I’ve decided to start a sort of “Torah Study” regular entry. Every Saturday (or close to it) I’ll sit down and read the Torah portion, or Parsha, for that week in the original Hebrew with the aid of a dictionary. Afterward, I’ll write down my thoughts. Some weeks may have more than others. I will try to remember to tag and categorize them all properly so that it’s easy to see them all if that’s of interest. Please remember: I’m no rabbi or religious authority. These are my thoughts, based on my readings.
For my readers who may not be familiar with it, I use the term Hashem here as a stand-in for “God.” Literally, Hashem means “the name.” In Judaism there’s a loosely (depending on your denomination I suppose; orthodox folks hold it in much higher regard than I do) held belief that it is impossible for us to know, let alone pronounce, the true “name of God” and to try is a sort of sacrilege. Anyone remember the third commandment? Likewise, in prayer we use the moniker “Adonai,” or “my lord,” as a stand-in for parts that display yud-hay-vav-hay (יהוה), which is the present masculine form of the verb “to be” (there is no neutral form in Hebrew). Many Christians will recognize the anglicized pronunciation of this word (“Yahweh” or “Jehova”) as “the God Jews worship!”, however, as I’ve been told by multiple rabbis it is less of a name for Hashem and more of a callback to when Hashem met Moses and said “I am that which I am.” That said, because this was the layperson’s (non-clergy-member) “name of god” we don’t use it nowadays out of respect, though there were instances that suggest that Hashem didn’t bar ALL use of this moniker with the third commandment, just “incorrect” use. This theological background is also part of why modern Hebrew simply doesn’t use the present form of the verb “to be” and instead implies it in conversation.
I will also use singular They pronouns. I’m queer. Get used to it.
Without any further ado:
Bereshit – בראשית
This week’s Torah portion is the very first, bereshit “in the beginning.” Almost everyone I’ve ever met knows the story. In the beginning, there was nothing and Hashem set out to create, well, everything. They did so in six days, accomplishing specific tasks, and on the seventh day rested because They’d finished the scope of the work that they set out to complete. Finally, they consecrated the seventh day as a day of rest forevermore.
Well. That retelling is sweet, but I found what were some surprising differences from the side-by-side English translation I used after reading it in the original Hebrew.
There’s a really interesting lack of context for the beginning of existence. Perhaps this is because it’s literally “unknowable,” in the sense that we cannot comprehend it. The portion literally starts “in the beginning Hashem created the heavens and the earth.” There is no mention of nothingness, no mention of Hashem’s creation, and it is heavily implied that Hashem was creating these things from something that we can’t understand, and that the earth already existed. Literally “the earth was formless and empty.” What’s even more interesting to me: the passage suggests (1:2) that Hashem created darkness first and foremost; “Hashem blew darkness over the deep and it hovered over the water.”
This idea, that Hashem first created darkness is revolutionary to me. It makes my heart sing! It puts into context so many things; perhaps this is part of why Judaism uses a lunar calendar (in addition to the moon cycles being easier to track), perhaps this is why I feel like night-time calls to me and I am often moved to go outside and simply stare at the stars?
The next line is the famous “Hashem said let there be light!” What’s curious is that Hashem sees that the light is good, but does not give such consideration to the darkness They’ve also created. The obvious binary assumption, that the darkness must then be bad, is too obvious to me; if the darkness were bad why would Hashem have chosen to create it?
We have to make a theological choice here: whether we believe that Hashem can make mistakes and cannot undo them (in which case, was the darkness a failure?), or that Hashem purposefully chose to create something that is not good and also chose to let it survive. There are also other possibilities, like that the darkness existed already, in which case, who created the darkness? And since it came from Hashem, do They consist of that darkness?
In any case, Hashem then separates the light from the darkness, which implies that they were somehow simultaneously existing in the same space. They then declare the light to be day, and the darkness to be night.
At the end of each day, the Torah states “and there was evening and there was morning, day [number]” as a sort of way to count the days. Interestingly, it’s not until the fourth day that Hashem creates the sun and moon and declares them to track the length of a day and the year. This begs the question of whether or not a “day” means the same thing to an extra-cosmic entity that it does to us. How did Hashem know the length of a “day” before They, well, created what keeps track of that length?
In the next few sections, Hashem creates the sky. I actually got a bit confused here so had to consult the English translation and a few commentaries for a few verses; essentially before the sky the “heavens and earth” (the concepts) were just a bunch of water. All mishmashed together and hanging out. Hashem creates the sky by having it rise out to sit on top of the lower waters (earth), and beneath the higher waters (heavens). What the Torah calls the sky is a “firmament” or “expanse.” It is a physical manifestation of the separation of the Heavens and the Earth.
