Is The Creation Story in the Torah True?

As we turn again to the beginning of our Torah, I want to address the question of, “Is it true?”

For me the stories in the Torah represent a religious or poetic truth–not necessarily historical or scientific truth.  That type of truth is why I cherish the Torah, place it lovingly in a special ark and even hold it up proudly after I read it to proclaim in Hebrew and English:  “This is the Torah which Moses gave to the children of Israel at the command of God.”

For example, if I am walking through a meadow, and I say with a sigh as I gaze at my beloved, “Your eyes are like two beautiful pools,” I do not mean that I may dive in to take a swim.  Neither, though, am I lying.  I am expressing a profound type of truth that wells up from the depths of my soul. (This example is found in Leonard Gardner,, Genesis: The Teacher’s Guide, published in 1966 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, on pages 18-19.)

As an example, let us consider the story of Creation. When the rabbis studied the story they did not ask scientific or historical questions like, “Did this really happen this way?”  Rather they asked questions like “Why did God choose to begin the account of creation (I.e. why does the first word of the Torah begin) with the letter Bet (ב,the second letter of the alphabet rather than Aleph, א, the first)?

They answered that just as the top and bottom of the letter are closed, so too are secrets of the essence of God above and of what happens when a person is laid to rest in the ground below.  Just as the back of the letter is closed, so are God’s actions before the world was created closed to our knowledge.  But the front of the letter is open!  That teaches us that we should concentrate our efforts and our energies on that which is open to us–this world and its mysteries.

In other words, one truth the rabbis derived from the story of creation is that the mysteries of what happened before the world was created, what happens after we die, and a complete knowledge of God’s ways are beyond us and should not be our main concerns.  Living lives of purpose and meaning and making this world as good as we can while we are here—these, the rabbis urged, should be the object of our efforts. (See Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 1:10 and/or Eugene Mihaly’s book A Song to Creation, published by Hebrew Union College press in 1975, pages 38-41)

Going a bit further, then the truth of the Story of Creation lies not in the contention that it happened as written.  Rather the truth to be gleaned is that Creation was not an accident, that God is the initiator of Creation, that Creation is meaningful and purposeful and therefore our lives can have meaning and purpose.  Furthermore as creatures created in God’s image–we human beings–not the tiger or the Rhinoceros– are in charge of and responsible for this world and what happens to it.  It is an awesome responsibility. The final element of truth to the story for Jewish thought is that it includes the idea of Shabbat.  If God can rest, we too can rest and reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Trend toward Older Mother’s Is 1000’s of Years Old

