During the past week, the draft November diary was circulated for comment and amendment. I noticed that it included two different ways of specifying the time: a.m. and p.m. on the one hand, and the 24-hour clock on the other. Like most people, I favour consistency, so the question arose, which method to use? It looks like there is a consensus to continue with a.m. and p.m.
In recent years, the expression ‘24/7’ has entered the vocabulary to describe the extent to which modern societies are dominated by a non-stop culture that goes on relentlessly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without pause, with no differentiation made between one day and another, one week and another, one month and another, one season and another, one year and another… Just, on and on and on… the hours divested of all meaning, and with no other purpose than to go round and round… In this context, unlike the 24-hour clock, the practice of differentiating between before noon and afternoon provides shape to the day.
So, what of the weeks and the months, the seasons and the years? This week, the cycle of Torah readings begins again with the very beginning – B’reishit. And so we read, in the very first verse of Torah: B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim v’eit ha-aretz – ‘In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ This verse is usually translated, ‘In the beginning’– but that’s not what the Hebrew says. From the perspective of the Torah, creation was an ongoing process, not a specific moment. This idea is reflected in the morning version of the blessing of creation recited after the bar’chu, the call to prayer – and taken a little further. There we read that the Eternal One ‘renews the work of creation continually, every day’ – m’chaddeish b’chol yom tamid ma’aseih v’reishit. Life is dynamic and ever-changing – more of that in a moment.
There are two narratives of creation. The first is concerned with order and is set in time. The second explores what it means to be human. Today, my focus is on the first account, which proceeds day by day, with a hierarchal presentation of the formation of life, culminating in the creation of humanity. It has an evolutionary quality about it. So, we read of the creation of light and the distinction between light and darkness, the division of the waters below and above, involving the creation of the heavens, the gathering of the waters under the heavens making way for dry land and allowing for the sprouting of vegetation, the creation of the creatures that live in the waters on the one hand, and that fly above the Earth, on the other, the creation of the land animals and insects, and finally, the creation of humanity.
In this progressive account of the development of life, the fourth day – between the sprouting of vegetation and the creation of the fish and the birds – interrupts the order of progress by introducing the sun, the moon and the stars, and relating the role of the sun and the moon in dividing the day from the night, and in marking the seasons, the days and the years. Why this interruption? Wouldn’t it make more sense to include the sun, moon and stars at the beginning of the narrative, along with the creation of light in the darkness? It would make more sense, if the text was concerned only with describing the generation of forms of life. The account of the fourth day, teaches us that life is not simply about content – about this and that form of life – it is also about process.
The first clue to this process lies in the designation of each stage of creation. The first stage concludes: Va-y’hi erev va-y’hi voker, yom echad – ‘And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.’ Note: ‘one day’ – not: ‘a first day’. To say ‘first’ is to imply ‘second’. The initial verse of the Torah is a summary statement: B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim v’eit ha-aretz – ‘In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ To fully appreciate the process of life coming into being that follows, the narrative begins with a pre-life state evoked beautifully in the very next verse: ‘Now the Earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; with the spirit of God hovering – m’rachefet – upon the face of the waters.’ Martin Buber commented that the image of God here, presented in the feminine, brings to mind a mother-bird hovering over her young. It’s a lovely image. ’Hovering’ also evokes a state prior to movement: a helicopter, for example, before it takes off or lands. The Divine presence: inhabiting an endless moment; hovering on the brink of time, before setting in motion the journey of life. Scientists talk of ‘the big bang.’ I prefer the poetry of this second verse of the Torah. One day: an eternal day, prior to the dawn of time.
So, time is set in motion: there is a second day, and a third, and so on… And yet, time has no meaning yet: just one day, following another. And so, with the account of the fourth day, we learn, that life is lived in ‘seasons’ and ‘days’ and ‘years’. Later, after the second account of creation, at the end of the story of the first man and woman, we also learn that what lives must die. The life of each and every living creature is by definition finite.
The beginning of the Torah invites us to reflect on what it means to be alive. And not just the beginning of the Torah: The biblical Hebrew text as a whole is characterised by a curious grammatical feature: the ‘Vav conversive’ that converts a verb in the future tense into the past tense – and vice versa – although most instances are future to past.
The very first instance of this feature is in verse 3 – and it is extremely brief. We read:
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light’ – Va-yomer Elohim y’hi; va-y’hi or.
The Hebrew of ‘Then God said’ – Va-yomer – is in the future tense; what gives it a past meaning is the addition of the consonant, Vav. Similarly: ‘Let there be light’ – y’hi or – ‘and there was light’ – va-y’hi or. Without the Vav: y’hi or, ‘Let there be light’; with the Vav: va-y’hi or, ‘and there was light’. In verse 3 the reader encounters a specifically Hebraic consciousness concerning time. There is no present tense in Hebrew – just the use of the participle – as in ‘hovering’. And while most of the Hebrew Bible speaks in the past and future tenses – strictly speaking, perfect and imperfect – in the great majority of cases, the converting Vav is used, so that the future is expressed with a verb in the past, preceded by a Vav; and the past is expressed with a verb in the future, preceded by a Vav. A familiar example of conversion from past to future is in the Sh’ma: ‘You shall Iove the Eternal your God’ – V’ahavta eit Adonai Elohecha. Without the converting Vav, ahavta means ‘you have loved’.
So, what’s going on with the use of the Vav conversive? The way in which the first account of creation concludes provides important clues. As I mentioned earlier, a hierarchical narrative, the pinnacle is reached with the creation of humanity on the sixth day. But in fact, the narrative doesn’t end there. Rather, it concludes with the seventh day. Curiously, if you look in the Chumash, you will see that Genesis chapter 2 opens with the verses concerning the seventh day. But this is not the way Jews read the text. The chapter divisions were the work of Christian scholars. By contrast, Jews read the narrative concerning the seven days of creation without a break between the sixth day and the seventh day. And so, we learn that a week has seven days. More important, we learn the meaning of this seven-day time frame. We read, concerning the seventh day – and this is the literal, and far from literary translation:
Then heaven and earth were finished, and all their host. / Then on the seventh day God finished His work, which He had made; and He ceased on the seventh day from all his work which He had made. / Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it; because on it He ceased from all his work, which God had created to make.
The text is convoluted, but it couldn’t be more emphatic about stating that God, both, finished his work on the seventh day – by creating a day for ceasing from work – and ceased from all the work of creation on the seventh day. The seventh day is then set apart from all the other days, as the Torah uses for the first time the language of sanctification: va-y’kaddeish oto – ‘and [God] sanctified it’. The Hebrew root Kuf Dalet Shin means to ‘set apart’. The Vav conversive is used liberally in these verses. Without it, the verbs would be telling us that heaven and earth ‘shall be completed’, that God ‘shall finish’, ‘shall cease’, ‘shall bless’, ‘shall sanctify’… So, the week becomes the basic unit of Jewish time. But more than this, the designation of the seventh day as a day of ceasing from work interrupts the endless round.
Nevertheless, this does not explain the curious role of this past/future future/past converting Vav. As we try to make sense of it, we could begin with the obvious: that Jewish life is framed by a past to future dialectic. We constantly look back at our experience of slavery, which is recalled twice-daily in the blessing of liberation that follows the Sh’ma, and remembered every Shabbat, and each year at Pesach, the festival that celebrates the Exodus. We are also forever on a journey towards the future, described in the account of the journeys of our first ancestors related in Genesis and through the post-slavery journey in the wilderness, related in Exodus and Numbers. That onward journey is also expressed, powerfully, in the biblical books of the prophets, in the prophetic visions of the future time of wholeness and peace.
And yet, the Torah, and in particular, Deuteronomy, is replete with examples of the significance of the present. And so, the Sh’ma speaks of ha-d’varim ha-eileh asher m’tzavv’cha ha-yom – ‘these words that I am commanding you today.’ Similarly, we read at the beginning of parashat Nitzavim: Atem nitzavim ha-yom, kul’chem, lifney Adonai Eloheychem…’ – You are standing today, all of you, before the Eternal your God.’  And further on in the same portion: Ha-mitzvah ha-zot asher Anochi m’tzavv’cha ha-Yom – ‘this commandment that I am commanding you today.’ But the references to ‘today’ are misleading. The invocation of ‘today’ is not an invitation to be in the moment. On the contrary, it is an exhortation to act. When Abraham responded to God by saying, hinneini, ‘here I am’, he indicated his readiness to do the bidding of the Eternal One. The same is true of Moses, when he responded in an identical manner at the burning bush. Just as ‘the spirit of God hovering’ was a prelude to the work of creation, so, every moment, every now, is a prelude to action. At the heart of the dialectic between the past and future is the dynamic, ever-changing present.
