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Notes from Limmud 2009

Before the Beginning: the first midrash on Creation

Dr Rafael Zarum

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

"If Torah is the bricks, then Midrash is the cement." Is this true? Taking it as literally true is simplistic and naive. It tells you about how to be a Jew, not about what literally happened.

The main collections of Midrash are called Rabbah, the Great collections. Genesis (or Leviticus) Rabbah is thought to be the oldest; it was written in Israel. Even the collection on the first page of Genesis takes many pages. The very first one runs for three pages. How does it begin? What does this tell us about the collections who put it together?

R. Hoshaya commenced his exposition thus, "Then I was by Him, as a nursling (אמון); and a source of delight every day..." (Proverbs 8:30). רבי הושעיה רבה פתח: ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום וגו׳

Midrash often works by using the rest of the Bible to explain the Torah. This verse is a summary of Creation. "I was by Him": "Him" is G-d; who's the "I"?

We'll come back to this.

Amon (אמון) means tutor, amon means covered amon means hidden, and, some say, amon means great. אמון פדגוג אמון מכוסה אמון מוצנע ואית דאמר אמון רבתא׃

In halacha you need to know the right answer. In midrash, you're looking for all the possibilities, to uncover the depth of the Torah. Each will teach you something about Torah.

Proverbs 8:1, 22–36 משלי ח

Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?

The Lord created me at the beginning of his way, the first of his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him (אמון): and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the his inhabited world; and my delights were with the sons of men. Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.

הֲלֹא־חָכְמָה תִקְרָא וּתְבוּנָה תִּתֵּן קוֹלָהּ׃

ה׳ קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז׃
מֵעוֹלָם נִסַּכְתִּי מֵרֹאשׁ מִקַּדְמֵי־אָרֶץ׃
בְּאֵין־תְּהֹמוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי בְּאֵין מַעְיָנוֹת נִכְבַּדֵּי־מָיִם׃
בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים הָטְבָּעוּ לִפְנֵי גְבָעוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי׃
עַד־לֹא עָשָׂה אֶרֶץ וְחוּצוֹת וְרֹאשׁ עַפְרוֹת תֵּבֵל׃
בַּהֲכִינוֹ שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָנִי בְּחֻקוֹ חוּג עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם׃
בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם׃
בְּשׂוּמוֹ לַיָּם חֻקּוֹ וּמַיִם לֹא יַעַבְרוּ־פִיו בְּחוּקוֹ מוֹסְדֵי אָרֶץ׃
וָאֶהְיֶה אֶצְלוֹ אָמוֹן וָאֶהְיֶה שַׁעֲשׁוּעִים יוֹם יוֹם מְשַׂחֶקֶת לְפָנָיו בְּכָל־עֵת׃
מְשַׂחֶקֶת בְּתֵבֵל אַרְצוֹ וְשַׁעֲשֻׁעַי אֶת־בְּנֵי אָדָם׃
וְעַתָּה בָנִים שִׁמְעוּ־לִי וְאַשְׁרֵי דְּרָכַי יִשְׁמֹרוּ׃
שִׁמְעוּ מוּסָר וַחֲכָמוּ וְאַל־תִּפְרָעוּ׃
אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם שֹׁמֵעַ־לִי לִשְׁקֹד עַל־דַּלְתֹתַי יוֹם יוֹם לִשְׁמֹר מְזוּזֹת פְּתָחָי׃
כִּי מֹצְאִי מצאי (מָצָא) חַיִּים וַיָּפֶק רָצוֹן מֵה׳׃
וְחֹטְאִי חֹמֵס נַפְשׁוֹ כָּל־מְשַׂנְאַי אָהֲבוּ מָוֶת׃

Wisdom (חָכְמָה), is the theme of the Book of Proverbs; the word appears in the book more than the rest of the Bible put together.

So, is Wisdom separate from G-d? Wisdom comes from G-d, but is portrayed here as being in a relationship with G-d. Wisdom appears also to predate the Torah.

