In the beginning [in Hebrew, “bereishit”, beginning with the letter beit] G-d created the heavens and the earth. (Gen. 1:1)
Why did the Torah begin with the letter beit [the second letter of the alef-beit] and not with an alef [the first letter]? Why was the alef saved for the first letter of “Anochi” [“I”], the first word of the Ten Commandments? The peshat of the Torah is its body, while the sod of the Torah is its soul…
[The fact that the Torah begins with the letter beit of “Bereishit”] teaches that the Torah has or contains two aspects: peshat (its simple or literal meaning) and sod (its deeper meaning).
The peshat of the Torah is its “body”, while the sod of the Torah is its “soul”. Its “body” corresponds to This World”, while its “soul” corresponds to the World to Come. The important thing to know is that, although the complete revelation of the “soul” level of the Torah is reserved for the World to Come, this does not mean that “drops” or “inklings” of that deeper level are not accessible now. The Torah…that the tzadikim learn in Gan Eden, is none other than its level of sod…
For the Torah in which the Holy One took delight [before creating the world], as well as the Torah that the tzadikim learn in Gan Eden, is none other than its level of sod. Indeed, the Torah studied in Gan Eden was the initial Torah.
Therefore, [the fact that the Torah begins with the letter beit] also teaches that the Torah [that we have here in the physical dimension] is the “second” Torah, the one that was enclothed [assumed the lower form of this world] and which is a “garment” for the initial Torah [its soul]. Again, for this reason the Torah begins with a beit, which itself is the second letter of the alef-beit.
[Our Sages cautioned (Chagiga 14b) that] we do not have permission to speak about what precedes alef, for this relates to questions such as: What is above? [What preceded this world?] What is below? Etc. Alef corresponds to the dimension of Atzilut, the “first” world, in that it precedes Beriya, the “second” world. This teaches that the Torah that we have comes from Beriya. Accordingly, it uses the word “bara” [Hebrew for “created”], since it is only up to this world [the level of Beriya] that we do have permission to speak. For this reason, the Torah begins with the letter beit.
Atzilut, and all the more so, anything that precedes it, in contrast, we may only contemplate, in thought [in Hebrew, “machshava”].
Atzilut thus corresponds to machshava. Beriya corresponds to oscillating thought [in Hebrew, “hirhur”, the intermediate stage that takes place as we translate pure thought into words]. Yetzira corresponds to speech [“dibur”], and Asiya corresponds to deed [“maaseh”].
This set of correspondences is alluded to in the verse, “He saw it, and He declared it; He measured it; yes, and He examined it” (Job 28:27).
This verse in context: “A pouch of Wisdom is better than rubies… pure gold cannot be weighed against it. But whence does Wisdom come? Where is the source of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all beings, concealed from the fowl (angelic beings) of the heavens… G-d understands the way to it; He knows its source. For He sees to the ends of the earth; He observes all that is beneath the heavens. When He fixed the weight of the winds, set the measure of the waters; when He set an ordinance for the rain, and a course for the thunder; He saw it, and He declared it; He measured it, yes, and He examined it. See, the fear of G-d is wisdom. To shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:18-28).
Alternatively, the reason the Torah begins with the beit of “bereishit” is because the letter beit is breached [open] on one side, and enclosed on three sides. In this sense, its form is like that of the world.
The intention behind this was that, if any man would think to declare himself a deity, people would challenge him to create [i.e. complete] the fourth “side” of the world. Caius Caligula is one such example.
Regarding Caius Caligula, we find in the Talmud: “It happened once that Shimon HaTzadik heard a Voice from Heaven issue forth from the Holy of Holies announcing, ‘The enemy’s decree [to place a statue of himself] in the Temple has been annulled.’ At that moment, in another part of the world, Caius Caligula was slain and his decrees annulled. They noted down the time [when the Voice from Heaven spoke] and it tallied [with the time of Caligula’s assassination]” (Sotah 33a; see Josephus, The Jewish War, Book II 9:1). How great is the good that You have hidden away…
This breached side is none other than the tzafon, the north side of the world, as the verse indicates, “He stretches forth the north over tohu and suspends the earth upon nothingness” (Job 26:7). That is, the Blessed One placed the firmament over all the other directions – east, west and south – as a dome is placed over walls. Only over the breached north side of the world is the firmament suspended over nothingness.
Physical evidence for this [spiritual principle] may be found in the fact that ships wishing to travel from the north-east to the north-west cannot travel west along the northern border. Instead, they must take a long, round about route, traveling south along the eastern border, then west along the southern border, and then north along the western border, until they reach their destination in the north-west.
