The Torah and Its Clearly Ambiguous Message

Robbie Harris
Bereishit | Simhat Torah By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Oct 17, 2009 / 5770 | Torah Commentary

(Or: “In the Beginning, There Were . . . Commentaries!”)

(Full disclosure: these thoughts are taken from a book I am in the process of writing, tentatively entitled Unfolding the Text).

There is a verse that I love to invoke whenever I teach about “the poetics of biblical narrative,” and it doesn’t come from this week’s portion (but who’s keeping score, anyway?). Instead, it is found in the first extended legal section, Parashat Mishpatim (Exod. 21–24). Loosely translated, this is the text: “In all charges of misunderstanding . . . whereof one party alleges, ‘This is it!’—the case of both parties shall come before God” (Exod. 22:8); the Hebrew phrase underlying the words “this is it!” is: כי הוא זה (ki hu zeh). The verse seems to be addressing a case in which no one side has a total claim on the truth; in such a case, then, one is bidden to consider both possibilities.

The reason that I like this verse is that I think it expresses the essential nature of biblical composition: the rule is not that one can discover “the” meaning of Scripture. Rather, the rule is that the Bible is always (oh, all right, “almost always”) delightfully ambiguous, and one’s job as a reader is to determine the range of potentially reasonable interpretations, or “meanings” of Scripture. I could give you dozens of perfectly fine examples of this rule, but—thankfully—I will not.

However, one case should suffice for now and, yes, let’s take it from this week’s parashah, B’reishit. Heck, let’s take it from the very first verse of the portion, and as long as we’re at it, let’s begin with the very first word, b’reishit:

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ: וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם: וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי-אוֹר:

As you see, I have not translated the text; this is deliberate, because I think most of us can at least, for now, conjure up the beginning of the Torah in our mind’s eye (the text is Genesis 1:1–3, if you’re scoring at home). Most of us remember the translation of the famous King James Bible, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” This translation finds its root in the Greek and Latin rendering of the verse (the Latin is in principio creavit Deus caelum et terram), and also, as it happens, the thirteenth-century commentary of Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak). This is, in my humble opinion, a perfectly reasonable understanding. But is it, in fact, the best or even the only possible interpretation? I think not! (Descartes said that once, and disappeared! Ahem.) 

Let us turn instead to the commentary of Rashi (R. Shelomo Yitzhaki):

B’reishit bara: This text says nothing other than “explain me”! This is as our Rabbis have taught: For the sake of the Torah, which is called the beginning of his way (Prov. 8:22); and for the sake of Israel, which is called the first of his produce (Jer. 2:3).

Now, that made it all clear, no?

Well, of course, not. What we need to do is to “unpack” Rashi. As the question popularized by the late Nehama Leibowitz would put it, “Mah kasheh le Rashi?” Literally, this question asks “what is difficult for Rashi?” but a more expansive way of understanding it is, “what is the difficulty that Rashi perceives to be at play in the biblical text, and that prompts his comment?”

In the case of Genesis 1:1, the difficulty lies in the way the first two words of the Torah (b’reishitand bara) interact: if, as seems likely, the word b’reishit means not “in the beginning” but “in the beginning of ” (construct case, or semikhut, for all you lovers of Hebrew grammar out there in TV land), then it seems strange that it comes right before the second word, bara, which seems to mean “(He) created” (i.e., a conjugated verb in the past tense). This would yield a literal translation of “In the beginning of . . . (He) created, God (did)”—hardly sounding like the classic we all think it is! In fact, were we to have written a high-school essay in this way, our teacher would likely have circled the whole thing in red ink and made us rewrite it!