So, this chapter is about Creation. But it's not about Creation itself, but something that was there, which watched Creation. And since the rabbis weren't there, and don't know what happened, and can't see things from G-d's point of view, because this is beyond us—the rabbis never try and examine the nature of G-d; that's a Western thing to so—instead, they hitch a ride on Wisdom's point of view, i.e. figure it out with their wisdom.

What was Wisdom doing there? Verse 30 tells us. שעשועים "delight" in Modern Hebrew also means toys: it's a source of amusement. For G-d, Wisdom is like a little pet (as opposed to the culmination of culture, which is how it was for the ancient Greeks). All of Jewish learning is being playful with the text; this is what the midrash is teaching us.

The "I" here refers to your wisdom. You're not the most knowledgeable in the world, but as you learn and grow in your knowledge, it gets G-d excited in the same way parents get excited at watching their children grow.

Another midrash says:

Every writer hints his name at the beginning of a book. [...] For tevot there will be שעשועים.

ואהיה שעשועים has the gematria of זה רבי הושיעא רבה 'I am Rabbi Hoshiya.'

Only it's mispelled with an aleph—cheat! So what's the point of this? We're saying you are like toys; what's the toy? R. Hoshiya, the author of this text!

[At this point Dr Zarum told a story about gematria:] All sedras are about love. But what about Koraḥ [which is about the rebellion of the titular character against Moses]? The first line has a gematria of ואהבת לרעך כמוך "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". But it doesn't add up! With love [said Dr Zarum], it doesn't have to add up.)

Now, back to amon:

1. Amon is a tutor1, as you read: "As an omen (nursing father) carries the sucking child." [Num 11:12] אמון פדגוג היך, מה דאת אמר: כאשר ישא האומן את היונק׃

1. Heb. פדגוג pedagog. A pedagogue is a teacher of children, specifically.

What's the context of this verse?

Numbers 11:11–11:12 במדבר יא
And Moses said unto the Lord, Why have you afflicted your servant? and why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that you should say unto me, Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing father carries the sucking child, unto the land which you swore unto their fathers? וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־ה׳ לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ וְלָמָּה לֹא־מָצָתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לָשׂוּם אֶת־מַשָּׂא כָּל־הָעָם הַזֶּה עָלָי׃ הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי אֵת כָּל־הָעָם הַזֶּה אִם־אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ כִּי־תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת־הַיֹּנֵק עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו׃

What's he supposed to feed them? Milk! But the manna is described as being like milk; and G-d sends the Israelites quail, which is meat. (It's all about milk and meat!)

Infants can't digest meat. Now, eating and learning are often compared, in English and most sandwiches languages. "Did you digest what I said?" "Let me chew on it a bit."

So, Moses is saying the Israelites think they're adults, but they're still infants. People—whether the Israelites or people today—think they're ready for תורת בשר, but really they're still only ready for תורת חלב.

Now on to the second explanation of amon:

2. Amon means "covered", as in the verse, "Ha'emunim (they that were clad—i.e. covered) in scarlet" [Lamentations 4:5]. אמון מכוסה היאך, מה דאת אמר: האמונים עלי תולע וגו׳׃

The context of this is:

Lamentations 4:5 איכה ד ה
Those who fed delicately are desolate in the streets: those that were clad in scarlet embrace dunghills. הָאֹכְלִים לְמַעֲדַנִּים נָשַׁמּוּ בַּחוּצוֹת הָאֱמֻנִים עֲלֵי תוֹלָע חִבְּקוּ אַשְׁפַּתּוֹת׃

Who's clad in purple? The royalty. Here they're ignoring the end of this verse to make the point that G-d is clothed in Wisdom. Also: When the Temple was destroyed, we lost our wisdom, and therefore G-d's Wisdom is not seen in the world any more. "We are the messengers who have forgotten the message."—Abraham Joshua Heschel.

