That means we're doing it right.
Bereishit 5784 (2023)
Now that the High Holy Day season and Simhat Torah's reboot are history, let’s start again at the very beginning (“a very good place to start“) – or, um, is it “a” beginning?
From Torah's very first word in the very first portion (P. Bereshit), which we read this week, we encounter more questions than answers. Below is an incomplete list of my own curiosities, which I've taken the liberty to gather into categories based on the type of inquiry they invite. (If details feel daunting, feel free to skim these questions and jump to the next section.)
- What does Torah's first word (בראשית / Bereishit) mean in Genesis 1:1 – in "the" beginning or in "a" beginning? or maybe "in the beginning of"? What's the difference?
- In the Book of Deuteronomy that we just finished, Torah usually denominates God as יהוה / YHVH. Now at the start of Book of Genesis, God appears as אלהים / Elohim. Did God change, or did God's Name change – and if so, why? If not, what's up with Torah? And either way, why does this Elohim-filled Torah portion suddenly give way to the Name יהוה making a quick appearance in Genesis 4:26 only to disappear until the story of Noah begins (Gen. 5:29)?
- Partway into the first days of creation, why does God suddenly speak in the first person plural: "Let us make humanity in our image" (Gen. 1:26)? Who's "us" – God alone? God and the rest of creation? God and the angels?
- For creation's first five days, God describes each day's creation as "good," then suddenly after day six "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Why the change?
- What do we learn about creation by the names of the first four protagonists? Adam / אדם means "human", Eve / חוה means "source of life," Cain / קין links up with "acquire" and "jealous," and Abel / הבל can mean "vanity" or "vapor."
- God was just beginning to create "the heavens and the earth," so how could Genesis 1:2 describe the "earth" as already תהו ובהו / tohu va-vohu (an unformed void, or jumbled mess)? After all, there was no earth yet! And how could that same sentence describe darkness as "on the surface of the deep": what surface and what deep?
- God "finished" creation in six days (Gen. 2:1), so how could the next sentence say that God "finished" the work of creation on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2)? If God "finished" creation in six days, then what of creation's work was left on the seventh day?
- After Cain murdered Abel, God warned that anyone exacting revenge on Cain would receive vengeance sevenfold (Gen. 4:15) – but nobody else was yet created. Huh?
- While we're at it, how did Cain go to the land of Nod and find a wife (Gen. 4:16-17)? So far, isn't the only woman Cain's mother? Same question for the "replacement" son, Seth, whom Adam and Eve had: how could Seth marry (Gen. 4:25-26)?
- Creation started with God saying "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3), so why does each day begin after sunset: "There was evening and there was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5)?
- While we're at it, how could God say anything before first creating speech? When was speech created?
- Why is there one creation story in Genesis 1 and an entirely different creation story in Genesis 2? Check it out: Genesis 1 describes collective human creation, but Genesis 2 recounts creating a single human first, planting him in a place called "Eden."
- What's up with Adam finding no fitting partner among the animals (Gen. 2:20), and only then God creating Eve from Adam's side?
- God told Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and at that time there was only one human (Gen. 2:16-17), yet Eve knew of that instruction (Gen. 3::2-3). How? Did Adam tell her? Who taught Adam and Eve to talk?
- Who created God? Is it heresy to imagine creation pre-existing God?
- Why did God create at all? Wouldn't any why and because need to pre-exist creation? If so, then what else did God create "before creation"?
- Why would God create trees from which Adam (and presumably also Eve) shouldn't eat? Why would God set them up up to fail – or, in fact, did they fail at all?
- If God intended that instruction to be honored, then why did God create a talking snake to tell Eve otherwise? And who are the "divine beings" that the snake told Eve about (Gen. 3:5)?
- Adam didn't die by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as God said would happen (Gen. 2:17) – so, was God wrong? or did God have a change of heart? or something else? Is God omniscient?
- Who taught Adam and Eve to disobey? Who taught Cain to murder? Who taught Cain to be snarky ("Am I my brother's keeper")? Is God really omnipotent?
Shabbat and the Orchard of Torah
Since the 1200s days of Rabbi Moshe de Leon in early medieval Spain, perhaps the most prevalent "system" for learning Torah has operated on four simultaneous levels, the acronym for which is PaRDeS – the word for "orchard" in both Hebrew (פרדס / pardes) and Persian (فردوس / pardus), from which English derives the world "paradise."
This "paradise" is Eden of this week's Biblical creation. Tradition offers that when we fully absorb Torah on all four PaRDeS levels simultaneously, it's as if we're back in Eden; maybe all humanity gets back to Eden – without the divisiveness and strife of life beyond the orchard. The four levels of PaRDeS, in turn, roughly map to the four categories of inquiry by which I grouped my opening questions:
- Pshat (פשט) is surface, simple meaning. Pshat often asks questions about language and how words are used. The approach of pshat is WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get. Often pshat inquiries ask language questions.
- Remez (רמז) is one notch more complex. Remez literally means "hint": it asks what words and narratives mean by implication, what logically must be given what Torah says and doesn't say. Often remez inquiries ask logic questions that leap from Torah.
- Drash (דרש) is more interpretive. Drash literally means "inquire." Drash connects to core concepts by linking texts to each other, identifying us with narratives and characters, and evolving sacred stories about them. Drash is a primary way we rectify moral and ethical quandaries, include persons and interests seemingly excluded, and bring text alive in ways most relevant to us in our lived experience (This level is where midrash – from the same root – comes in.) Often drash inquiries ask concept questions that suss out what Torah's getting at.
- Sod (סוד) means "secret." Sod evokes hidden meanings. Sod treats Torah as if every word potentially is a spiritual hyperlink transporting to levels and worlds beyond. Often sod inquiries ask theology questions and invoke deep meanings informed by mysticism (most often via Kabbalah).
We'll take this journey on Shabbat mornings to honor the ancient wisdom that Shabbat herself is the "completion" of God's seventh day, a taste of the spiritual perfection we call paradise / PaRDeS / Eden. In these ways, Shabbat herself can become a hyperlink to enrich us and the rest of our week.
I invite everyone to dip into Torah with me. There's no experience necessary – and in my understanding, it's always best to approach Torah with "beginner's mind." Each week offers its own Torah portion and therefore its own experience, so don't worry about missing weeks or not being able to commit to consistency. That said, like so many spiritual pursuits, we'll tend to get out of the journey what we put into it.
I look forward to beginning again, and making our way toward the PaRDeS of spirit together.