October 11, 2023
D’var by Nancy J Katz
There is an irony about giving a D’var on Bereshit, the beginning of our Torah, the majesty of creation, at the beginning of a war. But here we are at this time. Except for wars, I like the beginning of things, the promise of things to come.
The beginning of a vegetable garden, when you sow the seeds in orderly rows, and when the little sprouts poke their heads out of the ground.
The beginning of a job. One of my friends described the best day of any job as the day before your first day, when your hope and excitement is great, and the realization of what you are in for has not yet taken hold.
I particularly like the beginning of novels. I pause over first sentences, considering what they forecast for the characters and the plot, and for me as an engaged reader.
Here are some of my favorite first sentences of novels:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities).
Dickens must have been reading Ecclesiastes when he wrote this.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (Orwell, 1984).
Can’t you just tell something bad is going to happen, to change your sense of reality?
“Call me Ishmael.” (Melville, Moby Dick).
Why call me Ishmael? Why not, “My name is Ishmael”? Is that his real name or an alias? Who is he? Why choose the name Ishmael, given his Biblical pedigree?
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. “ (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina).
My sister and some of my cousins used to recite this line at the beginning of our annual Thanksgiving dinner. What does that tell you about my family???
And then there is the Torah – Bereshit – (didn’t you wonder when I’d get around to the parsha)? It has the greatest of all first sentences of literature.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
One could spend years pondering these sentences and just the first word in the first clause of the first sentence of the first book of the Torah. Depending on how you translate it into English the implications are profoundly different.
Many translations use “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”, using a definite article before beginning. King James is one of them. It goes on “And the earth was without form and void.” This is “The beginning,” which includes the creation of the heaven and the earth. That is a different view and version from other English translations which note that the “B” preposition at the beginning of the word Bereshit has a sheva vowel underneath it. Which makes it an indefinite article – a beginning. It could be just one beginning among other universal beginnings. Thus, it could be translated also as “A beginning – God created the heaven and earth.”
Yet others translate the preposition at the beginning as “when”. “When god began to create heaven and earth…and the earth was then welter and waste…” (Robert Alter)
Michael Carasik whose Substack blog I love, also translates it as “When god began to create the sky and the earth – at the time the world was a tohu-bohu.” These last two readings suggest an already existing earth and sky at the time of God’s creation. Carasik suggests that like the ancient Babylonian texts this part of Genesis resembles, we come into a story already in progress.
I prefer this reading. God took raw materials of chaos, welter and waste that existed, and created structure, light, darkness, and all kinds of life. And made humans in god’s likeness. As the rabbis later expressed, God gave humans free will, with good inclinations and evil inclinations.
We are in a time right now of incredible sorrow and war. Like the beginning of Bereshit, we are coming into a world already existing. There is chaos, there is welter and there is waste. There are humans, created in God’s image. What might this be the beginning of in the middle East? More welter and waste? The evil inclination ascendant? Or structure and light and life? Unlike a novel, we cannot turn to the last page and see how it all turns out. We have an obligation to live it and write the story.