By: Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
The creation account is an unusual piece of Torah. It’s something that we study as small children and we think we know it backwards and forwards. We joyfully sing off the days as it is read every Simchas Torah during Chosson Bereishis. And yet, simultaneously, it is one of the most mystical, esoteric passages in all of Tanach. The creation account is compared by the Talmud in Chagigah (13a) to the Maaseh Hamerkavah, the prophet Yechezkel’s vision of G-d’s Heavenly “chariot.” How odd it is that learned yeshiva students tremble to broach the mysteries of Sefer Yechezkel, yet we routinely discuss the equally-profound mysteries of creation with six-year-old children!
The reality is that, as with all things, a child’s understanding is different from an adult’s. A lay person’s is different from a talmid chacham’s. A fifth-grader’s understanding of the Civil War is different from a historian’s. The creation account, which we all learned as children, contains layers upon layers and insights upon insights. There are worlds of learning to be had between our pre-school exposure to the six days of creation and the hidden secrets that our Sages caution us against pursuing. With the reader’s indulgence, I would like to share a few humble thoughts and observations on the creation account.
I. Torah is the Blueprint of the World
The Midrash Rabbahcompares the creation of the world to the building of a palace. Just as a human architect draws up plans for his edifice, G-d consulted His “blueprint,” the Torah. The Zoharlikewise tells us that “God looked in the Torah and created the world.”
At first glance, this is counter-intuitive. The Torah wasn’t given until the year 2448 and Moshe added to it until his death in 2488. The creation of the world and subsequent events are described in the Torah! How could the Torah be the basis for creating the world?
A useful analogy comes from, of all people, Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins used a blueprint as a metaphor for DNA. DNA, he posited, is like a house that has a copy of the blueprints in each room. Just as each blueprint contains the information necessary to reconstruct the entire house, each cell contains the code needed to recreate an organism. This is why one could clone an entire sheep from a toenail and not just a new sheep toenail.
Similarly, the Torah is a blueprint. There are many Sifrei Torahin the world and each one contains the information needed to create all of time and space – you just need to know how to look for it! As the Vilna Gaon wrote in Sefer Ditzniuta, “all that is and will be is included in the Torah…not just in the general sense but…(even) the most minute details.”
II. Biblical Archaeology
The origins of the world are hotly contested yet Judaism has never been particularly bothered by apparent contradictions between Torah and science. More often than not, such contradictions are the product of an individual’s misunderstanding of Torah, of science, or of both.
Let’s take carbon dating and other methods of dating the world and the universe. The Talmud in Chulin (60a) tells us that everything was created in its final, adult form. Adam was like a 30-year-old man on the day of his creation. Had you cut down the Tree of Knowledge, there would have been hundreds of rings. And if you dated a rock or a star, it would likewise have demonstrated the properties of a mature rock or star. (Likewise, the stars were created with their light already reaching Earth; Adam could see starlight at night.)
Fossils likewise never bothered us. More than 2,000 years ago, the Midrash Rabbah told us that worlds were created and destroyed before this world was made on top of their ruins. In 1807, when the skeleton of a mammoth was unearthed in Siberia, Rav Yisrael Lipschutz, the Tiferes Yisrael, basically said, “So what?” He wrote in his Derush Ohr HaChaim, “It is clear that everything the Kabbalists have told us for hundreds of years, that world had existed and been destroyed, then it was reestablished four more times, each time the world in a more perfect state than before, now in our time it has become clear in truth and righteousness. Would you believe, my brothers, that this wonderful secret is clearly stated in the beginning of our holy Torah…?”
The more we know about our own Torah, the less such apparent contradictions will disturb us.
III. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
The first mishna in the second chapter of Chagigah – the same mishna that warns us against delving too deeply into the mysteries of creation – tells us that four people would be better off never having been born: those who try to know what is above the world, what is below the world, what was before the world and what will be after it. The gemara on 16a wonders what is wrong with inquiring as to what came before creation, as that would appear to be a simple matter of history. The gemara answers that it is disrespectful to G-d. If a king builds his palace over a trash heap, thegemara tells us, he doesn’t want his subjects to mention the garbage dump that had previously been there.
This explanation puzzled Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. Isn’t it high praise to show that G-d created the wonderful world out of a chaotic void? Rather, Rav Moshe said, the flaw is in viewing creation as a one-time event in the past. With that perspective, one could posit that G-d built the world and left. We can’t lose sight of G-d in the here and now, and all that He does for us every day. Indeed, the same mishna in Chagigah also tells us that one who does not revere the glory of his Creator would be better off never having been born.
The creation account, like all of Torah, is replete with lessons that can enhance our lives. We must be careful not to view it as the fairy tales of our Hebrew school youth, G-d forbid. Rather, we must revisit it with an adult eye and intellect in order to see what new insights we can glean.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor for the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books including The Taryag Companion, The Tzniyus Book, and others, variously available from OU Press and/or amazon.com.