Rabbi Brett Krichiver is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. He is a Rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This week we begin with a beginning. I’ve always found two particular things compelling about this most famous of all opening lines. According to the Masoretic tradition, we begin chanting this most holy of holy books with… a grammatical error. A vowel kamatz underneath the letter bet would translate as, “In the beginning,” but with a shva underneath, as it is traditionally read, it becomes difficult to translate. “In a beginning,” would be most accurate, or as Everett Fox suggests, “At the beginning of,” not only seems more correct, it also follows several medieval commentators.
The second word, bara, is a verb that means “create,” or “creating.” Put together with this first word, and we are left with some interesting interpretive moments. “When God began to create,” says the new JPS translation, and the RA’s Etz Hayim. Koren Publishers stick with, “In the Beginning,” while Fox continues, “At the beginning of God’s creating.”
There is a huge theological gulf between THE beginning, and creation’s beginning – because the latter assumes that something existed before creation. And why would the Masoretes leave us with such a sticky problem if not to say, “Doresh Oti – comment on me!!” What exactly existed before creation, and what should we make of this story if it does not include the very beginning of all things?
I am intrigued by this dilemma, but I am honestly more interested in the questions posed than the answers. (Rashi has an interesting answer if you want to take a look –http://www.tachash.org/metsudah/b01r.html#ch01) What does it tell us about our heritage that the Masoretes chose to preserve these powerful lessons in the form of a grammatical error? The text really doesn’t make sense on the p’shat/ literal level. For those who ascribe the “blame” for this error on some poor scribe whose ink dried a kamatz into a shva – this question is even more powerful – what does it tell us about our heritage that we’ve preserved a scribal error for so many generations?
I choose the spiritual path – I love the idea that my tradition gives me a grammar lesson in the very first, and most famous word of Torah. I believe that the Masoretes knew what they were doing when they copied a shva into their books instead of a kamatz, or a patah. I find the Torah to be the ultimate pedagogical model – it works for every student at every level. “In the beginning” works for a time. And then we begin to notice the grammar, and doorways open to new meanings.
And still, my fascination lies with the questions, and not the answers. When I acknowledge the error, the brokenness of the text, shouldn’t I feel some small shame? Some moment of, “oops, looks like the scribe missed that one!” But instead we hold this Torah high and proclaim, “V’zot HaTorah” – this is the Torah that Moses placed before the people of Israel, with its hidden meanings and strange upside down letters and mystical crowns and white fire supporting black. We embrace the error, as if to say that errors make the text more interesting, more rich and worthy of pursuit.
This is what fascinates me about Judaism– we are no more interested in a perfect text than we are in perfect people. We acknowledge the warts, the darker side, the black threads woven into the colorful threads that make the patterns come alive.
Which brings me to my second fascination of this text. If it were a perfect text, obviously it would start with the first letter, the aleph. And there are beautiful interpretations about why the Torah does not. I love that this text begins with a Bet, and not only because of the connections to be made to the Jewish heart – the Lev – that is formed when the Torah is completed and opened again.
The Bet tells me that we should not be pursuing perfection in writing or reading Torah, but rather a deep engagement with our imperfect text. Torah study is a long committed relationship with a passionate lover – we get to know one another’s imperfections, and those secrets actually strengthen the love we feel. Chazak chazak, v’nitchazek.