first verse being rendered "In the Beginning"- there is a certain difficulty to the normative approach. By stating that in the beginning God created, we immediately understand that something - namely God - preceded the beginning. Therefore, upon deeper analysis, this beginning is not the beginning after all. Perhaps time begins, space is carved and matter formed, but there is prior existence.
This is the advantage of the Yerushalmi's translation: With wisdom God creates. The wisdom is also necessarily connected to the rosh at the root of Bereishit, but in terms of function and not chronology. While we may be fascinated by speculation of what transpired prior to creation, we understand that we have no sources of information upon which we may base our exploration. Our egocentric perspective begins with Bereishit; any inquiry beyond that point will be subjective and will almost certainly be blasphemous. To venture to the other side of Bereishit is to enter a realm of waters uncharted, a place and time unknown, a place with no space and a time with no clock. Such exploration is explicitly forbidden:
Whosoever speculates upon four things, a pity for him! He is as though he had not come into the world, [to wit], what is above, what is beneath, what before, what after. And whosoever takes no thought for the honor of his maker, it were a mercy if he had not come into the world.
Rather, we say "With wisdom Elokim created...", at once reminding ourselves of both the limits of human understanding and of God's infiniteness. The term 'wisdom' has an additional association with "reishit" which springs to mind almost automatically. Psalms describes the beginning of wisdom- "Reishit chochma":
"The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; a good understanding have all those who do his commandments; his praise endures forever." (Psalms 111:10)
Proper fear of God will dissuade the inquiring mind from delving into unfathomable issues. Human wisdom can only flourish when it realizes its own boundaries. Rather than contemplating what preceded creation, we realize that wisdom was the tool God used to create. If man aspires to approximate Divine wisdom, he must accept the absolute statement that with wisdom God created, while human wisdom is in direct correlation to fear of God and observance of the commandments.
There is a discussion of the limits of inquiry in the Midrash at the completion of the creation process.
"And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31). R. Levi in the name of R. Hama b. Hanina commenced: "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter." (Prov. 25:2). Said R. Levi in the name of R. Hama b. Hanina: From the beginning of the Book [of Genesis] up to this point, 'It is the glory of God to conceal a thing'; but from this point onward, 'The glory of kings is to search out a matter': (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 9:1)
The Midrash uses a verse in Proverbs (It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings is to search out a matter. The sky for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of kings is unsearchable. Proverbs 25:2,3) to illustrate the demarcation between that which may be revealed and that whichmust remain concealed. The entire process of creation is on the other side of the border: "It is the Glory of God to conceal".(3) From the moment the Creation is complete, the moment described by the verse upon which the Midrash comments, "it is the glory of kings to investigate". The Midrash explains:
It is the glory of the words of the Torah, which are likened to kings, as it is said, 'By me kings reign' (ib. 8:15), 'to search out a matter'; hence, 'And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.' (Midrash Rabbah ?Bereishit 9:1)
It is the words of Torah which are like kings, and may be investigated. But surely this statement creates a tautology, for are the words of the text up to this verse not words of Torah as well? Are they not to be likened to kings as well as the verses that follow? Furthermore, if they must be concealed, what is the point in writing them?(4)
We may unravel this seemingly circular reasoning by understanding the difference between God and kings. Of course, God is also King, but until the culmination of the Creation He has no subjects, and without subjects, the aspect of kingship exists only as potential. As subjects of God, it is improper for man to investigate the nature of God prior to the Kingship. It would be impertinent for man to be filled with self-importance to the extent that he believes that God needs him. On the other hand, prior to the completion of the Creation, in man's absence, God is certainly God, but arguably not "King".(5)
At the completion of the Creation, on the eve of the seventh day when Adam sings Kabbalat Shabbat, the "glory of kings" can begin.(6) It is at the point of the Shabbat that the demarcation hovers. Prior to this point all must be concealed; from this point onward we may investigate. The verses that follow the completion of the Creation state:
"Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because on it He had rested from all His work which God created and made." (2:1-3)
The moment after the completion of Creation is Shabbat, Completion. Everything before this point seems to lead up to this The verse that precedes this description is the description of the sixth day:
"And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day." (1:31)
While the other days are referred to as 'sheni, shlishi, etc.', the sixth day is called yom hashishi - the sixth day, with an emphasis on "the". The Talmud explains the term:
Hizkiyahu said: What is meant by, 'Thou didst cause sentence to be heard from Heaven; The earth feared, and was tranquil'? If it feared, why was it tranquil, and if it was tranquil, why did it fear? At first it feared, yet subsequently it was tranquil. And why did it fear? In accordance with Resh Lakish. For Resh Lakish said: Why is it written, 'And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day'; What is the purpose of the additional 'the'? This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said thereto, 'If Israel accepts the Torah, you shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.' (Shabbath 88a)
The sixth day mentioned at the dawn of history is interrelated with the other famous sixth day, the sixth of Sivan when the Torah was revealed on the Mount. The entire purpose of creation was this revelation, the acceptance of the Torah.(7)
There is also a linguistic relationship between the giving of the Torah and the completion of Creation: After 40 days on Mount Sinai the Torah refers to the completion of the Divine task:
"And He gave to Moses, when He finished talking with him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of Testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God." (Exodus 31:18)
The same term of completion - Vayechal - is used, though this time as "cichalato", when He finished. The completion of Creation is linked to the giving of the Torah, and the giving of the Torah is linked to Creation.(8) The verses that precede this section also relate to the same theme; the verses describe the Shabbat:
"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak you also to the people of Israel, saying, Truly my sabbaths you shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; ... Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord; ... Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed." (31:12-17)
The last verse prior to the giving of the Torah describes the obligation to observe the Sabbath.
