Posted by: Subway Conductor | October 16, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Bereshit

The first portion of the Torah has been controversial over the centuries and continues to be so in recent years. The source of this controversy is the apparent contradiction between the description of creation at the beginning of this week’s portion and the accepted scientific view. Of course, the scientific view has changed over the centuries. The Greeks believed that the earth had always been here. There was no beginning to the world. Jewish philosophers, in the Middle Ages,  like Maimonides, had to contend with this scientific view and  make arguments for the Torah’s position that the universe had a beginning. More recently, scientists have come around to the view that the universe did indeed have a beginning. Scientists now call this beginning the “big bang.” But the Torah describes a six-day creation that still seems to be at odds with the latest scientific theories. For some, science “disproves” the Bible.

In my view, there are two ways of dealing with this apparent contradiction. One is the approach of scientists like Gerald Schroeder, who we had as a speaker in Peoria many years ago. Schroeder, who is a Ph.D in physics from MIT, claims that the Torah’s account of creation does not contradict the latest scientific explanations if one properly understands science and the Torah. For instance, Schroeder maintains that each of the six days of creation were vast stretches of time. The first day lasted for over eight billion years. Each day was a shorter length of time, but still very large. The sixth day of creation lasted for approximately six thousand years. Indeed, the word “day” does not have to refer to a twenty-four hour period. The Bible itself states that “a thousand years are but a day in G-d’s sight.” (Psalm 90:4) I have heard Schroeder speak and I have read one of his books, yet, I do not feel myself competent to make a judgment on the scientific explanations he offers.

I prefer the second approach which can be found in Jewish sources. Samuel David Luzzatto, known as the ShaDaL, was an Italian rabbi in the 19th century. At the very beginning of his commentary on the Torah he states, “The Torah is not a science book. Its purpose is to teach us a way of life that brings about righteousness and justice.” Rashi says in his commentary on the creation that the Torah does not give the order of creation as it actually happened, pointing to various contradictions in the account.

What is the purpose behind the creation story in Genesis if it is not to provide us with a scientific understanding of the origins of the universe? It teaches us certain fundamental ideas about the world and man’s place in it. Among these teachings are that the universe is not an accident. The world operates in accordance with laws that can be explored and understood. The creation narrative gives us a sense of the orderliness of nature. The narrative also makes clear that humankind is at the apex of the creation of the world. In my opinion, the most important verse in this account is, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (I’m not going to deal now with the explanation for the plural “let us”). This statement informs us that man is a being that is divine in some way. The Psalmist said, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? Yet, You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Psalms 8:4-5) Human beings are a unique mixture of the physical and the spiritual. At our best, we are meant to strive to be “like G-d.” There is a concept in both Christianity and Judaism which is called by the Latin phrase imitatio dei – the imitation of G0d. What does this concept mean in Judaism? The Talmud says, “Just as G-d is merciful, so shall we be merciful.” We are to imitate G-d in pursuing righteousness and justice; feeding the poor, caring for the widow, the orphan, and he stranger, clothing the naked. This is the great lesson that we learn from the creation story.

Good Shabbos!

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