Parashat Bereshit: In the Beginning
Rabbi Carl M. Perkins, an alumnus of the first class of Wexner Graduate Fellows, is spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah in Needham, MA and an instructor in rabbinics at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He can be reached at email@example.com
“In the beginning….” That’s where it all begins.
One year ago, our congregation gathered with a sofer (scribe) to begin writing a sefer torah (Torah scroll). I had never experienced anything like it, and I may never experience such a thing ever again. The scribe calmly taped down onto his writing table a blank piece of parchment on which he had scored vertical and horizontal lines to mark the borders of the first few columns he was going to write. After closing his eyes and reciting a kavvanah (statement of intention) declaring that he was about to write for the sake of the holiness of the Torah, he bent over and touched the parchment with the tip of his quill. The room was silent and still. The scribe may not have been sweating, but I was. A faint scratching sound could be heard. Finally, the scribe straightened up, and audibly exhaled. I was able to catch a glimpse of that first letter, the letter bet (ב). I was shocked and perplexed. It looked so small! It was like a tiny ink stain on a vast, white surface. I knew that the first letter of the Torah is supposed to be larger than the other letters, so momentarily I wondered whether the scribe had incorrectly sized it. Did he know what he was doing? But it was only an optical illusion. After writing five more letters — the letters resh (ר), aleph (א), shin (ש), yod (י) and tav (ת) — suddenly a word, the first word of the Torah, the word bereishit (“In the beginning …”) came into being, and the initial letter looked perfectly appropriate, perfectly proportional.
Beginnings are difficult. All beginnings are difficult. They require trust and commitment – even daring. One can be beset by insecurity. No wonder that, according to tradition, God felt the need for consultation before creating the universe – and certainly before creating humanity. And yet, when there is knowledge and purpose and vision, it’s all worth it.
With another dip of the quill, our scribe continued. Before too long, the first line of text was complete. Then a second line. Most of the congregation drifted away to sing, eat and shmooze, but the scribe continued methodically to write. Eventually, he completed the first column. For the second time, I was shocked. That previously blank parchment was now the first column of text in our new sefer torah. That piece of parchment could have been discarded. It could have had any number of things written on it. It was now a piece of a holy-scroll-coming-into-being.
A sefer torah is (only) a physical object. It is created out of raw materials: parchment, ink, etc. But watching our scribe at work, I felt myself in touch with the remarkably revolutionary impact of the Torah, and what it meant for it to come into being. There’s a midrash (legend) about the eternity of the Torah: how it always existed, even long before the creation of the world. Much more powerful for me is the notion that, in response to a need, a need for guidance, direction, and insight, the Torah came into being. That need is still felt today. The world is as confusing as ever. We want to know where we came from and where we are going. We want to know how our ancestors confronted challenges so we can learn from their experience. We want the feelings of belonging and purpose that come from claiming the Torah as our own. In appreciation, we express our love for the Torah’s wisdom each and every time a sefer torah is taken out of the ark. We stand reverently, and we lean forward, with love, to touch it and to kiss it.
Now, as Simchat Torah is approaching, we will experience another beginning. We will soon have the first opportunity to read that very first word “bereishit” (“בראשית”; “In the beginning …”) from our new sefer torah. Now it is no longer a solitary word on an otherwise blank piece of parchment, nor the first word of a line or even of a column, but it is the opening of the first part of what is now a holy scroll. As we begin to read from the beginning of our new scroll, I hope we will remember the commitment that led us to decide to bring it into being and the awe we experienced as it began to be written. I hope we will continue to feel love toward it and toward its message. Most of all, I hope we will remain deserving of its presence among us.