Excerpted from Beginnings


Here is a question that you may wish to ponder. Perhaps you have never asked it before. For me it is new. I have never thought about it, but I have a feeling that if we can achieve an answer that is close to the truth it will, to a significant extent, point us on our way.

It is this: The correct translation of the word reishis is the beginning “of.”  It is the construct form of the word roshbeginning. That means that it is attached to something else. Grammatically it cannot stand on its own. An example of the normal usage of this word is reishis goyim Amalek—meaning, Amalek is the first of the nations. But in our verse, the very first phrase in our holy Torah, the usage is irregular. There is no construct. No answer is offered to the question, “The beginning of what?”

Rashi notes the problem. He believes that it is this very irregularity which stimulated our Sages to take the word b’reishis from the simple Peshat to the homiletic Derash. They suggest that the letter beis in b’reishis might be translated not as “in” (In the beginning …), but as, “For the sake of …”. They thus read b’reishis as For the sake of reishis–meaning, either for the sake of the Torah, which is called reishis,  or for the sake of Yisrael, who are also called reishis.

So much for the world of Derash. However, if we want to understand the word in its more natural sense, as, “In the beginning”, Rashi argues that we will have to supply the implied construct ourselves and read the verse as though it read, At the beginning of [the creation of] heaven and earth.

Here is my question. Let us grant Rashi’s explanation. Let us concede that an implied construct is indeed a grammatical possibility. Let us acknowledge that from a literary standpoint it is not unreasonable to draw the reader into the creative process and expect him to work along with the author [in our case, the Author] to supply the himself. But why? Why should the very first word in the Torah raise eyebrows? If At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth is needed here, why not write that explicitly?

To put our problem formally: what does the Ribono shel Olam want to teach us by this irregularity? In what direction does He want to prod us by beginning the Torah with a question mark? That is something worth thinking about.

A hole is to fill. That is the title of a book I once saw which collected definitions suggested by kindergarten children for some well-known words. We might adopt this idea and say that a missing word is there to set us thinking, to demand that we ask ourselves what the are possibilities for filling the gap.

Let us try to do this here. Let us see how we can fill in our missing construct.

As we begin our struggle to understand our Torah a little better, we should lay down some ground rules about the relationship between Peshat and Derash. No blanket statement is possible because there are so many different kinds of Derash, but one thing is certain. These two modes of interpretation never contradict one another. Often, as we shall see in our case, they enrich each other, pointing the way to a coloring and depth that would otherwise have escaped us. How does this work here?

One Derash, as we have seen, is for the sake of Yisrael, who are called reishis. Let us pause a moment to let that sink in. These are words that we have heard since childhood and, as frequently happens, familiarity breeds superficiality. Let us listen carefully. Let what is said hit home and then hit home once more. Six days of creation, the entire cosmos in all its bewildering vastness and complexity, has only one purpose — and we are it! It boggles the mind, lifts the spirit, and, if not handled well, crushes by the sheer weight of the responsibility engendered.

Certainly in the face of all this we will have to do some careful thinking about who we are and what is expected of us; we should really say, what is demanded of us. Whatever our conclusion may be, one thing will remain clear. Our future is open-ended. It will be as all-encompassing or as modest as we will choose to make it. The missing construct points to just this element of uncertainty. In the beginning of  … In the beginning of what? There is no way of telling. The “what” is shrouded in mystery. It is only we who will decide.

Let us determine where we ought to be heading.

*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.