Recommended Posts

Rabbi Simcha Weinberg-Genesis-The First Verse

Recorded 12 October 1999 at the home of Ms. Nora Shaykin-Copyright, © 1999 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg-Transcribed by Daniel Goldman-All the commentaries agree on one thing: it is absolutely impossible to fully understand the first chapter of Genesis, the first six days of creation, because of the incredible complexity of subtle nuances. As the Gemara says, “The glory of God (referring to the first chapter of Genesis) is completely hidden.”  In fact, anything that we do is only going to lead to more questions, and it is impossible to answer all of them.  At the beginning of the Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam goes out of his way to make sure that we understand that it is impossible to understand exactly what’s going on in Genesis.  All we can do is to take certain ideas and introduce basic concepts that we will use in the rest of Tanach. First I want to give you some examples.


The third verse of Genesis reads, “The Lord said, there shall be light…and there was light.” That makes sense.  God expresses God’s desire or has a thought, desires something to come and it appears.  But if you look at the second day of creation, beginning with verse 6, the Torah reads, “And the Lord said: There should be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” If the verse were consistent with the first day of creation, it would have simply said, “And there was a firmament…” But that’s not what it says.  It reads, “The Lord made a firmament…” So here when God says, “Let there be,” why didn’t the firmament just appear? 

Moreover, what does it mean, “The Lord made…?” Is it to differentiate action from formation?  Is it beriah, that is, ex nihilo? Or perhaps it is yetzirah – formation?   Also, what does “And it separated…” mean?  The Torah already said that that is what it should do.  If God said “Let it be,” then it was there.

In verse 11, God creates the grass and the trees.  God says, “Let the earth be covered with grass, and it was so.” The words “And it was so” certainly imply that if God wanted it to happen, then it certainly happened.  Then the Torah says the earth brought it forth.  Why does the verse have to say that?  The verse already said “And it was so.” Not only that, if you recall, the ground did not produce the kinds of trees God instructed the ground to produce.  God instructed the earth to produce trees whose trunks were as edible as their fruit, but that’s not what happened.  If that’s the case, why did the verse say “And it was so.” Did the Torah lie?  If God said it should happen in a certain way, it should happen that way.

Moreover, in each day of Creation, or almost each day, you have, “And God saw…and it was good.” What does it mean, “And God saw?” If God created it, then he knew it was good!  So what does seeing mean?  What does “And it was good” mean?

The Tekunei Zohar as well as many other commentaries, especially Rabbeinu Bachaya, explains that each of the Ten Statements of Creation was the introduction of a different Sefirah – a different way that G-d would relate and interact with the world.

You could examine every detail of each and every verse and see that there are myriads of levels of understanding.  Although this is true of every verse in the Torah, here you’re going to confront one issue or another and no matter how deep you go you’ll have to face the fact that it is impossible to fully understand what is going on.  That’s the first chapter of the Torah.  It would make sense to skip all of this because we’re never going to understand it.  However, since the Torah records it, we have to be able to use it.

Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, disagreed with his grandfather on his commentary to the Torah, and in explaining his position, he highlights a debate between Rashi and Ramban as how to understand the first verse.  According to Rashi, the way you read the first few verses of the Torah is, “In the beginning, the Lord’s creation of the heavens and the earth when the earth was confusing and filled with potential.  And the Lord said, and there was darkness over the face of the deep. And when the spirit of the Lord was hovering over the water, the Lord said, ‘Let there be light.’”

The first two verses are introductory; they are setting the period when God said ‘Let there be light.’ According to Rashi, the focus is on the creation of Light. That is the step of creation that we human beings have to begin with.  The first two verses are simply telling when this happened.  Therefore, when the Torah describes the first two verses, it is not a chronology of how God created the universe.

Rashi gives a simple grammatical reason.  We can’t go into the details now, because then we would have to go into a whole lesson in Hebrew grammar.  But his basic thought is that we know that the word shamayim, meaning the Heavens, is really a combination of two smaller words – esh, Fire and mayim, Water.  That means that God created fire and water before the Heavens.  So it’s not true that ‘In the beginning God created the heavens…’ The Heavens weren’t there yet.  In the beginning God created fire and water.  Therefore, says Rashi, it is impossible to read this as a literal chronology of the creation of the world.  Ramban disagrees with Rashi, and reads the first verse the way we are all familiar with: “In the beginning the Lord created the heavens and the earth.”

Like Ramban, Rashbam says that there is no introduction.  Creation begins with the appearance of the Heavens and the Earth.  To prove his point, Rashbam quotes a Midrash in which Moses had to teach the Jews certain basic facts so that they would understand ideas and events that happen later on in their history.  For example, Moses had to teach the Jews about Shabbat.  The basic idea of Shabbat is that God took six days to create the act of physical creation, and on the seventh day God created Shabbat.  As it says in the verse, “God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested.”

If Moses is going to teach Shabbat to the Jews, he first has to explain the Creation of the world.  Before Moses can teach them about their right to Israel and what justification they have to go into the land of Canaan and to conquer it from other people, they have to understand the whole history of the world.  (For example, how there was Canaan after the flood, and Canaan was cursed, and therefore he forfeited his right to the land.  Then, the development of Abraham and the development of the Jewish people.)  But the whole of the book of Genesis, Rashbam says, is simply so later on when Moses introduces other concepts you can understand what he’s talking about.  Therefore, this wasn’t written for us to understand, rather it is primarily to provide us with background material. 

Rabbeinu Bachaya takes a similar approach but he focuses on how each of the Ten Statements of Creation relates to the introduction of each of the ten Sefirot into creation.  For example, the opening word of the Torah is b’reshit. The word reshit is always associated with chachma, wisdom.  As the verse says, “reshis chachma yiraat Hashem,” ‘The beginning of wisdom is awe of God.’  Therefore, the first step through which we understand Creation is through wisdom.  Note chachma is the second of the ten Sefirot.  The first is keter, or crown.  Keter is God, as God is and we can’t possibly understand that.  When the Torah begins, it starts with the second sefira.  Chachma is the idea.  You can have an idea, and then you follow up on the idea.  Keter explains how this idea appeared.  But we can’t relate to that.  We might understand the purpose of creation, but we can’t understand God’s motivation for that purpose. So Rabbeinu Bachaya explains how God introduces an entirely new way of relating to the world with each of the Ten Statements.

Rabbeinu Bachaya takes us into other details.  For example, he writes that each step of creation is actually preparation for the time of the Messiah.  So when the Torah says, “…And the Lord said, ‘Let there be light,” this refers to the light of Messiah.  Each one of the statements in the second verse is a hint to each of the four major exiles of the Jewish people – Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.  Therefore, even at the beginning of creation, you have the establishment of how the world will follow its course.

As we go on in time, that purpose will be achieved.  But how can we say that we are getting closer to the purpose of the achievement? We see here that the world will go through these stages and ultimately come together in the days of the Messiah.  Why do you have to say that?  Because what we presently have is a world that is an expression of God’s will, not that is an expression of God, as God is. 

For example, I can give you an advanced class in Gemara, but tonight I choose not to.  People here may not have a background in Gemara, and have the understanding to follow a more advanced shiur.   So even though I may be capable of doing something on a more advanced level, I am going to do it on a more basic level, (I don’t mean to imply that this is a basic level!) because that is what can be absorbed at this time.  So at this time, God is capable of creating the perfect world, the perfect existance.  But what God willed was not to create the perfect world, meaning to reflect God’s essence perfectly, God willed to create the world as it presently exists.

However, because it is God who is creating the world, the potential for the expression of God, as God is, has to be there.  And that’s why the idea of the Messiah has to be one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith.  Because if we are to believe in God, as is the first principle of faith, then we must believe that God is a perfect being.  If so, how are we going to say that God, this perfect being, created this imperfect world?  Messiah has to be there to tell us that there will be a time when the world will reflect God’s essence.  Rabbeinu Bachaya’s reading of the opening verses of the Torah is: “This is the establishment of the history of the world.  And with the establishment of the history of the world you must know this is being described as being a world that will ultimately lead to a perfect world, a perfect world reflecting God, as God is. 

We see these fundamental philosophical approaches to the relationship to God even in the opening verses of the Torah.  The first verse reads, “In the beginning, the Lord created the heavens and the earth.” To begin with, we must understand that there were two distinct steps to creation.  There was a creation of the spiritual world, and a creation of the physical world.   When the Torah speaks of the heavens, it is addressing the spiritual world.  When the Torah speaks of the earth, it is referring to the physical world.  There are two separate worlds, two separate systems.  If you want to do some research on this, Rabbeinu Bachaya’s Derech Hashem goes through the basic structures of the two existences.  So, from the words “In the beginning,” you had two separate creations simultaneously.   Ramban derives it from the word, “et.” The existance of two separate creations is fundamental to Judaism.  I can’t even begin to tell you how important it is.