From man's perspective the purpose of the creation of the world is to follow the Torah, to experience the Torah. The primary manner which man may accomplish living a Torah life is the adherence of the rules of Shabbat. This is the place where the inquiry in the honor of kings may begin. The Talmud describes the experience of the Sages of old in their preparation for the Sabbath:
R. Hanina robed himself and stood at sunset of Sabbath eve [and] exclaimed, 'Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Sabbath.' R. Jannai donned his robes, on Sabbath eve and exclaimed, 'Come, O bride, Come, O bride!' (9)(Shabbat 119a)
The experience of Shabbat is the experience of kingship entering the home.(10)The Rambam in his description of the preparations which must be taken in anticipation of the arrival of the Shabbat and its majesty, states that people must clothe themselves in their finery and await the arrival as a person would await the arrival of a king. (Laws of Shabbat 30:2) Shabbat is the beginning of the "honor of kings is to search out a matter". By virtue of keeping Shabbat a person should be able to feel the kingship of God in their lives. The person who searches for spirituality should begin with the Sabbath; inquiry which transcends the Sabbath is inappropriate. It falls under the rubric of "it is the glory of God to conceal a thing".
In Bereishit, the failure, and "fall" of man follow this section. Adam and Eve seem to forget who is in fact King of the universe. It is interesting, in Sh'mot after the completion of the Torah, Moshe is told that the people are engaged in a perfidy of unthinkable proportions. They are busy worshiping a Golden Calf.
Throughout the generations people have searched for God, and their investigations have often taken them far and wide. Yet the Torah points to the exact place where the investigation should begin: on Friday at sunset. As the Jew watches the sun sink into the horizon, charged with feelings of awe in expectation of our impending rendezvous with royalty, he, too, should break out in song and greet the queen:
"Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Sabbath...Come, O bride, Come, O bride!" (Shabbat 119a)
1. The Rambam in "The Guide for the Perplexed" follows this understanding. (return to text)
2. Rabbi Soloveitchik often made this observation. See "Before Hashem You Shall be Purified" page 102 note i. (return to text)
3. Likewise, the Mishna in Chagiga 2:1 limits the esoteric study of creation to the few and initiated. The Talmud continues: "Nor the work of creation in the presence of two." Whence [do we infer] this? - For the Rabbis taught: For ask thou now of the days past; one may inquire, but two may not inquire. One might have thought that one may inquire concerning the pre-creation period, therefore Scripture teaches: Since the day that God created man upon the earth. One might have thought that one may [also] not inquire concerning the six days of creation, therefore Scripture teaches: The days past which were before thee. (return to text)
4. Rav Hutner in Pachad Yitzchak on Rosh Hashana, chapter one, concluded that though we may not be able to fathom God we can emulate God. The act of creation is an incredible act of altruism, therefore on Rosh Hashana we should offer gifts to others and thereby manifest our image of God. See the Book of Nechemya chapter 8. (return to text)
5. A very similar teaching is also attributed to the Vilna Gaon. (return to text)
6. The Sfat Emet (Vayikra, Pesach 5654) points out that the first time in the Torah that God is described as King is in the Shira - the Song of the Sea. He cites a Midrash (which I did not find) which states that Adam sang Lechu Neranina on that first Friday (night?). The singing in this instance is related to the singing at the sea: as the singing at the sea begins God's kingship, so does the singing of Adam. In the opinion of the Sfat Emet this is the "glory of kings" indicated in this Midrash. There is an opinion in the Midrash that Adam did not sing any song to God. Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 23:4 "Another explanation of 'Then sang Moses': It is written, 'She opens her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue'(Mishlei 31:26). From the day God created the world until the Israelites stood near the sea, no one save Israel sang unto God. He created Adam, yet he did not utter Song". See however Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 22:13, where it seems that Adam sang "A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day" (Ps. 92:1). (return to text)
7. See Rashi's comments on this verse. (return to text)
8. See Midrash Rabba 4:2 R. Hanina said: The fire came forth from above and dried up the face of the firmament. When R. Johanan came to the verse, By His breath [sc. fire] the Heavens are smoothed-E.V. 'serene' (Job 26:13), he would say, ' R. Hanina taught me well' R. Judan b. R. Simon said: 'fhe fire came forth from above and burnished the face of the firmament. R. Berekiah and R. Jacob b. R. Abina in R. Abba b. Kahana's name said: The creation story was used [by the prophet] to throw light upon Revelation, but was itself explained thereby. (return to text)
9. It is interesting that Rashi interprets the word Vayichulu as being associated with Kala bride. (return to text)
10. See Sfat Emet Bishalach 5661. (return to text)