Parshat Bereishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
This week we begin reading the Book of Genesis. We turn to this first book of the Torah as a template to explore some of the most important concepts in Judaism, namely creativity, the responsibility we have to all creatures and to the world itself, and relationships within families and across generations, as well as concepts of justice and theology (God-wrestling) and, of course, Shabbat.
As we prepare in these first days of a new Jewish year, 5776, to begin re-reading our best-loved Bible stories, let us appreciate that these biblical masterpieces are designed to encourage us to live our lives more fully in the reflection of our biblical forebears. For while our circumstances are not identical to those depicted in the pages of our texts, neither would we be the same in the absence of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. And thus, while the long-familiar tale that begins, “In the beginning God created heaven and Earth,” is a mythical story, it is our own story as well.
Now, our saying that the Torah is a myth is not for a second to suggest that the Torah’s stories are less than meaningful. In point of fact, the ancient myths recorded in Genesis are among the most meaningful stories ever written!
No, when we say the Torah is mythical, we mean that while these stories are meaningful in a religious context, they are neither pure history nor true science. What’s more, the Torah readings from Genesis are not even verifiably plausible explanations of our world’s origins. But they are, nonetheless, true. For as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has taught, the stories in Genesis are true not because they took place as described, but because they happen again and again in our own lives.
In spite of Rosh Hashanah having inaugurated the year 5776, there is no way, given what we know of the natural laws of the universe, for the world to have been created in six days, to say nothing of the world having been created only 5,776 years ago. In fact, cosmologists estimate the time since the beginning of Creation to be on the order of 2 million times that of Judaism’s traditional reckoning. Indeed, scientists estimate that our solar system alone has been in existence for at least 4.5 billion years; and they hold that the entirety of creation is closer to 12 or 14 billion years old! Given this, is there reason to assert that there was ever an Adam or an Abraham or an Amalek? But despair not.
I am not unmindful that it is comforting to believe there is a God who created the world for a purpose and that, further, there is a divine plan at work. Believing the world is intentional and that we have been created by a God who desires that we behave and care for the Earth and one another in a particular way is a comforting belief. In fact, as a religious Jew, it is a belief I want very much to be true. Indeed, so much do I want to believe our lives have purpose, as the Book of Genesis suggests, that I deliberately choose to behave as if it is true.
For insofar as such a belief speaks to the spiritual and moral dimensions of life, rather than to that which we can verify according to the scientific method, such a belief necessarily falls into the realm of spirituality and not into that of history. And, for this reason, we do not turn to the stories in Genesis so we may know what the origins of the world “truly are,” but so that we may know where to begin living our own best life.
And as we start reading the Torah anew, nothing could be more appropriate! Shanah tovah!
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.