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    artwork of the creation of man

    The Grammar of Creation

    Understanding the Details Through Stories

    By J. L. Wall

    August 11, 2021
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    “Why,” asks Genesis Rabbah, a collection of midrashic exegesis dating from the Amoraic period (200-500 CE), “was the world created with a bet?” Why, in other words, does the first word of the Torah – bereishit – begin with the second letter of the alphabet, bet, ב, rather than the first?

    Rabbi Yonah, who had posed the question in the name of Rabbi Levi, offers his teacher’s answer as well: “Just as a bet is closed on all sides and open in the front [remember that Hebrew is written and read from right to left], so you are not permitted to say, ‘What is beneath? What is above? What came before? What will come after? Rather, [only inquire] from the day the world was created and after.”

    This reflects, in part, Judaism’s this-wordly focus on the fulfillment of mitzvot: the world as we experience it matters more than the mysteries of cosmogenesis. But the rabbis also understand the limits of human knowledge – that there are things, as God explains to Job, which cannot be understood unless you were present at the Creation itself. And you, as you may recall, were not.

    And where we cannot know the details, we seek understanding by telling stories. These narrative theorems about the nature of reality are what we often call myths. Indeed, rabbinic tradition is quite comfortable with a mythic rather than historical reading of the seven days of Creation. Genesis 1 is neither untrue nor literal. “You must admit,” insists the medieval French rabbi Rashi in his commentary on Genesis, “that the text teaches nothing about the earlier or the later sequence of the acts of Creation.”

    Don’t inquire – because inquiry into what cannot be comprehended produces figurative attempts to explain. Perhaps inevitably, these will miss the mark. Jewish tradition, from the text of the Torah on, has been skeptical if not hostile toward the myths which emerged when humanity did attempt to explain the nature of the unformed and turbulent deep, or the origins of God himself.

    Genesis strikes a contrast with the history and myths of Babylonia – explicitly, in the Tower of Babel; implicitly, in its cosmogony. The Enūma Eliš offers a Babylonian account of primordial waters that contain and are themselves the intermingled earliest gods. Creation begins not with the world but with other deities; only through the rivalry and warfare that follow does the earth as we know it emerge. It’s a story that repeats, with variations, throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean: the Greeks and Romans (to use a more widely-known example) told of primordial warfare among their gods, who themselves were born from the natural world that preceded and constrained them.

    What do we learn from these myths? That the gods, plural, are violent and often cruel and petty, that our origins are in conflict, that nature itself is divine and dangerous. The rabbis would have us limit ourselves to the moral truths of Genesis 1: that there is one God who preceded nature and stands outside it; that this world’s structure is deliberate; and, most importantly, that the work of Creation is tov, good.

    artwork of the creation of man

    Aaron Douglas, The Creation

    Even in late antiquity, rabbinic discourse sought to explore and explain a text whose language and grammar were already ancient and strange. What do we make of this syntax? Of these words: tohu and vohu, or that first one, bereishit? Speculation into the primordial would be uncalled for, so we have to seek answers by looking to what we learn elsewhere in Tanakh.

    Thus Genesis Rabbah begins not with bereishit but with attempts to define a puzzling word from Proverbs 8:30, amon. Rabbi Hoshaya floats a handful of possibilities before settling, ultimately, on uman, or “artisan.” “The Torah is saying,” he concludes, “I was God’s artisan’s tool.” Just as kings hire architects to build castles and those architects in turn rely on written plans and blueprints, he explains, so God “gazed into the Torah and created the world.” Then a prooftext from Proverbs 8:22: “The Torah says, Bereishit bara elokim. And there is no reishit except the Torah, as in, ‘God made me [the Torah] the beginning (reishit) of His way.’” Likewise, Rabbi Abba bar Kahana teaches that the Torah was not only given at Sinai but also at the creation of the universe: “The work of creation came to teach about the giving of the Torah, and the teaching was revealed through it.”

    We shouldn’t inquire into what preceded Creation, they insist, but, perhaps unable to help themselves, they add that there are things we can learn about it from Torah. Exceptions to the laws of nature (like Balaam’s talking ass) must have been built in from the start. And Torah itself was with God at the beginning.

    Not only is the world good, not only is God outside nature, but Creation takes place through law, through Torah, rather than jealous violence or primordial, ungoverned intercourse. Creation with Torah is necessarily covenantal.

    It’s also suggestive. It tells us something about our own relationship to Creation as well as God’s. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the towering intellectual figure of twentieth-century Modern Orthodoxy, concludes: “There is some sort of covenant between man and nature.”

    Let’s return to the beginning and do as many Jewish students have done before: read the verse that puzzles us and turn for guidance to Rashi (1040-1106), perhaps the most important post-Talmudic rabbinic commentator:

    Verse: Bereishit bara Elokim et-ha’shamayim v’et-ha’aretz

    Commentary: “You must admit that the text teaches nothing about the earlier or the later sequence of the acts of Creation.”

