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Parashat Bereishit 5773 — 10/10/2012

Parashat Bereishit 5773 — 10/10/2012

Bereishit bara Elokim / In the beginning Gd created… (1:1)

The world was created for the sake of the Torah which is called reishit as it says Hashem has acquired me as the beginning of His way (Prov 8:22).  (Ramban ad loc)

We also possess a true tradition that the Torah in its entirety consists of Names of the Holy One, Blessed is He.  (Ramban, Introduction to Sefer Bereishit).

Act for the sake of Your Name/Act for the sake of Your Right Hand/

Act for the sake of Your Holiness/Act for the sake of Your Torah! 

(Elokai n’tzor prayer recited at the end of every Amidah)

With another Presidential election just 3 weeks away, we hear many protestations of religious devotion from our politicians, some of whom claim that the Bible is the “Word of Gd” and must be understood literally.  Of course by “literally” they don’t literally mean “literally” – they mean according to their interpretation (generally based on a translated text – this in opposition to politicians at the founding of our country, many of whom knew Hebrew [and Greek] and could read the Bible in the original – John Adams apparently translated several books of the Hebrew Bible into English).  What then is Torah, and how is it to be understood?

The Midrash begins with the somewhat unusual word reishit (“beginning”) with which Torah begins.  It correlates this with K’nesset Yisrael (the community of Israel as an abstraction) which is called reishit, and for whom the world was created, so that it would receive Torah, and with the Torah itself, which is called reishit darko (the beginning of His way) [Rashi ad loc].  In some way Torah is telling us that in its essence, it precedes creation, and the community of Israel, in its essence, also precedes creation.  Further, in some way these two reishit‘s must unite to fulfill the plan of Creation, a unity which was projected onto the corporeal plane when we received the Torah from Gd on Mt. Sinai.

The only way I can understand any of this is to go back to the Kabbalistic understanding of the mechanics of and motivation for creation.  According to Kabbalah we begin with Gd alone, unique, unchanging and eternal.  At some point, Gd decided to create the universe.  This “at some point” cannot be understood temporally, because time itself is part of creation; Rashi comments that the purpose of our verse is not to tell us the order of creation.  Perhaps it indicates a logical sequence.  In any event, creation implies duality, and within Gd there is only unity, infinity.  In order to overcome this issue, Gd, as it were, “contracted” Himself in order to leave a “space” in which, so to speak, He was not, in order that finite values could exist.

All the quotes in the above statement are to indicate that these expressions are merely some way of picturing, in terms that we can begin to understand, something that takes place wholly on Gd’s transcendental level.  The “contraction” (tzimtzum) and the “space” are all completely within Gd’s infinite essence, which is completely unchanging and undifferentiated.  Nevertheless, we can conceive of a situation where this contraction creates a duality – perhaps we should say a virtual duality – within Gd’s nature.  One way of describing this duality, again, framing it in human terms, is in terms of the relationship between subject and object, between knower and known.  Since Gd’s contraction is in order to allow finite values to coexist with Gd’s infinity, we would assign the subjective, Knower value to Gd, and the objective, “known” value to the creation.  The link between Knower and known is knowledge or wisdom.

On the cosmic level, I believe that Torah is the wisdom that links Gd and His creation.  When Gd revealed Torah to Israel He as it were allowed us to participate in His relationship with His creation, to eavesdrop as it were on the communication between the Divine and holy and the finite and mundane.

Now the reason we are able to describe this fundamental level of creation in terms of a subjective/objective duality is that we experience our own subjectivity and the objectivity of our environment; we are created in Gd’s Image after all.  Thus when Gd revealed Torah to Israel, He was elevating the relationship between our subjectivity and the objective world around us to a cosmic level, or at least giving us the potential for such an elevation, to the extent that we can expand our awareness fully to comprehend its own infinite basis.

Since both Torah and K’nesset Yisrael are called reishit, it is apparent that the ability of K’nesset Yisrael to receive the Torah and to participate fully in the relationship between Gd and creation is structured into the very nature of creation, and has been since its inception.  Why should this be the case?  Obviously I can only speculate based on our limited, human experience.  It is our common experience that the purpose of a relationship is to integrate the participants in that relationship.  A marriage is an obvious example, as we read in our parashah: and they will become one flesh.  And the more complete the integration, the more complete the unity that is created from the parts of the relationship, the more profound and successful the relationship is.

It appears that perhaps Gd’s purpose in contracting Himself and creating something “other” than Himself, is for there to be a relationship between Gd and creation that as it were integrates the two into a greater whole.  The Jewish people’s mission, as the actualization of K’nesset Yisrael, is to internalize and live Torah to such an extent that we become fully integrated with Gd – Gd becomes the ever-present reality of our individual and communal awareness, with only enough individuality remaining for there to be something left on our side of the relationship.

I believe that Mar, son of Ravina, expressed this most beautifully in the Elokai n’tzor prayer that concludes every amidah.  We implore Gd to bring creation to its fulfillment, not for our sake, but for Gd’s sake.  Act for the sake of Your Name: that is, we ask Gd to act for the sake of His essence, to remove the obstacles to our integration with His Name. Act for the sake of Your Right Hand: as Gd’s Name is holy and transcendental, His Right Hand is the active value that brings the transcendental into a relationship with the finite.  Act for the sake of Your Holiness: this, I think is another aspect of Gd’s Name; holy (kadosh) means “separate” – in this case transcendental.  Act for the sake of Your Torah: We see Torah as the active counterpart as it were to Gd’s holiness – that which is the relationship between Gd and K’nesset Yisrael, and through us, with the entire creation.

Our Torah is a storehouse of infinite riches; as we read in Pirke Avot, Turn it over and turn it over again, for everything is in it.  If we approach it with humility, reverence and love, it will surely bind us back to our Source.