First lines matter. The first line of a novel, of any story, is critical. If it falls flat, forget it. If it’s all punch, and there’s nothing behind it, why continue reading? A good first line grabs your attention, and fills you with a sense of wonder. It drags you to the next sentence, which builds and leads to the next, to the one after that, and beyond. First lines play on an individual’s appetite for adventure. We sit in comfortable reading chairs, hot mugs of coffee nearby, and light music in the background, and we crack the spine, crease the opening pages, and then… who know’s what’s in store?!
Consider the first sentence of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” Three words, five syllables. All pointed and direct. We wonder: To whom is Ishmael speaking? Is that even really his name? Is he a version of the biblical Ishmael or some other being, entirely?
Read on, dear friends, and join Ishmael in his adventure: “Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about and see the watery part of the world.”
Within these first two sentences, an epic adventure, an echo of the Homeric Odyssey, recalling tales of sea-going travel and encounters with the Leviathan from before. We are hooked. We are drawn in. We turn page after page after page. Hairs stand on end, and all we feel are anticipation and excitement.
First lines can also be comforting. A child who climbs into your lap and wants a story read to her before bedtime grabs a book that begins with the opening “Once upon a time…”
With that opening line, the child encourages us: Can we please dream delightful dreams tonight? And we, desirous of the same delightful dreams, go about telling that fairy tale. We find joy in telling the story; she finds joy in being in the story.
Great first lines are ornamented gateways into human imagination. Give me a good line to a short story, to a novel, to any book really, and I will ignore the outside world until I have emerged from those pages. I’m doing it right now with Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. And it makes me think of the time in which–much to her chagrin–a friend of mine confessed having neglected her own children for a good first line.
Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code had just been released. My friend had dropped her kids off at school, and then come home to do some stuff around the house. Before she started with all of that, she made a pot of coffee, and sat down for a few minutes to start the novel. She said, from the first line, she was hooked. She sat there, reading page after page after page. Finally, she got up to fill her coffee cup, she glanced at the kitchen clock, and discovered that it was 3:30 in the afternoon, and she was an hour hour late to pick up her children.
Such is the power of a good first line. It is the experience of the first bite of a phenomenal meal, the discovery of flavors and texture that someone else has dished up for you, but you know the secret: you were the one meant to savor every bite.
The biblical authors understood the power and magic of the first line. It is contained within the first line of Genesis, within the first verse of Bereishit, within the first word, within the first letter, even, as we begin Torah anew.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” We can’t argue with it. Our most sacred text begins with a great first line. Bereishit, In the beginning. This first word is a finger pulling us into the story, gesturing for us to engage, to take part, to give in, to uncover radical awe and amazement as God creates. Bereishit, this first word calls us to consider more and more and more. Rashi feels that pull. He calls out Darsheini! Interpret me! With the first word of the Torah, from the very beginning, we are called to the task of interpretation for meaning out of this story. The first word cannot go unexamined; it must be expounded upon.
Even within the first letter there exists the opportunity for understanding. Why not ask, Why does the Torah begin with the letter Beit? To this our Sages had an answer, “Beit was chosen to commence the Torah to teach us that just as the Beit is closed on the top, the bottom, and the right sides, but open toward the left–in the direction of reading–so too should we concern ourselves with the day the world was created and onward. Here and now.”
From the first day of creation, everything flows. Out of the letter beit, Torah begins. Out of the letter beit, we encounter Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, the People of Israel, the Prophets, the Psalmist, Solomon, and Ezra the scribe. Out of the letter beit flows a text that teaches Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge); a text that communicates Brit (Covenant)–a sense of relationship we hold with one another and with God. Out of the beit we build arks and we build towers, we build tabernacles and we build cities of gold, we leave the narrows of Egypt and we–as a People–stand at Sinai. Out of the beit, out of Bereishit, out of Bereishit bara Elohim, we begin the story of our People, of our Torah, of our God–a story that lives, has lived, and will continue to live.
Words are powerful, and beginnings draw us in. May we find ourselves pulled into our most sacred stories, and there discover a love affair with our most sacred words.