ESSAY: The First Creation
Time, to the Jew, is an objecta substance
to be shaped and formed into an instrument of divine will
Listen - someone is calling
The First Creation
In the beginning G-d created the
heavens and the earth.
Perhaps half the earths population would recognize
this as the Bibles opening sentence. But in the view
of a number of the biblical commentaries, these words, as
written above, are a mistranslation of the original Hebrew.
The precise meaning of the word bereishit is not in
the beginning (that would be barishonah), but
in the beginning of. How, then, are we to read
the Torahs first sentence? In the beginning of
The commentaries offer various interpretations. Rashi (Rabbi
Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) says to read the Torahs
first three verses as a single sentence: In the beginning
of G-ds creation of the heavens and the earth, when
the earth was chaotic and void ... G-d said, Let there
be light, and there was light. Another approach
is that of Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yaakov, circa 1470-1550),
who interprets bereishit as In the beginning
of time. Bereishit is the very first moment of
time, a moment without a past; nothing preceded this moment,
since with this moment G-d created time itself.
In other words, while time is itself a creation (a most basic principle of the Jewish faith is that every reality
was created by G-d), it is the first and most primary of creations.
Indeed, creation (beriah, in the Hebrew),
which means bringing something into being out of a prior state
of non-existence, implies a before and after;
so to say that G-d created anything is also to say that He
first (or simultaneously) created time. To say, In the
beginning G-d created..., is also to say, G-d
created the beginning.
Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi applies this
concept to resolve a philosophical problem regarding G-ds
creation of the world. Since G-d is eternal and unchanging,
we obviously cannot say that He matured to a certain
state or had a certain idea grow on Him. So why
did He create the world only when He did? Why not one year,
a hundred years or a billion years earlier, since whatever
reasons He had for creation were certainly just as valid then?
But this question, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is a non-sequitur.
Time is itself part of G-ds creation. We cannot ask
why the world was not created earlier, since there is no stretch
of time that can be termed before creation.
The First Mitzvah
Times status as the first creation sheds
light on another point raised by the commentaries on the first
verse of the book of Genesis. In his commentary on this verse,
Rashi quotes the Midrash:
The Torah should have begun with, This month shall
be to you the head of months... (Exodus 12), which is
the first mitzvah commanded to the people of Israel. Why does
it begin In the beginning of...?
Torah means law and instruction;
the function of the Torah is instruct us on the laws of life,
which it does via the 613 mitzvot (divine commandments) it
addresses to the people of Israel. But the first such mitzvah
appears only in the 12th chapter of Exodus, where G-d commands
the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh - the sanctification
of the new month and the setting of the Jewish calendar.
Why, asks the Midrash, does the Torah devote the first of
its five books, and a good part of the second, to things other
than its primary purpose? While there is many a lesson to
be learned from the Torahs accounts of the creation
of the universe, the history of mankind and the lives of the
Patriarchs, would it not be more appropriate for the Torah
to begin with G-ds direct instructions to us?
The Midrash goes on to explain the Torahs reason for
opening with its account of the creation - a reason whose
deeper significance we have explored on another occasion.
In this essay, we shall dwell on the Midrashs reference
to the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh as the first
mitzvah to be commanded the Jewish people. Why, indeed,
was this our first mitzvah? Obviously, the setting of our
calendar has a far-reaching influence on many other mitzvotit
determines when we will sound the shofar, fast and
atone for our sins, conduct the Passover seder, as
well as a host of other time-specific observances. But it
would seem that there a number of other, no less fundamental
mitzvot. In what sense is the mitzvah of setting the calendar
more basic to our service of G-d than mitzvot such as Torah
study, charity or prayer?
Man and Thing
To understand the relationship between the first mitzvah
and the first creation, we must first take a closer look at
the dynamics of the mitzvah.
There are two basic aspects to the mitzvah: its relationship
to the person performing it, and its relationship to the materials
and resources with which it is performed. In the terminology
of the Talmudists, there is the gavra (man
element) of the mitzvah, and the cheftza (object)
of the mitzvah.
Every mitzvah-act, by virtue of its being the fulfillment
of a divine command, creates a link between the person doing
the mitzvah and the One who commanded it; indeed, the word
mitzvah means both commandment and connection.
In addition, each of the 613 mitzvot has its own particular
effect on the mind, character and habits of the person. An
act of charity contributes not only the fulfillment of the
needs of the recipient but also to the making of a more sensitive
and caring giver; putting on tefillin reminds its wearer
of his special relationship with G-d and of his duty to commit
his mind and heart to serve Him; eating matzah on Passover
makes tactual the experience of the Exodus and increases the
eaters awareness of the gift and responsibilities of
freedom; studying Torah inculcates the mind of its student
with the divine wisdom. It is of the personal
aspect of the mitzvah that our sages speak when they say,
The Torah was given to refine the human being.
