“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.”
These words, perhaps the most well known of the Bible’s, are in fact a mistranslation.
The correct translation of the opening Hebrew word of the Torah, bereishit, is not “in the beginning” (that would be borishonah), but “in the beginning of.” How, then, are we to read the Torah’s first sentence? In the beginning of what?
The commentaries offer various interpretations. Rashi sees this as an indication that the verse is to be interpreted allegorically: the word bereishit is to be read b-reishit or 2-reishit (in Hebrew, the letter bet is also the number “2”), meaning “for the sake of the two things described by the Torah as reishit (‘first’)—the Torah (Proverbs 8:22) and Israel (Jeremiah 2:3).” In other words, the Torah’s opening verse informs us not only of the fact of G-d’s creation of existence but also of the purpose to which He did so: that the people of Israel should implement the divine will by observing the mitzvot of the Torah.
But how, after all, are we to read the literal meaning of the verse? Rashi explains that the first three verses of the Torah form a single sentence: “In the beginning of G-d’s 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.”
Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia ben Yaakov, circa 1470-1550) interprets the word bereishit as “In the beginning of time.” The Torah’s first verse is telling us, he goes on to explain, that the creation was not an event which took place in time, but an event which marked time’s onset. 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 out of utter nothingness.
Put another way: rather than “in the beginning G-d created…” we might say that “G-d created the beginning.”
In light of this, an oft-posed philosophical problem can be resolved. Since G-d is eternal and unchanging, 1 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 as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi points out, the question is a non-sequitur: since time is itself part (indeed, the first part) of G-d’s creation, there is no stretch of time that can be termed “before” creation. 2
Certainly, the universe was “preceded” by a state of non-existence–preceded, that is, in the conceptual sense. At a certain point, G-d desired to create a world. But this is not a point in time, but a point in the divine reality. G-d, in essence, is above the desire for a world, yet He desired that He have this desire. In relation to this desire, the world exists; in relation to the divine essence which transcends this desire, it is utter nothingness. This is the “before” and “after” of creation. But in terms of physical time, creation “always” was, since the very first moment of time is also the first moment of creation.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Cheshvan 24, 5738 (November 5, 1977) and on other occasions.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.