Selections from MeOtzar HaAggadah translated by Chas Bissell and Ben Kotton
In many ways, Micha Josef Berdyczewski (later Ben-Gurion) represents the conflicts at the heart of Eastern European Judaism in the 19th century. His life and work represented a perpetual struggle between modernity and tradition, piety and questioning, the wisdom of the secular world and the insight of the Jewish. Born in Ukraine in 1865 to a lineage of Hasidic rabbis, Berdyczewski was from a young age captivated by the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and secular literature. At 20, he left home for the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, and later went on to receive degrees from the universities of Breslau, Bern, and Berlin. While in Germany, he increasingly took on the role of both mediator between a post-enlightenment Europe and the world of his upbringing, and critic of traditional views in Jewish circles. He wrote prolifically—in Hebrew, German, and Yiddish—of the need for the Jewish world to integrate secular ideas and his concerns about the agency Rabbinic Judaism gave the individual, demanding, instead, a free-spirited approach to Judaism wherein each Jew would be able to freely pursue their intellectual and spiritual interests. Before long, Berdyczewski was a leader of a younger and more radical group of Jewish writers who criticized traditional Jewish thought, including the prominent Jewish intellectuals of the day, most famously Theodor Herzl and Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg.
Yet in 1902, Berdyczewski returned to Eastern Europe and began a series of vignettes, short stories, poems, and books meant as a portrait of everyday life in the shtetl. A vital element of this was his work as folklorist. Following years of interviews, Berdyczewski published a compilation of stories from folklore and Midrash called MeOtzar HaAggadah in 1913. The collection chronicles in 2-3 page increments the marvels of creation, battles with dybbuks, and the lives of the Rabbis, Solomon, and Noah, among hundreds of other stories. This book of folklore (perhaps ironically) represents the attempt of a figure of the Haskalah and Rabbinic criticism to preserve the richness of Jewish tradition, towards which Berdyczewski was often accused of being antagonistic.
The stories collected below are retellings of the biblical creation story that have been expanded and embellished by Midrash. They contain aesthetic, moral, prophetic, allegorical, and exegetical elements that bring insight from the trove of legend to one of Judaism’s most ancient stories.
Two Sources of Light
In ten utterances and six days the world was created. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and they remained suspended. After them came the expanse in the midst of the waters, to separate water from water. Upon the stones of creation the dry land was built, and in the depths of the seas swarmed every living soul and the kingdom of life. But there was still darkness on the face of the abyss, so everything that was found above and below, everything that was to come in the future, was to be touched by darkness. God saw that His grand plan could not be carried out in the murky gloom and that all would be used in the unformed and the void. So, He lifted the fringes of His garment and revealed the shining splendor of His glory, and there was light! The firmament expanded and gold was strewn over it. The water was gathered beneath the heavens, the earth below flourished with green, and all the trees blossomed according to their species. The water teemed with an abundance of life and birds flew around above. Life! Life and light had been planted in the cosmos. All things were festive and happy, like a groom setting out from his wedding canopy. Adam stood up on two feet in the likeness of God, and he named every creation of Shaddai, and whatever he called it was to be its name.
At this moment, the light continued to grow until it was seven times as great as the light of the sun. It could be witnessed and admired from the ends of the world. Every thing was clothed in light, even the stones and the inanimate things glowed. There was nothing hidden from the light; it was ceaseless, with no boundaries. All the world in its entirety was like a garden filled with light. The Lord of the light saw that in the future His creations would sin and corrupt their deeds, that they would not be able to stand in the magnitude of light given to them. So, the Speaker finished creation by withdrawing the light from the space, which we stand in today, and gave a smaller source of light to the World of the Present, sealing away the greater light for the righteous in the future to come. So ended the days of creation, and it now was Shabbat! On this day, which the Lord God sanctified with light and blessed with light, the greater light shone for a final thirty-six hours: twelve on the eve of Shabbat, twelve on the night of Shabbat, and twelve on the day of Shabbat. ‘Since this light did not cease, the whole world began to sing’ and to praise God. And this is the meaning of ‘Sing a song for the Sabbath day’!
In the future to come, when the awaited Redeemer arrives, redemption will come to the world, to all creations and all life, to the hosts of the heavens above, and to the land below. Everything will be returned to its place. And the first light of the beginning will break through the darkness, spread forth and restore the splendor of its glory to all things. Then there will no longer be a greater light and lesser light to set apart night and day, knowledge of good and evil, light and darkness; because if everything is light, life, and kindness, then everything is day and everything is light. This will be ‘the day that is entirely Shabbat.’
