Sermon for Parashat B’reishit
October 13, 2017
After our celebration the last two days of Simchat Torah, we are now ready to begin study of the weekly parashah. Of course, immediately following Simchat Torah we read from Parashat B’reishit, the first reading in the Torah, which begins with the creation of the universe- or does it? What we find is that the traditional translation of the first verse of B’reishit has colored our thinking on the Jewish view of creation. Once we take apart the first few words in the Hebrew, they yield an entirely different meaning which informs our theology and our place in God’s universe. Let me take the next few minutes to explain what I mean.
As my teacher and the dean of Biblical translators Professor Harry Orlinsky of the Baltimore Orlinskys, wrote, “For some 2,200 years- since the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Torah was made by Jewish translators for the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt- all official translations of the Bible have rendered the Hebrew bereshit bara elohim mechanically, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” There are several cogent reasons, each independent of the others, for rejecting the traditional rendering as incorrect and for accepting the temporal “when” construction.” Professor Orlinsky goes on to note that Rashi, the great 11th century commentator already knew this. Rashi said that in order for the first word to mean “in the beginning God created,” the Hebrew would have to be barishona, which means “In the beginning.” Rashi tells us that there are several places in the Bible where the word bereshit means the temporal “when.” Hence, he says, the proper translation of the first verse of the Torah should be “In the beginning of God’s creating …or When God began to create the heaven and the earth.” Professor Orlinsky goes on to tell us that all the Mesopotamian creation stories begin with the word “When.” So given these explanations, and several more, Professor Orlinsky took the step of re-translating the verse as “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.”
This translation gives us a radically different meaning of the text. No longer is creation something that occurred once and took place in the past. Creation is now an on-going process, an ordering of pre-existent material, of making order out of the “tohu v’vohu,” the formless void which already existed. This has tremendous implications for us. It tells us that God’s role in the process of ordering the world out of chaos is not yet finished and that we, the children of Adam v’Chava, Adam and Eve, have an important role as partners with God. Rashi and Professor Orlinsky tell us that the first thing God created was not heaven and earth but rather “light.” Light is the first thing named in the ordering process. Without light, nothing can proceed. It is our task as human beings, created in the image of God, to bring light into the dark corners of the world, to help bring order to the chaos, to someday along with God, our partner, make creation complete. Is that process likely? It won’t happen tomorrow or even next year, but it may happen someday.
Just think for a moment of how life has changed over the last hundred years. We have gone from the horse and buggy to the driverless automobile, from the Wright’s airplane to the stars. Penicillin was just discovered in 1943 and look at the diseases we have conquered since then. With genetic engineering it is possible that cancer and other diseases may someday be a thing of the past. While we cannot change the nature of human beings, war has become so destructive that we are reluctant to enter it. A nuclear weapon has not been unleashed since 1945. We pray that it will remain that way.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist, gave meaning to each person’s life as well as the collective life of the Jewish people when he taught that the power of creation was so intense that the sparks shattered the pre-existent material which spread throughout the earth. Each time a Jew performs a mitzvah, it is like we take a shard and glue it back to the primordial china cup and saucer which were shattered at creation. So singly and together, we continue the ordering process that someday will make the world whole. When that happens, we have reached the Messianic age. By working together with other good people and being God’s partner, we will eventually bring about the perfection of the world.
So, dear friends, who knew that the re-translation of the first three words of the Torah would secure our meaning and purpose in life? May we, during this New Year of 5778, devote ourselves to continuing the process of ordering the universe.
Amen and Shabbat shalom