The Wheel and the Arrow
Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )
The opening verse of the Torah is so well-known, so much a part of our culture, that we often fail to notice just how revolutionary the idea embedded in it is. The concept of creation ex nihilo – the claim that the universe came into being from nothing due to an external act of creation – is by no means self-evident. According to all ancient cultures, as well as modern science prior to the discovery of the Big Bang, the universe has always existed. Even the so-called creation myths of ancient religions didn’t really describe the world as created from nothing, so much as formed from existing processes within reality (say, from the union of a primal god and goddess).
The question whether the world always existed or was created at certain moment is more loaded than it may first seem. Each answer to this question gives rise to a radically different picture, and experience, of the world.
For example, it raises the question if there is something outside the world. If the world has always existed, that means it's the most primordial thing in existence. What we can perceive and experience, be it with our senses or with our imagination, is all there is. If, however, the world was created at some point, that means that something transcendent lies beyond it – an even more primordial Divine Being.
Another question stemming from the concept of creation is, whether or not the world has a direction. One of the most prevalent concepts in ancient religions was the "myth of eternal return." Since the world was believed to have always existed, it was seen as governed by a circular law: It emerged from the void and was destined to be swallowed up by it again, the events taking place in it were destined to repeat themselves forever, and the cycles of nature were perceived as absolute and unbreakable.
According to the Torah, on the other hand, which describes the world as having been created ex nihilo, creation has a direction and a purpose, towards which it advances like an arrow shot from a bow. It begins from a state of chaos, void, and darkness in which humans quickly sin and damage the world, and ends with the world’s redemption, universal peace, and all-embracing Divine revelation: “For the world shall be filled with the knowledge of God as water covers the sea.” Nature has cycles, but the arrow of time flies through them, pulling them with it, turning them into a spiraling ribbon, like a kite’s swirling tail.
Lastly, these two world views generate different emotional and spiritual experiences for those who espouse them. While belief in nature alone imparts a sense of stability and security, it also limits us to a closed world with no hope for redemption. If nature (teva, in Hebrew) is a closed system, then in a certain sense we’re all destined to drown (lit’boa) in it. On the other hand, the arrow of time draws a line (kav) of hope (tikvah), elevating us above nature. It throws us a lifeline, a kind of long tube like those used by old-time divers, letting us breathe the oxygen of faith and trust in our Creator, and cleave to Him.
From the Beginning or the Middle?
In literature, a distinction is made between two ways to open a story: ab ovo (lit. “from the egg”), that is from the beginning of the story; and in medias res (“from the middle of things”), that is from the middle of the story. Because of their circular nature, many ancient myths begin “from the middle of things.” Because a circle has neither a beginning nor an end, we necessarily enter it from the middle. The Torah, on the other hand, which opens with the creation of the world, is considered the prime example of a literary narrative starting from the beginning.
But is it really so simple? A number of hints suggest that while, on the surface, the Torah indeed describes the beginning of reality, on a deeper level, it begins – not unlike those ancient myths – “in the middle of things.”
The first hint is that, out of all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the Torah begins with beit, the second letter. It could easily have begun with the first letter, alef (for example, by writing not “Bereshit bara Elokim”, “In the beginning God created,” but “Elokim bara bereshit,” “God created in the beginning”), but nevertheless begins with a beit. This alludes to the idea that “Bereshit” isn’t really the beginning, but that something even more primordial preexisted the world – the Divine Being who created it.
The second hint is that we read the Torah in a cyclical manner, starting anew each year. On Simchat Torah we read its last words, “le’einey kol Yisrael” (“in the eyes of all of Israel”), and then immediately roll the scroll back to “Bereshit”, thereby coming full circle with its beginning (after dancing in a circle with the Torah scroll…).
What does the fact that the Torah doesn’t really begin at the beginning, but in the middle, tell us? It tells us that despite the importance of linearity, which breaks free of the wheel of nature, the circle too has an important purpose, and is rooted in something even higher.
The circular dimension of the Torah gives us two messages. The first is that the arrow of time, symbolizing all our worldly ambitions and labor, is anchored within an eternal Divine circle lying entirely above time. This lesson injects a more balanced perspective into our lives and reminds us of this timeless eternity.
The second message is that linear movement over time must be integrated within the cycles of nature – the weeks, months, years, and larger cycles (like shmittah and yovel). A harsh linear approach that ignores nature’s cycles will end up trampling nature, and is destined to collapse like a tower without foundations.
These two circles – that of nature and that of the Divine light surrounding it – are the spark of the myth of eternal return that the Torah redeems and elevates in its opening story.
A point to ponder: Notice that the last letter of the concluding word of the Torah, Yisrael – lamed – together with the first letter of the opening word, Bereshit – beit – form the word lev, heart. This is especially interesting in light of the fact, that the three letters preceding the lamed in Yisrael (shin, resh, alef) and the three letters that follow the beit of Bereshit (resh, alef, shin) each form the word rosh, head. The linear Torah begins with one “head”/mentality and ends with another, different one. What connects these two “heads” into one reality is a “heart” – the heart that feels the cycles of nature and Divinity.