Oh, the Water! – Shabbat Bereshit 5780 (2019)

First there was water. Before the ‘beginning’ the ‘unformed’ earth featured ‘darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.’ The first three days of Creation as recounted in the Torah are all about the water. And the trajectory is crystal clear. On day one — not ‘first’, simply ‘one’ — absolute unity reigns supreme. God, says Rashi, is יָחִיד בְּעוֹלָמוֹ — alone, distinct, unique, One in God’s universe. Even at the end of ‘day one’ nothing else, ‘no thing’ else that is, exists. God and an enormous mass of undifferentiated water.

Creation proceeds by a series of “binary, contrasting units” (Aviva Zornberg’s phrase) starting with heaven and earth: “darkness and light, the lower waters and the upper waters, seas and dry land, sun and moon. The act of havdalah, ‘separation’, is central.” Dividing this from that is the essential dynamic of Creation. No additional thing comes to be without havdalah.

Trace the water through the first three days. We move from ‘darkness over the surface of the deep’ to ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water’ on the second day, to ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear’ on the third day. Separation, separation, separation; division, division, division. The separations are purposeful. Zornberg states it with characteristic clarity and eloquence: Humanity “is foreshadowed by the splittings and differentiations of matter that begin on the second day.” What’s more, humanity’s “freedom to perceive and to act is founded on those primal disintegrations.”

The dividings, generative of new possibility as they are, come at a cost. “The idea of separation and difference,” writes Zornberg, “has a tragic resonance” giving rise to “alienation” and “conflict.” Beautifully, Zornberg takes note of “the yearning of the split-off parts of the cosmos for a primordial condition of unitary being.” The Midrash powerfully captures that ‘tragic resonance’ – ‘Said R Berekhiah: the upper and lower waters separated from one another with weeping.’ [Bereshit Rabbah 5:4]  (לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּ) Parting is such sweet sorrow; here, it sets the stage for all of Creation, and it is simultaneously cause for bitter weeping. Necessary and generative separation goes hand in hand with yearning and longing for the unity that once existed. It’s the story of humanity.


The third day actually presents both modes – toward more division and toward newfound unity – in its first words. “God said, ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.’ And it was so.” Water is separated from dry land and water is gathered together to form a new unified entity identified in the next verse as the sea. Think of it as the ‘two step’ of Creation. Or, if you prefer, the interplay of incoming waves and outflowing undertow. The Hebrew for ‘gathered’ is yikavu whose root – kuf, vav, heh – also means ‘hope.’  The possibility of unity – smaller than the ‘original primordial’ variety but unity nonetheless – is, remains, will ever be present, will ever be our practical, achievable hope. That, too, is the story of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

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