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Not "How" but "Why"

This week we begin our annual reading of the Torah with the first few chapters of Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The Torah opens by picturing God hovering over the primordial waters and calling creation into being.? In six days, our created world evolved though God's commanding voice from the first "let there be light" on day one to the last "let us make humanity in our image" on day six.? Then, on the seventh day after all was created, God ceased from his strenuous activities and rested.

For many readers of Bible, this highly patterned six day story of creation read in harmony with the following highly evocative story of Adam and Eve in Eden forms the Bible's "Creation Story," and gives them an explanation of how the world came into being. Yet, this reading of these accounts does not do justice to our Israelite ancestors' exploration of the concept of God as Creator. Our ancestors were not as much interested in presenting a coherent picture of how God formed the world as they were in understanding the moral and spiritual significance of knowing God as Creator. They wanted to understand the deeply human question of what it means to be part of creation and the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis provide us with only a partial view of their spiritual discoveries.

As we look into the Bible we see that our forebears cherished other descriptions of God's primordial activities. We soon understand that the Bible is not concerned with telling us how the world came into being in a manner that would satisfy our scientific inquisitiveness. By the multiplicity of images, our Sacred Scriptures helps us explore what it means to live in creation and be in a relationship with creations divine author. By picturing God, for example, as a commander, a planter, an architect, a contractor, a father, and a mother, the Bible addresses our sense of spiritual curiosity.

Following the insights of our biblical ancestors, our teachers and sages helped us in this task by pointing out the connections between the various images of creation and the way our faith structures our lives. Jewish life, as it evolved, underscores our intimate bonds with the world in which we live and helps us explore the significance of those bonds in our lives. What are some of these biblical images and how might they guide us in our religious journeys?

Even in biblical times, our celebration of Shabbat, our Day of Rest, was tied to the first story of creation which ends with God's Day of Rest (Exodus 20:8 - 11). The association of Shabbat with creation teaches us that we need to honor our efforts and struggles as we create a world for ourselves and our loved ones. Our meager resources are thereby associated with God's unlimited creative powers. It provides us with a spiritual framework live out our Jewish sense of being in partnership with God in the unfolding of creation.

The language used to describe God's setting the foundations of the earth, setting the world's pillars, and stretching forth heaven and earth, an image of creation favored by the psalmists and prophets (Isaiah 48:13; 51:13, Amos 9:6; Psalm 104:1-9; Job 38:4-7), parallels the words used to describe the construction of the Mishkan, the portable desert shrine, and the erection of its successor, the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, by King Solomon. Our ancestors' most sacred place in which God's presence was most strongly felt was a microcosm. It provided a spiritual mirror through which our ancestors could experience all creation in the presence of creation's God. Although this physical model of creation is no longer available to us, our sages, following the insights of Proverbs 8 where Wisdom is God's companion in creation, teach us that our Torah, the manifestation of Wisdom, served as the world's spiritual blue prints.

Descriptions of God establishing the earth after subduing the chaotic energy of the primordial waters (Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 89:10-11; Psalm 93:3-4) seem to draw on the image and vocabulary of Ancient Near Eastern legends. The Bible, however, separates them from their mythic past by connecting them to Israel's story of liberation and dream of redemption. God's mastery over the ancient waters comes alive in Israelite history in descriptions of the crossing of the Red Sea on our way to freedom (Isaiah 51:9-19) and of the messianic age to come (Isaiah 27:1). Our tradition helps us find justice and order in a world we still find unjust and chaotic. Not only does our external world often seem chaotic, we often find our interior world in shambles. Images of God's ordering creation help us understand our struggles to bring order in our world, our lives and in our hearts.

The images of God as creation's father and mother (Job 38:4-11, 28-29) help us cherish our roles as parents of the generations that will follow us. These images help us comprehend the rabbinic understanding that each and every one of us is capable of bringing an entire world to life. Descriptions of God's engendering and birthing our world, helps us find spiritual value in our own sexuality as a way of creating the most intimate human institution, the family.

Finally, the story of the Adam and Eve, primordial couple charged with caring for God's garden, helps us personalize a vast creation (Genesis 2:5 - 3:24). We can see our journey, from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to responsibility and from caretakers to creators, reflected in their moving story.

All these visions of God as Creator help us grapple with the great spiritual issues that address our deepest human needs -- our search for meaning in our lives and for our place in creation. Each year we return to the opening chapters of the Torah, the stories of creation, not to learn how the world came into being but to begin once again to explore these deep philosophic concerns. On Simchat Torah, we concluded the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, with the traditional prayer that we might be strengthened through our study of the Scripture. May our study of Torah this Shabbat, the Shabbat of Beginnings, Shabbat Bereshit, and every Shabbat during the year fortify us as we renew our spiritual pilgrimage through the Torah and through life.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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