Here we are again at the turning of the year and at the beginning of another Torah reading cycle. Starting again. It feels a bit like running a marathon, then doing a lap of honour. I love that the last letter of the last word in the Torah, ‘Yisrael’, is lamed, and the first letter of the first word, ‘bereishit’, is bet, and putting them together creates the Hebrew word ‘lev’ meaning heart; beating on, never stopping in life, supporting the idea of perpetual Torah study, of cycles and returning to the beginning.
The Torah doesn’t change from year to year, so why read it over, and over again? The Torah does not change but we do. We can reinterpret what we are reading in the more recent moment and despite hearing it all before, we interpret its messages with hope for new lives brought into this world and with memory for those who have left it in the past year.
Rabbi Lord Sacks zt”l comments on the “majestic” opening that sets out principles that shaped Judaism. “There is only one G-d, and it is His creative will alone that made the universe as it is”. This parsha contains just 34 verses with a clear structure. The universe was created in 7 days. There are 7 words in the first sentence, 14 in the second and 35 in the closing three verses describing the seventh day. The word ‘elochim’ (G-d) appears 35 times, ‘eretz’ (Earth) 21 and the passage as a whole contains 469 words (=7 x 67).
Also, the word “good” is mentioned 7 times. It occurred as part of each day of creation according to the Torah account except that on the sixth and last day of active creation in which the land animals and man and woman are created when we read that “G-d saw everything that he had created and found it very good (tov me’od).” But very good isn’t great, it’s not excellent, it’s not superb, and it is certainly not perfect. The Midrash suggests that this world, our world, is not the perfect one but that then establishes the mission of Judaism and of all human effort to make it so.
When Man is created in the Torah account he is not called good nor very good – rather he is covered by the ‘very good’ that sums up the whole of the world on the sixth day of creation. Light was good, land and sea were good, the flowers and trees were good, the sun and moon were good, the sea creatures and birds and reptiles were good – but not man. This inconsistency was picked up in the Talmud to add further understanding to the concept of free will, which is crucial to Judaism. In Judaism man is not good by nature but neither is he bad by nature or he would have been called such by the Torah account of his creation. Rather in Judaism man and woman can go anyway – reacting to their ‘yetzer ha tov’ (inclination to do good) and their ‘yetzer ha ra’ (inclination to do evil). It is the free choice of each of us which way we go.
As we start another cycle, and the world seems to be turning more normally again following the pandemic, the hope is we will find comfort in the return to normality. It is never too late for a new beginning. Many happy returns.
Written in loving memory of my dear father Shalom Dovid Ben Yisrael z”l