3. Amon means "hidden", as in the verse, "And he brought up (omen) Hadassah" [Esther 2.7]. אמון מוצנע היאך, מה דאת אמר: ויהי אומן את הדסה׃

The context of this is:

Esther 2:5-2:7 אסתר ב ה-ב ז
Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordechai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite; Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away. And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter: for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was fair and beautiful; whom Mordechai, when her father and mother were dead, took for his own daughter. אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן־שִׁמְעִי בֶּן־קִישׁ אִישׁ יְמִינִי׃ אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה מִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִם־הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל׃ וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת־הֲדַסָּה הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת־דֹּדוֹ כִּי אֵין לָהּ אָב וָאֵם וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת־תֹּאַר וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת׃

It could mean he reared her, but it could mean he covered up her Jewish identity. It could also refers to the meaning of "Esther" as "hidden"; and that G-d is hidden (never directly mentioned) in the story; but if you're wise, you'll recognise the hand of G-d in the story. Hence G-d is hidden in Creation: you can't prove the existence of G-d scientifically.

4. Amon means "great", as in the verse "Are you better than No-Amon" [Nahum 3:8] which is rendered: Are you better than the Great Alexandria, that is situate among the rivers? אמון רבתא כמה דתימא: התיטבי מנא אמון, ומתרגמינן האת טבא מאלכסנדריא רבתא דיתבא בין נהרותא׃

What's the context here?

Nahum 3:8 נחום ג ח-ג ח
Art thou better than No-Amon, that was situate among the rivers, that had the waters round about it, whose rampart was the sea, and her wall was from the sea? הֲתֵיטְבִי מִנֹּא אָמוֹן הַיֹּשְׁבָה בַּיְאֹרִים מַיִם סָבִיב לָהּ אֲשֶׁר־חֵיל יָם מִיָּם חוֹמָתָהּ׃

It's referring to the Nile.

Now, Alexandria was famous for its library, which was the first place the Torah was translated. The rabbis are saying that the Torah is better than that. They're also saying you can't translate the Torah without losing it. It's like saying "The Torah is better than Cambridge."

They're not proving that the Torah is better than philosophy; they're asserting it. They're saying Torah doesn't work on that model.

Another interpretation: amon is a workman (uman). The Torah declares: I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be G-d. דבר אחר: אמון אומן׃ התורה אומרת אני הייתי כלי אומנתו של הקב״ה׃

The Jews didn't build great buildings; their great works were their ideas.

In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employ plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the doors.

Thus G-d consulted the Torah and created the world,

בנוהג שבעולם, מלך בשר ודם בונה פלטין אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו, אלא מדעת אומן׃ והאומן אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו, אלא דיפתראות ופינקסאות יש לו, לדעת היאך הוא עושה חדרים, היאך הוא עושה פשפשין׃

כך היה הקדוש ברוך הוא, מביט בתורה ובורא את העולם׃

This is the exact opposite of modernity: Rather than people looking at the world and inventing a god; G-d looked at the Torah as a blueprint to create the world.

...so the Torah declared, "In the beginning G-d created..." (Gen. 1:1), "beginning" referring to the Torah, as in the verse, "The Lord created me at the beginning of His way..." (Proverbs 8:22). והתורה אמרה: בראשית ברא אלהים ואין ראשית אלא תורה׃ היאך מה דאת אמר ה׳ קנני ראשית דרכו׃

So, finally, we've got to the beginning of the Torah. It starts ב־ראשית ברא אלהים. It's not "in the beginning G-d created the world"; it's "with Beginning (ראשית) G-d created the world." What is Beginning, what was there first? The Torah, which is Wisdom.

Proverbs 8:22 משלי ח כב-ח כב

Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?

The Lord created me in the beginning of his way, the first of his acts of old.

הֲלֹא־חָכְמָה תִקְרָא וּתְבוּנָה תִּתֵּן קוֹלָהּ׃

ה׳ קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז׃

It's not the same [as Greek wisdom; it doesn't require being a great philosopher to master]. You can grow into it. It's as great as any other knowledge and you can understand it through your wisdom

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