In addition, a mitzvah has a profound effect on the physical
resources with which it is performedthe animal hide
in the tefillin, the woolen threads of the tzitzit,
the branches covering the sukkah. The act of mitzvah
refines and sanctifies these physical substances, transforming
them into objects of holiness - things whose form
and utility express their subservience to the divine will.
On the face of it, it would seem that a mitzvahs effect
on its person is far more significant than its
effect on its object. The person doing the mitzvah
is perceptibly changed. Our sages note that habit becomes
- even a formal, routine act, with little or no conscious
awareness of its significance, has an effect upon the mindset
and character of the actor. On the other hand, it would seem
that nothing really happens to the object of the
mitzvah, which remains a mute piece of matter. So what does
it mean when we say that a thing with which a mitzvah is performed
is refined, sanctified and transformed?
In what sense is pair of tefillin holier
than an ordinary piece of leather?
Common wisdom has it the more abstract a thing is, the loftier
and more worthy it is. Thus it is generally agreed that the
ethereal is grander than the real, that idea is greater (more
ideal) than fact, that the spiritual is holier
(i.e., closer to G-d) than the physical. Indeed, our sages
refer to the physical world as the lowliest of
Why is it that greater tangibility renders a thing lowlier
and less divine? The Chassidic masters explain the un-G-dliness
of the physical as due to its self-centeredness. I am,
proclaims the physical thing. If you wish to search
for a deeper meaning to my existence, be my guest. But as
far as Im concerned, Ive no need to for significance
or definition beyond the self-contained fact of my existence.
This is in direct conflict with the cardinal law of reality,
which is that There is none else besides Him
that G-d is the only true existence, and that everything else
is not besides Him but an extension and
expression of His reality.
The first step to diffusing this contradiction is to impose
function and purpose on a physical substance. When wood, wire
and ivory are formed into a piano, the result is an object
- matter with a manifest objective. Rather than the simply
saying I am, a piano states: There is more
to me than the fact of physical matter of a certain quantity
and shape: everything about me speaks of other, more transcendent
realities. I convey the fact that there is music; that there
are people who compose, play and listen to music; that there
are craftsmen who assemble instruments to serve this end.
My existence is a result of, and servant to, all these truths.
But this elevation from material to object is only a transcendence
of a limited sort. True, a piano (or a book, or a hammer)
bespeaks ideas and endeavors beyond its own brute substantiality;
but are these ideas and endeavors more G-dly? Are they less
in conflict with the truth that There is none else besides
Him? Perhaps. Perhaps the music being played on the
piano expresses a yearning for something beyond mere existence;
perhaps it elevates its listener an increment above his animal
self and its needs and wants and suggests to him a higher
purpose to life. But not necessarily. Music can also be an
expression of the ego and its most base aspirations, in which
case its spirituality is nothing more than an
idealization of the very fallacy we are striving to transcend.
But when a physical substance is formed and used as the object
of a mitzvah, it becomes vessel and instrument of the divine.
The I am of the physical now becomes, I
am nothing on my own; I exist to serve my Creator.
Time as Material
In this way, the 613 mitzvot of the Torah transform the physical
world into what the Midrash calls a dwelling for G-d - an abode which houses and serves the divine truth. For every
physical thing, force and phenomenon can be utilized to fulfill
a divine command: brute matter (the animal hide of tefillin,
the wool of tzitzit, the coin or banknote given as
charity), the human body (the brain that studies Torah, the
lips that pray, the feet that walk to the synagogue), physical
energy (Shabbat and Chanukah lights), and the very essence
of physicality - time and space themselves.
Every mitzvah is a physical action - an action transpiring
in time and space. So every mitzvah uses a certain
area of both time and space as component parts of its object,
thereby sanctifying them as instruments of the divine will.
Thus our sages have said that it is preferable to perform
many smaller mitzvah-actions instead of one big
mitzvah. A common application of this principle is the pushka,
or charity box, which is a prominent feature of
the Jewish home: every day, one drops a few coins in the box;
when the box fills, its contents are given to charity. In
terms of the objective to aid the needy, nothing is gained
by giving $1 a day over 100 days rather than giving $100 in
a lump sum; but in terms of the mitzvahs effect on the
person and the physical world, more acts of charity means
more refining influences upon the person, and more utilizations
of time in fulfillment of a divine command.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov takes this a step further, saying
that it is preferable to perform two mitzvot on two different
days than to do two such actions on a single day.
For in this way, two different time units (the day
being an integral component of time) are refined and elevated through their participation
in an act of mitzvah.
