Words, words words – Devarim is full of them: eloquent, beautifully crafted words uttered by the man who protested to God over forty years before, as the burning bush burned and didn’t burn away, that he had no way with them, that he was an inarticulate stutterer. Now, back once more in Bereshit, where it all begins, God creates the world with words. What language did he use to do this? Did he speak in Hebrew, or in a language unknown to us? Was it in a thunderous voice, or in a small, still one, or with no voice at all, no letters, in a language and a voice as unfathomable as is God Himself? Certainly, the language as it appears to us at the beginning of the Torah is as remarkable for its simple grand majesty as it is for what it doesn’t say, at least what is doesn’t say if we are not listening. We are told over and over to listen, to hearken, to hear the voice of God. God rewards Abraham because he listened to His voice. Israel will realise this reward if it, too, listens. Given this repeated emphasis on listening, surely we must refer back to the beginning and listen there. What is said and what is unsaid? The Creation is described with broad sweeps of the brush. There are few details, shades or nuances. The firmament separated the waters below from those above (perhaps they sky separating the earth from the cosmos). The sea is separated from the land. The sun and the moon come into being, animals on the land, fish in the sea and birds in the sky, trees and plants and, of course, man and woman. Yet there is no mention of tides or waves, hibiscus or daisies, eagles or sparrows, whales or minnows. We don’t even know what colour the first man and woman were. What sort of eyes and hair did they have?
While some of these questions have no answer, many others are completed through our lived knowledge of the world. We cannot know in any detail what the Garden of Eden looked like, but we know the tides and the waves and, generally, how the world looks, sounds, feels and smells. Genesis is not a blueprint or scientific treatise. It is the metaphorical evocation of whatever actually happened, whatever process brought the universe into being and how. And it is just as grand. “Just as?” you might protest in indignation. Surely, the theory of the big bang is nowhere as grand as the story of Genesis. Well, in a way it is. The idea of the universe being created from a seemingly nothing is pretty amazing, pretty grand in its own right, if you think about it, pretty incredible, too. Besides, whatever scientific theory is advanced and then developed to explain the creation of the universe, it is also a sort of metaphor. We will never fully understand exactly how it happened. Our brains are not capable of really conceiving of what there was before either. As God asks Job many (how many?) years after the Creation,
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
“Have the gates of death been revealed to you?
Or have you seen the doors of the shadow of death?
“Who has put wisdom in the mind?
Or who has given understanding to the heart?”
What wisdom and understanding we have achieved should teach us to listen to the miracle of life, the coming into being of our fragile earth and of ourselves, born with the ability to choose good or evil. We now know how vital it is for us to chose good. Otherwise, the Garden of Eden and the world itself will most certainly die.
This year, Genesis promises to be special, as Pat Lipert launches the new Torah cycle on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.