So, Rashi says, as it were, “since I see this apparently unsolvable grammatical problem, I am going to use the tools of midrash to help explain it for me” (his words “This text says nothing other than ‘explain me’!” employ the Hebrew expression darsheni, in which one can see the same root asmidrash). First, the (relatively) easy part: look at the letter bet at the beginning of the wordb’reishit. Usually, this letter means in or with something; however, here, Rashi claims (with some justification) that it should be understood according to one of its lesser-known meanings, for the sake of something. Perfectly legitimate, and now let us move on to the harder part. As we continue to “unpack” Rashi, he sends us to Proverbs 8:22, where the word reishit refers to something God created “at the beginning of His way.” In Proverbs, this generally is taken to be the concept ofhokhmah, or “wisdom”: God created wisdom at the beginning of God’s own way. However, for the Rabbis, ain hokhmah elah Torah, “Wisdom means nothing other than Torah.” Thus, in a rabbinic tautology (it is one, because they taught it!) (ouch), “Reishit=wisdom=Torah.” Since the methodology of midrash permits him to do so, Rashi then takes this last value, and “plugs” it back into the Creation narrative: b’reishit, “for the sake of reishit,” that is, “for the sake of the Torah, God created the heavens and the earth.” Now, that is a translation that you are never likely to see in an English translation of the Torah, but it is, in fact, Rashi’s “first” resolution of the grammatical problem. Creative, no? I won’t go into as much detail in explaining Rashi’s second midrashic solution, but suffice it to say that Rashi sends us to the word reishit in Jeremiah 2:3, and derives from its use there that is is midrashically equivalent to the word “Israel”; Rashi then plugs this interpretation back into Genesis, and it yields the translation: “for the sake of Israel, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Thus, Rashi has given us two (similar) ways of resolving the grammatical problem of which we have been made aware: the word b’reishit means neither “In the beginning” nor “In the beginning of” but rather “for the sake of Torah/Israel, (God created the heavens and the earth)”—and what a brilliant and morale–building rabbinic lesson that is!

But this exercise is, after all, an occasion for creative midrash; it is pointedly not the process that we normally associate with what we call reading (in fact, Rashi’s commentaries were one of the most important components in developing that thing we call reading, but, well, more on that another time!). When we read, we normally include such considerations as “what do words ‘normally’ mean in the language that I am reading?”; and “what is the context of the text that I am reading?” This word context is one of the ways to understand the Hebrew word peshat, often translated as “plain meaning,” and for our present purposes peshat can be considered the opposite of the word derash. Since he has already given us a midrashic interpretation, Rashi, as he sometimes does, gives also a “plain meaning” (peshat) interpretation of the beginning of Genesis:

If you wished to explain this passage according to its plain meaning, this is how you should explain it: “In the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth—and the earth was howling waste, and darkness [was on the face of the deep] . . . —then God said, “Let there be light!” And Scripture does not come to teach the order of creation, saying that these came first. For if it had come to teach this, it would have said, “In the beginning [בראשונה] (ba-rishonah) God created the heavens and the earth.” For there is no instance of the word ראשית (reishit) anywhere in Scripture that is not juxtaposed to the word that follows it, as in the beginning (reishit) of the reign of Jehoiakim (Jer. 26:1); the beginning of his kingdom (Gen. 10:10); the first of your produce (Deut. 18:4). Here, too you should understand b’reishit bara Elohim as “in the beginning of God’s creating (b’ro) . . .”

So, Rashi says, when we wish to read the Torah contextually, we should acknowledge that the word b’reishit should be considered as in construct relationship with the following word, bara—or more simply put, the two words together do mean “in the beginning of God’s creating . . .” Of course, that is not a sentence, it is just the beginning (sorry!) of a sentence. The “real” first sentence of the Torah does not occur until one reaches verse 3: “God said, ‘Let there be light’”—everything that comes before this (Genesis 1:1–2) is a series of subordinate clauses (dare I say it? Santa’s little helpers!). Now, that sentence would definitely be one to which our high–school English teachers would object. But that is, in fact, how the New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible renders it, as a long, run-on sentence:

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Go pick up a copy of Etz Hayyim, the Torah most of our congregations use for services—this is precisely how we now are led to understand the passage.

But what are the implications of what we have just learned? They are, I believe, profound. The main point is this: because of the grammatical problem identified by Rashi (and others), we can see that the Torah essentially begins with a sentence that is ambiguous. Or put differently, the Torah begins with a text that requires our involvement and intervention in order to achieve some meaning. And we can only achieve some meaning by controlling the text through some active participation (in Rashi’s case, he did so either by “changing” the word b’reishit (by substituting new values) or the verb bara (by rereading it as a gerund or infinitive). God’s Torah requires human involvement in order to achieve its meaning—it is incomplete without the participation of humankind.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.