October 15, 1998
Creating Order in Our Lives
Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
Isn't technology great? I'll tell you why I'm asking. The first chapter of the Torah is always presumed to be about creation, and God's power and wisdom in His role as Creator. In a book published about a dozen years ago, Harvard Divinity School's Dr. Jon Levenson takes issue with that supposition. There can be no doubting, of course, that great acts of creation do take place in Chapter 1 of Genesis, but Levenson contends that the most elemental and basic acts that God performs "in the beginning" are not those of creation, but those of ordering and boundary-setting.
Indeed, when we read the opening verses of the Torah carefully, we discover that the recorded story actually begins after water and darkness had both already been brought into being. "And the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the waters." God then creates light, but that act of creation per se achieves nothing. The first day's work cannot be considered a success until the light and the darkness are untangled from each other (see Rashi's intriguing comment) and impenetrable boundaries have been established for them -- the boundaries that we know as night and day.
It was this act of giving order, of confining the darkness so that it would be unable to invade the domain of the light, that was the truly monumental accomplishment of Day 1.
The second day too, as well as the first part of the third day, were much more about boundary-setting than about creation. It was on these days that God placed limits upon the waters, confining some of them to the heavens above the firmament, and limiting the remainder to the bodies that would be known as the seas. Like the darkness, the water, too, would have to know its place.
These founding acts of ordering were even more elemental than the great works of ex nihilo creation that would follow. For it was the acts of ordering that would prevent chaos from enveloping and destroying all the good things with which God desired to animate the earth.
Levenson's observations have important implications for the thesis that he develops in the balance of his book, "Creation and the Persistence of Evil," but independent of that, they also provide a vital insight for all of us who desire to learn from and imitate the ways of God. This is because so many of us have trouble with the ordering and boundary-setting issues that we face in our own lives.
For many reasons -- one of the most significant being the availability of technology that enables us to be "at work" at any hour of the day and in any place in the world -- we cannot set firm boundaries between our professional and personal lives. For so many of us, work frequently crashes through the flimsy borders that we have set for it, and sometimes actually does wreak havoc upon our lives with the ones we love. If you are like me, you spent a lot of time over the High Holidays thinking about how you can do a better job of being there for your spouse and for your children.
But the notion that we need to grasp before we can fulfill our resolutions is that of meaningful boundary-setting. We can't get out of the starting blocks without that. We can draw instruction from the very first verses of the Torah. God began with a proper ordering of things and, with the understanding that the alternative could be chaos, proceeded to create a world that is filled with beauty, meaning and joy.
There's a wonderful implicit message in the fact that we always begin the annual Torah reading cycle just after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "It is time to begin again," the reading cycle tells us. "And the way to start is by putting the elements of our lives into their proper order."
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles.