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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

How the First Verses of the Torah Came to be Written - A Conjecture

“How did things get this way?” is probably one of the first things that ancient human beings asked. Not most of them, for sure. Like today, most people have enough to do trying to figure out and deal with what is happening right now. There has always been some subset of people, however, that asked “how” and “why” and “what for?” How did the universe get here? Why was the universe created? For what purpose? These questions ultimately come down to: why am I here? And what is my purpose?

I imagine some ancient person sat very quietly one day, looking at the sky and the ground and sea, and all the denizens thereof, and asked a fundamental question: Has it always been this way? If not, how did this come about?

This mythical ancient human being that I have conjured up had already heard other theories: “primordial gods at war with each other” or some other complex story. That was all hearsay. No one saw it.




My original ancient philosopher had Occam’s instinct, probably before anything like a razor had been crafted. William of Occam (or Ockham, 1287-1347), you will recall, was an English philosopher and theologian. As a philosopher, he, like many others before him and after him, liked the rule of parsimony: the fewer, the better. John Punch, a later philosopher, probably said it best: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” Some philosophers, like William of Occam and John Punch, enjoyed giving philosophical arguments a nice, close shave (hence, “Occam’s Razor”). Keep It Simple, Sunshine.

My ancient philosopher contemplated reality, considered the mythical stories, and rejected them. This philosopher concluded: It all comes from one source. Why suppose many gods when one can suppose one God as the origin of existence?

This ancient, prehistoric philosopher that I am imagining had the great fortune of having a friend, less philosophic, more mystical. The philosopher inferred a singular origin. The mystic intuited the nature of this Singular Origin of All Reality. “The Oneness permeated all,” the mystic said, “and this Oneness was alive in depths of the human being.”

The philosopher and mystic then went over to a sympathetic poet and shared their findings. This poet, fortunately, was not mesmerized by ancient myths of origins. Maybe this poet was a proto Leonard Cohen; a composer of sparse and simple lines, but somehow packed with a stunning, sinewy strength.

The philosopher, the mystic and the poet conferred for many years.

The philosopher: It all comes from One Source.

The mystic: This Source pervades all reality, and rumbles in the human soul.

The poet:

At the beginning of the Nameless One’s creating

Reality was an astonishing, wondrous, formless emptiness.

A Divine wind appeared over the liquid expanse –

And the Nameless One spoke.

I think the philosopher and the mystic were impressed and even very moved. They said, “Let’s talk some more, and then write this up.”

They wrote it up and memorized it and read it with other philosophers, mystics and poets. They formed a group and finally decided on a name: the Knowers of the Nameless One. They loved the irony: knowing that which cannot be known but must be found. They let other philosophers, mystics and poets in the group. The expanding group found the poem so beautiful that they memorized it. The philosopher, the mystic and the poet each found a suitable replacement as they faced the end of their days. The group, the Knowers (for short), expanded. The poem, in its depth, beauty and precision, grew over generations. The poem was hidden for centuries. They feared that dullards would read it and talk about it and thus ruin the exquisite experience of the Presence that was evoked when the ever-growing poem was recited.

This secret school of philosophers, mystics and poets (long before these foundational archetypes of human thought stopped working together) never claimed that this living word, with roots and branches and a wind moving through the murmuring leaves, was the spoken word of God. God did not dictate it.

The truth of the poem was not because God spoke it to them, but because the Presence brought the philosopher, the mystic and the poet together, and that Nameless One, a Presence that pervades reality, rumbles in the soul, and is the origin of speech and poetry, spoke through them.

I think the early listeners were able to infer a hidden message in the poem: The human being itself is a self-writing poem, seeking to understand itself, with the Divine as a prodding witness.

The truth of the poem lay in its power to enrapture those whose souls had something of the philosopher, the mystic and the poet knotted within.

(Later people said, “It is the revealed Word of God!” without bothering to tell anyone that the poem actually never says that.)

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley

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