    Rashi offers two lines of evidence. One has to do with the logical progression of Creation itself. The second, more compelling and more influential, stems from the strange syntax of the Torah’s beginning. (There really should be an old Jewish joke about how the true first act of Creation was to argue about grammar.)

    The King James version of Genesis makes our text look simple: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” We might argue over what the words mean, but their relationship to one another is plain. Rashi insists that this isn’t the case at all. It’s grammatically incorrect, he states, to read bereshit bara to refer to the beginning of all acts of Creation.

    The Jewish Publication Society translation gives a decent sense of what Rashi thinks the verse should look like: “When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness hovering over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” It’s a rambling, windswept sentence, each thought and act blurring into the next. (The more stately KJV takes four sentences.) Rashi’s point is that the first verse refers specifically to the creation of the earth as we know it. God did not happen onto an unformed void, but acts of Creation ex nihilo could (and did) precede this sentence.

    The verbs at the beginning of Genesis draw my eye as they do Rashi’s. But I’m not a well-trained stickler for the details of Biblical Hebrew construct verbs, as he was. Rather, it’s the different ways we English bara, “to create,” and what these reveal about how we understand the action itself. The King James describes Creation in the past tense: a completed action. To Rashi and later Jewish translators and commentators, the tense is imperfect, even progressive.

    From this, I think, we can learn something about the letter bet.

    “A bet is closed on all sides and open at the front,” Rabbi Yonah (in the name of Rabbi Levi) observes in response to his own question. So too, I would suggest, is an imperfect or a progressive verb. The King James’s past tense is like the walled-in samekh, ס, the fifteenth letter of the alphabet that sounds like the English S, or mem sofit, ם, the thirteenth letter, which sounds like M, as it is written at the end of a word.

    Why was the world created with a bet? Because, perhaps, Creation itself is like a bet, closed on three sides but open at the front – still ongoing, still in progress.

    The siddur certainly seems to think so. Each weekday morning, Jewish prayer praises God as the one who “in His goodness continually renews the work of creation, day after day.” This includes our own, individual, re-createdness: the blessing to be said on waking thanks God for restoring our neshama – the soul – repeating the act, in Genesis 2:7, of blowing the breath of life [nishmat khayyim] into Adam’s nostrils.

    “It is not for you to complete the work,” Rabbi Tarfon states in Pirkei Avot, “but neither are you free to set it aside.” He’s talking about Torah study, but so too, we might say, of God and the continuation of Creation.

    The ongoingness of Creation also stands at the heart of human nature and how humanity relates to nature.

    Rashi observes that the spoken acts of Creation – Let there be … And there was – depend on the labor of humans as well as God:

    “There was no vegetation on the earth when creation was completed on the sixth day, before man was created. Even though God had commanded, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation,’ on the third day, it had not emerged, but remained just at the rim of the soil, until the sixth day. Why? Because God had not sent rain. Why not? Because ‘there was no man’ to till the soil, and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.”

    Human actions complete the Creation. These include labor and prayer. But it’s the third that most closely mimics God’s own pattern of creation: the ability to recognize the rain and its fruits as tov, good, just as God pauses after each speech-act of Creation to recognize it as tov.

    Rabbi Soleveitchik teaches that this moment is not the completion of creation, but a moment in which God instructs and charges Adam “with the task of continuing the divine performance in developing the soil.” God created two things on the sixth day, Genesis 2 tells us: human beings, and a garden for them to cultivate.

    Eden requires tilling and tending – not the raw, backbreaking labor that will be imposed later on Adam and then, more intensely, on Cain, but creative activity nonetheless.

    This lets us learn something about Creation: “Nature” (at least as a synonym for “Creation”) does not refer exclusively to the “natural world” but also includes created, cultivated things. Seen from the other direction, we learn that the cultivated world – first gardens, later agriculture and civilization itself – is not artificial, but itself part of the ongoing Creation. Civilization, built covenantally, is natural.

    We can also learn something about ourselves. Genesis describes the creation of Adam and Eve twice. At the end of Genesis 1, Adam and Eve are, despite being vegetarian to this point, in essence apex predators. The earth will yield its fruit to them; all of it exists for their nourishment. It’s the narrative of humanity as created and cultivated beings: acted upon, still within nature.

    Genesis 2, however, describes the first man and woman as necessary partners in Creation. Only their prayer and the ability to recognize goodness allow the completion of God’s actions on the third day. Their task is not to master the natural world but to tend a garden. It’s the narrative, in other words, of humanity as creating and cultivating beings.

    This is not a development but a duality: we stand within nature and without; we are at once created and creating, cultivated and cultivating.

    When the serpent tempts Eve, he appeals to this second nature: “God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be as God,” he insists. Rashi glosses: “FOR [GOD] KNOWS: Every artisan detests his fellow-artisans. God ate from the tree and created the world. [So if you eat,] YE WILL BE AS GOD: Creators of worlds.”

