D’var Torah For Friday, October 21, 2022
This week we will refresh the Torah reading cycle by beginning again with parashat Beresheet. According to the first account of creation, God created everything in six days and then God rested. Ever since the development of the science modern cosmology, the creation story has been one of the biggest bones of contention for those wrestling with Biblically based religions. The argument that follows is because the creation story is not scientifically valid, none of the Torah is valid.
One of the problems with this argument is that the Torah, and especially Genesis, were probably not intended to be taken as literal or scientific history. Instead, it is an exploration into the origins of the human condition. As I often discuss with b’nei mitzvah students and others, the purpose of the six days of creation is to emphasize God’s ultimate act of creation: Shabbat. Shabbat is the only sacred day dictated by God. All other days are controlled in part, by human hands. For example, Kol Nidre can never fall on a Thursday evening because we would never be able to prepare for Shabbat amidst our Yom Kippur observances. Whereas Shabbat occurs every seven days no matter what, and if God rested on Shabbat, all the more so, the imperative for us to rest as well.
Secondly, even if one is reading a more literal understanding of creation, the sun is not created until the fourth day. Without the sun as a signpost to tell time, one can legitimately wonder the length of a day to God. It could be 24 hours. It could be 36 hours. It could be billions of years. Thus, the timing of creation could conceivably be more than 6,000 years ago. And even without this interpretation, the creation story is all about bringing order out of chaos. This theme then permeates the rest of our written tradition of bringing order through the performance of mitzvot to help reign in the chaotic messiness that is life.
Then there is a third explanation according to the Zohar, the 16th century writing of Jewish mysticism by Rav Isaac Luria. According to the Zohar, before creation, there was a Divine light that emanated everywhere. When the light chose to engage in creation, it created a vessel that contained all the souls that were to come. But for the vessel to exist, the light had to contract into a single point. But in the process of contracting, the light shattered the vessels, this is known as shvirat ha’kelim, in a moment called tzimtzum or contraction. Thus, to be partners in creation, we have an obligation to go and find the broken pieces of the vessels to make repairs, also known as Tikkun Olam. In this interpretation there are elements of the Big Bang Theory. But more than that, we find the story of creation not as science but as an act of morality. This notion of humanity as partners with creation is further emphasized in the story of Adam and Eve.
In looking at Beresheet through these understandings we can find deep and profound meaning not just about creation but also about ourselves. Beresheet was most likely never intended to explain the origins of life, the universe and everything, but instead was an attempt by our ancestors to see their world and their place in it. In this case, to continue God’s work of bringing order and structure to the world through study as well as the performance of mitzvot and acts of gemilut chasadim (loving kindness).
So even as we, as modern readers, continue to struggle with the stories and metaphors we find in parashat Beresheet, we should find some comfort in knowing that we are in good company. Our ancient ancestors looked up at the stars, and wondered how it all came to be. They wondered about their role on earth. They wrote down their thoughts as a guide, as a place where they and we can plant our feet and steady ourselves.
As we begin our Torah cycle anew, may we continue to find strength and insight from our heritage, our tradition, and from each other.