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This week's Parasha-Page has been dedicated anonymously in memory of Meir ben Zvi Stobezki (who passed away on 21 Elul) on his 6th Yahrzeit.

Parashat Bereishit 5756


How old is the universe?

In this week's Parasha we find a description of the events that took place at the time of the creation of the universe. Hashem created the universe and all that is in it in six days and "rested" from creating on the seventh day -- events which we commemorate weekly with our observance of the Shabbat day. From the chronology given in this Parasha and in the following one, it is clear that this Creation took place approximately 6,000 years ago.

Modern scientists, however, would tell us quite a different story of the beginning. During recent years, a mounting body of evidence drawn from such varied disciplines as astronomy, cosmology, geochronology, paleontology, radiocarbon dating techniques and dendrochronology (tree-ring analysis), seems to indicate that the universe is much, much older than this. Although all experts essentially agree that civilization as we know it (i.e. the written word and the appearance of commercial societies) is about 5500-6500 years old, the scientists' picture of prehistory is not at all similar to the biblical one. Scientists estimate that the universe has been around for ~10 - 20 *billion* years; the earth, for ~4 billion years; and multicellular life on earth, for ~650 million years.

How can the account of the Torah be reconciled with these scientifically established conclusions? Let us take a look at some of the approaches that have been suggested to deal with this problem.


Two allegorical approaches to Creation

The first, and most obvious, avenue of approach is to invoke the opinion of the Rambam [=Maimonides] in his introduction to "Moreh Nevuchim" [=Guide to the Perplexed]. The Rambam asserts that some of the events described in the Torah -- including those involved in the story of Creation -- should not be understood literally. Rather, they are to be taken in an allegorical sense, as allusions to profound or esoteric concepts. If we understand the six days of Creation as an allegorical, rather than a chronological, description of the events of creation, the contradiction between the Torah's account and that of the scientists is obviously resolved.

What allegorical meaning can be attached to the story of Creation? What can the six days of creation be said to represent? The Ramban (=Nachmanides, 13th cent. Spain), in a number of places in his commentary on the Torah, points out some of the underlying themes of the six days of Creation.

In one place (Bereishit 1:3), Ramban points out that according to the Kabbalists, the word "days" can be taken to mean "emanations of Divine power" (or "Sefirot"). The seven days of the story of creation can thus be understood as a reference to seven of the Sefirot that were involved in the creation of the world.

In other places (Bereishit 2:1, Vayikra 25:2) the Ramban suggests another theme to which the six days of Creation may be alluding. In Tehillim 90:4 we read "A thousand years in Your eyes is like a single day that passes by." Hashem's "days" can be seen as the equivalent of 1000 years. Each of the six days of creation may thus represent one thousand years of the six thousand years that, we are told (Sanhedrin 97a), will pass between the time of Adam and the end of time. (Rabbenu Bachye ben Asher, in his commentary to the Torah, follows in the footsteps of the Ramban even adding a few points to Ramban's words. Similar approaches were developed by Rav Avraham ben Rebbi Chiyya HaNassi in his Megillat HaMegillah, and by Abravanel in his commentary to Bereishit 2:1. According to the latter, this theme is actually hinted at in a Midrash HaZohar ad loc. See the following essay, for a synopsis of their suggestions.)


4 literalist approaches to Creation

As we have described above, the six days of Creation may be understood in an allegorical sense. It should be noted, however, that the Ramban (1:3), and even the Rambam (Moreh, Part II, Chap. 30), seem to take the six-day account of creation literally (Ramban only presents the above allegories as an *added* aspect to the literal interpretation of the verse). If the six days are taken literally, how is it possible to reconcile the Torah's account with present-day scientific knowledge? Two basic approaches have been offered to answer this question.

  1. THE PRE-GENESIS WORLDS - Some have noted that the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 3:7) states that before the Creation of the world as we know it, Hashem created and destroyed several other "proto-worlds." This would fit in neatly with our current understanding of the pattern of mass extinctions found in the annals of world history. (See Tiferet Yisrael, in his essay "Drush Ohr HaChayim," section 3, which is printed among the commentaries at the end of Mishnayot Yachin U'Voaz, Nezikin II.)

