Berdichev on Creation

B'reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

In his K'dushat Levi on Genesis 1:1, the third-generation Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (d. 1810) notices a curious grammatical inconsistency between the opening verse of Genesis, "In the beginning, God created. . . ," and the language of the Yotzer blessing, directly after the Bar'chu of the morning liturgy, ". . . God, . . . who makes light and creates darkness. . . ." Why, he asks, is the Genesis version stated in the past tense ("created") and the prayer-book in the present tense ("creates")? The answer, he explains, is that there are two modes of religious consciousness that correspond to these two descriptions of Creation-past and present tense.

When we regard ourselves as separate from, independent of, other than, discrete from God, then God has already created the world and left. (The formal theological name for such a God is Deus abscondus!) But when we realize that we ourselves are manifestations of the Divine, that our awareness is dissolved into the Divine, that we are dimensions of God, then the process of creation is no longer a completed event but becomes continuous. Creation happens even at this very moment -right now, while you are reading these words. Indeed this is one of the central religious mysteries of all time:

If God made the world and left, then God is limited, bounded, and finite. God is, effectively, only part of being; there are things in the world that are not God. And such a God is, therefore, only one limited thing among other limited things (in Hebrew, yeish, "something"). On the other hand, if God is still and now the One who is continuously bringing being into being, then God is, indeed, the Holy One of All Being. And not only is such a God boundless and limitless, but God is also therefore nothing (the opposite of yeish, something) or, as the kabbalists taught, "Nothing" (Ayin ).

These two modes of comprehending the Divine correspond to our two ways of looking at the world. We might intellectually, for example, intuit that God must be truly Ayin but, despite ourselves, we wind up talking about God as if God were other than the world. And once we do so, then being becomes an infinite collection of discrete, bounded, limited, and independent things (yeish). This isn't bad; indeed, it's inescapable. That's just the way it is most of the time. And then, something happens-a fleeting and startling glimmer of light-and, for a moment, we realize that "it's all God" (including yourself). All of being is suddenly dissolved into the Divine All, the holy Nothingness. And when that happens, at this very moment, God becomes the One who is creating the universe. The trick, of course, is how to access this wondrous mode of awareness-in other words, how to move from the first verse of Genesis (in the past tense) to the morning liturgy (in the present).

And although he employs a rather complicated way of arriving at it, the Berdichever has an answer for this too. It all involves, he says, how we perform a holy deed. The Hebrew for "holy deed" mitzvah, mitzvah is spelled mem mem , tzadi tzadik , vav vav , and hei hei . The Berdichever notices that the last two letters, vav and hei are also the last two letters of the Shem haM'forash , the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable four-letter name of God: yod yud , hei hei , vav vav , and hei hei . Indeed, he suggests that most of the time our holy deeds, like our world, only have half of God's name. God, as it were, is not yet One. (As we sing in the words of Zechariah 14:9 at the conclusion of Aleinu: "On that day Adonai shall be One and God's name shall be One.") The problem then is how to somehow squeeze the first two letters of God's Name from mem and tzadi, the first two letters of mitzvah. (This is, of course, a metaphor for how to get our own spiritual acts together so that each deed completes the name of God.) And the answer is:
Atbash, a-t-b-s ! (Hey, what do you want? I'm a neo-kabbalist.)

Atbash is an old system for extracting more meaning from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (Remember, for us Jews, God speaks the world into being, so language is intrinsically and inescapably creative.) Atbash is spelled alef, tav, bet, shin -the first, last, second, and next-to-last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (In this system, you write one complete alphabet and then, below it, you write another, but in the opposite direction, so that alef corresponds to tav , bet to shin, and so on.) And according to atbash , what does mem become? You guessed it- yod . And tzadi , of course, becomes hei. Latent within the spelling of and, hopefully the doing of every holy deed, every mitzvah, is God's most awesome name. The Berditchever thus coaxes us, on Shabbat B'reishit , to perform every mitzvah in such a way that God's Name be realized and healed by our deed and our intention.

This is all a round about way of saying that when we give ourselves over to a sacred deed, we lose ourselves into the Divine, which, at least for those few moments, then becomes the One who is creating at this very moment, the Holy One of Nothing, Ayin.

In the beginning God began Creation by making discrete things ( yeish ) from nothing ( Ayin ). We, by the way we perform mitzvot, have the capacity to return them to the Divine All. As the great second-generation Chasidic master, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech (d. 1772) taught: "God's creation of the heavens and the earth was indeed wondrous, for God made something from Nothing. But the deeds of the holy ones of Israel are even greater. Through everything they do, they take something and turn it back into No­thing"( Magid Devarav l'Yaakov, par. 9).

And so we begin again. . .

© Lawrence Kushner 2006

At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner was the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality including a novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).

Beginning at the Beginning: Partners in God's Creation

Daver Acher By: Susan Laemmle

And so we begin reading the Torah again. On Simchat Torah, we read the final verses of Deuteronomy, but instead of stopping, even temporarily, we immediately round the circle back to the beginning of Genesis. Our life in Torah goes on; the cycle of revelation and reflection, choice and challenge, continues without end.

We begin again with Genesis 1:1: "When God was about to create heaven and earth. . . ." But that beginning could have been different. The God-inspired creators of Torah could well have opened with Abraham and Sarah or with the commandments of Exodus. Instead our Torah opens on a universal note, not a particularly Jewish one. This opening surely influenced the Torah's place in world culture as a whole.

Nachmanides insists that the purpose of beginning with Maaseh B'reishit , "theWork of Creation,"could not have been to teach Jews about that process, even if it is "the root of faith." No, for Nachmanides "the process of creation is a deep mystery not to be understood from the verses, and it cannot truly be known except through a tradition going back to Moses our teacher who received it from the mouth of the Almighty, and those who know it are obligated to conceal it" (Ramban [Nachmanides], Commentary on the Torah , Genesis 1:1).

One can sympathize with and even learn from Nachmanides' awe before Creation without following his essentially particularist approach to the opening of Sefer B'reishit . Surely we Reform Jews want to embrace the universalistic grounding that this opening chapter provides for our people's national history.

Through it, the Torah teaches that we Jews are part of human history and that we worship the God of all creation and all humanity. Of course, the opening chapters of Genesis may not speak to other cultures in the compelling way they speak to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But still, our Torah clearly reaches out with open arms and heart to all b'nei adam , all human beings, across time and space.

And what, most fundamentally, does it say? What are the large spiritual and philosophic messages in Parashat B'reishit? First and foremost comes the message picked up in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Surely, this ringing declaration could not have been proclaimed without the prior existence of Genesis 1:27: "So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female."

Even before the Hebrew of these words was inscribed on rock and parchment, people must have been pondering their meaning. What, after all, does it mean for us to have been created b'tzelem Elohim , "in God's image," and to embody that image for generation after human generation? Whatever divine attribute(s) we who are "created in the image" share-language, creativity, love, holiness, immortality, and freedom have been suggested-we share it or them together. In short, we are all in the same basic position.

That position is a high one. How can it be otherwise if God is God? In The Torah: A Modern Commentary (ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 35), we read, "Our likeness to the Divine . . . stresses the essential holiness and, by implication, the dignity of all humanity, without any distinctions. 'Above all demarcations of races and nations, castes and classes, oppressors and servants, givers and recipients, above all delineations even of gifts and talents stands one certainty: the human being. Whoever bears this imagine is created and called to be a revelation of human dignity' [Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism , rev. ed. (New York: Schocken, 1948), p. 152]." Each of us is called, then, to convey the revelation of having been created b'tzelem Elohim. But also, and even harder to actualize, we are called upon to regard our fellow human beings in that light.

Sometimes it's easy to follow this teaching, but much of the time it's nearly impossible. What about the inconsiderate neighbor, the impossible former spouse, the racist who denigrates us, or the terrorist who attacks us? What does it mean to regard them too as being made in the divine image? For Christians, this teaching correlates nicely with "turning the other cheek." But we Jews require an approach that is more active, and I believe that our sense of ourselves as God's partners in the ongoing act of creating the world can provide this. Much as circumcision elevates human sexuality through our direct involvement, so human weaknesses can only be improved when worldly and spiritual powers join forces.

Of course, we'll soon re-encounter Noah, with whom God endeavors to start over. When that effort runs afoul, the nugget of Jewish peoplehood is born with Abraham and Sarah-who represent a narrowing of focus and, arguably, a concession to human weakness. Through practicing mitzvot and becoming a holy, God-connected people, we Jews will model godliness for others.

And so the Torah and other Jewish teaching continues. And so we continue, Shabbat after Shabbat, year after year, trying to fulfill the promise of being God's image-bearing partner in the work of Creation. May our powers of will and insight be increased as we join others in that holy endeavor.

At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, PhD, was dean of religious life, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California.

Reference Materials

B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34