A Re-reading of New Beginnings
Michael Greenstein, a blog reader, responded to Friday’s blog with his own commentary on Bereshit. Note the following differences:
- The radical divergence in methodology used
- Following a very interesting brief literary history in dealing with “beginnings,” Greenstein combined an alphabetic, linguistic, Kabbalistic mathematical and auditory methodology
- Noting the juxtaposition but tension between that which comes first, that which is at the ‘head’, and creativity, Greenstein arrives at an admittedly awkward translation – “beginning begat” – which suggests that the process of beginning itself is the root of creativity
- He states that this conveys “the struggle, mystery, and awe at the heart of the process of creation”
- In his Kabbalistic use of letters to unlock the mystery, he notes “a dialectic between symmetry and asymmetry,” (my italics) “between outside (ox) and inside (house) that continues through “gimel” (camel) and “daled” (door), or between nature and domestication” (my italics), between firsts and seconds
- Using the sounds of the words themselves, he finds that God fashions cosmic chronotopes [particular genres or standard speech patterns representing different worldviews or ideologies via relatively stable ways of speaking combining both the cognitive and narrative characteristics of language] and a utopian garden fraught with the foibles of humanity.
The result is a fascinating articulation of the dialectic that I suggested between the cognitive and the emotional, between the heavenly and earthly, between the divine and the human-all-too human.
First Verse, Second Reading
In the nineteenth century Cardinal Newman wrote: “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning.” A century earlier Laurence Sterne, Anglican priest and author of Tristram Shandy, one of the earliest experimental novels, offered his own advice: “Of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is best – I’m sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” These obsessions with beginnings carry over to modern times as well in Edward Said’s Beginnings (which distinguishes mythical origins from secular beginnings) and Meir Shalev’s Beginnings, a secular Israeli reading of biblical stories.
All of these beginnings return to Genesis. One of the most striking features of the first verse of Genesis is its strong initial alliteration, “bereisheet barah.” Although the first three letters of both words are identical, the two words are etymologically unrelated. The root of bereisheet, “rosh,” (head or first) has little to do with “barah” (create), except that creation and beginning are ideologically connected. These words initiate a dialectic between symmetry and asymmetry: it’s as if the two connected-disconnected words form a kind of tectonic plate beneath the earth’s surface and beside the visual and aural representation of the letters. An awkward English translation, “beginning begat,” at least captures the first 3 letters of the words in question, which in turn highlight the struggle, mystery, and awe at the heart of the process of creation.
Also noteworthy is the placement of the second letter of the alphabet to lead the words, while the silent aleph is deferred until the third position. Aleph derives from the head of an ox: kabbalists see the slanted “vav” in the centre as a connection between a “yud” above (divinity) and one below (humanity), while some Christian theologians take the head to be the chief or Jesus. If aleph is a tangled silent letter, “beit” represents house or open tent: these two letters introduce a dialectic between outside (ox) and inside (house) that continues through “gimel” (camel) and daled (door), or between nature and domestication. (Neo-kabbalists may note that the “resh” resembles a “beit” with the bottom removed, as if the ground itself were taken away during God’s ground-breaking work.) Moreover, the reversal of the two letters highlights the thematic dialectic of firsts and seconds throughout the Bible.
More important than these visual depictions, however, is the aural appeal of the first verse. The initial strong alliteration gives way to a softer “Elohim et,” and Elohim itself suggests an overarching elevation, almost rainbow-like, linking the first half of the verse to the second, which descends from shamayim to aretz. From the grinding and grounding “br” sounds to the softer elevation to the balance of heaven and earth where “aretz” picks up the grinding, the first verse thereby lays the groundwork for what follows. In the state of “reisheet,” the realm of firstness, God creates, calling (Vayikra) into being from the firmament (rakeeah) where emptiness (rake) is reversed by the call of kara. Out of time and place, God fashions cosmic chronotopes and a utopian garden fraught with the foibles of humanity.