Clearly, if they could travel straight along the northern border, they would do so, for it is a much shorter route. Rather, that border is breached, like a city whose northern wall has been destroyed. Ships therefore cannot travel there.
Behold, the entire thickness of the Earth, compared to the depth of the Atlantic Ocean, is like that of a mustard seed. For the Atlantic Ocean is five hundred years deep [i.e. it would take five hundred years to span it by foot], whereas the thickness of earth is a mere seven years.
Kabbalistic tradition always clothed information about the hidden spiritual dimension in the “scientific” facts of that time. In the words of the Maharal of Prague: “The Sages did not concern themselves in the least with physical phenomena, but with [underlying spiritual] essence…” (Maharal, Beer HaGolah, Be’er HaShishi, p. 128).
[Note of the Ramchal, Maamar HaAggadot, Introduction to Ein Yaakov: Our Sages encoded much of the esoteric tradition that they had received in matters relating to nature or astronomy. In other words, they utilized the knowledge of nature and astronomy that was accepted among Gentile scholars of their time [in order to transmit hidden knowledge]. Thus, they never intended to teach the ‘physical’ facts concerning these phenomena, but rather to utilize these facts as garments or vehicles for esoteric secrets. One should therefore not think that they were wrong because a particular [scientific] model that they used is no longer accepted. Their intention was to clothe the hidden tradition in the accepted knowledge of their generation. That very tradition could have been clothed in a different garment according to what was accepted [as scientific fact] in other generations. And, in fact, the originator of that particular haggadic statement would have done so himself had he stated it in those other generations.]
Rav Chaim now returns to the original problem at hand, namely, the nature of the fourth, breached side of the world. In one sense, this side seems to be identified with evil, desolation, etc. On the other hand, he will now quote verses to the effect that there is another, extremely positive aspect to the north:
[In order to further clarify the nature of this breached north side of the world,] we can pit one verse against another. One verse states, “Evil will emerge from the north upon all the inhabitants of the land” (Jeremiah 1:14). From here, it seems that the north represents Gehinom.
Another verse, however, states, “How great is the good [i.e. the light] that You have hidden [in Hebrew, “tzafanta”, from the same root as the word for ‘north’, ‘tzafon’] away for those who fear You…” (Psalms 31:20). And another verse states, “Whose stomachs You fill from that which is hidden” (Psalms 17:14). The word “tzafon” in these two latter verses refers to Gan Eden, for it is there that the Hidden Good is stored away for the righteous. And another verse states, “I will say to the north, ‘Give forth!'” (Isaiah 43:6), that is, in the Future, G-d will tell the north [“tzafon”, i.e. Garden of Eden] to yield all of its goodness to the righteous.
Gehinom and Garden of Eden are opposites. How can one word represent both? And what does this have to do with the breached side of the world? Chesed is…associated with the element of water…
Rather, the truth is that “tzafon” [north] is the side of gevura and Isaac, just as “darom” [south] is the side of chesed and Abraham. Chesed is also associated with the element of water [which expands and spreads forth]. Similarly, Abraham did chesed for the whole world.
Isaac, on the other hand, embodies gevura and the element of fire, i.e. the tzafon [north side], of the world. [Gevura is the opposite of chesed; whereas chesed gives forth, gevura restrains.] For this reason, Isaac didn’t want to bless Jacob. He didn’t even want to bless Esau, except as a reward [i.e. in return for a kindness]. This is the meaning of what Isaac said to Esau: “Now take your sword and your bow, and go out to the field to trap me some game. Make it into a tasty dish, the way I like it, and bring it to me to eat. My soul will then bless you before I die.” (Gen. 27:3-4) The righteous who keep the Torah will be rewarded…
[The explanation for this seeming anomaly is this:] Just as Jacob and Esau both emerged from Isaac, so also the Garden of Eden and Gehinom emerge from the tzafon [north], breached side of the world.
Similarly, just as Gan Eden and Gehinom both preceded the world, so also did G-d precede the Torah with the beit of “bereishit”. In this way, He informed us that these two places that emerged from the breached northern side of the world, both preceded the world.
We know that Gan Eden preceded the world from the verse, “G-d planted a Garden in Eden from before” (Gen. 2:8). Similarly, we know that Gehinom preceded the world from the verse, “For its hearth is ordained of old…G-d’s breath, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it” (Isaiah 30:33).
This, then, is the meaning of “Bereishit”: [the letter] beit [meaning “two”] “Reishit” [meaning “beginnings”]. It thus reinforces the knowledge that the righteous who keep the Torah will be rewarded, while those who nullify and negate the Torah will receive their due punishment.
[ Likutei Torah, parashat Bereishit, (Chumash HaAri, Bereishit, p. 5-6); Adapted by Avraham Sutton]