Bereshit - Order from Chaos
“In the beginning…” The Torah begins at the beginning of the universe, with God starting to create the world. This first portion of the Torah attempts to give us an explanation for one of the two fundamental philosophical questions of human existence: where do we come from and where are we going?
Rashi, the 11th century French Biblical commentator, asked of the text: why start at the beginning of creation? If this is the fundamental text of the people of Israel, after all, why not start with the Exodus, the story in which our people developed an identity of our own for the first time? Why do we need to go all the way back to the beginning? His response to his own question was that the Torah becomes a kind of receipt, a proof to other nations of the world that Israel came by their lot in life honestly, that in fact their God was capable of assigning the Promised Land to them because it was God’s world to give away in the first place. If the world belongs to God, and God chooses what happens within it, then Israel, as God’s Chosen People, must have authority from which to claim their dominance.
But if we look closely, we aren’t REALLY reading the creation of the universe from the very beginning. The Hebrew of the very first word, בראשית, is an odd construction, in that the vowel under the bet isn’t a definite article. It does not technically translate to “In THE beginning,” much as we might like it to. More accurately, the text begins “In beginning...” or “At the time when God began…” If we are to understand the fundamentals of God’s role in creating our universe, it is fairly significant to understand at what point God got involved, and with what supplies God undertook the construction of the universe.
When God begins creation, it isn’t in the vacuum of nothingness from which we might expect God to create everything. We have evidence, in those earliest verses of Torah, that God had a few raw materials form which to work. Water, it would seem, is the fundamental element present, meaning that God did not have to create water. Similarly, the רוח אלהים ,the wind or spirit of God, gives some credence to the notion that movement or “air” was present, even before God used words to bring light into the world. This seems to contradict the notion that God brings into being everything in our universe, and that without God none of it would be possible. But, in fact, this is actually helpful evidence for the Torah’s willingness to acknowledge that the story of creation needs to fall in line with the science of matter. God couldn’t create something from nothing, thus rendering the laws of nature invalid. Instead, God had to take the raw materials of the world, the “תהו ובהו”, the unformed void, and apply some force of holiness in the act of meaningful creation. Just as a painter does not create art out of nothing, but rather uses paint and canvas to create beauty, so too is God no less powerful for having used real materials to create value in our understanding of the universe.
At some point in the development of religion, we acquired the idea that “creationism” and “evolution” were at odds with each other. If you believe that God actually took seven “business days” to create the world, and that Adam and Eve existed only 72 hours after the sun, moon, and stars were created, then yes, I imagine a theory of evolution would be difficult to stomach. But, if we are to examine the words of Torah in their far more reasonable poetic sense, then it is actually quite beautiful to consider the way that divine holiness participated in the construction of the universe. This is evident by anyone who is able to look out at the world and see both the reality of nature and the beauty of it. As Dan Brown wrote in his book, Angels and Demons, “Who is more ignorant? The man who cannot define lightning, or the man who does not respect its awesome power?” In fact, the story of creation found in our Torah can show us that it is not only possible but essential that we be able to live in that tension, that we both respect and look to understand lightning and the forces of nature.
Within this tension, we find perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned in our understanding of the creation story from Bereshit: God’s task of creation was not to create something from nothing, but rather to impose order upon chaos. When God begins the creative process, the world is unformed, void; according to the traditions of Isaac Luria, the 16th century Kabalist, it was actually a process of Tzim-Tzum, a process of contraction, that permitted God to create the world at all. The story, according to Luria, was that when God began to create the world, God’s presence so filled the universe that there wasn’t space for anything else to exist. In order to create something, God had to pull back, to contract enough to afford enough space that the universe could exist independent from but because of God. God went from an unchecked power in the entirety of existence to a force of creation, creating a separation from the limitlessness of God and the reality of existence.
There is a voice in the abyss. It calls to us, quietly, urgently, piercing through the chaos, through the commotion and distraction that fills our days. The very first time, God used words to break the void. So too do we feel God bringing order to our chaos, light to our darkness, profound something to our endless nothing.
To be a human being is to find balance in the relationship between our profound meaning and our desperate insignificance. It would be impossible to walk through life without considering the sheer magnitude of what it means to exist, to come in contact with the existential questions that keep us up at night and force us to ponder our sense of purpose. This is uncomfortable work, and many find it too overwhelming. So, human beings have concocted thousands of ways to distract ourselves from the work of processing our existence. We have jobs, we have hobbies, we consume information and participate in the tumult of human existence. To engage with the world around us is sacred and significant; but to fail to consider the larger context of human identity is to miss the holiness of the sheer fact of our existence.
Religion has always been the way that people have come together to try to answer some of the ineffable realities of our existence. We have found, through the centuries, that it is better to do this work together, to feel the support and warmth of a community while we plunge into the terror of the unknown world. And the language of Bereshit, of the beginning of our conception of the world, gives us the tools to understand both the larger cosmos in which we find ourselves, and the narrow understanding of how we relate to the vastness around us.
The irony of our reality is that we try to use chaos to fight chaos. We fill our lives with activity and commotion in the hopes that we won’t notice the randomness of our world, those pieces of reality that we can never explain. But God teaches us in Bereshit that the best way to combat chaos is with order, using words and intentions to create space for that which needs to exist. We are at our most spiritually healthy when we are able to create the space for existential questions, in order that we might hope to find some answers that speak meaningfully to our souls. We are most able to enjoy the beauty of the world around us when we recognize our very unique space within it. We are able to thrive in the bounty of life when we are able to grasp the fleeting blessing that is a life at all.
“Let Us make Humanity in Our image,” God said, as God began to create the people we would become today. We, each of us, is endowed with holiness, a birthright of connection to divine creativity at our deepest cores. And much as God used the power of speech and action to bring the universe into being, so too can we use our own actions and our own understandings to apply order to chaos. We can create order in ourselves, when we do the spiritual work of creating space for intention. We can create order between ourselves and others, when we find the divine spark of holiness in every person with whom we interact. We can create order when we harness the tumult in our daily lives, controlling rather than being controlled by the details and logistics that both fill our lives with activity and also fill our lives with distractions.To be human is to constantly strive for balance. It is built into our souls to seek that which brings order to the chaos of life. In our Torah portion this week, we read of the way that God created separation, God created the something and the nothing, and God created humanity to find its place within the space between.