Parshat Bereshit

October 11th, 2017

The opening sentence of a book or a story is meant to provide a glimpse of what follows, and as such the opening of Bereshit “in the beginning Hashem created the heaven and the earth” – provides us with a dilemma – is it the statement of a fact or is there a deeper meaning that we need to search out. Many of our sages try to understand what the Torah wishes to convey and I shall try to understand a little through the eyes of two of our greatest presenters of “p’shat” the simple understanding of the text.

Rashi after his well known opening gambit that the whole book of Bereshit is an introduction to provide us with the legitimacy of our rights to the Holy Land, continues with “darsheni” meaning this need interpretation and then provides an unusually detailed discussion of this seemingly simple but actually profound verse.  Rashi explains based on the Midrash,  that this verse does not wish to tell us the order of Hashem’s creation but wants to emphasize the word “bereshit” for beginning, which is used later in the Torah to signify the first or most important, such as the first fruits and as such the Almighty created the world for the Torah and Israel that are the most important. in Rashi’s opinion this is clear from the second sentence which tells us that “the spirit of Hashem hovered over the waters,” but we are not told how the  waters were created. So in Rashi’s opinion this first verse is really our basic premise of faith that Hashem created the world.

The Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, also unlike his usual brief style, feels the need to lay out his method of interpretation based on “p’shat” the proper understanding of the text. He opens his discussion stating that all his predecessors interpretations are true and well founded, but nevertheless his studies are based on looking and understanding what has been written in the text(the p’shat), rather than looking for the hidden meanings (drash). He then proceeds to explain why he does not see fit to explain the opening of the Torah as the other sages before him.

In his view the Torah is a well organized and planned script and often introduces a topic as necessary background for a subject which will be discussed later on iin the Torah. Here the Torah is giving the necessary background for the fourth of the Ten Commandments- keeping Shabbat. Thus the presentation of the creation includes Hashem’s creation of the important components of the world that we need to be aware of, but does no include the formation of the Angels or the different parts of heaven and hell and more, only the world that we humans see around us and so we can therefore fully appreciate Hashem’s completion of creation at the end of the sixth day and understand the background to Hashem giving us Shabbat.

Rashbam explains why he rejects other interpretation, firstly as Rashi he rejects the concept that the Torah is presenting the order of creation and then he is not happy with the understanding of “the earth” as our physical world as we are told that “the earth was strangely empty (tohu vavohu).” So in reality as Rashi the Rashbam is presenting through his methodology that the first verse of the Torah is our basic premise of faith in Hashem, but more than this how Shabbat is completely bound up in our belief in the Almighty.

The coming chag of Shmini Azeret and Simchat Torah is when in modern times we complete the Torah and start again with Bereshit and every shool chooses a Chatan Torah and Bereshit based on various criteria, sometimes not clear to the congregation. In my young days in Willesden, davening at Rebbe Finklestein’s Shteibel  the system was to put everyone’s name in a hat (except those who had been chosen over the last three years) and pick out two names. So everyone has a fair chance. Well let us wish all a good winter with plenty of rain, which seems to have started already.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom