Torah Thoughts on Parashat Bereshit 5781
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we begin anew the annual reading of the Torah. The first parasha of the Torah is Bereshit, which is also the name of the first book of the Torah, Genesis.
In the first chapter of the Torah the creation of the world is described. The Torah tells us the different things God created in each day of the week, namely light, the firmament, the dry ground and plants, the sun, the moon and the stars, the birds and the sea animals, the land animals and human beings. Finally, on the seventh day, the Shabbat, God rested from creating the world.
The Torah does not provide many details about each stage of the creation, nor about the nature of each thing that was created. Rabbis, sages, and commentators in all generations have tried to fill in the gaps. Let’s see a very simple example.
In the third day of creation, “God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:11). In the original Hebrew text, the expression “let the earth sprout vegetation” is written as תַּֽדְשֵׁ֤א הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ דֶּ֔שֶׁא, “tadshe haaretz deshe.” The word “deshe,” which is translated here (I am using the JPS translation) as “vegetation,” literally means grass or lawn. The famous Vilna Gaon (Sialiec, 1720 – Vilnius 1797), a Talmudist, halakhist, kabbalist, and the foremost leader of mitnagdic (non-hasidic) Jewry of the past few centuries) explained that the letters that make up the word in Hebrew deshe are in fact initials for three other Hebrew words, din, shalom and emet, justice, peace, and truth. Actually, always according to the Vilna Gaon, these three letters hint at a Mishna that we find in Pirkei Avot (1:18): “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth, and on peace, as it is said: ‘execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates’” (Zechariah 8:16).
This is a beautiful Mishna that states that the world stands on the basis of the good and fair relationships among human beings. The world needs a fair justice system, peace between people and nations, and relations based on truth. When we link this Mishna with the verse in Genesis about the sprouting of the vegetation, the verse acquires a completely new meaning. The verse now is not only about grass, plants, and trees growing on the earth, but about the need for the world to “sprout” justice, peace, and truth all around it. Furthermore, we learn that we shouldn’t wait for justice, peace, and truth to come miraculously from heaven, from top to bottom. They should come from the earth, from humanity, from bottom to top. In addition, creation is not only about nature, about matter. During the creation God planted the seeds for a better world but left them for us to finish the job.
Indeed, new worlds are born from new approaches to the same text. Grass can certainly be much more than only grass!