Torah law distinguishes between two levels in a things
utilization by a mitzvah: as an object of a mitzvah,
or as instruments of a mitzvah. A mitzvahs
object is the thing or substance with which the
mitzvah is actually performed, such as the leather boxes which
the Jew binds on his head and arm as tefillin; a mitzvahs
instruments are the resources which facilitate
and enable the mitzvahs performance, such as the tools
which fashion a piece of leather into tefillin or the
food which provides person putting on the tefillin
with the energy to bind them on himself.
Time fills an auxiliary, instrumental role in
the performance of every mitzvah. There is one mitzvah, however,
in which time is the primary object - the resource
which is actually shaped and formed in conformity with the
divine will. This is the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh,
sanctification of the new month.
The Jewish calendar is punctuated with numerous callings
of holiness - the festivals and special
days designated by the Torah as possessing special spiritual
qualities. These are more than commemorations
of historical events: the very substance of the time occupied
by Passover is imbued with the quality of freedom, that of
Sukkot with joy, of Shavuot with the revelation at Sinai,
of Rosh Hashanah with G-ds annual resumption of His
sovereignty over the universe, of Yom Kippur with teshuvah
- the capacity to access the very quintessence of ones
soul and its bond to G-d. And so it is with every festival
and special day on the Jewish calendar - each has its unique
holiness and divine quality woven into the very
fabric of its time for us to call forth and actualize
by observing the mitzvot of the day.
One would think that the spiritual character of time is fixed
and absolute, established by the Creator when time itself
was formed. Indeed, such is the case with the weekly Shabbat,
which G-d blessed and sanctified by
resting from His work of creation, thereby establishing the
seven-day work/rest cycle which defines our week.
But with regard to the annual cycle of the festivals, G-d
desired that these should be sanctified by human beings. The
mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh is that we should
fix the calendar based on monthly sightings of the new moon
and our calculations of the lunar and solar cycles,
and that these sightings and calculations should determine
which day shall be a Yom Kippur, which days shall comprise
the festival of Passover, and so on. The Torah goes so far
as to state that even if those entrusted with the task of
making these calculations err, it is their mistaken
conclusions which create the holiness and specialty of the
This is the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people.
The mitzvah to know and believe in the existence of
G-d, to love your fellow as yourself, or to study Torah day
and night might be more fundamental in terms of the mitzvots
effect upon the person; but in terms of the mitzvots
transformation and sanctification of the universe, the sanctification
of the month is the mitzvah whose object
is the most basic element of the physical creation.
Based on the Rebbes talks, Adar II 27, 5717 (March
30, 1957), Cheshvan 24, 5738 (November 5, 1977), and on other
Our sages tell us that Every day, an echo resounds
from Mount Sinai beckoning to man to come close to G-d.
Said Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov: Have you ever met someone
who told you that he hears this echo? To what purpose is this
proclamation if no one hears it?
But often a person is seized by a feeling that has no identifiable
source or cause. He may be struck with a sudden joy, or fear,
or regret. He may suddenly resolve to turn a new leaf in his
life, to embark on a new initiative in his spiritual development.
From where do these unprovoked awakenings come?
Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Sinai.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
 See discussion in Likkutei Sichot, vol. X, pp. 176-177
and sources cited there.
 The Holy Thief, WIR, vol. X, no. 4.
 Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 44:1.
 Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; et al.
 Midrash Tanchuma, ibid.; see note
 Tzavaat Haribash pg 1.
 As per Genesis 1:14, the cycles and divisions by
which we measure and categorize time - the year, week, day,
etc. - are not artificial impositions, but were woven into
the very fabric of time by its Creator.
 Leviticus 23:4; see Appointments in Time,
WIR, vol. IX, no. 33.
 See Jewish Time, WIR, vol. X, no. 25, and
note #4 there.
 Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 25a, after
Leviticus 23:2. Thus, the Shabbat Kiddush concludes with
the words, Blessed are You G-d, who sanctifies the
Shabbat, while the Kiddush for the festivals closes,
... who sanctifies Israel and the timeswhich
the Talmud (Berachot 49a) reads as, who sanctifies
Israel, who sanctify the times.
 The first mitzvah in Maimonides enumeration
of the mitzvot.
 A great principle in Torah
according to Rabbi Akiva; according to Hillel, This
is the entire Torah - the rest is commentary.
 The equivalent of all the mitzvot,
according to Talmud, Peah 1:1.
 Indeed, according to the teachings of Chassidism,
it is the sanctification of its object, rather
than its person, that is the primary function
of the mitzvah. For this is what man is all about,
this is the purpose of his creation and of the creation
of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral - to make for G-d
a dwelling in the lowly realms by utilizing the resources
of the physical world to fulfill the divine will (Tanya,
 Likkutei Sichot, vol. XX, pp.
315-322 and 333; vol. XXI, pp. 64-65; et al.
 Ethics of the Fathers 6:2.