Thursday, October 19, 2006

Parashat Bireshit - A few random thoughts.

This year I am attempting to read the Torah in Hebrew. It's quite a challenge, because my Hebrew's not quite there yet, so I'm definitely pushing the envelope. I have found William Holladay's Concise Hebrew & Aramic Lexicon of the Old Testament to be of inestimable help in this, as BDB is too cumbersome for just reading.

But anyway, I have rambled a bit. One thing that struck me, reading through, is that light is created, then plants, then the sun, moon and stars. There is a midrash that states that the light created by the utterance יהי אור, "let there be light" is supernal light, stored away for the righteous. But plants cannot flourish without light. So I wonder, were the plants first reared on supernal light, before the sun was made? No profound observation here, just a simple question. It seems to suggest that that supernal light could not have been stored away until the מארת were created.

Regarding the fall: Maimonides posits the idea that prior to consuming the fruit mankind knew right from wrong, in an ideal sense. But with the consumption of the fruit comes notions not of right and wrong, but of good and bad. (Guide I:i) This is an important distinction - good and bad aren't necessarily ethical values. This is rather about discernment. It is interesting to note that God does not say "I will curse the earth on your account," but rather "the earth is cursed on your account." This difference raises the possibility that God is not cursing the earth, but rather that it is Adam's actions that have this as their consequence. Consider the context: Adam now knows good from bad. He may have been just as thrilled by plantain and dandelion as by wheat before this, but now he will call plantain and dandelion "weeds" and wheat "food." Bad and good. And in order to extol the one above the other, he will have to break his back tilling, sowing, weeding, and harvesting. And indeed, when those dandelions show up in the midst of the soybeans he will curse, every gardener does. Hence "cursed is the earth on your account."

It also seems impossible to pass over the first word of Torah - בראשית without noting that there is a sheva, not a patach, under the bet, making it indefinite. Every translator wrestles with that one way or another. The notion that this world is not the first is a common interpretation, and set forth by Rashi. But the thought that occurs to me is that מעשה בראשית, the work of creation never ceases. Mankind is constantly being made from dust, as we eat fruit of the earth, bread brought forth from the earth, and even plant eating mammals, dust becomes us. But not only that but we become dust, not merely by dying, but even in the course of living as we slough hair and skin cells. Creation is not a one time act, the flipping of a cosmic light switch, but the ongoing process of transformation.