When was love created? asked a modern Israeli poet. When were the angels made? an ancient sage inquired. Each question contains an essential quest: to read a detail of personal interest both into, and out of, the few verses of the Torah’s creation story.
The question of the Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, was implicit in the answer that she discerned when she brought her own quest to bear on a close reading of Genesis chapter 1:
Love was created on the second day. When the two expanses were torn apart
the day that was one became two.
Love was created on the second day. ‘Ere called by name
and with no “let there be!”
Yet the sea began to rise. Embrace was fashioned, and lament was formed.
(Click here for Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)
The day before love was created, light came to be with a let there be; and with an act of naming, light became day. Through separation, day and night were made to follow one another, independent sovereigns presiding over bordering realms.
In contrast, water was not formed by let there be. The separation of water above from water below did not resolve into different and independently named elements that could exist easily side by side, like day and night. In fact, love was created by the distance between the water’s two parts that would forever strive to become one, again. Love is the tide’s rise and the rain’s reach, as old as the world.
Eighteen hundred years before Rivka, in the land of Israel, Rabbi Yohanan discerned another story in the waters of the second day:
When were angels created? Rabbi Yohanan said: On the second day angels were created, as it is written: He sets the rafters of his lofts in the waters (Psalm 104:3); and next, it is written: He makes the winds his messengers/angels (Psalm 104:4).
(Click here for Midrash in Hebrew and English)
At the heart of Rabbi Yohanan’s question was a quest to find the story that would found his belief: God, alone, was eternal. Angels were creations, despite their heavenly presence and powers.
Rivka Miriam relied solely on her reading of the Genesis narrative. Rabbi Yohanan, in the manner of the sages, adduced a Bible verse in which the winds (also spirits in Hebrew) that are God’s messengers (also angels in Hebrew) are to be found among the roof beams of heaven’s expanse that are miraculously set in waters above.
The poet, the sage, and the rest of us bring living concerns in search of a sacred past. Ask a question about the beginning of things. Look past the narratives of let there be. Rather, ask about the hidden narratives of there must be. Like Rivka and like Rabbi Yohanan, you will see that your question urges you to give to the story of beginning a plot that your life already holds.
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