(Learning a Little) Something from (Understanding) Nothing
The story is brought down (שם משמואל בראשית פרשת לך לך תרע”ז) that Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa once asked his Talmid, the Kotzker Rebbe, to explain the source of his Avodas Hashem. That is to say, “What is the appropriate inspiration for serving Hashem, keeping His mitzvos and learning His Torah.”
The Kotzker answered: from the Creation of the World. (ישעי' מ') שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה.
Reb Simcha Bunim shook his head and explained: We do not look for inspiration from the Creation of the world. Instead, a Jew should derive their inspiration from Yetzias Mitzraim.
There are always two ways for a Jew to serve Hashem. We can see God as the disembodied God of Nature, creator of Heaven and Earth, or we can see Him as the God of History.
The Baal Shem Tov explains that both are essential in a well rounded approach to Yiddishkeit. Indeed, this is why we reference both before saying Kriyas Shema, morning and night.
But which is more central to our relationship with Hashem? Reb Simcha Bunim explained: The personal connection, God of History; my history, our history.
Why then should the Torah begin with Bereishis? What is the purpose of telling us how Hashem created the world?
This question is deepened by the comments of the Medrash (בראשית רבה ט) that the first chapter of Bereishis is theologically and philosophically off-limits:
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וגו' (בראשית א, לא), רַבִּי לֵוִי פָּתַח (משלי כה, ב): כְּבֹד אֱלֹקים הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר וּכְבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר. רַבִּי לֵוִי בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חָמָא בַּר חֲנִינָא אָמַר, מִתְּחִלַּת הַסֵּפֶר וְעַד כָּאן כְּבֹד אֱלֹקים הוּא, הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר. מִכָּאן וָאֵילָךְ כְּבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר, כְּבוֹד דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה שֶׁנִּמְשְׁלוּ בִּמְלָכִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח, טו): בִּי מְלָכִים יִמְלֹכוּ, לַחְקֹר דָּבָר.
“And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Bereshit 1:31), Rabbi Levi began: (Proverbs 25:2) “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, And the glory of a king to explicate a matter.” Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Chama bar Chanina: From the beginning of the book to this point (the end of Chapter One,) is Hashem's Honor, it is a concealed matter. From this point on is kings' glory, explicated matters. The glory of the words of Torah, which are compared to kings, as it says, (Proverbs 8:15) “Through me [Wisdom] kings reign,” are explicated matters.
All this is to say, quite clearly that trying to understand the first perek of Bereishis is both impossible, and inappropriate. We're not supposed to plum its depths!
Chazal (חגיגה פרק ב׳) codify this orientation by telling us that:
כָּל הַמִּסְתַּכֵּל בְּאַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים, רָאוּי לוֹ כְּאִלּוּ לֹא בָּא לָעוֹלָם, מַה לְּמַעְלָה, מַה לְּמַטָּה, מַה לְּפָנִים, וּמַה לְּאָחוֹר
Whoever speculates upon four things, it would have been better had he not come into the world: what is above, what is beneath, what came before, and what came after.
So what is the value of reading about Creation this Shabbos? It's a story that we don't understand, that has caused an immense amount of frustrations, and Kefira, and that is not primary to our Avoda?!
Of course, one could, and should argue that there are immeasurable mystical depths to the Torah's account of creation. That is certainly true. But reading it in Shul is a lesson for all of us, every Jew in every age... Which begs the question, as to its relevance for each and every one of us?
Something from Nothing
Dovid HaMelech writes in Tehillim (קכא):
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי – I will lift up my eyes to the mountains: From whence shall my help come?
As Jews, we often find ourselves asking similar questions... Where can I find strength, courage, finances, serenity, health, free time...? As the year begins anew, and the Yamim Tovim are behind us, we are charged with the obligations of our daily lives. It's overwhelming, it seems insurmountable, and we wonder how to make headway in a world where nothing is ever enough.
But Rav Moshe David Vali, the Talmid of the Ramchal explains that David HaMelech is not simply asking these questions, he is also providing a powerful answer:
לרמוז דאע״ג דלית לה מגרמיה כלום מכל מקום מובטחת היא שיבא אליה עזר מספיק ממנו ית׳ שעשה שמים וארץ והוציא יש מאין
Even though I have no wherewithal of my own, I have confidence that that Hashem can help me... After all, everything in the universe was created from nothing.
Quite literally, “מאין יבא עזרי” means, the source of my help is אין – nothing. The same nothing from which Hashem created the Universe.
This is why we read Bereishis. It's the daily story of how Hashem is constantly providing for us, something from nothing. Indeed, we reference this truth in davening: המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – Hashem, who, in His kindness, renews Creation every day.
Some of my friends, talmidim of Rav Amital have told me that every year on Shabbos Bereishis, Rav Amital would declare:
“אני לא מבין מכל פרשת בראשית שום מילה. אני לא מבין מה זה תוהו, מה זה בוהו, מה זה חושך על פני תהום, אני לא מבין מה זה יום אחד. אני מבין רק דבר אחד: שכל מה שעשה – הקב”ה עשה!”
I do not understand a single world of Parshas Bereishis. I do not understand “Tohu” or “Bohu”, or the Darkness upon the Depths. I do not understand what is “Day One”. All I understand is one thing: Everything that was made, was made by Hashem.
There is comfort and strength in knowing that everything is renewed every day, always, at every moment. But even if that is difficult to remember and understand daily, we can certainly see and experience it this Shabbos – The Shabbos of the new beginning of Bereishis.
As we reopen the Torah this week, Hashem invites us to reflect on all the times that His help came from nowhere; unexpectedly, amazingly, unconventionally.
As we reenter the year, Hashem should help us to believe in His help, to seek it when we don't know where to turn, and to thank Him for recreating our world; every day, something from nothing.