Friday, November 20, 2009

Starting at the beginning

Interesting commentary/discussion on B'reshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית) - also known as Genesis - this week (I know I'm several weeks late on this verse). It starts with the first 3 verses. We all pretty much know the standard English translation by heart: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....", leading up to the climactic "And God said, 'Let There Be Light'!" Problem is this: when you look at the Hebrew, it doesn't translate like that.

Some Hebrew anatomy would be helpful here. The Hebrew letter bet (ב), pronounced "B" as in "boy", when used as a prefix typically means "in" or "at". Reshit comes from rishon (רשון), meaning first, constructed here to mean "beginning". Therefore, in (or at) the beginning... Here we find the first problem. The word is constructed such that it really means "In the beginning of..." . We don't know what goes after that dot-dot-dot. The next word appears to be the verb bara, meaning "created". Something's wrong with either our English translation or the original Hebrew.

Unsurprisingly, Rahsi has an answer. A couple answers, actually. We'll go with one for now.

He starts by noting that bet has a lesser-known meaning: "for the sake of..." Now we have "for the sake of
רֵאשִׁית". What's רֵאשִׁית ? Using a bit of midrashic mental gymnastics, he demonstrates that רֵאשִׁית is used in other verses to refer to Torah or the tribe of Israel. So now we have "For the sake of Torah/the people of Israel, God created the heavens and the earth." Great; now we're getting somewhere. Good for morale, not so good for relations with your neighbors. But at least it's better grammar.

I explained this to my girlfriend the other night, and she turned the whole thing on its ear. What if, she said, "for the sake of" is used to establish context? For instance, when we say, "For the sake of this discussion, let's assume the following..." All of a sudden Genesis 1:1 says, "For the sake of this Torah, this discussion, let's say God created the heavens and the earth."

No statement about actual factuality of God's creation. It may or may not be applicable to other conversations, other people, or the rest of your life. The verse becomes a sort of preamble, setting the grounds for discussion, in the same way the Declaration of Independence's "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." informs discussion of the US Constitution. That changes the entire field of Torah study and debate in some subtle and interesting ways.

Hey Rashi, you're not so tough! Bet my girlfriend could take ya'!


  1. I also like the interpretation that B' indicates of or in, and reshit could come from the root similar to rosh (head), so that if you really stretch it the opening could say "In God's Head, the world was unformed and void".

    It puts an extra spin on that first light - the one that isn't associated with the sun, moon or stars - the light of inspiration and bara - creativity.

    It also is a nice way to frame who it is that God is speaking to in sections like "Let Us make human in our image". God is speaking to *US* - the readers. Because this really becomes a story of God having the idea, the spark, the plan and saying "OK, now you are my crew, so let's make this whole thing happen".

    How are we in God's image? Not just because we have the capacity to choose, to love, to learn, etc. But because we are actually partners in the creative act which is still being acted out.


  2. Reb Nachman points out that the letters in breshit can be arranged to bara tayish, there was a goat.