We have spent the last weeks pursuing new beginnings. We have tried to repair old wrongs and move on from them, we have identified habits and relationships that we want to renew or begin anew. Now we come to the new beginning of the Torah — Genesis, the first portion of the first book.
In Hebrew, the Torah begins with the words “bereshit,” “in the beginning.” There is much speculation in the Jewish tradition about why the Torah begins as it does.
For instance, why does it begin with the letter bet, the second letter of the alphabet, rather than alef, the first letter? The Midrash Genesis Rabbah has one answer to this question: “Why was the world created with a bet? Just as the bet is closed at the sides, but open in front, so you are not permitted to talk about what is above, what is below, what is before and what is behind. We can only talk about things from the day of the creation of the world and onward.”
This Midrash uses the actual picture of the letter bet to make its point. Remembering that we read Hebrew from right to left, if you look at the bet, you will see that it is closed on the top, bottom, and right side, but the side that is facing left — toward the rest of the Torah text, is open. The interpretation of this visual affect is that one is moving forward with the words of the Torah.
This beginning is not one that looks over its shoulder. In fact, we don’t even have permission to spend time speculating on what came before. For the rabbis of the Midrash, this meant not ruminating too much over matters that will ultimately remain unknown — what may have come before creation, and the nature of the divine world above and below.
Yet many of us have studied just such conversations in the text. As Melila Hellner-Eshed, my Zohar teacher in Jerusalem put it, we are not here to speculate on these matters that ultimately can’t be known — but not having permission is not the same as something being prohibited. If it is right for you, you can talk about these things. The mystics of the Zohar talk about nothing but them.
When we pledge to begin something new, or even to begin the same thing again but with the intention of doing it better, we also feel the tension between the forward and backward stance. We want to put all our efforts into what is to come — too much time dissecting or replaying the past takes energy away from the present beginning.
At the same time, we want to learn from our mistakes and build on the foundation of our experience. Seeing connection to what we have done before in life gives us confidence that we are moving forward in the right direction. The bet is open to the future, but the closed lines to the past are permeable. We are influenced by all sides.
As we plunge once again into the cycle of Torah readings, we actively take from the past and move forward into our futures. Once again in this portion we read the stories of creation, of Adam and Eve, and of Cain and Abel. The whole Torah is familiar to us from years past.
But the direction of the bet’s opening reminds us to infuse them with new meaning each year, reading them in light of our present circumstances. This act of creation on our part brings us into the conversation of the mystics, engaging us in the mystery of creation and what dwells beyond us.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.