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September 24, 2010  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Famous first lines in literature

RABBI ED ROSENTHAL Executive Director, Hillels of the Florida Suncoast
• “It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times….” • “Call me Ishmael….” • “Long, long ago in a galaxy

far, far away.… “

There are only a few pieces of literature that can be clearly identifi ed by the first line of the text.

The most famous of them all however, and unquestionable read by more people, in more languages, over the longest period of time is from this week’s Torah portion: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

With these words, the very first line of the Torah, the Jewish people changed the world forever. With these words we presented the radical concept (radical 3,300 years ago anyway) that there is only One God who created heaven and earth and everything in it. The first chapter of Genesis which speaks about the creation of the world is beautiful in its poetic simplicity and yet profound in its concept.

Of course there are those who read it literally: In six days God created heaven and earth and everything in it and rested on the seventh day. Incidentally, the literal reading of the text also says that this took place 5,771 years ago (which presents a problem since I saw Jurassic Park!). Judaism however, is not a literalistic tradition.

Of course some things are taken literally (Don’t murder - Don’t steal - Honor your father and mother, Love your neighbor as yourself etc.), but our understanding of the nature of Torah allows us to read the text on multiple levels. There are far too many teachings about the first chapter of Genesis to even scratch the surface in this short space, but one in particular which has always spoken to me is the idea that this chapter is the model of the Messianic Age.

The first chapter of Genesis says that God created everything, and everything has its place in creation. There was complete and total harmony in nature and amongst the two human beings that were created together, male and female — both created equal. Human beings were given superiority over the rest of creation, as well as responsibility for the care and maintenance of the natural world. The text explicitly states that all creatures were given produce of the field and fruit of the trees for food. There was no killing or bloodshed. This was the Garden of Eden, and is the model for the Messianic Age.

Yet when we look at the world today we see 33 wars waging around the globe. We see genocide in Darfur. We see human trafficking and slavery on almost every continent. We see so much suffering in our world that it’s hard to envision the Messianic Age.

Yet, another reason we read this passage every year is to refresh our memories as to what God created, and to remind us that it is we humans who destroyed God’s perfection.

But we must never forget that in addition to the belief in One God, the Torah gave to the world the concept of social justice (another radical concept 3,300 years ago). The Torah tells us what to do and what is expected of us. The sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now - when?”

So as once again we begin anew the cycle of reading the Torah from the beginning at this season of renewal, we should all take some time to ask ourselves: What am I doing to make the world a better place? What am I doing to help end war and bloodshed? What am I doing to help end the pain and suffering we see around us? And if not now -- When?

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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