There is an artful maneuver at the opening of this week’s Torah portion — “In the beginning” — that for generations of readers has served not only as an inspiration but a way into dimensions of the universe’s origins that expand far beyond a literal reading of the text. Rashi, the 11th century commentator, quotes Rabbi Isaac from the 1st century who claimed, “The real beginning of the Torah isn’t here at the Creation but rather is found in Exodus 12:2 when God says, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” A quick look at the Exodus passage reveals that this “first month” is the first Passover, when the Israelites prepared the lamb, matzah and maror that comprised the first Seder meal which the Israelites ate in haste before escaping slavery in Egypt.
So it’s interesting, isn’t it, that luminaries like Rashi downplay a literal reading of the text, making room perhaps for science and rational inquiry to guide our understanding of the origins of time and space? In so doing, Rashi creates a place for us to re-define Torah less as a literal depiction of events and more as a moral guide for living lives of meaning.
Therefore what is Torah? We might say, for sake of argument, that Torah is an account of the moral and ethical development of the Jewish people. And indeed Rashi claims that this passage in Exodus 12 is the “beginning of Torah” because it marks the moment (“the beginning of months; the first of the months of the year”) when the entire Jewish people, as a community, was commanded to follow the laws of Passover, to bind themselves to one another through ritual, language and the obligatory moral lessons of what it means to come from slavery and journey to freedom. After all, more than any other law in the entire Torah, the mandate to “welcome the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is repeated thirty-six times. Its centrality to our definition as a people is, according to this reading, our pillar of moral fire leading us through time.
Throughout my career, I have encountered many smart people who have picked up the Bible and dismissed its ancient language, concepts and faith system as somehow irrelevant to the modern mind and sensibility. But like most rabbis, I always prodded them on, arguing that surely we can go deeper and follow the lead of the sages who preceded us, dive into the waters of inquiry, interpret the text that calls out for interpretation, and benefit from others’ wisdom.
One midrash from the tradition comes to mind.
“Why was the world created with the letter ב? Just as ב is closed on three sides and open only in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what will happen after the world’s existence. You are permitted only from the time the world was created and thereafter the world we live in.” The rabbis who wrote this midrash might seem to be arguing that from a moral standpoint, there is danger in unraveling the Torah with the tools of scientific inquiry. But of course, in so doing they concede the essential point that the purpose of Torah is not a literal reading of what science may reveal but is rather meant to be a record of our people’s inquiry into the ethics and morality of what it means to exist in “the world we live in.”
Remember that great scene in Annie Hall where a young Alvy Singer is at the doctor’s office and his mother complains he’s depressed? “Why are you depressed, Alvy?” the doctor asks. “The universe is expanding,” he explains, and continues, reasoning that “the universe is everything and if it’s expanding, some day it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” His mother then says, “What is that your business?!” And turning to his doctor, she says, “He stopped doing his homework!” “What’s the point?” Alvy asks. His anxious mother yells, “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”
It’s a really funny scene, in large part because it’s so true. Both Alvy and his mother are right. They have two diametrically opposed readings of reality and it appears that the only thing that can bridge their divide is Alvy getting his homework done. But on a deeper level, Alvy represents the way in which certain inquiry can lead to a kind of stalemate if the assumptions get away from us. The either/or construct can be paralysing.
Our sages wanted to offer a different view. Don’t read the Torah for science, they warned. It will lead to un-belief. Rather, read the text as a moral guide; be open to the ways that ancient literature reveals truths that can sometimes escape the sharp, discerning tools of science and reason. What is wisdom then? And why pursue it? The author of Proverbs, King Solomon, posited that its purpose is “to know wisdom and instruction; to comprehend the words of understanding; to receive the discipline of wisdom, justice, right and equity.” (Proverbs 1:1-3)
So while we know that the universe actually is expanding (so Rabbi Albert Einstein has ably demonstrated) it doesn’t mean we can get out of doing our homework! We can’t escape the call to wisdom and understanding; we can’t deny the obligation to forge communities rooted in justice and equity.
So this week, as we have concluded our holy days and contemplated community’s journey from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from Sukkot to Simchat Torah, we begin our learning again with Genesis. Let’s be inspired to dig deep into Torah, to gain wisdom, and use that learning and discernment to building communities and world of justice and peace.
Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.