Shabbat Shalom Friends!
With the beginning of the new year, and the beginning of reading the Torah again for another year, I asked myself a simple question about how we tell stories, and how the beginning and the end frame the experience.
I was struck in particular by different ways of reading the same story.
If you have ever paid attention to the weekly Torah readings, oftentimes it seems a bit strange that the reading will sometimes begin or end in a way that does not seem to jive with the numbering system of chapter and verse.
Let me explain for a moment.
The division of the Torah into chapters is not an ancient system, nor is it even a Jewish system, rather the current system was developed by Cardinal Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the early 13th century. However, the division of the Torah into weekly sections or parshiyot dates back to Talmudic times, with evidence of divisions into paragraphs going back even farther.
Let us look at two aspects of the story in this week’s parsha, where this difference can lead to interesting interpretations.
First of all, the entire parsha, parhsat Bereishit, begins with the beginning of the story of Creation, and ends with the birth of Noah. When we look at the chapter divisions, it begins with Chapter 1, verse 1, and ends with Chapter 6, verse 8. When we look more carefully, chapter 5 ends the long list of generations and chapter 6 begins by describing that Gd was displeased with creation and decided to destroy it.
The reading according to chapters sees the decision to destroy the world as the beginning of the story of Noah and the Flood. However, the reading by parsha sees the description of the decision to destroy the world as the conclusion to the entire Creation Story! So what is it? An end or a beginning? If it is the beginning, it sets up a world that can grow out of destruction–the opening crisis sets the stage for the story to unfold. If we read according to the parsha, it leaves a much deeper existential question: The decision to destroy the creation as an end to the story of creation itself forces us to ask about the value of the world. It introduces the element of human responsibility and influence on Gd’s decision. So what is it? The announcement of impending destruction? Is it the end of the creation story, or the beginning of the Noah story?
One more example is rooted in another type of division. The weekly parsha reading is also divided into seven aliyot–each of which has a different person honored in the public reading to bless before and after the reading. Here too, we can see a degree of interpretation in how to read the story which sometimes contradicts the chapter divisions.
Chapter 3, verses 22-24 are the description of Gd deciding to expel Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. According to the chapter divisions, this is the end of the story of the Snake and the forbidden fruit. However, according to the divisions for the public reading, the Eden story ended in verse 21 with Gd fashioning garments for Adam and Eve, and the announcement of the expulsion is the beginning of the fourth section, which is the story of Cain and Abel, that begins with the expulsion. What a difference! Is the decsion to banish Adam and Eve the end of the Eden story or the beginning of the story of Cain and Abel? Is it the punishment for disobedience, or the setting of the stage for the continuation of life afterwards and all of the complications that occur when we live in the real world and not Eden?
Each of these readings can lead to very different interpretations of the stories, and therefore different understandings of how to apply the lessons to our own lives.
As we begin the new annual cycle of reading the Torah, may we examine carefully how we begin and end the stories as we are studying, but even moreso, may we take into our lives the ability to listen very carefully to our friends, partners, children and parents when they tell us stories–how do we listen? Are we beginning and ending the story in the same place? Perhaps that is the source of a disagreement or challenge in understanding each other?
I find the tradtional reading of these two passages much more compelling than the chapter divisions, seeing the expulsion as a beginning and opportunity rather than a closing and a punishment in the second example. And the decision to destroy the world as a closing to the creation story challenges us to deeply consider our actions and reflect on them. The Christian divisions of the Bible into chapters was universally accepted by the Jewish community and offers us new insights into how to read our Bible–may we be blessed to learn from many different sources this year!
Shabbat Shalom and happy learning!