To illustrate, one of the most difficult verses to understand is Genesis 1:26.  “…And the Lord said, Let Us make man.” The obvious question is why does God say, “Let Us?” It certainly seems to imply that there is more than one creator.  So Rashi explains this anomaly with a Midrash.  Remember that on the surface Rashi is a very basic commentary.  But hidden inside are very deep secrets of the Torah, because Rashi can be read on so many different levels.

Rashi tells a fascinating story.  He says that God spoke to the Angels saying, “Listen, I have a problem…the problem is that you have Me in the upper worlds.  But there’s nothing similar to me in the lower worlds.  You’re going to have jealousy.  Therefore, I have to create a human being in the lower worlds to prevent any jealousy.”

That is so bizarre!  Why doesn’t God say to the Angels that the whole purpose of this creation is for human beings!  Let God say that it is because He wants to do good for another, and that that other is a human being, and that G-d wants give man a chance to master himself, etc.  Or, just say to the Angels that the only reason you exist is for the creation of the human being. Why does God have to explain to the Angels, “Well…I have this problem…and I want to make sure there is no jealousy.”?  What jealousy?  And if not for jealousy, God wouldn’t have created human beings?  Then what was the purpose of creation anyway?

Later in Genesis, Rashi explains that on the first day of creation you have the creation of the heavens and the earth, the spiritual and the physical existences.  On each ensuing day, different ingredients are added and things don’t appear balanced.  On the second day, the firmament is created.  This belongs to the upper world.  On the third day, the water separates, and the grass grows.  This belongs to the lower world.  On the fourth day, the Sun and the Moon are created.  This belongs to the upper worlds.  But on the sixth day there appears to be a problem.  If God’s next creation is made from the physical world, then the upper worlds will be jealous, because there will be more physical creations than spiritual.  If God’s next creation is made form the spiritual world, then the lower worlds will be jealous, because there will be more spiritual creations than physical.  “Therefore,” God says, “let Me create a being that is a combination of the physical and spiritual worlds.  I don’t want there to be any jealousy.”

Again, what is Rashi saying?  The idea of creating two worlds is so there can have a being that can bridge and connect the two, and again achieve the purpose of creation.

It’s really interesting that the idea of jealousy shows up later in the portion of Genesis, in the story about the man whose name is jealousy.  That is Cain.  The name Cain is derived from the Hebrew word for jealousy, kinah. I know that these Midrashim sound preposterous, and we can laugh at them and say that they are childish stories. In fact, Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that the Aggadah is written in such a way that you might think that total idiots wrote them.  But you must know that the Rabbis are trying to teach you very deep concepts, and that the Aggadah is the most effective way of communicating them. 

To understand Rashi’s explanation, we must begin with the understanding that there are, in fact, two separate creations, the physical and spiritual worlds.  If so, there has to be a degree of wholeness or completion to the upper and lower worlds, respectively.   But then why would we be presented with a situation in which these two worlds were in a competition with each other?  Or, another way of looking at it, what is the essence of the human being’s struggle in this world?  What did God give us so that we would have the capacity to master ourselves?  God gave us the freedom to choose betwee our good and evil inclinations.  The two compete against each other.  Generally, good is associated with the upper world, and evil is associated with the lower world.

In other words, the idea of creating two separate worlds is to provide us with the opportunity to have choice, to create an environment in which you have this competition.  But the competition must begin with balance,  which is where Adam and Chava begin.

Nora Shaykin: I can understand that there is a competition between the two inside of us.  How can you say that there is also a competition independent of us?

RSW:  How would it be different if this competition only existed inside of us?  Whom or what are struggling with if you say that this competition exists only inside of you?  Yourself.  But are you dealing with realities?  Or are you dealing only with your experiences?  The answer comes from experience, and that is not necessarily a reality.  The struggle has to be a reality, not based on perceptions.

This competition is a clash between the upper and lower worlds.  We must understand that our involvement in it and our choices are part of this clash.  If we can’t understand that it is a separate reality, other than our perceptions, then our entire existance is going to be limited.  You might counter that this the way I experience the world, or that the choices I make don’t really matter.  Our responsibility is to understand that the choices that we are making go to the essence of existance.  The only reason we don’t perceive it that way is because it’s overwhelming to think of the world in that light.  To do so is devastating.  You mean that choosing to say this or that to another person or not goes to the core of existance?  We can’t live like that.  The responsibility could crush us.  How can you function knowing that any decision you make is going to affect all of creation?  But that’s the reality.  We have to understand that that is the reality, but we will function as we will function.  The ideal has to be there.  And that’s how the Torah begins, reminding us that our responsibility is to balance the physical and spiritual worlds.

