Is this a way to star t a Torah?

Without naming the narrator or disclosing where the information comes from, the reader is plunged, without any introduction, smack into the grand drama itself.

By SHUBERT SPERO
September 26, 2013 04:38
Earth

Earth. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

 
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It would appear that not everyone was happy with either the style, the content or the wording of this first chapter of the Torah – and had the audacity to say so.

Early on, the translators of the Bible into Greek feared that the first three Hebrew words, Bereishit bara Elohim, might be misread as “The beginning created God,” so in the Greek they changed it to “God created the beginning.”

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More substantively, albeit rather rhetorically, Rashi, citing the rabbis, asks: “Why start with an account of creation? The Torah should have started with the first commandment that was given to Israel” (Exodus 12:10).

But even if we understand the theological importance of knowing that the cosmos was created by God, why all the detail? As the rabbis comment in the Mishna (5:1): With 10 sayings the world was created. (“And the Lord said, ‘Let there be…’”) But it could just as well have been created by one saying. Indeed! However, the most significant question by far is posed by the Ramban: “It would have been proper to have the Book of Genesis open with the words: ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses all of those words…’ which would have clearly stated from the very beginning the traditional belief of Mosaic authorship of the entire Torah written under divine inspiration (al pi Hashem b’yad Moshe).”

The importance of these questions is that every one of them helps to focus our attention on some basic aspect of the Torah, leading closer to the intentions of the author. Thus, the answer to Rashi’s question as pointed out by the Ramban is that the Torah is not only a code of statutes and judgments, but also contains teachings as to the unique nature of man and of the reality in which he lives. So too the problem seen by the translators of the Torah into Greek teaches us that in the Torah view, the universe has not always been here, and that all reality was called into being by God, ex nihilo – out of nothing. But surely all of this could have been conveyed by a few general statements without going into the “how” of the singular work of creation? Before we attempt an answer let us turn to the question of the Ramban.

Why does the Torah not begin with an appropriate superscription, as it does for example with the Book of Deuteronomy: “These are the words that Moses spoke to the Children of Israel in the wilderness…” Surely the reader is entitled to know the sort of book he is about to begin, what is it about and who is its author? But this may be precisely the point. Generally speaking, a person chooses to read a particular book with certain expectations generated by its title or the reputation of its author, or by the section of the library where the book is shelved. However, imagine a person picking up some completely unknown work that for some reason has drawn his attention. Whether this individual will continue reading depends completely upon the impression made upon him by the first few pages. Perhaps, then, this is the situation for which the format and composition of this first chapter of Genesis was designed.

The ultimate purpose of the Torah is to report the existence of a moral Creator God and His relationship to nature, man and history by means of a comprehensive narrative. But the message can be grasped only if one hears out the entire story. The opening chapters of the Torah were composed in a manner so as to arouse and hold interest. This is done by dealing with the most perplexing and unresolved question facing man, in a deliberately oversimplified yet surprisingly commonsense way, hoping to draw in the reader.



Consider the way the figure of God is treated. Although He is the dominant actor in the story – He “says,” He “creates,” He “makes” – we learn very little about God Himself. What or who is God? Where does He come from? Does He have a name? Apparently, this does not turn off the reader because most people, even today, harbor a vague belief in some “supreme being.” So long as one does not get too specific, they are willing to entertain the idea. Thus, attention is directed at God’s actions, which seem eminently rational and beneficial.

In the beginning there is absolutely nothing, and then God’s “word,” “Let there be,” which is nothing more than His will or intention, transmutes into material reality – the elemental stuff out of which all of the contents of heaven and earth are composed. No divinity at all is attributed to any aspect of nature. All is accessible to the investigation and use of man. The only thing pronounced sacred in this chapter is a segment of time, the seventh day. While God guides each stage of the process, the developments that ensue were already implicit in the earlier stages. After the initial creation, God’s work, foreshadowing that of man, consists of “separating” “dividing” and “gathering together” the different elements – in short, making order out of the “tohu vavohu.”

The God of Genesis seems plausible enough. His work habits seem quite straightforward, using no tools, magic or incantations. He even calls for “time out,” a period of contemplation in which God, as it were, steps back to appreciate the beauty and integrated unity of His work.

The technique used seems quite logical.

Creation proceeds from the simple to the more complex and that which comes after, building on what came before. The text finds it important to stress that periods of time ensued between one stage and the next, by repeating the locution, “And it was evening and it was morning.” Since there is no “sun” until “day” four, this is clearly meant to be taken non-literally. All of the above would not have been noted had the “work” of creation not been detailed in 10 separate sayings, thus revealing the “how.”

Should the interest of the reader carry him into the second chapter, he will find the change in style quite bewildering. In the first chapter, the spectacle unfolds on a wide screen and the description is in general terms. In the second chapter, the focus narrows and the images are specific and graphic.

In the first chapter, the vocabulary consists mainly of object words: water, dry land, heavens, earth, seas, sun, stars, man, trees, grass, etc. – all intended to have the same meaning as assigned by human experience (with, however, a possibility of “stretchability” in the case of additional scientific knowledge). In the second chapter, which elaborates on the creation of the human being, while the individual words are still readily understandable object terms – garden, tree, fruit, serpent – the actions described are quite fanciful: – trees that give eternal life, serpents that talk.

This is a clear signal that the narrative is to be understood metaphorically. The story that continues to unfold through Chapters 3 and 4 is gripping and although it raises 100 questions, the reader senses enough existential truth behind the façade of imagery to want to see how it all ends.

Let us return to the question of the Ramban: Should not the Torah have started with the following: “These are the words that God spoke to Moses”? To have done so would, of course, have presented certain practical problems. For example, the casual reader could not be expected to know who this person “Moses” is and why God should be speaking to him. Yet, from what has been said above, another answer should be possible. Confident in the belief that the “word” of God can not only bring worlds into existence but can inspire the heart of man and challenge his mind, the Torah is left to “sell itself.”

So without naming the narrator or disclosing where the information comes from, the reader is plunged, without any introduction, smack into the grand drama itself. Should the reader recognize the wonders of the world he inhabits in Chapter 1, and recognize himself in Chapter 2, then he just might be persuaded to read on.

The writer, the Emeritus Irving Stone Professor of Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University, acknowledges his indebtedness to Leon R. Kass for the idea expressed here.

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