The Torah begins with the simplest yet most sublime concept imaginable: “In the beginning G-d created the Heavens and the earth”.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (commentary ad loc.) points out that had G-d merely formed the universe from pre-existing primordial raw material, then “He could only make the best possible out of that material, but not the absolute best world”. The world would thus have been fundamentally imperfect, and “G-d Himself could not save the world from either physical or moral evil”.
But such is not the case. As Rabbi Hirsch continues: “Everything existing has sprung from the completely free, all-mighty creative Will of G-d”.
This first verse of the Torah contains infinite allusions and connotations.
It is related that the Vilna Gaon, in a sermon he was delivering in his synagogue one Shabbat morning, said that since the entire Torah is a single, unified whole, every part of the Torah can be derived from everywhere in the Torah.
A man in his congregation challenged him on this (and just imagine the level of sheer chutzpah – challenging the Vilna Gaon in public!), asking how we can derive the mitzvah of pidyon ha-ben, the mitzvah to redeem the first-born son after he is 30 days old (Exodus 13:1, Numbers 3:44-48, 18:15; vide Rambam, Hilchot Bikkurim 11:17 and Shulchan Aruch, Yoré De’ah 305:11), from the first chapter of the Torah.
The Vilna Gaon immediately responded: the word בְּרֵאשִׁית is the acronym of בֶּן רִאשׁוֹן אַחֵרי שְׁלוֹשִׁים יוֹם תִּפְדֶּה, “the first son you shall redeem after thirty days”.
The word בְּרֵאשִׁית, “in the beginning”, the first word in the Torah, is laden with meaning.
Targum Onkelos translates directly into Aramaic, “בְּקַדְמִין, at the earliest [time], G-d created the Heavens and the earth”.
Targum Yonatan similarly translates, “מִן אַווְלָא, from the first, G-d created the Heavens and the earth”.
The Targum Yerushalmi allegorically renders, “בְּחוּכְמָא, in wisdom G-d created…”.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) offers several implications of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית:
The word בְּרֵאשִׁית is the acronym of בָּרָא רָקִיעַ, אֶרֶץ, שָׁמַיִם, יָם, תְּהוֹם, “He created firmament, earth, Heavens, sea, abyss” (following Chagigah 12a).
Also the acronym of בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה רָאָה אֱלֹקִים שֶׁיְּקַבְּלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל תּוֹרַתוֹ, “from the start, G-d saw that Israel would accept His Torah” (following Midrash Mey ha-Shiluach).
The letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית rearrange to form the words בֵּית רֹאשׁ, “the House of the Beginning”, or more idiomatically “the First House”, connoting the First Temple, based on the Prophet’s words, “the Throne of Glory, exalted from the very beginning, is the Place of our Temple” (Jeremiah 17:12).
The letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית also rearrange to form the words א' בְּתִשְׁרֵי, “the first of Tishrei”, the date of the Creation.
The letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית also rearrange to form the words בָּרָא שְׁתֵּי, “He created two”, because G-d created both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
The letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית also rearrange to form the words יָרֵא שַׁבָּת, “Fearer of the Sabbath” (following Tikkunei Zohar Introduction), indicating that all was created in the merit of Shabbat.
The letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית also rearrange to form the words בְּרִית אֵשׁ, “Covenant of Fire”, because in the merit of the Covenant of Circumcision, and in the merit of fire which is Torah, we are saved from the judgement of Gehinnom (approximately “hell”, the place of punishment after death) (following the Midrash, Tanchuma Yashan, Pekkudei 5).
And the letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית also rearrange to form the words בָּרָאתָ יֵשׁ, “You created Existence”; also connoting בָּרָאתָ י"ש, “You created three-hundred-and-ten”, because G-d created 310 worlds for every single tzaddik
(The gematria or numerical value of י"ש is 310: י =10, and ש =300.)
This final comment follows the very last Mishnah of all:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: In the future time, G-d will bequeath 310 worlds to every single tzaddik, as it says ‘I have existence to bequeath to those who love Me, and I will fill their store-houses’ (Proverbs 8:21)” (Uktzin 3:12).
The Hebrew phrase לְהַנְחִיל אֹהֲבַי יֵשׁ, which we have translated here “I have existence to bequeath to those who love Me”, is an unusual syntax, hence Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s interpretation that G-d will bequeath not יֵשׁ, “existence”, but י"ש, 310, denoting 310 worlds, to every single tzaddik.
And I suggest yet more acronyms:
The letters of the word בְּרֵאשִׁית also rearrange to form the words אֵשׁ רַבָּתִי, “great fire”, a reference both to the Torah itself and how it was given;
and רֹאשׁ בַּיִת, “Master of the House”, a reference to G-d;
and אִישׁ בָּתָר, “a man divided into two”, a reference to Adam, whom G-d originally created androgynous, male and female in one single body, until G-d separated the male from the female.
