Parashat B’reishit • Genesis 1:1-6:8

Meaning and Metaphor

It is an error in perspective to believe that those who came before us were primitive in their literal interpretation of sacred scripture, and that we modern sophisticates alone possess a nuanced appreciation for the power of metaphor.  In some cases, quite the opposite is true.  The authors and conveyors of the biblical text intimately intuited the capacity of metaphor to convey meaning beyond the constraints of mere expository language, while it is often our contemporaries who mistake the integrity of faith for fidelity to, or even an idolatrous devotion to, the text. (My teacher and past Scholar-in-Residence Rabbi Michael Cook coined the term “bibliolatry” for such errant obsessiveness.)

Those who came before us understood that the biblical account of creation was most probably not an historical or empirical account of the world’s birth a mere five millennia prior, even in the absence of scientific insight.  The truth imparted from both creation stories within the first chapters of Genesis is a moral truth, not an historical one.  It is God’s resume, a testament to the beneficence and power of the Creator in bequeathing the world to us.  It provides the background for the peak experience on Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus, when the Jewish people intoned as one “We will do and we will hearken.”  They accepted the constraints and direction of Torah wisdom because God had earned credibility through ma’aseh bereishit, the acts of creation.

Parshat Bereishit reminds us of the many truths beyond the sensory and measurable, the moral truths that are truly the gift and boon of the Torah as the terms of our covenant with God.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner