“Beit Shammai hold: borei means that God will create in the future, and Beit Hillel hold: borei also means that He has created in the past.”
– Masechet Berakhot 52b
Hidden in today’s daf which is mostly an argument about when to say the havdalah blessing (before the wine? after the spices? what about grace after meals?), is a gem of a theological question: Did creation happen once (b’reishit – in the beginning) or is creation continually happening? Do we thank God for having created fire, or do we thank God for being active in the creation of this fire?
The houses of Shammai and Hillel exchange arguments about whether borei means to have created, to presently create, or to create in the future. The answer is unclear, but there is room for interpretation that both can be true. The Vilna Ga’on elaborates on this (or so I’ve learned via profuse googling), and he says that there are two types of creation of fire: one, the concept of fire, which was brought into being only once, at the beginning of the world; and two, the physical, material fire that we observe. This is a fire that is continually created, moment by infinitesimal moment.
Three things emerge from this for me. The first is how insanely close this is to the concept of the Platonic ideal. Plato says that only ideas encapsulate the true and essential nature of things. The material world is just a manifest effect of an internal cause (to use Buddhist terminology).
It also reminds me of Rilke when he says, “the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us from the outside.”
The second is simply my own wondering: has everything in its essence only been created once, b’reishit, and is every external manifestation – that is, everything we see, feel, and experience in the material world – a perpetual becoming of that essence that was created ab initio in the mind of the Divine?
Finally, if everything on earth is constantly being created anew, and it is, what is that part of us that is our essence? What remains the same as everything else is given over to change and decay?
I would really love to be able to translate Rashi, because the more I think about this and the deeper I go, the more I question my own (non-rabbinic) interpretation.