This week’s Torah portion is Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8.
Bereshit bara elohim: In the beginning God created. The words seem simple enough, but the sages took them apart grammatically, noting in the midrash that in Hebrew, the initial letter of Bereshit — “in” can also mean “with.” What is this “reshit” with which the world was created, they ask. They answer citing psalms, “The beginning (rosh — same root as resheit) of Your word is truth, and Your just law is eternal” (Psalms 119:160). From the beginning of the creation of the world, “the beginning of Your word is truth.”
Why would the rabbis be so concerned that the first word of the Torah emphasize that the world was created by means of truth and justice?
The sages observed the patterns of the stories of the Torah: The younger usurps the place of the elder in one generation and then the next; Noah floats in an ark to restart the world, and then the same word for float — “teva” — appears again in Exodus, as the infant Moshe floats down the Nile to an uncertain safety and the beginning of the path to redemption from Egypt; the bricks that were baked to build the tower of Babel are described the same way as the bricks baked to build the works of Pharoah; cycles repeat themselves within each book, and come around to portray themes repeating themselves on a more grand scale crossing from one book to the next.
The way we begin is how we go on, and as the Torah begins with truth and justice, as the world began with truth and justice, we are charged with maintaining our beginnings with truth and justice as well, so that we may continue as we have begun. Just as beginnings cycle around in the Torah, they also do in our lives.
Judaism believes in teshuvah — repentance. And so the beginning of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah, is not merely a turning over of the clock and a replacement of the page of the calendar — it is Yom Din, a day of judgment. The clock cannot be started again until the past has been weighed. And then we must pass through Yom Kippur and repentance for that which has been judged.
The calendar cannot be changed until we have weighed ourselves truthfully and apologized for, made restitution for, and made sure not to repeat the errors of the past. Not until after that is it possible to start the story fresh at the beginning.
It is possible to retell the old story: the story of Moshe is the repetition of the cycle of Noah, in which the tradition’s criticism of Noah — that he didn’t plead for the people, and so saved only his own family — is elevated to a higher level. But in the world, that can only happen when truth and righteousness in ourselves, in our leaders, in our homes and our courts and our nations, is where we begin — or at least, begin again.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is managing editor of Jewschool.com.