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One Fine Day – Parashat Naso

Kevah is excited to share the weekly blog, ParshaNut, written by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator. Watch for this every week here in the Boulder Jewish News or make sure you don’t miss a week and subscribe to our blog here. Shabbat shalom from all of us at Kevah! 

I remember the day I fell in love with parshanut.

I was sitting in an ‘Introduction to Rashi’ class and, for the opening session, the teacher was taking us through the first chapter of Genesis. The first step, he explained, to understanding Rashi’s commentary – any Torah commentary, really – was to see what oddity in the text the particular comment was responding to. What was strange, incomprehensible, or unexpected in the verses of the Torah, that demanded some explanation?

In the narration of the first six days of creation, for example, we immediately see a pattern being established, and then just as suddenly, broken. Every day of creation ends with the phrase, “and there was evening, and there was morning,” and then numbers that particular day. But there are two irregularities in the series. See if you can spot them:

DAY ONE                                                  יום אחד

A SECOND DAY                                        יום שני

A THIRD DAY                                         יום שלישי

A FOURTH DAY                                      יום רביעי

A FIFTH DAY                                          יום חמישי

THE SIXTH DAY                                     יום הששי

The first departure from the pattern only becomes clear retrospectively, once we have few of the others. That is, we soon see that for every day but one, the numbering of the days is ordinal: second, third, fourth… But the very first day is given a cardinal number. That is, it does not tell you the position of the day, but the number of days that there are so far: one day.

The second anomaly is easier to catch. It’s the ‘The.’ THE sixth day is named with the definite article, whereas all the other days are just called: A first, A second, A third…

So, those were the questions we came up with: Why is the first day not marked as “the first day,” but just as “day one”? And what is it about that sixth day that needs to be called out as “the sixth day,” when none of the other days required such designation?

Rashi had answers.


As for day one, he offered the following explanation, borrowed from Midrash Rabbah:

day one – According to the sequence of the language of the chapter, it should have been written, “a first day,” as it is written regarding the other days, “a second; a third; a fourth…” Why did it write“one”? Because the Holy Blessed One was at that point alone in His world… 

יום אחדלפי סדר [לשון] הפרשה היה לו לכתוב יום ראשון, כמו שכתוב בשאר הימים שני,שלישי, רביעי. למה כתב אחד, לפי שהיה הקבה יחיד בעולמו

The use of the word “one,” here, instead of “first,” says Rashi, is meant to allude to the experience of the day, from God’s perspective. It was a day of just “one,” because it was a day in which God was the still the only One in the the world. There was light and darkness, but no one to behold it besides the One who created it. God was all alone.

I was startled. It was a poignant, if haunting, answer to the question we had asked – but was this kind of answer allowed? Was Rashi really suggesting that the simple phrase “day one” – seemingly just a statement of temporal fact – could have a hidden reference to the lonely existential quality of the day? And were we then to understand that the Torah speaks in a language of suggestive hints, requiring us to probe further to understand the deeper meaning of her words?

If I was already incredulous at this point, Rashi’s next answer promised to test my credulity even further. Why was it that the Torah spoke of the sixth day?

the sixth day –  [The works of creation] were all suspended until “the sixth day,” which is the sixth day of Sivan, which was already prepared for the giving of the Torah.

 יום הששי – כולם תלוים ועומדים עד יום הששי, הוא ששי בסיון המוכן למתן תורה

The sixth day is given the definite article, Rashi claims, because it refers to a particular sixth day, of a particular month. That is, the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai – which we celebrate every year with the Shavuot holiday.

So what is the connection between this first sixth day and that later one? According to Rashi, it seems that even as the work of Creation was being finished at the end of the first week, God was already pointing forward toward the day in the future when God would offer us the Torah. This, then, is the destination point of the timeline that is now being set into motion.

And why is all of Creation hanging, as if in suspense, until that day? Because, Rashi is suggesting, the world is actually being created in order that there be a space for the Torah to be given and received. In fact, the passage of Talmud from which Rashi is drawing his interpretation lays out the stakes of this objective in very stark terms:

The Holy Blessed One stipulated with the Works of Creation and said to them, “If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; but if not, I will return you to the Chaos and Void.” (Shabbat 88a)

התנה הקבה עם מעשה בראשית ואמר להם אם ישראל מקבלים התורה אתם מתקיימין ואם לאואני מחזיר אתכם לתוהו ובוהו 

On that first sixth day, when all of existence was completed, God announces that everything is riding on another sixth day: THE sixth day, when the Torah will hopefully be accepted. Without that acceptance, all will be for naught. And the way the Torah signals to us that this condition was in place, is by adding the letter, ׳,ה׳ which indicates not just a sixth day, but the sixth day.

Now, we may debate the merit of such an audacious (and particularistic) theological claim. But it was the interpretative method which really grabbed my attention that day. The Torah, in this reading, is telling us, the readers, that she is the purpose of the story we are reading, and that we will have to accept her (though indeed we already have), or else everything – including the story and the readers themselves – will disappear. And that entire hall-of-mirrors logic, as well as our ability to understand it and respond to it, is built on the addition of one single letter; so, in a sense, everything, quite literally, hinges on the ‘The.’

