There are many different ways to understand the majestic account of the Creation described in the beginning of the Torah. One approach is to read Genesis 1 in conjunction with a passage from the Jewish morning service: "God renews the work of Creation every day, constantly." This text puts the description of the Creation in the present tense, suggesting that we can find everyday meaning in the opening portion of the Torah.
"Let there be light" is the first and central event of the first day of Creation (Genesis 1:3). Living in our world, we may think of sunrise, but that is not the light referred to in the Torah—the sun is not called into being until the fourth day. Rather, it is the light of consciousness, which appears to us just after waking but before we open our eyes to admit physical light. We can regard this light of the Creation as a powerful metaphor for us because it is what allows us to comprehend what we see with our eyes and perceive through our other senses. If we understand this first form of light as consciousness, then we understand that from the beginning, creation is conscious and deliberate. As we study these opening lines of the Creation story in the Torah, we recognize that they offer us the grandest vision of possibilities for what the world can be.
The second creation is an expanse that separates the waters beneath it from the waters above it. God then calls this expanse Sky (Genesis 1:6–8). Here it is most important to realize that although the sky divides the waters, those above and those below are not newly created. In other words, the very stuff of this world is the stuff of the other, sacred world, or as we usually call it, heaven. The rest of the Creation provides a step-by-step education, teaching us that the sacred is not something different from the ordinary and that we can find the sacred in and through the ordinary.
On the third day, the waters beneath the sky are collected in one place, revealing the dry land, which is named Earth (Genesis 1:9–10). As on the first two days, God proclaims that the result is good. Now the earth brings forth vegetation, seed-bearing plants, and trees of every kind. This fruitfulness, which combined with creation leads to procreation, is granted its own special declaration of being good (Genesis 1:12). The merit of the fruitfulness will be reiterated on the fifth and sixth days. Whether the beings are plants, insects, fish, birds, mammals, or humans, their creation is pronounced good.
The sun, the moon, and the stars, created on the fourth day, bring us visual order, but more important, serve as signs for set times—days, months, and years (Genesis 1:14–19). We are creatures shaped by time. We act with memory of the past and with aspirations for future outcomes. Our time is not the simple here and now of the present; rather, the present is shaped by history and anticipation. Judaism is credited with being the first historical religion. That does not mean it is the first religion to claim historical veracity of the stories and events that form its traditions; it means that time, created on this fourth day, is an important character in the biblical story.
On the fifth day, God again lauds fertility, introduced earlier, as swarms of living creatures are brought forth from the sea, creeping things crawl on the earth, and winged birds fly above it. God blesses them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:22).
Then on the sixth day, God decrees that the earth bring forth cattle and wild beasts of every kind (Genesis 1:24). As we look back on this turn of events and on the previous five days of creation, we recognize that in all ways the setting has been prepared for humankind. There is now both the right place for us to appear and the right time for our arrival.
We can see that all of creation until this point has been both conscious and deliberate and, because every creation has a role to play, meaningful. Our own creation, which occurs later on the sixth day, must also be regarded as meaningful, and like everything else that was created, we have our own role to play. Moreover, we read at the end of the sixth day that God finds all of creation to be very good (Genesis 1:31). Thus from the beginning of the Torah, from the very beginning of time, we are invited to share God's judgment of the Creation as very good.
In the Jewish tradition, B'reishit can be read as aggadah, "story," or as halachah, "law." In the other books of the Torah, we find many laws concerning our daily lives. But more central than any particular law is the meta-law that determines how we view the world. We tend to see the world as simply existing, without recognizing or taking full responsibility for how we perceive this existence. B'reishit shows us how to make this choice, perhaps the most important decision of our lives, by teaching us to view the world as having been consciously and deliberately created.
The Jewish Germanist Erich Heller maintained, in 1949, "It is indeed amazing how malleable the world is and how easily it models and remodels itself according to the inner vision of man, how readily it responds to his ‘theorizing'! Thus the most important advice which an educator can give to his pupils may easily be: Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that" (Erich Heller, "Inaugural and Goethe Bicentary Lecture" [University College of Swansea, Wales, November 17, 1949], reprinted in The Disinherited Mind [New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahay, 1957]).
I believe we should choose a halachic interpretation that emerges from B'reishit: we are to take responsibility for the world we inhabit. With commitment, engagement, gratitude, and love, we cocreate our meaningful world.
At the time of this writing in 2007, Dr. Carol Ochs was the director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.