Lech L'cha

A self-guided journey through the Torah. Go to, by, and for yourself.

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Location: Ann Arbor, MI

I am a research associate at the University of Michigan School of Education, and a doctoral candidate in Mathematics and Education. I also have an active side career in Jewish education. Plus I spend too much time reading webcomics.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


For a long time now I've been itching to get into the blogging game, and this week I'm at long last scratching that itch. I'm launching two blogs this week: The first one -- the one you're reading right now -- I call Lech L'cha. According to the Torah, these are the first two words that God spoke to Abram. It's a difficult phrase to translate. Literally translated, it means "Go to yo" or "Go for you". It's temping to render this as "Go to yourself" or "Go for yourself" (and indeed, many commentators do so), but the truth is there's a perfectly good Hebrew word for "to/for yourself" (l'atzmav) and the Torah doesn't use it here. Others take the mysterious "l'cha" as having emphatic connotations: "Go, you go". I prefer to understand the phrase as indicating the solitary nature of Abram's journey, and have chosen it for my title because I intend to use this blog for a kind of self-guided journey through the weekly Torah portions.

What I mean by "self-guided" is that I don't commit myself to following any standard set of interpretations. Certainly I may dip into Rashi or Midrash now and again, but I really want this blog to be about my interpretations of the Torah -- at least, insofar as that's possible. It would be both silly and arrogant for me to claim total originality; we are all inevitably influenced by the teachers and authors from whom we have learned, and I'm no exception.

(Oh, the other blog I'm starting? It's called Spotlight on Ejumacashun, and it focuses on issues in education. I'd appreciate your comments there.)

So this is a month for beginnings. In synagogue this Shabbat we read the first Torah portion in the annual cycle of readings, Parashat Bereishit. I would like to make a few observations about the text's account of God's first act of creation: "Let there be light."

Even a casual reading of the text raises questions about this light. From what source does it emanate? According to the text, God does not create any sources of light (sun, moon, stars) until the fourth day of creation. So this light doesn't come from anywhere; it just suffuses all of space, like a fluid. Nor does it go anywhere. This light doesn't travel in rays at the speed of light; it just is, everywhere at once.

It's not surprising, then, that some traditional commentaries regard this "light" as possessing supernatural powers: It illuminated all things, and with it one could see unlimited distances, including through the interior of solid objects. (Think of Superman's telescopic and X-ray vision.) Others regard "light" as a metaphor for "understanding", or "wisdom". Christian interpreters (well, some of them) regard this "first creation" as a veiled reference to Jesus.

And then there's the question of purpose. Why, we have to ask, does God need to create light on the first day? Certainly God himself doesn't need it. And since the creatures that will depend on light won't be created until at least the third day, why make it now? And why not create the heavenly bodies at the same time as the light?

I think it's easy to miss the true purpose of this primeval light. We are so habituated to thinking of light as "that which enables vision" that it's hard to see (sorry) beyond that. But in Genesis 1, light plays a clear function, and it's got nothing to do with sight. Rather, the function of light in this text is to enable the measurement of time. Once light exists, it becomes possible to name "day" and "night"; and immediately we begin marking time: "It was evening and morning, the first day." From this moment on, the phrase "It was evening and morning" demarcates God's creative acts with a nearly metronomic regularity. The entire first chapter of Genesis depends heavily on time and rhythm for its narrative effect. The six day creation is itself divided into two parallel three-day phases. The final act of creation, the Sabbath, is a creation purely in the realm of time (see A.J. Heschel's masterful work The Sabbath for more on this).

In this regard I want to make a few quick observations:
  1. Biblical Hebrew doesn't cope well with abstract nouns. To the best of my knowledge, there is no word in Biblical Hebrew for "time", the abstraction. So it may very well be that what the text is really trying to say here is that God's first act was the creation of time itself.
  2. If this is correct, it may be worth noting that other creation myths have similar implications. In particular, the Greek creation myth identifies the first-born of the Titans as Kronos. Everything begins with the birth of Time.
  3. Time, according to a famous quote attributed to Einstein, exists to prevent everything from "happening all at once". (For a related view, see this article from The Onion.) I think tohu va'vohu, the phrase used to describe the formless chaos that preceded this first act of creation, is a pretty succinct description of "everything happening at once".
  4. Up until now I've been speaking only about the creation narrative in Genesis 1. The narrative in Gen. 2 is notable in part for the complete absence of any references to time (implicit or explicit). The account of creation narrated there is timeless, as is Adam and Eve's time in the Garden. There are no markers of how much time elapsed between God's placing the first couple in Eden, and His exile of them. It could have been a thousand years, or it could have just been one long afternoon. It's not until the long chain of genealogies at the end of the parashah, complete with birth and death dates for each generation from Adam to Noah, that the clock (as it were) begins ticking again.
Next week: What was really going on in Babel, and why was God so upset about the Tower?


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