    We may point out, though, that according to the Kabbalists, the durations of these "proto-worlds" may not be able to account for the billions of years that the scientists speak of. In Kabbalistic literature, the length of this period of "the creation and destruction of worlds" is sharply limited. According to Sefer HaTemunah (preface to Temunah #3), this period of time was 7000 years; according to Rabbenu Bachya (to Bereishit, end of 1:1) it was 2000 years; and according to the renowned medieval Kabbalist of Safed, Rav Yitzchak Luria (Sha'ar Ma'amarei Rashbi, commentary to the Idra Rabba in Zohar 3:135a) it was only 7 *days* long.

  2. ALL IN THE FIRST SIX DAYS - There are those who suggest that when the Torah speaks of "days" in the account of Creation, it means at the same time the 24-hour period that we are accustomed to call "day," and billions of years. This can be explained in several different ways.

    (a) According to Einstein's theory of general relativity, time is not an absolute measurement. The experience of time changes relative to the speed at which an object is traveling and the gravitational forces acting upon it. What seems to be one day to a person in one situation, then, may actually be perceived as many days to another observer who is subject to a lower force of gravity or is traveling at a slower velocity. If "six days" are measured from the standpoint of someone outside the universe -- from God's perspective, as it were -- it could correspond to billions of years as measured from a human, earthly point of view. Perhaps during the first 6 days, when there was no man yet to measure time from an earthly standpoint, Hashem counted His days from a different perspective. (Dr. Gerald Schroeder in his book "Genesis and the Big Bang," Ch. 2. See also Aaron Vecht in "Challenge," p. 186.)

    (b) Rav Shimon Schwab ("Challenge," p.165-174) suggests a different way to have the six days of creation correspond to billions of years. It is possible, he asserts, that during these six days Hashem "sped up" time, compressing billions of years into what we now sense as a 24-hour period. Consider, for example, a movie played at very high speed -- a 3-hour film can be seen in its entirety in a few short minutes.

    It may be asked, however, that if all of the events of the unfolding of the universe were speeded up uniformly, in what way could their speed be measured? Relative to what absolute frame of reference was the process of Creation "speeded up"? The answer, Rav Schwab says, is that the Torah's frame of reference is the "Or HaGanuz" -- the primordial light that was created on the first day of creation. It was this spiritual light that, by its waning and reappearance every 24 hours (according to present day clocks), formed the basis for the first few evenings and mornings (the sun was not even in the skies until the fourth day!). It is by comparison with the cycle of this light, that has remained constant ever since its creation, that the billions of years of Creation can be seen as compressed into six 24-hour days. It was only on the seventh day that Hashem slowed down the pace of the universe so that the cycle of the primordial light corresponded to our 24-hour day.

    (c) The Torah tells us that when man was created he was fully grown and developed, physically and mentally, although such a state of growth usually takes many years to materialize. Similarly, the animals of the world and the plants and trees were created when they were already at an advanced stage of development (Chullin 60a).

    Since all the creatures in the world were created in a state that seemed to attest to many years of previous growth, perhaps the earth -- and the entire cosmos -- was also "born" bearing signs of many, many years of development. For instance, there are stars whose light seems to come to us only after traveling in space for many billions of years. The stars and the traveling rays of light were all created on the 4th day. This is all part of the scheme of creation, by which objects were created bearing all the physical signs of a long period of development.

    If so, when Hashem created the earth and its inhabitants, perhaps He also created artifacts to attest to their ancestry. Thus, on the day that the animals were created, their prehistoric remains were created along with them. (See article by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in "Challenge," p. 147 suggestion "b" -- see also Sanford Aranoff, "Challenge" p. 151-162.)


    Why the conflicting evidence?

    There is, however, a disturbing question that may be asked concerning the last two approaches -- that of Rav Schwab (the "high-speed" theory) and that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (the "built-in history" theory) -- as their authors themselves point out. Since Hashem did in fact create the universe in six days, why should He have altered it in such a way that it gives the impression of being much older than it really is? He could have performed a 6-day creation without leaving behind such misleading evidence.

