Plumbing the Meaning of the Torah’s First Word

The Torah’s first verse is purposely unclear.  As the Ramban, Nachmanides, points out, the deepest truths of how the universe was created are unfathomable and inscrutable, hidden, ultimately, in the realm of mysticism, not physical science.

It is intriguing, though, that the Torah’s first word, “Bereishis,” implies, as the Seforno explicitly states, that time itself is a creation – a notion that comports with traditional cosmological physics (if not with scientists who, terrified at the notion of a “beginning,” postulate a “multiverse” of universes, conveniently beyond observation).

Likewise intriguing is that, according to the Talmud, the Torah’s first word can be split into two words, “bara” and “shis.”  While the Gemara sees in “shis” a hint to an Aramaic word meaning “conduit,” hinting to an underground channel into which liquid poured on the mizbe’ach would descend (a channel created at the beginning of time – Sukkah, 49a), the word can also, most simply, mean “six.”

As in the six types of quarks, currently believed to be the fundamental particles of which all matter is, ultimately, comprised.

“He created six”? 

The Devarim-Beraishis Bridge Idea

The Chasam Sofer notes that the Torah’s last word, “Yisrael” and its first one, “Braishis,” share the letters aleph, shin, resh and yud… spelling ashrei.

Ashrei can be translated as “praiseworthy” or “fortunate.”  That latter meaning may be the key to the “bridge idea” connecting the end of the Torah and its beginning, which we seek to connect on Simchas Torah when we complete the yearly Torah-cycle and begin it anew.

Because central to the very idea of the Torah and the people to whom it was given is the need to recognize how truly fortunate we are – to have been granted existence and the opportunity to play a role in the Divine plan, to daily receive Hashem’s gifts of life and sustenance, to be part of Klal Yisrael. That recognition should inform every Jew’s world-view. 

And the joy that it yields should be front and center in our minds during z’man simchaseinu and Simchas Torah.

The Threesome Chain

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) quotes “a certain Galilean” as having said “Blessed is the Merciful One, Who gave a three-fold Torah [in the broad sense, Torah, Neviim and Ksuvim] to a three-fold nation [Cohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim] by means of a third-born [Moshe]  on the third day [of separation of men and women] in the third month [Sivan].”

The stress on threes concerning the giving of the Torah, it occurs to me, reflects the essence of mesorah itself, its transmittal. Just as the most elemental physical chain needs three links, so, too, the conceptual one. Each of us is a middle link; we must have received the mesorah and then transmitted it. And our recipients then become middle links themselves.

In parshas Haazinu, we read, similarly:  “Ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say to you” Devarim 32:7). The threesome chain again.

And, intriguingly, the word employed for the father’s telling is “viyagedcha”, from the root lihagid — which Rashi elsewhere (Shemos 19:3) says implies harshness; and for the grandfather’s telling, the word is viyomru – whose root, omer, Rashi (ibid) characterizes as a “soft” communication.

The Torah may mean to teach here that a father must be an authority figure, and his transmittal of the mesorah more demanding, while a grandfather’s guidance is to be, well, grandfatherly, imparted with a more gentle touch.

(c) 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Two Faces of BLM

Dear Subscriber,


“Black Lives Matter” is a phrase that can describe any of a number of groups or an amorphous social movement.  Is anti-Semitism pervasive in any of the groups or the movement itself?  Are there signs of a healthy response from black public personalities toward Jew-hatred in general?  My thoughts on the matter are here.

The Clock is Missing

Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar occuring at the new moon, beginning on a night when the moon isn’t visible at all. That fact is hinted at in the posuk “Tik’u bachodesh shofar bakeseh liyom chageinu” (“Sound the shofar on the New Moon, at the appointed time for the day of our festival”) — Tehillim 81:4. The word bakeseh, “at the appointed time,” can be read to mean “covered.”

The moon is, famously, a symbol of Klal Yisrael.  It receives its light from the sun, as we receive our enlightenment from Hashem; it wanes but waxes again, as we do throughout history; and it is the basis of our calendar.

Various ideas lie in the oddity of Rosh Hashanah being moonless.  One that occurred to me has to do with that latter connection, that the moon is our marker of time, our clock, so to speak.  When we repent of a sin, Chazal teach, the sin can be erased from our past — even, if our teshuvah is complete and sincere, turned into a merit!

And so, we are particularly able on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the ten days of teshuvah, to undermine time, to go back into the past and change it. 

What better symbol of that power than to remove our “clock” from the sky?

Ksiva vachasima tovah!

A Qonspiracy Grows

The United States has long provided fertile ground for all manner of cults and conspiracy theories.  QAnon is but the latest and, thanks to the internet and to the respectability bestowed on it by a number of candidates for public office, it has become alarmingly popular.

That popularity is a broad danger in itself.  But it should concern Jews in particular, as I note in my Ami Magazine column of last week, which you can read here.

Turning Pain to Gain

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) at the start of parshas Nitzavim sees in the parsha’s opening words, “You are standing today” the message that, despite the sins and travails of Klal Yisrael up to that point, and the klalos enumerated in parshas Ki Savo, the nation is still standing. Indeed, the Midrash continues, “the curses stand you up [ma’amidos eschem].” In other words, they strengthen you.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that physical systems naturally degenerate into more and more disordered states. 

Living systems, though, seem to act otherwise. A domeim, a non-living item like a rock or mineral, is indeed entirely subject to entropy. A tzomei’ach, though, a plant, which grows, less so. And an animal, a chai, even less so, as it can also move around to promote its wellbeing.

And a human is even more able to defend against entropy, manipulating his environment, using intelligence, tools and creativity to protect himself.

The highest rung on the hierarchy, according to sefarim, is Yisrael. Perhaps we are entropy-resistant, too, in a special way — in the ability to turn challenges that would naturally wear away other people, leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless, into not just perseverance but renewed strength. Haklalos ma’amidos eschem.

The Churbanos of the Batei Mikdash, for example, were followed with determined and successful Jewish renewal, as was the most recent churban, that of Jewish Europe. Parts of Klal Yisrael have returned to Eretz Yisrael, and Torah study and practice thrive throughout the world.

And in our personal lives, too, as Rav Dessler writes, our failings and fallings can, through our pain and teshuvah, become fuel for our determination to reach even greater heights. 

A timely thought during these waning days of Elul.