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Parashat B’reishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

“The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:9)

Parashat B’reishit describes the creation of the world. The foundation stone of the entire Jewish interpretive tradition is found within that description.

An omnipotent God could create the world in any number of ways: with a mere thought or through a specific movement. But God chooses to create through language: “God said, vayehi or, let there be light. Vayehi or, And there was light” (Gen. 1:3). Linguists call this type of speech act a performative: the results cannot be separated from the language; language itself creates. Because the first words are God’s, language is imbued with sanctity.

Since it is impossible to comprehend God (otherness is, after all, the essence of k’dusha, usually translated as holiness or sanctity), it also is impossible to assign a definite meaning to any of God’s utterances. This is the bedrock upon which the Jewish tradition of textual interpretation is built: God’s words are infinitely transcendent and humanity’s ability to discern their intentions is – and always will be – finite and limited.

That is why commentators can read the same Biblical text and come up with completely divergent interpretations. So when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone…” (Gen 2:18) the Babylonian Talmud says it refers the need for help in managing the practical difficulties of living (Yevamot 63a). Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator), however, reads the verse theologically: if God is alone in the heavens, it is not good for man to be alone on earth, lest he be thought a God, too. Both readings are true; but they are just two truths among many.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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