So, how does the dialectic between past and future relate to life now, in today’s ever-changing present? This October, is marked by three significant anniversaries. First, the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, when the residents of the East End prevented Mosley and his anti-Semitic fascist black shirts from marching through their streets on October 4, 1936. Then: the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet tyranny, which began on October 23, 1956, and was swiftly crushed by the USSR. And finally, today: the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis precipitated by the Israeli assault on Sinai on October 29, 1956, was planned in secret with Britain and France in response to Egyptian rearmament and Nasser’s nationalisation of the Canal. The conflict around the Suez Canal turned out to be but one ‘crisis’ in a long litany of conflict in the region that continues to this day. Similarly, that momentous day on Cable Street and the Hungarian Uprising have contemporary echoes. Mosley’s brand of fascism in Britain in the 1930s expressed a rejection of foreign immigrants – mostly Jews at the time – and their descendants, and the Hungarian uprising and the violent response of the Soviet Union, precipitated a refugee crisis. Back in 1956, Britain accepted thousands of Hungarian refugees. More recently, the British government seems to have forgotten the importance of welcoming refugees – and the Hungarian government of authoritarian leader, Victor Orban has erected a wall to keep them out. From a Jewish perspective, the purpose of remembering the past is to learn its lessons and so ensure that we do what we can now to create a better future. That’s why Jewish social justice organisations, like JCORE, are busy campaigning at this very moment on behalf of unaccompanied minors abandoned in Calais. May the Hebrew Bible’s use of the magical converting Vav remind us that we live in a continuous dynamic present in which now is always the time to act. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom v’Rei’ut
29th October 2016 / 27th Tishri 5777
- Genesis 1:1. ↑
- For an analysis of the two creation narratives from a feminist perspective, see: Chapter 1 Making Trouble from Day One: Re-Reading the Creation Stories in Genesis, in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012). ↑
- ‘People Today and the Jewish Bible: From A Lecture Series’ by Martin Buber (November 1926) pp. 4-21 in Scripture and Translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, translated by Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Indiana University Press; Indianapolis,1994). ↑
- Gen. 3:19. ↑
- Deuteronomy 6:5. ↑
- As with all the 54 portions of the Torah, B’reishit is divided into seven sections, corresponding to seven aliyot – the seven ‘call ups’ – to the Torah reading, with the last verses of the seventh section, repeated as the ‘concluding’ verses of the portion, the Maftir, which is linked to the reading from the prophetic books that follows the Torah reading, the Haftarah (‘conclusion’). According to the Ashkenazi (Northern European tradition), the second aliyah is called up at the beginning of the account of the fourth day, the third at the beginning of the account of the sixth day, and the fourth at the beginning of the second creation narrative. According to the Sephardi (Spanish-Portuguese tradition), the first account of creation is read in its entirety as the first aliyah, and the second aliyah begins with the commencement of the second creation story. ↑
- Gen. 2:1-3. ↑
- Deut. 6:6. ↑
- Deut. 29:9. ↑
- Deut. 30:11. ↑
- Gen. 22:1. In this narrative, God ‘tested’ Abraham, by telling him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Even before he knew what God would say to him, Abraham’s response was hinneini – ‘here I am’. ↑
- Exodus 3:4. When the Eternal called Moses ‘out of the midst of the bush’, Moses responded, hinneini – ‘here I am’. ↑
- http://www.cablestreet.uk/ ↑
- http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/the-cold-war/the-hungarian-uprising-of-1956/ ↑
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/suez_01.shtml ↑
- https://sg.news.yahoo.com/hungary-too-small-viktor-orban-134336547.html http://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/09/09/hungary-builds-wall-damon-wnt.cnn http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/08/hungary-build-border-fence-stop-refugees-160826084509375.html ↑
- http://www.jcore.org.uk/let-the-children-in ↑