Bereshit: God’s Beginning, Man’s Beginnings – Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column

“In the beginning, the Almighty created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1.

How is this beginning different from all other beginnings?

This week’s Torah portion, the very first of the yearly cycle, tells of the beginning of the cosmos and prompts us to reflect upon other beginnings, human beginnings, more familiar to us.

When we contemplate those other beginnings, with which we are much better acquainted, we cannot help but wonder whether there even is such a thing as a true beginning, of a process which really begins from “ground zero”, without a past or history which precedes it. Is there such a thing as a new chapter in life which is utterly new and not influenced and strongly connected to some pre-beginning past? Do we ever really start anything totally fresh, purely new?

I don’t think we ever do, and I submit that a quick survey of the beginnings we know, from the trivial to the very meaningful, will support my contention.

Is the beginning of a new baseball season really a new beginning? Or does each athlete bring to the season many of the skills perfected in past years along with the marks of old injuries?

A new college semester is exciting and feels fresh and new. But every student comes equipped with past learnings and ingrained study habits, and rare indeed is the professor who doesn’t recycle at least some of his old lectures.

History is rife with examples of revolutions heralding complete change and innovative reforms. But history has also demonstrated how often, at the first moment of challenge and crisis, the new regime falls back upon the same old and tired techniques of government. The French Revolution, which promised so much in the way of a new beginning, eventually reverted to the same abuses it fought to replace.

Even the birth of a new human life is not a totally new beginning. Each newborn boy or girl carries the genetic code of generations gone by. The old conception that each of us begins life as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, has long been abandoned as naive and fallacious. We are built on ancient foundations.

And so it is in the entire realm of human experience There are no totally new beginnings. There are only new chapters, subtly but profoundly shaped by what has come before.

This is the human condition. None of us is truly autonomous. No man is an island. We are all little more than a composite of the forces of our past and the pressures of our present. We are contingent beings, dependent upon so much that is external to us.

How different is the beginning of which we read this week!

It is a beginning out of nowhere, out of nothing, ex nihilo. “Yesh me’ayin.” Something out of nothing. A “big bang” if you will, with absolutely no precursor.

“In the beginning…” With these opening Biblical words the Torah lays down the fundamentals of Jewish theology and Jewish anthropology. Jewish theology: There is a Creator who created a totally new world, a world without precedent and without earlier stages, at a moment in time freely chosen by Him. And a Jewish anthropology: Man is incapable of creating that type of beginning. God is truly autonomous. Man, not at all. He is a contingent creature.

Maimonides puts it well when he describes the Almighty as independent of the world, but the world as dependent upon Him. God is the Creator and Man the Creature. From this insight it is a logical next to the German theologian Schleiermacher’s definition of perfect worship as a feeling of “creature-ness”, of “kreatur-gefuhl.”

This beginning lesson in theology will stand us in good stead as we progress through the yearly cycle of the Torah and encounter this Higher Power again and again in so many and varied ways. And it should stand in us in good stead as we cope with our own private existential struggles. As we read in the book of Kohelet just a few short days ago: “For God is on high and you are down below, therefore let your words be few…”

Indeed, God’s beginning is very different from our beginnings. How exciting is the prospect now before us as we begin the yearly Torah cycle. How exciting to observe this world newly created “yesh me-ayin”, out of nothing”, as it not only becomes something, but develops into a something of dazzling complexity, infinite wonder, and perpetual surprise.

So stay with us as we continue our journey, week by adventurous week.