Creation and Good Health

Bereishit | Simhat Torah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 22, 2011 / 5772

With this week’s celebration of Simhat Torah and Shabbat Bereishit, we return to the very beginning of Torah as we read anew the narratives of Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the tragedy of Cain and Abel. Not surprisingly, the book of Genesis opens in philological complexity. Much ink has been spilled in attempting to understand the unusual grammatical construct of “bereishit bara Elohim.” Though these words are typically translated as “In the beginning God created,” translators have wrestled with numerous other options. Rashi explains the problem succinctly: namely, that bereishit is a construct state and, therefore, another noun in the Hebrew should follow. It seems that a word has been omitted and rather than a noun, we have a verb (bara) in its place. Moreover, the word bara also sparks a plethora of commentary. As Nahum Sarna notes, “The Hebrew stem b-r-‘ is used in the Bible exclusively of divine creativity” and as such “it must be essentially distinct from human creation” (JPS Bible Commentary: Genesis, 5). How else may we understand and mine the depths of this unique verb that begins all of Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that cognate roots of b-r-‘ (bara) found in Hebrew all suggest the meaning of “striving to get out.” He continues that the “underlying conception of b-r-‘ is that of bringing something out into the open; in Chaldean [i.e. Aramaic], too, b-r-‘ means ‘outside’ . . . It is creating something purely out of one’s mind and will and out of nothing else . . . The whole world is accordingly nothing but a materialized thought of God. The use of b-r-‘ to designate plump, corpulent, and healthy also comes from this meaning of the root of becoming visible, concrete, tangible . . . ” (Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, 3).

The image Hirsch suggests in describing the divine act of Creation involves the freeing of potential—the releasing of that which hitherto had been constrained. His explanation dovetails well with the balance of the Creation narrative, which, far from suggesting that God creates ex nihilo, seems rather to allude to a very different portrait. God works with the building blocks of Creation—bringing things out into the open, employing powers of revelation as well as imposing order on the primordial chaos that exists. One need look no further than the leitvort (the word that repeats itself) in the Creation narrative: va’yavdil (“and God separated”). The essential act of creation then involves both liberation and separation.

Rabbi Jack Riemer, a dear colleague whom I had the privilege of learning from during my years of teaching in Boca Raton, Florida, opened my eyes anew to a fresh understanding of b-r-‘. He explained that it is not surprising that the Hebrew word for being healthy, bari, or health, bri’ut, comes from the same root as b-r-‘ (“to create”). To be a healthy human being, Rabbi Riemer explained to me, in itself means that one must be a creative person. Creation and good health are intimately linked one to another. And, of course, as we celebrate Creation this week, my thoughts and prayers necessarily wander to the release of Gilad Shalit. I rejoice, wholly and fully, in his freedom. May his liberation speedily return him to health and creativity. And may this coming year continue to be a time of freedom, innovation, and good health.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.