Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat B'reishit 5757
Genesis 1:1 - 6:8
October 12, 1996 29 Tishri 5757
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It happens every year: A fresh, slow reading of the Torah brings to light things I had not noticed before. Like Hagar lost in the wilderness with her son Ishmael, I failed to see the well which had always been there till God opened my eyes (Genesis 21:19). No chapter of the Torah is more familiar to me than the first, with its compressed and majestic story of the creation of the world. And yet here I sit astir with insights that eluded me till now.
I have long felt that the main purpose of the creation story is not to tell us how the world came into being, but rather to sanctify the Shabbat with the grandest of historical reasons - an act in the life of God. The depiction is as close as the Torah ever gets to mythology. What prompts this notable exception to its aversion of mythology is the extraordinary novelty of the Shabbat within the ancient Near East. The idea of a full day of rest every seven for all inhabitants of Israel, including servants, strangers and even livestock (Exodus 20:10), was as unprecedented as the Torah's idea of monotheism. Chapter one is the affirmation of both. The emergence of order out of chaos in six days is the singular achievement of one solitary deity, and culminates in a seventh on which God rests. Strikingly, it is the simple cessation from labor and not its glorious products which elicits God's blessing.
But why should a deity with the awesome capacity to create the cosmos need to rest? Even to entertain the idea is to diminish the grandeur of God. The association of rest with creation is a motif left over from the mythological repertoire of Israel's neighbors. In the Mesopotamian creation epic "Enuma Elish," the god Marduk creates humanity to provide his divine vassals with a retinue of servants to free them from life's menial chores.
I will create Lullu, "man" be his name,
I will form Lullu, man.
Let him be burdened with the toil of the gods,
that they may freely breathe.
The Bible, which in so many ways repudiates the views and values of its times, reverses the direction of this interaction. Not only does it eliminate any notion that the purpose of the human race is to enable God to rest, but it posits the very opposite: that God freely chose to desist from working on the seventh day to enable humankind to enjoy a weekly day of rest. The initial Sabbath mocks the primitive and materialistic quality of pagan mythology. God crowns creation with self-restraint to enhance human life, the first instance of the proposition that to become fully human we must strive to emulate the divine.
Beyond enshrining Shabbat as the linchpin of the Torah's festival cycle, the opening chapter establishes the number seven as the basic pattern of its calendrical system. It is as "unnatural" as the sabbath, the result of construing creation in terms of a seven-day period. The cosmic precedent sanctifies the centrality of the numerical unit. Thus in the Torah both the spring and fall harvest festivals of Passover and Succot extend for exactly seven days. Moreover, each begins at the end of the 14th day of the month, with the pascal lamb being eaten in the evening as the 14th ends and the 15th begins (Exodus 12:6, 18).
While the date of Shavuot is left imprecise in the Torah, it is to follow Passover only after the completion of seven full weeks, that is, on the 50th day. In accord with the practice of the Pharisees, we begin counting the Omer on the second night of Passover (Leviticus 23:15). Today Shavuot is fixed to begin on the 6th of Sivan. But there was a minority view in the Talmud that it should fall on the 7th, which would have been but another instance of the predominance of the number seven.
The seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishri, which we are just about to finish, is freighted with more holy days than any other: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot. Similarly, the preeminence of the month and the number is underscored by the paradoxical fact that by the Rabbinic period, we commemorate the start of a new year (this year 5757) in the seventh month.
The sacrifices that were offered in the Tabernacle and Temple on holy days also reveal a seven-fold pattern. Thus on every new moon, each day of Passover, the one day of Shavuot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the priests sacrificed a set of "seven yearling lambs without blemish (Numbers 28)." For the seven-day festival of Succot, the daily allotment of lambs was doubled to 14, while the total number of bulls added up to 70, both multiples of seven.
Finally, the Bible ordered the sequence of years by seven, creating the institution of a sabbatical year. Every seventh year the fields were to be fallow. Whatever grew naturally did not belong to the owner, but to any servant, stranger or animal who chanced upon it (Leviticus 25:1-7). The same spirit of compassion dictated that all unpaid loans extended to a fellow Israelite were to be forgiven in the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-6). Seven cycles of sabbatical years culminated in a jubilee on the 50th year when "you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants (Leviticus 25:10)."
In sum, for the Torah the number seven was not merely a lucky number, but the indication of a deep and pervasive structure. The organization of the cult and the calendar in terms of seven reinforces the centrality of Shabbat, even as Shabbat symbolizes the fundamental pattern and rhythm of our social reality. Imprinted on the Jewish mind by the creation story, the number seven is a constant reminder that existence as we know it did not spring into being by accident.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,