Parashat B’reishit

To Begin at the Beginning . . .
By Hazzan Marcia Lane

I have an affinity for stationery stores. I love the smell of new paper. I am constantly buying new notebooks, trying to find the perfect form of paper, lines, binding, cover that will inspire me to greater heights of insight and literary brilliance. I am delighted by the blank page, by the endless possibilities of the absence of words. What to write? What to think? What to communicate? A love letter? A thank you note? A journal page? An invoice? Blank pages are magical.

Our parashah this week, B’reishit, is the blank page on which God writes. In fact, God enjoys the blank page so much that He writes not one but two stories of creation. In the first (Ch. 1:1 to 2:4), creation is described as a kind of song, a poem, a paean of creating. The language is ritualized and poetic (“And God said, “Let there be . . .” and it was so! And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.”) This first creating is orderly and logical. It reflects an elegance of forethought and planning. It is written with really beautiful penmanship, so to speak! The story contains one of the most quoted descriptions of humanity: “Let us make the human in Our own image! . . . Male and female God created them.”

The second version of creating (2:5 to 3:24) is rather messier, more like our lives. It has a disorganized telling of the story, a slew of plant growth and rivers and creatures brought into existence in a fashion that feels rather helter-skelter. God says (to God’s-self?), “It is not appropriate for the man to live alone.” And so the woman is created – not from original material, like the man, but by recycling a piece of the man – as a kind of Girl-Friday to Adam. And the man and woman are confronted by a deceiver, the serpent, and presented with an ethical dilemma. And one might think that they fail the test of this ethical dilemma, for they are cast into the wide, wild world to make their way.

The contrast between the two stories could not be more stark. The first telling is beautiful, rhythmic in its language, mythic and perfect in its organization. The second is full of cross-outs and scribbles and margin notes (“Note to Self: Fix this in future draft!”), and the imperfection that we might not associate with God. After all, this second creation is so flawed that in a few brief chapters God will erase it – or most of it – with a flood and go back to the blank page. Ah, that alluring blank page!

Of course there is another facet of these two versions: The perfect one has no where to go. It’s perfect. The elegant version of creation ends with Shabbat. You might even say it ends with “. . . and they lived happily ever after.” Only the messy version of creation has a future. To be sure, it’s a rather messy future, but at least it’s something! Children are born and die. Lives go this way and then that, mistakes are made, choices are made, history is made. The history of humanity is composed, not of eloquent phrases and perfect penmanship, but of regrets and second chances and hope and despair.

Recently I was teaching Parashat HaShavua to a group of 7th graders. I have a plan for the year – to teach Torah through the very Jewish taxonomy known as PaRDeS. The letters stand for the Hebrew words: p’shat (simple meaning), remez (a hint or suggestion), drash (a story that explains a missing piece or a contradiction in the text), and sod (a secret meaning). We read the account of the first day of creating, and I asked the class to hypothesize another day, and what that might look like. One student wrote, “On the next day God said, ‘Let there be immense growth, greens of all descriptions, and let them fill up all the earth and cover the fields. And it was so! And then God made the greens into forests and plains and woods and fields. And it was evening, and it was morning, a third day,” I loved it! So I asked Caroline, “Is your description more like drash or more like p’shat?” “It’s more like sod,” she said, “because there’s places for the animals to hide.”

In a way, Caroline’s day embodied the need for creation to have some dramatic tension, something that is missing in the first story. She knows that the first description of creation makes a sweet story, but if there’s going to be a next episode, we’re going to need some conflict, some event to send our heroes out into a scary world, a world with mystery and imperfections. She knows – as the Torah certainly does – that we will only keep turning the pages if we have exciting scenes. That is what has kept generations of Jews and non-Jews alike going back to the Torah week after week to see what crazy mess we will get into and out of this time!

Here’s to the potential of that blank page. Happy New Beginnings!


Hazzan Marcia Lane (AJR ’04) serves Temple Beth El, Oakhurst, New Jersey.