Posted on October 1, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it over and over, for all things are contained in it.”
The Torah is like a diamond. Examined from any angle, a different facet of its brilliance is revealed. It is ancient, and yet seemingly ever new. It is well known, yet unceasingly surprising. It is frequently mysterious, and also crystal clear.
Each week, we look to the ancient text of Torah to teach us something new, and it never fails. Sometimes new understandings emerge from the flow of the narrative, sometimes from archeology and historical analysis, and sometimes from philology and linguistics.
As we return to the beginning, to b’reishit, I share with you a chiddush, a new insight that emerges from the Torah’s creative use of language and numbers to convey messages and meaning.
Scholars and commentators have long understood the symbolic use of numbers in the Bible. For example, when a word or theme appears 7 times in a single passage, it is the Bible’s way of calling attention to an idea or concept. The number 7 itself is also symbolic, signifying perfection or completion. Hence, the 7 days of creation described in Genesis 1 convey the sublime wisdom of God’s work. The 7th day, Shabbat, is a day of perfection, peace, and wholeness. And, to top this off — so I thought — the word “good,” tov, appears 7 times in the first chapter, indicating that God’s world is a place of goodness, purposefulness, and inherent value.
What I had not noticed before is that the first verse of this first chapter of Genesis contains 7 words. Could it be a coincidence? I don’t think so. Two of the words are shamayim and aretz, “heaven” and “earth.” Using two opposites like this is the Bible’s way of referring to an entire range of something, from one end to the other. In this case, heaven and earth refers to the totality of being, of all existence. Also of note is the fact that the word et appears twice in this verse: et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz. The two-letter word et has no meaning of its own; it indicates a direct object in a sentence, in this case, “heaven and earth.”
Also noteworthy is the fact that the word et comprises the first and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alef and tav So, if we apply the rule that the Bible uses extremes to signify everything in between, et represents the beginning, the end, and everything in between — everything great and small, expansive, and minute.
The cumulative effect of employing all these literary devices in Genesis 1 is to drive home a sublime message, and to do so in a way that is both subtle yet overwhelmingly clear. Everything about creation is suffused with divine intention and godly sanctity. Nothing about this earthly existence is meaningless or random. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every bush ablaze with God.”
Everything and everyone matters. Nothing and no one is too small or insignificant. Every atom and every Adam (and Eve) is a world in all its wonder and a reflection of God’s glory.
Rabbi Ben Azai put it well in Pirkei Avot when he said: “Despise no one, and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and no thing that does not have its place.”
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” — the entire universe — and it is both hidden and revealed in the untranslatable particle et that represents all things. Praised be to God for giving us the ability to fathom something of the divine wisdom of creation.
Now, as Hillel would say, “all the rest is commentary — go and learn!”
Rabbi Arnie Gluck
 Pirkei Avot 5:22
 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Aurora Leigh’
 Pirkei Avot 4:3
 Genesis 1:1
 Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a