JustOneWord: A Commentary on Parashat Bereshit 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

After the French theologian Antoine Arnauld expressed his support for the ideas of the Dutch Bishop Cornelius Jansen—who endorsed a handful of thoughts that Pope Innocent X decried as heresy in 1653—Arnauld was quickly removed from the société de la Sorbonne (“the society of the Sorbonne”).[1] When a young Frenchman named Blaise Pascal, just a few years before his death, penned eighteen Lettres provinciales (“Provincial Letters”) in support of these controversial doctrines, Pascal—hiding his identity by adopting the pseudonym Louis de Montalte—could not help but feel the urgency of the moment. Pascal, who would later become associated with a triangle he studied shortly before he turned most of his intellectual activity away from math and towards spiritual matters, apologized near the end of the sixteenth letter, dated December 4, 1656:

Je n’ai fait celle−ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.[2]


Image above of “Pascal’s triangle,” as first published in Blaise Pascal, Traite du Triangle Arithmetique (Paris, France: Guillaume Desprez, 1665), 6th page (unnumbered). Notably, in common contemporary presentation, this triangle is presented at a clockwise tilt of 45 degrees, as below:


1 1

1 2 1

1 3 3 1

1 4 6 4 1

1 5 10 10 5 1

1 6 15 20 15 6 1

1 7 21 35 35 21 7 1

1 8 28 56 70 56 28 8 1

1 9 36 84 126 126 84 36 9 1


Brevity is a gift of time. Brevity comes from time spent intentionally. Brevity comes from finding the right word—and the right words. Brevity, at its most sacred, is the gift of a few words that bespeak large feelings, ideas, and truths.
Brevity has, much to the chagrin of time, rarely been a hallmark of the Jewish religion. But this could change.
The first Book of the Torah, the Book of Genesis, which begins with this week’s torah reading, בְּרֵאשִׁית (“Bereshit”), opens with a thinly painted image of near-nothingness that encourages our imaginations to run wild with a vivid scene of spiritual disorganization:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

When God began to create the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was topsy-turvy, with darkness upon the face of the Deep and the spirit of God hovering upon the face of the water.[3]

In the beginning, there may have been no sound. No whirring of a Divine wind hurls from the ocean. And, despite whatever sight there may have been, there was no face but nature’s own to witness the vistas. Until God uttered “יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר” (yehi or, “Let there be light”)[4], there was no speech. But in two words, God created a world that could begin to speak far too much.
The anonymous medieval midrashic collection Midrash Bereshit Rabbati (מדרש בראשית רבתי) devotes much of its attention to counting the number of words or letters in different opening sections of Bereshit. For the authors of this anthology, the number of words or letters in various verses or phrases hinted at certain esoteric truths.[5] The seven Hebrew words that compose Genesis 1:1 paralleled “ז׳ ימי השבוע” (“the seven days of the week”).[6] Those seven words also were sufficient proof to the medieval mind that there existed “ז׳ רקיעים” (“seven heavenly echelons”) and “ז׳ ארצות” (“seven planets”)—justifying therefore that the Jews have seven mythical ancestors (namely Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah).[7] The writers of Midrash Bereshit Rabbati were not prone to reading rationally; they were certain that every word of Genesis should be read as if they carry an esoteric meaning. In the converse from how English speakers may be accustomed to the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” any imprecise word can produce images that differ from one another in the minds of different readers. Esoteric traditions expand what we imagine when we encounter words.

The mystical drive that powers Midrash Bereshit Rabbati, left to its own devices, can dwell on a single word and imagine seven worlds. Though Midrash Bereshit Rabbati receives the gift of brevity, it does not offer brevity in return. Although Midrash Bereshit Rabbati is fascinated by the smallness of the words that float their way towards the rabbinic authors, the hands holding the quill that produced this work generously shares the grandeur of the images that these words conjure.

On a bookshelf, the Hebrew Bible is a relatively small book compared to the Talmud, the Zohar, or most major works of Rabbinic Judaism. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, a small seed that grows into a large tree with many intertwining branches. The magnificence that blossoms from it all is a tree of life, with branches we can all hold onto.[8] But—with a tree this enormous—could we ever, in one fell swoop, witness the beauty of the tree in its entirety?

In the late 18th and early 19th century in Ukraine, Rabbi Gedalyah Rabbinovitz taught—in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism in the 18th century—

שכשיבוא משיח במהרה בימינו, ידרוש כל התורה מרישא לסיפא על כל הצירופים שבכל תיבה ותיבה, ואחר כך יעשה מכל התורה תיבה אחת ויעלו צירופים לאין מספר וידרוש על כל הצירופים.

that when the Messiah will come speedily and in our days, he will teach the whole Torah from the beginning to the end, engaging every permutable rewriting of each and every word, and then he will do [this reteaching] of the whole Torah out of one word, and all infinite permutations will emerge [therefrom], and he will teach all of those permutations.[9]

In one vision of the messianic era, the Jewish library might require even more rows of bookshelves for us to capture in writing evert possible understanding of what is sacred. But the messianic era, in this same view, may in fact herald the rewriting of the entirety of Jewish sacred scripture. This rewriting may amount to a single word. That one word will be devoid of any sense of ambiguity or insufficiency. That singular word will be the one idea we can hold sacred and from which all that is sacred may emerge.

What is that one word?

Brevity requires of us patience. Holiness demands of us awareness. All of this requires time.

We must slow down to find the divine. As we take our time and hold closely to that which is dear to us, the words will come. And one day those words will merge into the one and only sense of the sacred we truly require.

[1] Daniel Schmal, “Virtual reflection: Antoine Arnauld on Descartes’ concept of conscientia,” in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy 28:4 (2020), pp. 714–734; esp. p. 720, fn. 13.

[2] English translation of the French text from Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters (trans. Thomas McCrie) (Edinburgh, England: John Johnstone, 1847), p. 282.

[3] Genesis 1:1–2.

[4] Ibid 1:3.

[5] Hanoch Albeck (ed.), Midrash Bereshit Rabbati (Jerusalem: Mosad HaRav Kook, 1940), pp. 1–9.

[6] Ibid., p. 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cf. Proverbs 3:18.

[9] In Shim’on Menachem Mendil (ed.), Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov Al HaTorah (repr. Jerusalem, Israel: c. 1999), vol. 1, p. 1 of main work; cited as תשואות חן (Teshu’ot Chen) on Parashat Tazria; emphasis added.