In the beginning Genesis 1:1
In The Beginning – The Tanakh opens with a single word, bere’shiyt, a compound of the preposition be and re’shiyt, a noun that means “the first, the chief, the best.” The rabbis noted a curious thing about bere’shiyt. It begins with a bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “Why,” they asked, “doesn’t the Torah begin with the first letter, the aleph? After all, this eternal Torah is the true beginning of God’s revelation. It seems only reasonable that it should begin with the beginning letter.” Such thoughts bother rabbis who hold God’s Word in such high esteem. After much consideration, they arrived at a suggestion. Their answer has to do with the shape of the letter bet and the fact that Hebrew is written from right to left. Let’s look at the actual text.
If you’re having trouble seeing the Hebrew text, go here.
Look at the opening letter, bet (remember it is the first letter on the right!). Did you notice that it is open in the direction of the rest of the text but closed to anything that precedes the text? Remember that the text reads from the right to the left. The rabbis concluded that the Torah begins with a bet because anything that comes before Torah is closed to our understanding. We are given a revelation of everything that follows the bet, everything on the open side of the bet. What happens before the bet is hidden in mystery. Anything that we declare about the cosmos before the beginning is sheer speculation. Why? Because God chose to begin His revelation with a bet, shrouding His actions prior to the creation of matter in His divine consciousness alone.
You might be inclined to dismiss such theological explanation and delve into theories of astrophysics and timeframes in special relativity. But the rabbinic understanding solves a huge problem. What problem does the rabbinic exegesis solve? Principally the problem of “Why?” Rabbinic exegesis focuses our attention on what follows bere’shiyt, that is, everything we need to know about how to live in God’s world. The Tanakh isn’t about how everything started. It’s about why God did what He did. Instructions for living found in the Torah are about answering the questions: “Why does God care?” “Why am I an object of His concern?” “Why should God care about how I live?” Gone are the endless speculations about events before the beginning. Do those speculations matter? Not to the way God asks me to live in His universe. Bere’shiyt pushes me in the direction of the text, a text that explains God’s view of my world. That is what matters! Speculation is useless until it confronts God’s demand on my life. Back to “In the beginning.” Forward from the bet.
Topical Index: in the beginning, bere’shiyt, bet, Tanakh, Genesis 1:1