So the opening word of the Torah, בְּרֵאשִׁית, “in the beginning”, already encoded all of what was to come, the potential of everything which will ever be.
According to the Midrash, the whole future of Israel is already encoded in the Creation narrative: “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the earth; and the earth was void and empty, with darkness on the face of the abyss. And the Spirit of G-d was hovering over the face of the waters…”
The Midrash expounds:
“‘And the earth was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, void and empty’ – this alludes to the Babylonian exile, of which it is said ‘I saw the Land [of Israel] and it was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, void and empty’ (Jeremiah 4:23). וָבֹהוּ, ‘and empty’ alludes to the Persian/Median exile, in which it is written וַיַּבְהִלוּ, ‘and they hastened to bring Haman’ (Esther 6:14). ‘Darkness’ alludes to the Greek exile, which darkened Israel’s eyes with their decrees…. ‘On the face of the abyss’ refers to the exile of the evil kingdom (Rome) which is fathomless like the primæval abyss: just as the primæval abyss is bottomless, so too is their evil. ‘And the spirit of G-d was hovering’ alludes to the spirit of King Mashiach” (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4).
From those first moments of Creation, G-d already programmed the future of His nation Israel – its very existence, its various exiles, the persecutions it would face, and its ultimate redemption.
The Haftarah for Parashat Bereishit is abstracted from Isaiah 42:5-43:10.
The immediately apparent connexion between this Prophetic selection and the Torah-reading is the opening words: “Thus says the G-d, Hashem, Who created the Heavens and stretched them forth…”, echoing the Creation chapter; this is the connexion which many commentators cite.
But since the Creation chapter sets all existence on the course for Israel’s eventual redemption, it is supremely appropriate that the Haftarah be one of Isaiah’s magnificent, inspiring prophecies of our future majestic redemption, and how other nations will affect and be affected by it:
“Sing to Hashem a new song, His praise to the end of the earth, those who go down to the sea and all that fills it, islands and their inhabitants”.
The entire world will recognise Hashem, G-d of Israel, as Master over Creation when our time for redemption comes.
Then all mankind will recognise not just that G-d exists, not just that He created all that exists; they will all recognise and understand that G-d is directly, intimately concerned with human history.
This is the ultimate disproof of the heretical “watch-and-watchmaker” theory posited primarily by Spinoza. The idea that G-d indeed created the universe – after all, it is clearly too complex and too intricate to have come into being by blind chance – but that He created it in the way that a watchmaker builds a watch, winds it up, and then lets it run its course without further interference or concern.
The Prophet – and, indeed, history – militate against this heresy. G-d directly controls and directs all history, from Creation until the final redemption. Unlike the watchmaker who winds up the watch and then withdraws, G-d intervenes directly in history to guide the world to redemption.
And the Prophet brings us G-d’s words: “And now, thus says Hashem your Creator O Jacob, and your Fashioner, O Israel: Do not be afraid, because I have redeemed you; I have called [you] by your name, you are Mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
At a simple reading, this is the Prophet’s call of encouragement to all Israel: Even in darkest exile, never lose faith, never fear, because G-d will redeem you.
But I also suggest (I hope not too cynically) a deeper understanding: that this is the Prophet’s call to the most devout Jews at the time of redemption, the times we are living through in our generations:
אַל תִּירָא כִּי גְאַלְתִּיךָ says the Prophet, which we translated above “Do not be afraid, because I have redeemed you”. The Hebrew word כִּי is ambiguous: it could mean “because”, it could also mean “that”.
Hence I tentatively offer an alternative translation, “Do not be afraid that I redeem you”: Don’t be afraid of G-d’s redemption! Don’t be afraid of leaving the exile, as comfortable and as familiar as it is, and as unknown and unfamiliar the Land of Israel is.
From the very beginning, this was the redemption that was built into Creation. Rashi addresses this in his very first comment on the Torah.
He cites Rabbi Yitzchak (presumably his father), who noted an anomaly: since the Torah is primarily a Book of Commandments, it should have begun with the first national Commandment which G-d ever gave us, the Commandment to establish our national calendar. But we will not reach this Commandment until Exodus Chapter 12.
Why, then, did the Torah begin with “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the earth”?
– “So that if the nations of the world should say to Israel, You are robbers because you occupied the land of the seven [Canaanite] nations, they tell them: The entire world belongs to G-d, He created it, and gave it to whoever He sees fit. It was His will to give it to them, and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us”.
Our right to the Land of Israel, and our destiny to live in it in the time of the redemption, is embedded in the very fabric of the world from those first moments of Creation.
And the Prophet Isaiah, whose words we read in this Shabbat’s Haftarah, exhorts us to fulfil this destiny. Indeed, “do not be afraid that I redeem you!”. Do not be afraid of claiming your heritage, the Land of Israel.