Not far from Cincinnati, in Petersburg, KY is the Creation Museum. From the Museum’s website: “The state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Majestic murals, great masterpieces brimming with pulsating colors and details, provide a backdrop for many of the settings.” They have kids with animatronic dinosaurs. On their blog they have such entries as, “Big Bang: Exploding the Myth” and “Is Evolution Possible?”
I don’t know about you all, but I am kind of tired of all the science vs. religion, Darwin vs. God debates. They just don’t make sense to me. I believe in science, and I am religious. I believe in God and evolution and the Big Bang and I know that the universe isn’t really 5778 years old.
About this God vs. Science debate, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins writes:
“Rabbi Harold Kushner . . . relates a conversation he had with a physicist. The subject was ‘whether Newton’s second law, the tendency toward chaos, was an argument for or against the existence of God.’ Rabbi Kushner writes that after he published something about this conversation, he received a letter from a biologist claiming that he should have spoken to a biologist rather than a physicist. Had he done so, wrote the biologist, he would have had a stronger case for God. Apparently the laws of physics and of biology demonstrate different principles.
“Take, for example, wrote the biologist, the case of a jar of marbles. Shake it and the marbles become totally mixed up. On the other hand, if you think about the growth of a human fetus, it starts out as a group of undifferentiated cells, and after some weeks, some of those cells become eyes, some turn into lungs, others fingers, etc., etc. What was totally random becomes totally orderly. This is the opposite of Newton’s second law. In the case of a fetus, instead of moving form order toward chaos, it moves from chaos toward order. Isn’t this, writes Rabbi Kushner, God’s work?”
Interesting, but I think it may belabor the point. I’m not interested in a debate trying to prove that there is a God from science, and I don’t think I will get very far trying to prove God from our chapter in Genesis. The goal of this sermon is very different. More on that in a minute. First, back to the Creation museum.
Another blog post on the museum website asks: “Is Genesis Relevant In Today’s World?” I would answer, yes, but if we read Genesis as science or history it is dangerous. Genesis is meant to be read for meaning, not as a textbook. Our sacred text is here to bring meaning. So, let us begin “In the Beginning.”
One of the most famous lines in the English language (even though it comes from Hebrew), “In the beginning God created . . .” is in fact a mistranslation. Better readings would be: “When God was about to create . . .” or “At the beginning of God’s creating . . .” In Hebrew it is: “Bereishit bara elohim . . .” Now, if we remember back to Hebrew school, we know that the word bereishit begins with the letter . . . bet. I want to focus on this bet for a little bit. Our ancient rabbis did. The sage Rabbi Jonah, in the name of Rabbi Levi asked: “Why was the world created with a bet?” In other words, what not any other like, especially aleph, the first letter? What can we learn from a bet about Creation? Rabbi Levi’s answer is this: “Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind.”
On face value, to our contemporary ears, this sounds like a pretty anti-science statement. The first letter of the first word of the first chapter of the first book of the Torah tells us that science is futile. But wait, that is not what the rabbis are saying. Rabbi Eugene Mihaly, in his beautiful book that imagines the ancient study house where this question was asked, expounds it thus: “Accept, embrace this created world as it is made known to you. The voice from Sinai, that insistent voice which we have internalized as a people, the Sinai within us, daily pleads, ‘Do not dissipate your energy and your effort in an illusory escape from the inevitable tensions, the pain and ugliness and grandeur of the arduous creative process. Cosmos inheres in and emerges from the chaos of becoming. Face this human world; search, investigate, study it; find your role in it; work with it; improve and perfect it; the potential meaning and order are there for you to discover and actualize. That is your vocation as a people—your terrible, glorious destiny.”
Wow, all that from one letter! I want to focus in on one line from Mihaly: “Cosmos inheres in and emerges from the chaos of becoming.” Cosmos and chaos. When we look at the world, especially a post mid-twentieth century world, we often see and feel chaos—war, famine (natural and human caused), environmental destruction.
What is the point of creation if it only brings misery, we ask ourselves. But, the rabbis tell us, like God in today’s Torah reading, we bring cosmos to the chaos, order to the disorder. This is one of the roles of religion. This is what it means to be created in the divine image. While a scientist’s job is to quantify the order or disorder in the universe, the religious Jew’s job, according to the bet of bereishit is to work to bring order to the universe. There is order in the universe, and it is our job to bring it to light. This is the meaning of our Creation story.
There is another interpretation from our sages. The bet, that same first letter of the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, with the numeric value of two, intimates the two worlds of traditional Jewish thought, this world and the world to come. This is not earth and heaven, but what is and what could be, the real world and the ideal world. The world was created to be perfected our rabbis tell us. In Judaism, God did not create a perfect world. A Hassidic master states, “The Eternal One created the world in a state of beginning. The universe is always in an uncompleted state, in the form of its beginning. It is not like a vessel at which the master works and finishes it; it requires continuous labor and unceasing renewal by creative forces. Were there a second’s pause by these forces, the universe would return to primeval chaos.”
These two worlds, what is and what could be, are what drive us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger.
Rabbi Arie Chark tells the story of “a rabbi named Levi Yitzhak (oft-called “the Berditchever”) who once sang the Yom Kippur Eve service, the single most sanctified time in the Jewish holy day cycle. Suddenly he stopped and changed his chant. “Dear God,” he sang, “I see the masses walking by me. I see the lame, the suffering, the broken! And Dear God, I have a question: What are you going to do about it?” Then Levi Yitzhak stood silently, meditating, waiting for a reply. A small voice from the back of the congregation whispered “Reb Levi Yitzhak”, spoke “Reb Levi Yitzhak” and finally shouted “Reb Levi Yitzhak!”, at which point the Berditchever turned around to face the congregation.“Reb Levi Yitzhak!” the voice continued, “God did do something about it. God made us!”
We are here to continue creation and renew the creation towards perfection. This is the meaning of our creation story.
Now that we have unlocked meanings of creation just from the first letter, let us move on to some words. If we look at the Hebrew words of the opening of our reading it says, “Bereishit bara Elohim . . .” Bara, meaning creates, and Elohim, meaning God. Note the order of the words. The sage Shimon ben Azzai comments, “First creation and afterwards God.” God humbles Godself. Shimon continues, “only after God provides for the needs of the world, does God mention his name.” The rabbis are saying that God is humbled in order for there to be space for a true relationship with humans. God cannot truly be God, and we cannot fully be human without the other, without a relationship. In our Creation story, God is in need of relationship, in need of humans.
If our rabbis tell us that God is in need of humans, so much the more so, Creation tells us that we are in need of each other. Creation is about relationship, and relationship is about responsibility. Can God truly be God without us? In our Aleinu prayer, it states that when Creation is perfected, then God will be One. This is our responsibility. This is the meaning of our creation story.
So much to learn from a few words of our creation myth. I use the word myth deliberately. It is not science, it is not history, but it is not false. A myth is not a falsehood, as the word is commonly used today. A myth is a truth told as a story. This is our story that gives meaning to the truth of what the scientists teach us about the origin of the universe and the evolution of our species. This is our story that gives meaning to our lives as we live in our natural world that is often scary and disturbing, but more often than not, inspirational.