There was the usual discussion centering around the fact that, as vowelized by the Masoretes, the first word of the Torah, B'reishit, because it does not include the usual definite article prefix form, doesn't really mean "in THE beginning" but rather "in A beginning." Now a lot of things can be inferred from that. It could indicate that, as some midrashim say, G"d many more than one attempt to create a Universe, finding this and that wrong with each one until this particular creation. (Of course, what's to say that, after creating this universe, and a little tweaking here and there, G"d went on to create yet other universes, and perhaps stops back once in a while to check on this one--or perhaps has forgotten all about us and moved on...)
Some of the sages taught that the Torah begins with the letter bet because it is only open on the side from which the text (i.e. the story) moves forward. What came before this beginning isn't worth speculating about and has no relevance to our existence. In other words, "don't go there." Even physicists disagree on the value of speculating what came before the big bang, if there was one. Nevertheless, I think that humankind's curious nature will forever have us asking these kinds of questions. Sages and physicists alike are perhaps are warning us of the dangers of spending too much time seeking knowledge that may be beyond our acquiring or understanding. And Judaism is most assuredly more focused on what we do with the precious little time we are here during our lives. And still we speculate on what comes before and after. We can't help it.
The Torah is replete with clues that point to this new interpretation of why the Torah starts with "in A beginning." First, we have, apparently, two different creation narratives (with due respects to the apologists on this topic, I just can't see these two accounts as one story.) And one of the narratives is rather geographically specific. Hmmm.
We find ourselves asking questions like "where did Cain's wife come from?" "Seth's wife?" And who were the sons and daughters that Adam fathered during the 800 years he lived after Seth was born?"
And what does it mean when it says at the end of chapter 4 that after Seth's son Enosh was born, that it was then that [people] began to invoke the name of Ad"nai? Was there some sudden realization of the deity, and a reason, even a need to worship? And who were these people anyway. After all, at that time, all who lived that we know of were Adam and Chava, Cain, his wife, Seth, and obviously he had a wife...and then perhaps all these descendants of Cain-the Torah isn't clear about the timeline.
The genealogies-what do they tell us? They appear to be somewhat etiological in nature. And the parallels to other myths of other civilizations, both concurrent and future. For example, noting that Yaval was father of all tent-dwellers and ranchers, and Yuval of every player of lyre and pipe, and that Tubal_Cain was the forger of all implements of bronze and iron. All of these sound like stories and myths from other cultures. Ah, we're getting warm.
There's the story of the sons (!) of G"d (!) who found human women attractive and cohabited with them. And the nefillim, the fallen ones, who were, apparently, giants. who were they? Were they the product of unions between the sons of G"d and human women, as some speculate? The Torah isn't clear on this point.
Shades of Norse and Greek mythologies, along with the mythologies of many other cultures from the Ancient Near East. What are we to make of it all? And then came the suggestion from one of our Torah study group participants.
I think I pushed the discussion in this direction when I began talking about how canonization of the Tanakh (and the Christian Bible and the Koran, and other scriptures of other faiths) were often influenced by the popularity of certain texts and stories with the common people. It's difficult to explain the inclusion of certain books and not others without speculating that those who made the decisions realized that some stories were just too popular to omit. We talked about this for a while, and began to speculate that this might also be why certain stories wound up in the Torah as well. Perhaps there was a blending of stories from different clans, even different cultures that had become the core of the what was to become the Jewish people, when they were finally all collected into a definitive version. (I'll leave the speculation as to when that might have occurred for another time.) And then one of the participants (whom I would like to credit for the idea though as I've not asked permission to publicly use her name, I won't offer more than her first name, Lori, at this time) made the brilliant observation that perhaps the multiple beginnings referred to by the word "b'reishit" were perhaps a nod to the multiple cultures that were all created and/or developing at the same time as the particular small family and geographic location for which the Torah is the prime narrative. Just as there was a creation in Gan Eden, perhaps there were also "creations" in other places, near and far. In the rift valley in Africa. In other parts of the ANE (ancient near east.)
The Torah never clearly states that G"d only created humans this one time and in this one place. There were, perhaps, many beginnings, in many places. Perhaps even on other planets elsewhere in this vast universe.
I think it's an eloquent interpretation, and I intend to explore and study it more. I hope you find it equally intriguing and perhaps it will occupy your thoughts this Shabbat. Go ahead, make a beginning.
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand
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