RASHI POINTS OUT that the word “bereishis” is not the correct form of the word for the context. If you want to say “in the beginning,” the correct word would be berishonah, and this forces a different explanation of bereishis: be-reishis…For the sake of reishis God made the heaven and the earth.
What is reishis? Rashi brings verses to show that reishis can refer to Torah or the Jewish people, both of which are “firsts” to God. This would make the meaning of the verse, “For the sake of Torah, or the Jewish people, God made the heaven and the earth.”
The truth is, it is really for the sake of both Torah and the Jewish people, as the Talmud says:
Reish Lakish said: “Why is it written, ‘And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth—HA-Shishi—day’ (Bereishis 1:31)? What do we learn from the addition of the Heh? The Holy One, Blessed is He, made a condition with Creation and said: ‘If the Jewish people accept the Torah you (Creation) may continue. If not, then I will return you back to null and void.’ ” (Shabbos 88a)
Creation not only needs Torah, but it also needs a nation that will live by it. One without the other is not enough, and this all-important world-saving lesson is learned out because…because of the incorrect usage of a word? Isn’t that like telling a patient which medicine to take to survive by dropping a vague hint that they might or might not get?
Come to think of it, isn’t Reish Lakish’s point the same kind of deal? Creation’s survival is dependent upon a single letter that could easily have been missed by the average student. How many had Reish Lakish’s question before the saw it? How many people even take it seriously after seeing it?
These are not isolated incidents. They occur all over Torah. We even have 13 principles to elucidate such ideas without which we would never learn them. Halachah-altering insights are often learned from saying it this way instead of saying it that way, or from not saying it all. Additional letters and different spellings point in the direction of chiddushei Torah. It seems like an imprecise way to learn for such a precise people.
A SEFER TORAH is another case in point. It has no vowels or notes to tell the reader how to properly pronounce a word or how it should be “sung.” All of that is left up to the ba’al koreh, the one who reads the Sefer Torah for the public. They have to put a lot of time into learning and practicing the weekly parsha and committing all of it to memory.
We’re not only talking about correctly reading the word of God here, but about pleasing fellow congregants who will be following, word-by-word, in their chumashim. They have the vowels and the notes, and will be quick to shout out corrections when necessary. When necessary becomes too often, it is frustrating for both reader and listener, aside from a disgracing of God’s Torah.
One would think that such precision means removing all the possibilities of mistake in advance, like putting in the vowels and cantillation notes. Why leave such a precise work to the memory of people who can tend to be so imprecise? It’s a good question that surprisingly not too many people ask. That’s that way it has been done since the beginning, so that is the way we do it now.
For many, it’s already a big deal that they are Torah observant. Even though in many respects it is much easier to be religious today than in the past, it is also harder somewhat. Yes, kosher is so much more available than it has been for a long time. Yes, beautiful shuls and battei midrashos exist just about everywhere. Yes, we have so much to help us be “frum” today like never before.
But also yes, life has never been more distracting, and confusing for that matter. We’ve been accepted into the gentile world, but it has also come at a cost. We have business obligations and responsibilities that often demand halachic compromise. There is more pressure to keep up with other families for whom money may come easier and faster. Even tuitions are cumbersome. The stress of success is so great that people just hang in there from week-to-week.
It’s not that this is not understandable. It’s just that it is too bad, because there is so much more to all of it. There are lessons to be learned that greatly enhance the Torah experience, not to mention one’s portion in the World-to-Come. And, it is that more that actually helps a person to break free of the “gravity” that pulls them down from day-to-day.
It wasn’t that God was being imprecise when He left out the dots and notes. On the contrary, He was providing a very precise opportunity for the person who understands that there is more, and has decided to pursue it.
THERE ARE BASICALLY two ways to look at living by Torah. A person can either see themself as a soldier following instructions, or as a partner with God to finish the work of Creation. God rewards loyalty like any “commander,” but He really rewards people who take responsibility for finishing what He started.
To do the first, you just have to have spiritual stamina. To do the second, you have to have something to offer. What can we offer God that He doesn’t already have?
The answer to this question is back at the building of the Mishkan in Parashas Tetzaveh. We were asked to contribute what our hearts told us to give…from things we originally received from God. We were actually giving back to Him what He gave to us, first in Egypt during the Plague of Darkness, and then later at the sea after the Egyptians drowned. There was just one very important exception. Our will was involved.
I had an interesting experience the other day during a family get-together. At the end, one of my granddaughters challenged one of her uncles to an arm wrestle, obviously for the fun of it. But that led to two brothers having one as well, and eventually me having one with the victor of the two.
It was very strenuous not going down to defeat and it ended in a draw (I think my son was didn’t want to violate kibud av). But while we battled each other, I felt a desire to give up, which I fought back with my will. It really felt like it was a matter of will in this case, not strength, and mine felt like it was the one getting the workout. I really loved the feeling.
In fact, it has stayed with me days later. It reminded me of the times I used to go jogging five miles or so, and how sometimes the last mile was completely a matter of will. Feeling good, I would start too fast so that by the time I got to the last mile, I was already burned out. Every part of me would scream to stop and walk, except for my will which seemed to have a mind of its own.
Once I even hurt my knee and couldn’t run anymore. At least, I shouldn’t have run anymore. But I couldn’t stop and just kept going, dragging my leg all the rest of the way home. It probably looked ridiculous, but the sense of accomplishment made it all worth while for me, though a physical therapist would have called it excessively stupid. But the injury is long gone, but not the memory of the will I exerted.
In fact, it has helped me to serve God even better in the end. That is the will I get to access on Rosh Hashanah, and especially on Yom Kippur. I love feeling spent, and then digging deep to find the will to give even more to my tefillah, to focus at a time that my brain feels fried after a day of fasting and intense prayer. Those are the rare times in the course of my year that I feel I’ve given it all to God, even if only for five minutes.
THERE IS NOTHING new about this idea. We see people go the extra distance for business, and really push themselves for sports. And what people won’t do for love… Society loves heroes who give it all up for the welfare of others, even if they have to die in the process.
But that’s easy, in matter of speaking. Winning is tangible. The attention is real. The gain from self-sacrifice is inspiring, and sometimes the humiliation of defeat can make people go the extra mile they had felt like skipping.
But do it for God? Do it when you can’t know if you’ve made a difference, if you can’t see if your effort has benefited you in any way? Few people are willing to suffer on faith alone that it will be for a good reason.
I used to have this problem during Shemonah Esrai. I was praying for all these important and big things, like the end of evil and the redemption of the Jewish people, but with a sense of, “What difference can my personal prayer make to these goals?” So like many people, I said them with a lack of heart.
Then one day a little voice inside of me asked, “What will you do if you find out that there was only a little bit left to do to bring redemption, which you could have done if you had just had a bit more intention while saying the blessing?” From that point onward, I imagined that to the be the case, that if I really put my heart and soul into each blessing, it may just be the little bit of difference necessary to bring about a big result.
I can’t say if it has been true, but I certainly can say that it has improved by prayer and sense of commitment. It just feels so much more right. We’re here to contribute to the perfection of Creation, and prayer with intention is an important part of that process. Just because we can’t see how, doesn’t mean that it isn’t the case, and that people aren’t missing one of the greatest opportunities they have each day to partner with God.
That’s why God has left out the “vowels” and “notes,” in whatever form they take in whatever part of our service of God we’re talking about. It’s an invitation to make up the difference, to bring to the table what God did not. God may provide the “letters,” but it is only through our individual will that we can supply those missing “vowels” and “notes” and make life more “legible,” and Creation more perfect.