The fifth of the seven traditional blessings recited at a Jewish wedding proclaims: “May the (Akarah) barren woman rejoice with happiness in the company of her children.” The blessing is an acknowledgement and an affirmation of the recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible of the woman beyond normal child bearing age who has children. While the term Akarah means “barren woman,” it is used exclusively – and in no fewer than seven cases – in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a woman who has children well beyond the normal child bearing age. The first of these is Sarah, Abraham’s wife and co partner in the sacred Covenant upon which all of Jewish religious thought bases itself. In that Covenant God promises Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: protection, children, permanence as a people and the land of Israel. But those promises are conditional. To merit them we (as God said directly to Abraham) must: “Be a blessing in our lives (Gn 12:2), “Walk in God’s ways and be worthy (Gn 17:1) and fill the world with Tzedakah, “righteousness” and Mishpat,“justice.” (Gn 18: 19) Sarah, of course, feels completely left out because she has no children. In despair, Abraham cries out to God: “What reward can you give me seeing that I shall die childless?” (Gn 15:2). Desperately Sarah invites Abraham to use humanity’s first known fertility procedure–having a child with a surrogate-–so that she can be a mother. She invites Abraham to cohabit with her handmaiden, Hagar who bears Ishmael. Eventually-–at the age of 90-–Sarah herself gives birth to Isaac. Isaac in turn marries Rebecca who is an Akarah for 20 years until she conceives and bears twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob marries four women, but really only loves one, Rachel. And Rachel is also an Akarah for many years before giving birth to Joseph. Three of Judaism’s first four matriarchs, then, did not become mothers until middle age, and in Sarah’s case, well beyond. Leah, who bore children shortly after her marriage, is the only exception. Much later, Samuel, arguably the second most significant figure (behind Moses) in the Hebrew Bible is born to Hannah who is also an Akarah. The (unnamed) mother of Samson, the mighty warrior who delivers Israel from the Philistines is also an Akarah. Finally, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha each invoke God’s help to intervened and help two different women (both identified by the term Akarah) to give birth. Hannah and Samson’s mother share a vital common trait. They are steadfast, understanding and faithful, while the men around them (their respective husbands and Eli the High Priest) are clueless to the meanings of their divine interactions. What modern lessons are we to glean from these disparate but related biblical accounts? The fact that a disproportionate number of the Bible’s great figures are the offspring of an Akarah must be seen as a compliment to women who give birth during middle age or beyond. The many biblical Akarot (plural of Akarah) who give birth is testify to the correlation between desire to have a child and the level of nurture and love that child will receive. We all are all too aware of the many children born almost at random to young women who have neither the emotional maturity or the financial wherewithal, or the family support to become mothers. Often their children are the results of careless “accidents”. The middle aged woman who gives birth, by contrast, almost always does so with great intentionality and desire to become a parent. More often than not the children of such women are eagerly desired, lovingly nurtured and raised in a home where finances are more than adequate to see to the child’s needs. The Bible in its praise of middle aged mothers goes even further. It sees their years of desire and longing as worthy of special reward. They not only give birth, but they “rejoice with happiness in the company of their children” who are destined to play an important role in the history of the Israelite people. (This essay appears as a chapter in Cyma Shapiro’s recently published book: The Zen of Midlife Mothering)

The Premise of My Book in Brief

Rabbi Stephen FuchsWHAT’S IN IT FOR ME walks an important line between fundamentalism and fairy tale and fills an important niche in Torah commentary.  Fundamentalist perspectives on Scripture abound and so do commentaries denigrating Scripture as unscientific and unhistorical.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME cares nothing about science because the Bible is not a science book.  It cares little about history as well. The premise of the book is that its stories were carefully selected for what they can teach us about living more meaningful lives and becoming better people.

Torah presents to the world a deity unlike any others that people worshipped.  In the pagan world into which Torah emerged gods and goddesses were force that people worshipped because they presumed these deities had power.  The only purpose of worship was to bribe these gods with offerings so that they would not use that power to hurt or to induce the deity to use their power to help those who worshipped them.  Ethics, morals and human interaction were of no concern to these gods.

God in the Torah is entirely different.   Of course we only worship one God and our God is invisible.  But as crucial as these differences are they are NOT the most important.

The most important difference is the agenda of Torah’s God.  From the story of Creation on God’s desire is that human beings – we creatures who are in charge of and responsible for the quality of life on earth – use our power to create a just, caring ad compassionate society.  All of our religious behavior as Jews – Holy Days, festivals, and life cycle celebrations – is designed to inspire us to work toward God’s ultimate goal.

There is no overstating the importance of this difference.  Yes, there are sacrifices in the Bible, but their purpose is to inspire ethical and moral behavior not assuage God’s anger.  Over and over again the prophets particularly those of the eighth pre-Christian century, Amos Hosea Isaiah and Micah, instruct the people of Judah and Israel that sacrificial observance unaccompanied by ethical and moral behavior is an abomination.

How desperately we need that message today!  Our religious observances only have meaning in so far as they inspire us to care for those less fortunate than we are, to seek housing for the homeless and food for the hungry.  In Jewish thought there is no place for an innocent bystander in the face of poverty and injustice. This is the Torah’s timeless message .  That is the message I hope my book will help its readers make their own.