This Shabbat, we begin the Torah reading cycle again in the beginning with Parashat B’reishit. I will always remember the opening because I was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah chanting these words. “B’reishit bara Elohim—When God was about to create . . .” or, usually, but not correctly translated as “In the beginning God created . . .” Our first verse of our first book of the Torah begins with the letter “bet”, and our ancient rabbis have a lot to say about that.
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, teacher of my teachers, in his beautiful book “A Song to Creation” 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 today we often see and feel chaos—war, refugees, and environmental destruction. We see rampant misogyny and blatant lies coming from our leaders. We feel unsettled and sometimes anxious.
What is the point of creation if it only brings misery, we ask ourselves. But, the rabbis tell us, like God in this week’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 labour and unceasing renewal by creative forces. Were there a second’s pause by these forces, the universe would return to primaeval 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. We are here to continue creation and renew the creation towards perfection. This is the meaning of our creation story.