Cool, huh? Heaven’s a giant ocean.
On the third day, Hashem creates dry land by gathering up the oceans into one place. THIS IS SO WEIRD because it suggests that this land existed before Hashem began the business of creation. This goes back to what I was talking about before; Hashem created existence from something not nothing which has tremendous implications theologically. This suggests before Hashem there was another creator-entity, if we truly believe that existence was created. This is also where Hashem names the land Earth (despite the book using the term for the nine verses before it), and the gathering of waters Sea.
After this Hashem takes a few verses to create plants and (specifically fruit-bearing) trees and finally ends Their third day.
On the FOURTH day Hashem creates the Sun and the Moon. They actually say “let there be lights in the sky,” to divide day from night and serve as signs of the length of a day and the year. The next verse (1:15) says, also, that they’ll serve as lights to illuminate the Earth. Then later (1:18) it suggests that these lights will separate light from darkness. This seems curious to me, but I’m still thinking about it.
I have a problem with the fifth and sixth days.
Y’all. Y’ALL. WHY. DOES. THE. TORAH. DESCRIBE. ANIMALS. AS. “the creeping things that creep on the earth” WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY. And for some reason these are distinct from cattle?
I feel like I’m going to have nightmares. Also, apparently Hashem created “winged creatures” before They created things that walk on the earth. And the leviathan before They created the rest of the sea creatures.
Also, why the hell did Hashem create a fucking dragon first? They were like “Hmm, I guess I should create moving life to join all the trees and plants. I know! A FUCKING SEA SERPENT.”
So to be clear, on day five Hashem created the leviathan, all of the sea creatures, and birds. On the sixth day, They started with ALL OF THE CREEPING THINGS THAT CREEP ON THE EARTH. And cattle.
Then apparently it was time to ruin everything by creating humankind.
THIS part is super interesting too. Wanna know why?
“And Hashem created humankind from Their image. From Their image Hashem created mankind, and created womankind with them”
So, hear me out, y’all. The WITH here in the original Hebrew implies that Hashem uses mankind to create womankind. As we know, there are more than two genders in ancient Judaism, so where did the others come from?
Well, the other implication from this creation story is that there was some involvement from “mankind” in the creation. As a queer person, I can’t help but imagine some possibilities here. We all know the rib-story, and I’m aware that will come up in the future. However, what if this is suggesting that Hashem literally created womankind “with” Adam? That is, that Hashem impregnated Themself to “give birth” and create womankind? It’d stand to reason that’d create the other humankinds too.
I dunno. I just kinda like this idea.
Anywho, Hashem creates people and blesses them and tells them to…
…ENSLAVE AND SUBJUGATE EVERYTHING.
Seriously. It uses that language. This is softened in English translations to “master” usually, but the word actually means enslave (1:28)! I was taken aback, but not as much as by what Hashem does next:
Hashem tells humans and animals to celebrate because there are enough plants for all of them to use as food (1:29). The implication here is that everything should be vegan? Like. Everything. Even lions?
Apparently, Hashem was pretty happy with this arrangement. Then comes the seventh day.
Typically we understand the seventh day as a “rest” day because Hashem was “done.” They consecrated the seventh day (Friday nightfall – Saturday evening, Yom Shabbat), as a holy one and had a bit of a lie-in. I have a different interpretation.
“On the seventh day Hashem stopped the work that They were doing. On the seventh day Hashem stopped doing any more work on what They had done.”
The repetition here uses different verbs. The first verb is usually translated to English as “finished” instead of stopped, however, it means MANY THINGS. Essentially it means “ended,” and doesn’t actually imply that something is finished and a success. In fact, one of its translations is straight-up “failed.” The second verb is usually “ceased” and the implications of the sentence are that there was more to do but Hashem chose to stop anyway.
I have so much that I could talk about here. There’s the cynic in me (Hashem saw that the world was a failure and chose to just give up), but the optimist says, simply: Hashem was the first person who practiced “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” This goes back to my earlier point of interest; do we consider Hashem to be an entity that makes no mistakes (and, hence, creates things imperfectly on purpose), or an entity that both can make mistakes and cannot undo them?
If we choose to believe the latter, dear readers, what we see here is an artist stepping back from their work, sighing with pleasure, and putting their supplies away.
And that’s just a beautiful thing.