“B’reishit bara Eloheim et ha-Shamayim v’et Ha-aretz.”
Ok, you might know it better as “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1)
It’s become a famous line. It is the source of thousands of years of inspiration and theology, as well as conflict and confusion. It is humanity, and most of western religions, the first introduction to divine power and presence in our world. And yet, we barely understand our creation and the creation of our universe.
Would it surprise you to know that we don’t even really understand this first line of Torah? Or even, the first word?
The word we tend to translate as “in the beginning” is B’reishit – בראשית. At it’s root is a word that is very familiar, ראש/rosh meaning head. We know it from Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of our new year, and many other “first” or “beginning holidays. But the grammar of the word is odd. If it truly meant “in the beginning,” this word should have had a different root – החל/heychal. The bible also knows this word, and התחלה/hatchalah, and even uses it a few chapters after creation at the birth of Adam and Eve’s youngest son, Seth. For after he was born, we’re told that humanity began (huchal) to call God by name.
If B’reishit doesn’t mean “beginning,” what could it mean. Rashi suggests that it might point more to the order of God’s creative process. Before God began to work, the world was tohu va’vohu, in complete chaos. God institutes order not only by the act of creation but also by the process. Rashi says we shouldn’t read the word as B’reishit, but rather as ba’rishon – “at first.” Using Rashi’s understanding, this first sentence becomes “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth…”
With this translation, not only do we start our Torah with an incomplete sentence, but the nature of the separation between human and divine changes. God didn’t “live in heaven” and then decide to create our human world. God created our human world by creating BOTH heaven and earth, and every act of creation described in Genesis 1, is a part of making both the “ideal” and the “real” exist in the same space at the same time.
As God goes on to create oceans, land, animals, and humans each one has access to heaven and earth, each step of creation is a part of both. How powerful an idea, that nature, humankind, and everything around us has both parts built into us – the light and the dark, our highest and lowest selves, our potential and our baggage. All of it is a part of our human experience. Our universe was created to embody dichotomy and given the eternal privilege and challenge of finding balance.
Perhaps this is most evident in God’s final step in the creative process in Genesis 1. In this version, when God creates humanity, God doesn’t create Adam first, and then Eve. God creates male and female (notice, not the sex “man and woman”, but the gender identities) in one act. Our tradition recognizes this as God creating one single person with two genders, before explaining in a Midrash that God eventually separated them. That genderfluid individual is given the command to subdue all of God’s creation. This genderfluid individual is the only part of creation described as being made “In the image of God.”
Perhaps, this is because, like other great artists, God created what God knew. God created space and time, things and people, that are flexible and ever-evolving. God created this way because God too is flexible and evolving. Like humanity, God is filled with contradictions – God is merciful and jealous, God is present and distant, God is kind and holds a grudge. Like humanity, God is imperfect and seeks to find balance within Godself and throughout all of God’s creation.
But God didn’t actually end the process of creation with humanity. God simply rested and gave the baton to us. When God commanded us to preside over all of creation, that was God telling us that it’s our turn. And we can learn how to best fulfill our creative responsibility by following God’s example. We find balance and harmony in ourselves and the world through acts of creation, not apathy or destruction. We can choose to create the heavenly potential or to drag others down to the dust. We evaluate ourselves by asking after every step “is this good?” We remind ourselves every year that, even though it’s hard, we were created with abounding divine potential and truly have the ability to master it.
What a blessing we are reminded of in our Torah portion! What power! What ways will you honor that mission this Shabbat?