This week, as we read the opening verses of the Torah, the biblical account of creation, we hope to find insight into the most fundamental questions of existence: what are we doing here? Why did God create at all? Why is there illness and natural disaster and evil if God is all good?
For a long time, now, I've found some sense, if not complete reassurance and comfort, in a specific reading of these opening passages of Breishit/Genesis which I thought I'd share with you as we embark on Shabbat Breishit of our new year 5773:
Most rabbis and biblical scholars will acknowledge that translation is, in large part, commentary. For all that we understand biblical Hebrew quite well, there is often ambiguity in the language canonized as sacred text . . . ambiguity that challenges us and encourages us to bring our own questions and our own insights to the text. That kind of inquiry leads to inspiring and engaging commentary. The tools of etymology and cultural and social history help us get closer and closer to what may have been the original intent of the text as preserved and transmitted to us.
So let us look at the first two verses of the Torah:
א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם:
If you were asked to recite this passage in English, you would probably begin: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . " This is a reasonable translation that was well-established in English translations for decades.
I invite you to read this version of these verses from the highly regarded Jewish Publication Society revised translation from 2000:
"When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light."
More evocative still is Everett Fox's brilliant translation (1995) which reflects Professor Fox's commitment to the sources of biblical translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, developments in biblical scholarship since then, and great sensitivity to the literary profundity of biblical Hebrew. The Fox translation reads:
"At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--God said: Let there be light!"
Both the JPS translation and the Fox translation reflect a reading of the Hebrew which denies a popular, if perhaps mistaken, belief, that nothing existed before God's first act of creation except for God. Here we read that an "unformed and void" earth or an earth of "wild and waste" existed at the time God began to create. There was "a deep" or Ocean, there was darkness . . . . I am left with the impression of a state of seething chaos.
The nature of the passages which follow embody God's purpose, in my reading of God's creating acts: What follows is an orderly and patterned progression:
God speaks, creates through speaking, names, evaluates, seals each day with setting sun and dawning day and continues the pattern.
Inexorably, painstakingly, a grid of order is imposed on the wild waste and seething chaos that preceded the first act of creation. God created to impose order on the "tohu vavohu" on the unformed void, the wild waste.
When I am confronted with the destructive and frightening effects of randomness: severe illness, hurricanes and sunamis and earthquakes . . . I sense that somehow that premordial chaotic wildness and void seething under the order of God's creation has somehow found a gap in the interstices of the grid and has spurted its venomous chaos into our lives.
We depend on the orderliness of God's creation to move through the world with any confidence. We orient ourselves through the predictable progressions of morning, noon and night, of recurring seasons. Indeed, we end our day with a blessing, praising God the creator for the comforting reassurance of this order: "You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Eternal God, Your rule shall embrace us forever . . ."
For all the uncertainty in our lives, this week's Torah reading comes to reassure us of the eternal presence of God, our Rock in the face of the randomness of life.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.