    God charges Adam and Eve to become creative, cultivating beings. But these roles are also the root of human fallibility. Rashi suggests that Eve already understands the jealousy of artists, and it’s to this that the serpent speaks. God created only with the aid of the fruit that he’s forbidden them. The interdict simply protects trade secrets, a way to ensure that God’s creativity always prevails over humanity’s.

    But the serpent also makes a claim about the Creation itself, tempting Eve with a myth explaining what came before. This tree, part of the natural world, must have preceded Creation in order to enable and give order to it. The serpent says, in essence, that God did not create the natural world, but learned to create from it. By eating of the fruit, Adam and Eve will free themselves, as creating beings, from dependence on God’s powers and tutelage. The serpent builds from a kernel of truth – God is a creator and humans are, in some ways, like subcontractors of creation – but even this is a truth told deceptively: the serpent presents order as separate from God and instructs Adam and Eve to seek their own orders, independently. The serpent always distorts, and sometimes the serpent simply lies.

    Creativity and cultivation are likewise the root of error at Babel. Here, the folly is not in looking to what came before – but in what rests above. The tower is an attempt to reach Heaven and in doing so establish a kind of equivalence between man and God. Once more, humanity seeks creative independence, this time through reliance on its own reason and ingenuity. After all, no one taught the people of Babel how to make bricks and mortar or to construct towers: neither God nor a tree. They discovered these skills for themselves – and these were, truly, signal human accomplishments. As creators, they believe, they have self-emancipated: they have earned the right to escape nature and join God in Heaven.

    The Tree and the Tower also narrate misunderstandings of God’s creativity. God, the rabbis insist, did not rely on the natural world in order to create – and also did not create for His own sake, in isolation. They speak of God as an artisan not to humanize him but to teach us something about the proper work of creation: Just as God’s Creation was with Torah – was covenantal – so too our creative activity and cultivating labor.

    And this is the difference between the Garden and the Tower. Even though it’s the site of the first sin, the Garden itself is good, the means through which God intends and enables man to become b’tselem elokim, in the image of God, by creating and cultivating. (It may be right to think of the serpent as attempting to offer to Eve at the wrong time and in the wrong way what it was her and Adam’s task to do, eventually, in harmony with God.) The Tower, on the other hand, is a structure of unambiguous hubris and folly and a clear critique of the ziggurat, the temple-tower that was among the great achievements of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

    But this shouldn’t lead us to think that Judaism prefers agrarian idyll over urban civilization. Gardens, too, were products of the earliest cities: a Mesopotamian cultural development that followed not far behind the ziggurat.

    The Garden and the Tower are two different kinds of civilization. One is built in covenant with nature, cultivating it, continuing day by day the work of Creation. The other is an attempt to escape nature and swap sham (“there,” i.e. Babylon) for shamayim (“the heavens”) in the Torah’s wordplay – to abandon the earth for the heavens.

    The covenant between man and nature, then, is not simply one of stewardship, but of cultivation and creativity. “Man should create new life; he should plant trees and engage in such creative work,” writes Rabbi Soloveitchik. “To cultivate the ground means to worship: avodah. In it is expressed man’s loyalty to himself and his destiny.” What the Tree and the Tower teach us, together, is that skill, talent, and execution are not enough, whether we use them to build cities and civilizations or to cultivate a garden.

    Adam brings the third day’s work, the creation of vegetation, to fruition less through labor and prayer, after all, than through his ability to recognize this growth as tov – both to appreciate the work of Creation and to discern good from not good.

    In this, they mimic God’s reflective language at the end of each day of Creation and the central act of vayavdel: of separation, in most translations. But in the language of the Havdala ceremony at the end of each Shabbat, this verb refers to distinguishing. So we might translate the beginning of Genesis yet another way: Creating with Torah, God distinguishes …

    Halakha, in both study and application, requires Jews to separate and distinguish constantly. Judaism is both a praxis and an intellectual tradition of classification. Such activity is not only Jewish. The Noahide covenant – God’s covenant with all humanity – asks for more than recognizing God or avoiding murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, theft, and cruelty to animals. It also requires the creation of courts and legal systems – of institutions tasked with distinguishing, within each society, tov from lo tov, good from not good.

    We must judge our creative efforts, our relationship to nature, and our cultivation of it, not by relying on reason alone, or by seeking total harmony with the natural world, but through the fulfillment of covenant, the ongoing recognition and separation of good and not good. “Any judge who judges a true judgment truthfully,” Rav Hiyya bar Rav teaches in b. Shabbat 10a, “it is as if he became a partner to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in the act of Creation [b’ma-aseh b’reishit].”

    Contributed By

    J. L. Wall is a teacher and writer. His essays and poetry have recently appeared in Arc Digital, Breaking Ground, Trinity House Review, and First Things.

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