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In the Beginning -Bereshit

Simchat Torah/Parshat Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Rabbi Denise L. Eger


With the arrival of the holiday of Simchat Torah, we come once again to begin the cycle of the reading of Torah.  We end our reading with Deuteronomy and then immediately begin with the opening words of Genesis, “When God began to create the universe…” (Gen. 1:1).   Now most of us are more familiar with the translation-“In the beginning God created “ but the former translation is preferred according to the great teacher Rashi who  said that if it was “In the beginning”- the first word would have read “Birishona” not Bereshit.  (see the Revised Plaut commentary p. 19)


In truth Judaism has a lot to say about creation. This week’s Torah portion, Bereshit contains two different versions of the creation story.  The first story is begins at chapter 1 and continues through the beginning of chapter 2.  It describes the first six days of creation, culminating in the Shabbat, the day God ceased from creating and rested. Humanity is created but the first being is both male and female and later according to the tradition divided into genders.  While the second creation story in Genesis describes the making of the first man, Adam and then subsequently, the first woman, Eve from the rib of Adam. Thus there are two different versions of creation.


The Kabbalists had their own view of the beginnings of the universe.  And to even create room for the universe God had to withdraw into God’s self. This act is known as tzimtzum in the kabbalistic tradition. But this is even before the point of light (Let there be light!) opened up!


In our Midrashic tradition, the rabbis also had a lot to say about what existed prior to creation.   In Bereshit Rabbah 1:4 we read the following:


When God Began to Create: Six things preceded the creation of the world; some of them were actually created, while the creation of the others was already contemplated. The Torah and the Throne of Glory were created. The Torah, for it is written, Adonai  made me as the beginning of God’s way, prior to God’s works of old (Prov. VIII, 22). The Throne of GIory, as it is written, Your throne is established of old, etc. (Ps. XCIII, 2). The creation of the Patriarchs was contemplated, for it is written, I saw your ancestors as the first-ripe in the fig-tree at her first season (Hos. IX, 10). [The creation of] Israel was contemplated, as it is written, Remember Your congregation, which You have gotten aforetime (Ps. LXXIV, 2). [The creation of] the Temple was contemplated, for it is written, Your throne of glory, on high from the beginning, the place of our sanctuary (Jer. XVII, 12). The name of Messiah was contemplated, for it is written, Your name existed before the sun (Ps. LXXII, 17).R. Ahabah b. R. Ze’ira said: Repentance too, as it is written, Before the mountains were brought forth, etc.  (ib. XC, 2), and from that very moment, You turn a person to contrition, and say: Repent, you  children of mortals (ib. 3). I still do not know which was first, whether the Torah preceded the Throne of Glory or the Throne of Glory preceded the Torah. Said R. Abba b. Kahana: The Torah preceded the Throne of Glory, for it says, Adonai made me as the beginning of God’s way, before God’s works of old,’ which means, before that where it is written, ’Your throne is established of old.’



Thus according to the Midrash the six things were: The Torah, God’s Throne of Glory, the Patriarchs, the People Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem and the name of the Messiah. For the Rabbis each of these were touched by eternity. Each of these were beyond human and earthly explanation.  But as you can see from the above part of the style of the rabbis is to provide a proof text-a verse from somewhere else in the Bible to “prove” that their assertion is correct!


Obviously this is neither science nor the theory of evolution. And it doesn’t need to be.  The Torah and the rabbis contemplation of the origins of the universe, God and creation are the mythic stories that try to help us understand the theological and spiritual framework of values that are important in Jewish life: a respect for the earth, a respect for all life, and imagining humanity’s connection in the ongoing preservation and renewal of our planet.


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