Until the world was created, the Holy One, blessed be He, and His great name existed alone. Then, it rose to His mind to create the world. He carved out the world in front of Himself, like a king who builds himself a palace, prescribing its foundations, scaffolding, and blueprints. But, when creation took form, He saw that the world could not exist without repentance for sinners, as His creations would surely defy the words of His mouth and would not observe His laws. So, He said: “If every creature and every being returns to Me with all of its heart, I will forgive and pardon its transgressions, and nothing that exists will cease to be.” And He created the heavens and the earth, and they stretched and expanded, augmenting and spreading the word of their Master, until He said “Enough!” and established their limits. Therefore the God of the world is also called by the name of Shaddai. All of this was done on the first day, and on the second day He created the firmament and the angels, the fire of the world and the fire of Gehenom. The angels, when sent to do His bidding, became winds, and as they served Him, from the watery depths to the fire, they united His great name.
On the third day, the earth was still empty and flat. The waters covered the face of all the land, and the entire world was water above water. When the word left the mouth of the Mighty one, declaring “The waters will gather!”, mountains rose up from the ends of the land and spread out from its belly. Valleys were formed, and the waters, churning under their currents, descended to their depths. Later, they returned over the mountains and covered their faces. There was a quaking and a shaking within the depths of the tumultuous waters, and the ground trembled. God reproached the waters for their uproar and subdued them, imprisoning them for their rebellion by confining the sea with a border of sand, ‘like a man who entraps his vineyard within a fence.’ When the waves rose up in their pride and came up against the beach before them, they quickly retreated. “Should you not revere me?” said the Lord, “Should you not tremble before Me, Who bounded the sea with sand?”
So it was when the waters gathered and the dry land became visible, God opened an entrance to the garden of Eden and took sprouts from it to plant in the earth. “Let the land bring forth vegetation, seed-bearing plants according to their species and fruit-bearing trees according to their species.” With this, the table was set for everything that lived, every creation, every living soul, and was ready for God to invite them to come and sit for a banquet.
On the fourth day God created the sun and the moon, ‘and their cycles were before Him,’ and He observed and counted them into a calendar. On the fifth day He created all the birds, pure and impure, and all the species of fish, impure and pure, and all the species of insects swarmed from the water, impure and pure. He created them all male and female, so that they would be fruitful and multiply. On the sixth day He brought forth from the land all the species of beasts, impure and pure, male and female, and all the species of animals, pure and impure. On this same day He created the almighty Behemoth, who grazes daily on a thousand mountains. Each day he eats their vegetation, and each night the vegetation grows anew to be his meal. ‘The lumps of the mountains provide his meal and the waters of the Jordan satiate his thirst.’ God saw all that He had made, that it was good, and said: “My world, My world, may you always be pleasing to Me, as you are a pleasure to My eyes in this hour, the hour of creation.” And God blessed the works of His hands.
After this, He created Adam. In the likeness of God He made him and gave him the keys to His garden, which was planted in the cavity of existence. He placed him in His hand, and He led Adam through all the chambers of the universe, and said to him: “Look, My child, how splendid are My creations, how praiseworthy they are! All that I have created, I have created only for you, that you will recognize My essence and you will perfect My works. Put your intellect to this task, so that it does not desecrate the world instead of bettering it, for if you spoil or destroy what I have made, there will be no one to repair it after you. And now I am returning to hold fast to My ways.”
God went, having finished speaking with Adam, to sit on the throne of His glory, and wrapped Himself in a heavy fog to conceal Himself, while Adam remained the keeper below.
God created all His works above and below and positioned ministers and angels above each and every one. He withheld Himself in order to supervise and monitor their work and their activity. He planted desires to praise and sing in their hearts and said: “Praise and exalt My name, because I made the world from nothing. From the shadows of the unformed and void, I raised the hosts of the heavens and the land.” He then created Adam and said: “Behold, this creation will call Me Lord, and his mouth will glorify My name more than any other.”
God rested from all the labor He had done. He sat on His throne to celebrate the dedication of the heavens and the earth. And the ministering angels came to rejoice in the joy of the Creator and Crafter, the ministers of the sun and the ministers of the moon, all the ministers of the stars and constellations, the ministers of the heavens and the ministers of the earth, the ministers of the mountains and the ministers of the seas, the ministers of the forests and the ministers of every tree—each according to its species—the ministers of animals and the ministers of beasts, the ministers of birds and of every creeping thing and all life; they all stood and bowed before Him, and they extolled and lauded His name. What a sound of might and strength, a sound of praise and everlasting, a sound of majesty, dignity, greatness, and magnificence! The ministering angels danced and danced with the governing Ophanim, the heads of the Cherubim, and all the ministers and officials of the world below, surrounding the throne of the Lord. All the seven firmaments resounded with voices of happiness and amusement, calling out to God. Drums, violins, cymbals, and every instrument of creation were heard together. Every thing celebrated and glorified its Creator. Even Adam was raised up by God to the heavens of the heavens, to rejoice with Him in the dedication of His world. And the sound of a blasting Shofar was heard from all the hosts of the worlds above and below, the likes of which has never been heard in any of the worlds, calling: “May the glory of the Lord be eternal!” And all the creations responded as if with one mouth: “May God rejoice in His works!”
A festival for the Lord and for all the universe.