I start reading the Torah anew and read the story of creation and the continuing biblical account of origins. The origin of the physical and biological, of mortality, of language, of culture, of race and of my people… all found in the book of Genesis.
What to make of these stories? Fact or Myth?
I think that Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin (Tanhuma 9) had it right: “all that happened to (lit. the stories of) the patriarchs (avot) was a sign (syman) for their descendants. (see also Ramban commentary to Lekh Lekha).
Ma’asay Avot Symon LeBanim
Avot or Av, as in my daughter’s name, Avigail, means source (in her case…. Source of my joy) . Avot can also mean principle or core as in Avot melachot (the core 39 work tasks forbidden on Shabbat אבות מלאכות)….
So the stories of our origins are [simply ?] a sign for their decedents.
Myth it is.
Does this detract in any way from the importance of these symbolic stories? Not for me it doesn’t. Here’s a few reasons why not….
- A great Hasidic rebbe was brought to trial on trumped up charges and one of his Hasidim was called as a character witness. After regaling the court with one story after another containing accounts of the Rebbe’s acts of kindness mixed with miraculous powers, the judge finally interrupted and asked in dismay: “you don’t actually expect us to believe any of these stories do you?” to which the Hasid replied: “you might be right. The stories might be a little farfetched, but do they tell such stories about you?”
- A Hasidic guideline to miracle tales: “If you believe every one of these stories, you’re a tipish (fool), but if you don’t believe that they could have happened, you’re a kofer (non-believer).
- J. R. R. Tolkien’s (from The Lord of the Rings trilogy) definition of a “myth” ….. which he contended “are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light….
- The most intriguing proof for the veracity of the Torah is that given by Yehudah HaLevi in the Kuzari. Halevi argues that since there were a multitude of people at Mt. Sinai (600k men etc.) and since they all transferred the story of the revelation at Sinai to their children… it must be true. Today, we know that an event watched live on TV by millions (e.g. Sept 11th) is still open to interpretation, misconstruction and falsification and so Halevi’s argument fails. But what is intriguing about Halevi’s proof is that it is a proof based on a recounted story … myth. It is a short step to say that while he does not prove anything, he does describe a God who lives in history, or in the recounting.
So Genesis matters because even though it is only a story… it is the story that was made up and recounted, revised and embellished about our world, by our forebears and hopefully by us as well. It is a myth worth studying, not because we believe it happened, but because there are visceral, moral and troubling elements in it that we would like to believe or at least confront.
Afterall… let’s remember that the God in this story, creates the world not with thunder or lightning, power or force, but with speech…. or should I say, with a story.
Elie Wiesel writes:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a ﬁre, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the ﬁre, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the ﬁre, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be enough.” It was enough, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the ﬁre and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even ﬁnd the place in the forest. [But I remember how to] tell the story, and this must be enough.”
And it was enough. [Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, introduction]
So let’s open this wonderful fable once again and stand in awe of the first story.