What exactly does ‘Genesis’ mean anyway?

(Photo: Unsplash/Genesis)

The Jewish community have just finished celebrating the joyful festival of Simchat Torah, which actually ends what Rosh Hashana starts and ushers in the new cycle of Torah readings. Why should it take three weeks for this extended festival to usher in the new with the book of Bereshit, known in English as ‘Genesis’?

This is because Judaism is like a tree – its positive effects grow very slowly and need a great deal of watering and nurturing in order for it to attain its full potential and be finally appreciated for the beautiful specimen it really is.

And that certainly was the carnival-like atmosphere here in the street this week, especially as we enjoyed one of those particularly sunny, cold and dry autumnal days which occur from time to time in the city of Salford. We knew that the end had truly ended and the beginning had really begun.

There are many explanations for the precise meaning of the Hebrew word with which the Bible begins. The Hebrew term ‘Bereshit’ is commonly rendered as ‘In the beginning ….’. However, I’ve also seen ‘Once upon a time’.

Coming from parents who survived the Holocaust, I could never get to grips with the phrase ‘once upon a time’. What on earth was the preposition ‘upon’ doing in the middle of a sentence which was written to denote the start of all things material? Who exactly was doing the sitting ‘upon’ time, and why was it ‘a time’, and not simply ‘time’ in the abstract?

My parents couldn’t help because they were foreign and themselves having to get to grips with a new town, a new country, a new language and new weather from scratch. And all this while coming to terms with the enormity of the Shoah (the Holocaust) and with no-one to help them.

This state of affairs started me off on my in-depth study of sound and language: how did one relate to the other? And why did people laugh at my parents, who were far warmer, cleverer, abler and more personable than other people’s parents?

Apparently it was because my parent’s vowels sounded suspiciously Polish. But weren’t the Poles supposed to have been on the side of the British during the War, I asked myself? And this led to an interest in history and especially of English and European history and, eventually, to the sombre and unexpected discovery of what exactly the vast majority of Poles had done to the Jews who had been part of the country of Poland since time immemorial (from ‘in the beginning’ in fact).

A special treat was when our family travelled down to London from our small northern seaside town in order to visit Madame Tussaud’s in Baker St, London. This was at a time when roads were not good and the journey took much longer than now.

There, aged around eight, I would go around with my parents, pointing out all the famous models from history – from the history that was now mine – but in some way could never be theirs.

What particularly struck me from those days long ago was the story of the Burghers of Calais.

Inevitably, a whole stream of adults and children would end up following us around Madam Tussaud’s, learning all the dates and stories entwined with the history of England, our adopted home. However, the icing on the cake was when the nice lady in charge of the wax works told me that one day, if I didn’t watch out, I would become a historian of note. I think my love of history came from a search for those unknown beginnings.

Which, brings me back to the start of our Genesis reading this week of ‘in the beginning’. We are not even certain that this is its meaning. Hebrew lends itself to many variations on a theme. Some commentators have opted for the phrase ‘by means of a beginning’, and some preferred ‘for the sake of the first-fruit’. So yes, for several Jewish commentators, the heaven and the earth were created by G-d first creating the beginning for the sake of His ‘first fruit’.

It’s funny how prepositions tend to have a life of their own, a bit like ‘once upon a time’. And this is especially the case in Hebrew, with its humble little letter ‘bet’, the first letter of the Bible, which incidentally also means ‘home’ and ‘Temple’.

The shape of the letter ‘bet’ is very interesting. It is the letter which starts off the Bible for both Jews and for Christians and is shaped like a tent with an opening on the left – Hebrew being written from right to left. This opening is interpreted as conveying the idea of welcome to the other, i.e. drawing people in, and hope for the future, and looking outward to the world, just like the meaning of home, in fact.

Much has been made of the fact that the first thing that G-d does after forming the first human is to ‘plant a garden in Eden’ and to ‘place the human in it’. Then ‘The Lord G-d caused the sprouting from the ground every tree pleasant to the sight and good for food, as well as the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden.’ (Genesis 2: 7-9)

From this is it taught that in Judaism trees are the first companions of humanity and are our first teachers. We even have a ‘New Year for Trees’, while planting a tree as a gift is the norm within the Jewish community.

Just as we are supposed to be both hospitable and outward-looking, so is the Torah described in Proverbs 3:18 as ‘a Tree of Life to those who grasp her’.

So, as we start once again from the beginning of the Book of the beginnings, we embark on the cycle of learning the Torah, open to whatever comes our way. And all this is symbolized by the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the Paradise which is G-d’s gift to humans, as long as we know how to grasp it. 

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.

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