Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Studying Breshit – Just One Letter

Posted by rabbiart on October 20, 2008

My friend and “brother” Warren Gould knows I like to say that my definition of an ideal session of Torah study concentrating on only the first letter of the passage. This is entirely possible when reading Parshat Breshit. Many, many midrashim have been built on the first letter of the Torah, which is of course the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew aleph bet.

I learned this interpretation from Bedibur Echad (see previous post). That the Torah begins with the letter bet signals that the unity of creation is made of two worlds within it; worlds that are – to an extent – in competition with each other.  The author comments on the names of the two sons of Adam.  The elder is name קַיִן (Cain) and the younger is named הָבֶל  (Abel).  The root meaning of Cain is the word קונה (Koneh – to acquire or purchase). This is underscored in Breshit 4:1, where the text makes sure to give the meaning, as Eve says  קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה (I have acquired a male person through HaShem). The author translates הָבֶל (havel) as breath. In Talmudic literature havel is a word for breath and breathing.  So Cain represents the physical world and Abel represents the spiritual world. What we might learn from this?

The physical world must by nature precede, and be a pre-condition for, the spiritual world.  Too much emphasis on the physical will distract us from, or even defeat, the spiritual side of our beings.

This is probably something that we instinctively “know”, but it is interesting to see it brought out through the study of the text.

דבר אחר (Davar Acher aka A Different Interpretation).  The letter bet also functions grammatically to indicate that something is used as an instrument.  For example the phrase “I write with a pencil” can be written asאני  כותב בעפרון.  Using this grammar to interpret the first word of the Torah, (whether technically correct or not) we could say that HaShem created the world with “a beginning”.  Or perhaps, since in רֵאשִׁית (reshit) we also see the word for “head”, we might say that HaShem created the world with HaShem’s head, or with a specific purpose in mind. Renita Weems (in Genesis: A Living Conversation, p. 7) comments “I’ve always thought “It was good” meant “It works. It has purpose… something that is ‘good’ works. It fulfills the purpose for which it was created.”

As I’m sure the reader knows, the letter bet has the numerical value of two, as if to signal that there will be two stories of how (and why?) the world is created. And of course, the creation is not complete until two people have been created.  We might also say that two worlds are created.  There is the physical world of six days of work, and the spiritual world of the seventh day – Shabbat.


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