My mind was blown. I had never been told to read a book this way – never considered that such a method of reading was possible. The intricacy of this wound-up puzzle, the discovery experience of unraveling of it, and the magnitude of its implications – I found simply breathtaking. And that was it – I fell in instantly in love. Parshanut became my greatest passion, and I would spend the greater part of next two decades years immersed in the world of Torah commentary. Everything, for me, did indeed hinge on that one letter. And every Shavuot, on the sixth day of the month Sivan, when we reaffirm our acceptance of the Torah, I would remember once again the way that commitment hearkens back to the very first sixth day.

*

But what ever happened to the first day? I had been so enraptured, that day, by the second Rashi we read, that I had forgotten all about the first. Rashi had told us right away how the dilemma of the sixth day would be resolved, but he left the aloneness of God on day one as a tension hanging in the air. That is, we know how things turned out for us, but what ever happened to God? It was not until this week, reading the commentaries on Parshat Naso, that I found an answer.

We read this week about the consecration of the Tabernacle, and the ceremony is described through the listing of the offerings of every tribe, each one presented by the chief of that tribe, once a day for twelve days. And this is how that procession begins:

The one who presented his offering on the first day was Nachson ben Aminadav, of the tribe of Judah. (Numbers 7:12)

וַיְהִי, הַמַּקְרִיב בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן–אֶת-קָרְבָּנוֹ:  נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן-עַמִּינָדָב, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה

Did you catch that? In this listing of days, we do not start with “day one,” as we did in the Creation story, but “the first day.” Midrash Rabbah, which once took note of the of deviation from the pattern of ordinal numbers, now notices the return to form:

“The first day” – Rabbi Shmuel bar Abba said: Why does it now say the “first day”? From the day that the Holy Blessed One created the world, He desired to dwell with His creations in the lower realms. For see how it says on the very first day, “And it was evening, and it was morning – day one.” It does not say “the first day,” but “day one.” And if it said “day one,” it should have said “day two,” “day three,” etc. So why did it say “day one”? For until then, the Holy Blessed One was alone in His world, and He desired to dwell with His creations in the lower realms. But he could not do this until the Tabernacle was erected. Then the Holy One rested His presence among his creations in the lower realms. As the chiefs came to present their offerings, the Holy One said: Let it be written that on this day the world was created. (Numbers Rabbah 13:6)

בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר אַבָּא, מַהוּ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, מִן הַיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְהוּא אֶת הָעוֹלָם נִתְאַוָּה לָדוּר עִם בְּרִיּוֹתָיו בַּתַּחְתּוֹנִים, רְאֵה הֵיאַךְ כְּתִיב בִּבְרִיַּת יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן (בראשיתא, ה): וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד, יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן אֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר, אֶלָּא יוֹם אֶחָד, וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁאָמַר יוֹם אֶחָדיֹאמַר יוֹם שְׁנָיִם יוֹם שְׁלשָׁה, אֶלָּא לָמָּה אָמַר יוֹם אֶחָד, שֶׁעַד שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הָיָה יְחִידִי בְּעוֹלָמוֹנִתְאַוָּה לָדוּר עִם בְּרִיּוֹתָיו בַּתַּחְתּוֹנִים, לֹא עָשָׂה כֵן אֶלָּא כֵּיוָן שֶׁהוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְהִשְּׁרָה בּוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְהוּא שְׁכִינָתוֹ וּבָאוּ הַנְּשִׂיאִים לְהַקְרִיב, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִכָּתֵב שֶׁבְּיוֹם זֶה נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם

Of course, on some basic level, we can say that God was no longer alone in the world as soon as we and the other creatures were created – that is, by the sixth day of creation. But this midrash imagines in God a more existential longing: God did not simply want other beings to exist, but to be together with those beings. And this coming together did not truly happen until we built a dwelling place for God here in the lower realms. This first day of consecrating the Tabernacle, then, finally soothed the divine loneliness that had been aching since day one of creation. Now God could officially mark the first day, because from God’s perspective, it was on this day that the world truly began, for only now could God enter into it. And just as the Holy One was no longer alone, but could dwell amongst the multitude, so the day was no longer “one day,” by itself, but instead a day with companions – the first among many.

If such a union was only possible with the construction of the Tabernacle, then we might also say that it was only possible with the giving of the Torah, which contains the instructions for building the Tabernacle. If that is so, then the possibility of there being a “first” day, too, hinges on that sixth day on which we accept the Torah. The ability of God to be together with us depends on our accepting God into our world.

Parshat Naso, in which this “first day” is mentioned, is generally read on the first Shabbat after Shavuot. That is altogether fitting, for it is only after we have once again accepted the Torah that we can once again create a space to be together with God. Everything hinges on the sixth day.

And so it was for me, all those years ago, when I encountered that interpretation of “the sixth day” and fell in love. In that moment, in a way I could not yet fully comprehend, I accepted the Torah into my world. In doing so, I began to slowly construct a space that would allow me to discover, this week, in the days between Shavuot and Parshat Naso, a solution to God’s loneliness.

We are together now.

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