Parasha Inspiration – Bereshit

This week we renew the Torah cycle with parashat Bereshit. The Torah begins with the story of the creation of the heavens (shamayim) and the earth (haaretz). Contained within this narrative are 4 of the 5 different terms that are translated as spirit or soul. Genesis 1:2 mentions Ruach Elohim, translated spirit of G-d. 1:24 mentions 2 of the terms, Nefesh and Chaya. These 2 terms are translated together as living creatures. 1:30 translates Nefesh Chaya, as living spirit. 2:7 says that G-d blew into man’s nostrils Nishmat Chayyim, translated soul of  life.

Each of these 4 terms, Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya, designates something different. There is no adequate translation into English or any of the Germanic or romance languages. Through study of these terms throughout the Tanakh, the sages explain to us the nuances and differences between the terms. Nefesh exists within time and space. Neshama and Chaya exist beyond time and space. Ruach exists beyond time and space, but is a bridge into time and space.

In this parasha, we see descriptions of the creation of that which is outside of time and space, the heavens, and that which is within time and space, the earth. It is very important that we see the distinction between the creation stories of the 2 different realms. If we do not pay attention to these differences, we will misunderstand and misinterpret large swaths of Scripture, both old and new Testaments. Those things that exist in the heavens (the term is plural because there are multiple heavens), do not exist in the earth, that is, within time and space. If we tried to place Scriptural narratives in the wrong milieu, we will misunderstand what Hashem is trying to teach us in the narrative. Likewise, if we try to place narratives that occur within time and space outside time and space, we will again completely misunderstand what Hashem is trying to teach us.

One of the great lessons taught in this parasha, and there are many great lessons, is that mankind is a creature that exists both beyond time and space and within time and space. Often we try to explain our existence beyond time and space by calling it our soul. Unfortunately, as we can see within the Torah, within this parsha, this is a vast oversimplification of the majestic and beautiful creation that Hashem has made. When we speak about certain things being spiritual, or of the spirit, we are not being precise at all with regard to Scripture. This leads to a great number of misunderstandings. As we continue our studies, we should strive to be more precise in our terminology. If we are using the general term, spiritual, what do we really mean? Do we mean Ruach? Do we mean Neshama? Do we mean Chaya? Utilizing this kind of precision will help us communicate with each other, with others in the body of the Messiah, and with nonbelievers as well. Not being precise in our terminology will lead to misunderstanding and confusion. As Rebbetzin Roni says, “bad terminology means bad theology.”

Shabbat shalom


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Rabbi Steven Bernstein

Steve was born on Lag B’Omer in Ann Arbor, MI but was raised in Gainesville, FL. The son of two University of Florida professors, he excelled in the sciences in school. In addition to his normal academic studies, he pursued his Jewish education studying with many Rabbis and professors of Judaic Studies from the University including visiting Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach.