As we’ve recently turned again to the beginning of our Torah, I want to address an important question: Is it true?
For me, the stories in the Torah represent a religious or poetic truth – not necessarily an historical or scientific truth. This type of truth is the reason I cherish the Torah, place it lovingly in a special ark, and even hold it up proudly after I have read it, proclaiming in Hebrew and English, “This is the Torah that Moses gave to the children of Israel at the command of God.”
So what do I mean by a religious or poetic truth?
Leonard Garner offers this example in Genesis: The Teacher’s Guide:
“If I am walking through a meadow, and I say with a sigh as I gaze at my beloved, ‘Your eyes are like two beautiful pools,’ I do not mean that I may dive in to take a swim. Neither, though, am I lying. I am expressing a profound type of truth that wells up from the depths of my soul.”
As another example, consider the story of creation. When the ancient rabbis studied the story, they did not ask scientific or historical questions such as, “Did this really happen this way?” Rather they asked questions along the lines of, “Why did God choose to begin the account of creation with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, rather than with aleph, the first?”
They answered that just as the top and bottom of the letter bet are closed, so too are secrets of the essence of God above, and of what happens when a person is laid to rest in the ground below. Just as the back of the letter bet is closed, so, too, is knowledge of God’s actions before the world was created closed to us. But the front of the letter bet is open, teaching us that we should concentrate our efforts and our energies on that which is open to us – this world and its mysteries.
In other words, one truth the rabbis derived from the story of creation is that the mysteries of what happened before the world was created, what happens after we die, and a complete knowledge of God’s ways are beyond us and should not be our main concerns. Rather, living lives of purpose and meaning and making this world as good as we can while we are here – these things, the rabbis urged, should be the object of our efforts.
Going a bit further, then, the truth of the story of creation lies not in the contention that it happened as written.
The truth to be gleaned is that creation was not an accident, but rather that God is the initiator of creation, and just as it is meaningful and purposeful, so too can our lives have meaning and purpose. Furthermore, as creatures created in God’s image, we human beings – not the tiger or the rhinoceros – are in charge of and responsible for this world and what happens to it. Indeed, it is an awesome responsibility.
The final element of truth to the story for Jewish thought is that it includes the idea of Shabbat. If God can rest, as the story concludes, so too can we make time to rest and reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.