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Friday, October 22, 2010

In the End, It's All in the Beginning

I know you have all been dying to understand how Chazal figured out that the word 'reishit' means 'Torah.' Probably you have suffered through sleepless nights, tossing and turning, especially since I promised to explain this nearly two weeks ago.

Well, dear reader, wait no more. I will explain it all to you—well, as best as I can, anyway.

This gets a bit technical—my apologies up front.

Ironically, to understand the beginning of the Torah and the meaning of b'reishit, one must look deep into a much later part of Tanach, namely Mishlei Proverbs.

To the rabbinic mind, there is no real beginning or end to the Torah. It is not a continuum; rather it is that all aspects of the Torah exist (and know each other) simultaneously. While the rabbis recognize that there is an historical chronology to how the books of Tanach were received and that has significance, there is also a notion of Torah that is not rooted in time and matter.

What is found in the written Torah is a kind of transcription of this Divine Torah and while it may inherently contain all aspects of Torah Wisdom, we find this Wisdom explicated in and expounded upon in many other places beginning with other books of Tanach.

Just as we can look at any one thing in the universe as a point of departure for examining all of Creation, so too, we can look at any one part in this expansive notion of Torah to understand the rest of the Torah. Where in particular we begin is not necessarily important.

As it happens, the beginning point of this explanation of b'reishit begins in Mishlei. If you read through the book, particularly the first several chapters, you will see a very clear relationship established between wisdom/understanding and the Torah.

For example, the third chapter of Mishlei begins:

משלי פרק ג (א)בְּנִי תּוֹרָתִי אַל תִּשְׁכָּח וּמִצְוֹתַי יִצֹּר לִבֶּךָ:
Mishlei Chapter 3 (1) My son, do not forget my Torah, and your heart should guard my commandments.

A little later in the chapter it says:

משלי פרק ג (יט) יְקֹוָק בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אָרֶץ כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם בִּתְבוּנָה:
Mishlei Chapter 3 (19) God founded the earth with wisdom, he establishes the heavens with intelligence.

A bit later we read:
משלי פרק ח (כב) יְקֹוָק קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז:
Mishlei Chapter 8 (22) God made me as the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old.

Reading the straightforward message of Mishlei would yield an understanding that the universe was created with Divine wisdom/intelligence and that this is also known as Torah.

With this last verse from Chapter 8 we can add in that another name for this primal source of Creation is reishit. We get that by parsing the sentence a little differently, to wit:

God has made me, The beginning (reishit), His Way, as the first of His works of old.

In other words, ראשית reishit, is another name for 'me' which is wisdom. Wisdom in this context is another way of saying 'Torah.'

When the rabbis were confronted with the multitude of options in understanding the word b'reishit, what they knew already about the nature of the Creation from Mishlei (i.e. that the creation was done with the Torah) gibed with one of the meanings of the word b'reishit.

So, a kind of possible flow chart of this explanation of b'reishit would look something like this:
  1. Read first word of Torah: b'reishit
  2. Deconstruct that word into various possible meanings
  3. Recall concept of how the universe was created from verses in Mishlei
  4. See how that concept coincides with one of the explanations of the word b'reishit
Dear reader, if you have come this far in the posting, please let me know what you think. Did this get too technical? Or would you like to hear more about the mechanics of midrashic thought?

Shabbat shalom!

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