Where do we find this idea of perfect balance between the upper and lower worlds? – In the story of Jacob and the Ladder.  The ladder reaches “up into the heavens.”  The Angels climb up and down as the ladder’s center of gravity is centered over Jerusalem.  This is also interesting because we often speak about the Temple of above and the Temple of below.  Jacob’s attribute is Tiferet, or the beauty of perfect balance.  Jacob was the first patriarch to have children and able to balance them all as a whole.  Abraham did not succeed in balancing Isaac and Ishmael and Isaac did not succeed in balancing Jacob and Esav.

In fact, we have this idea of balance between the Upper and Lower worlds in this week’s portion, in the story of the Tower of Babel.  The builders of the Tower thought that the way to connect the two was to simply build a tower to heaven, and in that way they would be the masters.  In fact, they try to imitate God.  How do they begin to build the tower?  At first, they decide to make bricks.  Then, after they have the bricks, they come up with the idea to build the tower.  It usually works in the reverse.  First you have you’re ultimate goal in mind, and then you come up with the means to accomplish it.  But for them, the whole goal was to make bricks.  What’s the difference between building out of bricks and building with stone?  Making bricks is an act of creativity.  The builders of the tower understood creativity by connecting heaven and earth.  To be sure, they are right!  But they were wrong to try to do it on their own and they make a big mistake in how they go about it.  When they built the tower, God decided that creation could no longer be perfected through them.  The world had up to the year 2000 to correct the sin of Adam and Chava.  The one who ultimately who did was Abraham.  Born in 1948, he begins his quest at age 52 when he figures out that there is a God.

So, already in the opening verse, you have the essential struggle, the purpose of creation, and how it is going to happen.  It’s fantastic.  But there’s more.  What is the first fight of Jacob’s life?  The birthright.  Isn’t that interesting?  The word b’chor is related to b’reshit, because we say that the b’chor is reshit cochi –the first of my strength.

Now we can understand an interesting Rashi. To review, Rashi says that there is no way to understand “In the beginning God created” on the literal level.  So Rashi relates a Midrash.  The letter Bet in B’reshit means “for the sake of” reshit – for the sake of beginning.  So what is reshit?  There is a verse in Proverbs in which the Torah is called reshit because the verse refers to Torah as being reshit darcho – the beginning of God’s path.  Similarly, in Jeremiah, we find Israel being called reshit, where it refers to the Jews as being reshit tevuahta – the first of the crop. In another place we see challah being called reshit.  So we can say that the world was created for challah, the separation of your dough!  In another place, ma’aser is called reshit.  And therefore the world was created for giving your tithe.  There are many other examples. (By the way, the creation of man is compared to making dough – you take a liquid, combine it with earth, and mix it up.  Furthermore, it ties into the Tower of Babel story. It adds another dimension to how they built the tower.)

So what’s the idea of taking the first of your dough?  We address this every time we make a blessing on bread.  What’s the blessing on bread?   “Hamotzei lechem min ha’aretz,” meaning ‘He who brings forth bread from the earth.’  The obvious question is that bread doesn’t grow from the ground.  So what do we really mean when we recite this bracha?  Despite the fact that we are making the bread, we look at it not as our own but as God’s.  The blessing means, “He who gives us the capacity to use our creativity to make bread.”  God brings forth bread through us.  That’s why the blessing on bread covers everything else.  Anything you eat following bread, you don’t need to make a separate blessing on because it addresses the essence of creation. 

But to return to our original question, what do we mean when we say that the world was created for challah?  It refers to our partnership with God.  The word, Elokim also suggests this concept, in that it is He who guides us with individual Divine Providence.  What does Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu mean?  Elokeinu means that God has a relationship with us.  He is everyone’s Elokim, but He is our Elokeinu.  The relationship of individual Divine Providence is unique to us.   That’s accepting the yoke of heaven.  It does not mean, “You da boss!  I’m going to do whatever you tell me.”  It means that whatever I do matters to you.  Similarly, we can explain each of the examples brought by the Midrash, and show how they show the establishment of a relationship to God.

There’s one more point that I didn’t mention and is important to remember.  Not only did God create the physical world, but He created the spiritual world, too.  This means that God is not physical, but neither is He spiritual.  God is God.  To say that God is spiritual is limiting God.  God has nothing to do with Spirituality.  These concepts are fundamental and go to the core of our relationship to God. 

Go Back to Previous Page

  • Other visitors also read