The first trope, or chanting pattern, of the Torah is the pattern called tipcha, which is usually proceeded by a mercha, or sometimes other trope. It is rarely the first in a sequence. As I began practicing the chanting for today, it felt odd to begin a sequence with tipcha, much like trying to form a question without starting with “What” or “How”. The way I always learned the translation was, “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth.” Chabad offers a translation of, “In the beginning of G-d’s creation of Heaven and Earth.” Looking directly at the Hebrew, although my translation skills still need work, I’d have to say the translation I was taught is correct. Bara is a verb (“G-d created”) not a noun (“G-d’s creation”). But perhaps those at Chabad were reading into something about the trope given “Bereshit”, since their translation is not really a full sentence. Is this not really the beginning? Was there more to the sentence? Maybe in whatever came before, where we might have sung a mercha, it was explained who G-d is talking to; who is the “US” in, “Let Us make human in Our image.” There have been many experts who have tried to analyze the Hebrew phrasing in Genesis in order to determine what might be the best translation, and the jury is still out on that. I’m no linguist and I’m not going to try to go through all the possibilities, because in the end, I don’t think it matters that much. These are unanswerable questions that we need not consume ourselves with.
You may have heard that the Torah begins with a Bet to signify that we should not go looking for answers about G-d before Torah. The Bet is shaped so that it is open to the rest of the text, but closed off to that which may have come before it, as well as on top or below. This was the sort of random information just thrown at me as a child without background, along with “Eat your vegetables, there are children starving in China.” So much like anyone looking to be a nutritionist would have to research why vegetables are good for you, or an international public health official might need to look into why children are starving in China, I investigated this Midrash and it appears to have come from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah. When we read the story of the creation of the world, many questions come to mind. What prompted creation? What preceded creation? What is the correct translation of this story? Tradition tells us that these are not questions that should be explored extensively. "Why was the world created with the letter bet?", asks Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, "Just as the bet is closed at the top and at the sides, so you may not investigate what is below, what is above, and what is before; only what is in front."
As we begin our new year, there may be many among us looking for a fresh start, a new beginning. One that may be marked with a Bet, so as to say, “Please, let this just be the Beginning, and do not ask me of what came before.” Although with G-d, we allow the Bet to be our barrier from questions that could never possibly be satisfactorily answered, with our fellow humans we can let that Bet be our barrier out of respect for someone’s privacy.
This summer was a tough one for a lot of people back in my hometown, as we a lost a young member of our community, my brother’s best friend. At the wake my brother said he felt like he had put more effort into keeping his friend alive than he had ever put into anything else in his life. Since then, he hasn’t worked much or at all (he does promotional work for bands, and occasionally even books shows or puts events together, so his schedule is irregular anyway), and in the last few weeks has spent a lot more time with my parents and not with his friends. He seems to be sort of floating. He decided sometime in the last few days that he’s going to move to CO, where he hardly knows anyone, for at least six months. He’s been selling most of his possessions, and cutting back on his cigarettes in anticipation of the air change, and plans to have quit completely by the time he gets there. I will miss him when he goes so far away, but I hope that it will be the fresh beginning he needs. I hope he can move there with a metaphorical Bet and no one will need to know about what came before. I hope that he will meet new people, and not just new faces and names with the same old lifestyles.
Conversely, as we approach Yom Kippur, and the days of atonement and forgiveness are upon us, I hope we all remember to allow fresh starts in our relationships with those who may have transgressed against us. Let us not hold grudges, or anger, or sadness of the past. This year, let us all allow ourselves and each other a new beginning, a fresh start, and no longer poke at what may have come before. Amen, L’Shana Tova v’Shalom.