The preeminent commentator, Rashi, asks why the Torah begins with the story of creation — and suggests that Exodus chapter 12 (the departure of the Israelites from Egypt) would be the expected starting point of the Torah.
But the compelling nature of the creation story cannot be overlooked, avoided, or denied. The early chapters of Genesis represent the fundamental statement of the Torah about creation itself, and thus represent the setting of the stage on which the drama of humanity — and of the Jewish people in particular — is played out.
Traditional as well as contemporary readers of the Torah have observed that much of the message of the text is uncovered through discernment of patterns, awareness of key phrases, and an ability to see in the weaving of the text a message that transcends the surface. A close reading of the first chapter of Genesis yields such a message.
The Hebrew root B-D-L means “to split, to separate.” This root meaning occurs five times in the first chapter of the Torah alone. God separated the light from the darkness; God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water”; God made the expanse, and it separated the water below from the water above; God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night”; and God made the two great lights … to separate light from darkness.
“In the beginning,” suggests the Torah, there was a primal unity. Creation is the act of separating, of splitting off, of making two out of what had been one. Darkness yields to light, as the two are separated; waters are separated into upper and lower, and again one becomes two. And later, in Genesis 2:21, the primal person is split into two, male and female.
The message of the creation narrative is that the condition of creation is the existence of duality. Only as something stands separate from something else, something against which it can be contrasted and compared — something with which it can be in relationship — can it truly come into existence.
The world in which the human drama takes place will be characterized not by oneness but by “two-ness.” The world, now separate from God; the light now separate from the dark; the man now separate from the woman. This world will manifest many dimensions, each of which bespeaks “two” and not “one”: it is a world of duality, of polarity, of relationship between things and people.
Only one element in the creation narrative emerges from the story undivided; only one actor in the drama is truly unified and a unity. It is God, and God alone (in the quite literal sense of that word!) that remains the fundamental unity in which all polarities, all opposites, all dualities are reconciled and made whole, reunited, and unified.
Unlike us, God’s essence is One. It is only God who exists in unity, God who is present before creation takes place. For the rest of creation, the necessary condition of existence is separation.
In the knowledge that God’s unity is everlasting, we can find hope and assurance that what is separated will be united; what is split off will be bonded together again; and what is broken will be healed.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Wynnewood, Pa.