On The Weekly Torah Portion of Bereshit
What better place to start a blog, than on the first words of the Bible? This post was written at the invitation of Rabbh Kaya Stern-Kaufman and was sent to the mailing list of her organization, Rimon, A Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality.
בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ (בראשית א’ א)In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth
This week’s parashah (weekly Torah reading), bereshit (Genesis 1:1 – 6:8) is the first parashah of the Torah. It contains the story of creation and the opening lines of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha’aretz). Often mistaken by religious fundamentalists to be a chronological account of the actual physical processes through which the universe was brought into being, it is in fact a metaphorical, metaphysical map of the sequential emergence of duality out of unity.
What does “emergence of duality out of unity” mean? According to the Kabbalah, before creation there was only the unmanifest Infinity of Divine Light dwelling in itself in perfect unity. A desire arose within God to express compassion. But how could compassion be expressed in that perfect unity? Compassion needs others. Hence, God needed to bring forth creation.
However, giving rise to diversity from within that all-encompassing unity was impossible since the light of God filled everything. Therefore that infinite unity withdrew its light unto itself and created an “empty space” in which the divine light was absent, so to speak. The emergence of empty space within that previously homogenous unity created duality-“twoness”: one element being fullness of light, the other being the absence of it. Once there were two instead of just one, a dynamism of relationship could manifest and the whole universe could come into being.
This is the process that the opening words of the parashah embody. Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah can be understood as a blueprint for creation and the sequence of the letters in the Torah reflect the sequence of stages through which the universe came into being. The letters are understood as the actual spiritual energies used to bring creation about. In this sense, the letters of Torah represent the energetic DNA of the universe.
The first letter of this parashah, indeed of the entire Torah, is beit (ב). As the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beit has the numerical value of two and represents duality. Given that the first act of creation is the creation of duality, the Torah could only start with beit and not with any other letter.
However, this particular beit, as the first letter of the entire Torah, is unlike any other beit. It is “the mother of all beits” since it stands for the very first emergence of duality out of utter unity. It is the beginning of all beginnings, the spiritual equivalent of what we now refer to as the Big Bang. It is for this reason that in Torah scrolls and in printed book versions of the Hebrew Torah, this opening beit is written larger than the other letters.
In the Torah, such enlargements in the size of a letter, or in some other cases reductions in the size of a letter, serve as a teaching, rather than as a decorative function. In this case it draws our attention to the significance of this first initial beit as the beginning of everything.
From the first letter, beit, we turn our attention to the first word of theparashah which is bereshit (בראשית). The word means “in the beginning”, and as such, it is a commentary on and an expansion of the first letter. It echoes the notion that the duality expressed by beit is the beginning of everything.
Shifting attention from the first word to the first verse,”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” one can see that this verse comments on and expands upon the ideas that were delineated in the first letter and the first word. Before creation there was only the Divine Unity of Heaven, Creation emerges when that primordial, perfect unity splits into two, into Heaven and Earth.
And on it goes… The next few verses that form the first chapter elaborate on how diversity sequentially unfolds from this split into heaven and earth, each step providing an ever more elaborate spiritual map of the sprouting of diversity out of unity: light and darkness, the earth and the oceans, the plants, the stars and planets, the animals, and finally the creation of humans. From then on, the spiritual history of humanity starts unfolding.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, expressed this when he said that the entire Torah is contained in the first parashah, the parashah ofbereshit; the entire parashah is contained in the first verse; the first verse is contained in the first word; and the first word is contained in its first letter, beit. Of course, that beit, by its very existence, testifies to the existence of the divine, unmanifest unity out of which it emerges.
But in Judaism, duality and diversity are not created for their own sake. The creation of diversity is understood as a means of creating “a more perfect union,” in which every fiber of diversity sings the glory of unity. The task of infusing diversity with unity is not God’s responsibility, but ours.
As the Psalmist already pointed out, we, humans, occupy a unique position on Earth:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,the moon and the stars that you have established;what are human beings that you are mindful of them,mortals that you care for them?Yet you have made them a little lower than God,and crowned them with glory and honor.You have given them dominion over
the works of your hands;you have put all things under their feet.(Psalm 8:3-6)
Indeed, we are “a little lower than God.” We are the only creatures (at least on planet Earth) who are endowed with agency-with self awareness and free will. We are the only creatures who are moved not just by our instincts but also by a desire to improve the old and create the new and by an incessant need to explore and expand our awareness. We are also the only creatures who have a “spiritual heart” which inspires us to connect with our Source-the Creative Intelligence that willed the universe into being-as well as to overcome our lowest impulses and strive to be kinder, more loving and more generous towards each other.
Judaism calls upon each and every one of us to exercise these better angels of our nature not just because it is a good idea or because we will be rewarded for it in the afterlife. Rather, we are asked to do this l’shem shamayim-for the sake of Heaven, so that Earth can reflect the unity and transcendental glory of Heaven. Through the right kind of spiritual effort on our part, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal Oneness of Being as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9). This is our raison d’être.
Note: this idea of the sequential unfolding of scripture appears in other traditions as well. Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, said that the entire Qur’an can be found in thefatiha (the opening chapter); the entire fatiha can be found in its first line, “in the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate”; the entire first line can be located in the first word, bismillah, [in the name of Allah]; the bismillah is contained within the first letter,ba; and the ba in turn is contained in the dot that appears below the ba. Likewise, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi commented on the fact that the entire Rig Veda is contained in the first of its ten mandalas; the entire first mandala is contained in the first hymn; the entire first hymn is contained in the first line of that hymn; the first line is contained in the first word, agnim, which in turn is contained in its first letter, A. Furthermore, Maharishi also popularized the idea that the sequence of the letters in Rig Veda is the blueprint according to which the universe was created.
Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)