    Rav Schwab suggests that Hashem created the world this way in order to allow men the possibility of denying creation. If Divine creation of the world would be obvious to all, there would be no challenge in accepting this doctrine, and there would thus be no reward for those who would accept Hashem's mastery upon them. (See also Rashi to Devarim 4:19, "Hechlikan Be'divrei Havleihem Le'tordan Min Ha'olam" -MK.) The suggestion that the creation was intentionally made to mislead us seems less than satisfying, however. Besides, didn't Adam, Eve and their son Kayin manage to sin, as obvious as creation was to them? And didn't the Jews and gentiles sin for thousands of years until Darwinism and paleontology made their impressions? Apparently enough challenge exists even without this added confusion. (More moderate suggestions, such as those of Rav Kanievsky in Chaye Olam 1:19 and 2:7, may also be applied here.) Perhaps we may suggest a new approach to deal with this difficulty.

    The world around us was intended to encourage us to analyze the works of Hashem, and to convey to us many moral lessons (see Eruvin 100b -- where the Gemara tells us that we can learn moral conduct from various animals; Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 2:2). If so, nature itself may be seen as a Torah in its own right, teaching us the will of Hashem. Thus, there are two guidebooks to the ways of Hashem: the Torah, and the natural world around us.

    The "book" of nature has a very unique quality, though. Nobody, no matter how ardent an atheist he may be, can ever claim that it is a "forgery." Even if he refuses to see the hand of Hashem in nature, the lessons that it teaches us about life and human nature are still there for him to appreciate. Perhaps it is for this reason, then, that this "book" was modeled to present quite a different story of Creation than the Bible. The two "books" present different pictures of the world because they were written for different audiences, as we shall explain.

    The Gemara (Sanhedrin 38a) asks why it was that man, the crown of Creation, was the very last thing that God created. One of the answers the Gemara gives is that this was done to ensure that man would not let his elevated status in the world go to his head. In the words of the Gemara, "If a person becomes overly arrogant, he is reminded of the fact that even the fleas were created before him." Man was created last to remind him of his puniness.

    The Gemara there poses another answer, however, that seems to present precisely the opposite theme. When a person invites company, the Gemara explains, he ensures that the food is prepared and the table and chairs set before the guests arrive. Similarly, Hashem first finished the preparations of all the ingredients of the universe before His "guest" was brought to partake of His "feast" in the Garden of Eden. The very fact that he was created last thus attests to Man's centrality in the scheme of Creation.

    It may be said that these two answers complement each other. We find in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 8:1) that if a person follows the will of Hashem he is told, "Your spirit was created even before the angels of the Heavens"; but if he does not follow the will of Hashem, he is scolded with the reminder that "even the bodies of the fleas were created before your body was!" The Midrash means to say that when a person does the will of Hashem, he should know that he ranks even higher than the angels of Heaven. If, however, he is arrogant and defies the will of his Creator, he must be humbled by the knowledge that he is but a puny part of the cosmos.

    The message that a believer learns from the Torah's account of Creation 6000 years ago is the pivotal role that Man plays in this world. If he follows the ways of Hashem and the words of His Torah, he will raise himself spiritually and raise all of nature along with him.

    However, Hashem knew that there would always be people who would not accept the veracity of the Torah. For them He created a universe which is full of indications of the vastness of the forces of nature and the humbleness of man's origins. How humbling it is to ponder the scientific version of where man came from -- "Even fleas preceded you!" Furthermore, by considering the long history of extinctions caused by rather sudden changes in the earth's makeup over the ages, man comes to realize that the universe is not his to abuse. He is living in a world which hangs in a very delicate ecological balance. If he does not respect the rights of other people and creatures to exist, he is liable to face natural disasters such as those visited upon the earth in the past. Today's ecological awareness can be directly related to the recent scientific discoveries about the past history of this planet.

    Thus the creation of the world was carried out on two distinct planes -- according to a six-day creation, to teach people who accept the Torah the centrality of man's role in carrying out Hashem's will in the world, and according to a 20-billion year apparent creation, to teach those who do not accept the Torah these humbling lessons in a different manner.

    For further reading on this subject, I strongly recommend the following:
    "Challenge," edited by C. Domb (Feldheim Publishing, 1976), pp. 124-186;
    "Genesis and the Big Bang," by G. Schroeder (Bantam Books, 1990);
    "In the Beginning" by N. Aviezer (Ktav Publishing House, 1990);
    "Immortality, Resurrection, & the Age of the Universe", Rav Arye Kaplan

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