"In the beginning [in Hebrew, "bereishit"], Elokim created the heavens and the earth." (Gen. 1:1)
Why did the Torah begin with the letter beit [of "bereishit"], and not with an alef? Why was the alef saved for the first letter of "I am G‑d" - "Anochi" - the first word of the Ten Commandments? The fact that the Torah begins with the letter beit teaches that the Torah has or contains two aspects: peshat [its simple or literal meaning] and sod [its deeper meaning].
The sod of the Torah…its "soul" corresponds to the World to Come…
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 in which the Holy One took delight [before creating the world], as well as the Torah that the tzadikim learn in the Garden of Eden, is none other than its level of sod. Indeed, the Torah studied in the Garden of 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" [meaning "created"], since it is only up to This World [the level of Beriya] that we 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.
Atzilut thus corresponds to pure thought. Beriya corresponds to oscillating thought, i.e. the intermediate stage that takes place as we translate pure thought into words. Yetzira corresponds to speech, and Asiya corresponds to deed.
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)
"He saw" - pure thought, corresponding to Atzilut, chochma
"He declared" - oscillating thought, corresponding to Beriya, bina
"He measured" - speech, corresponding to Yetzira, tiferet
"He examined" - deed, corresponding to Asiya, malchut
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 was heard] and it tallied [with the time of Caligula's assassination]". (Sotah 33a; see Josephus, The Jewish War, Book II 9:1)
This breached side is none other than 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 Tohu.
Behold, the entire thickness of the earth, compared to the depth of the Atlantic Ocean, is like that of a mustard seed…
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 roundabout 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: "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". (Ramchal, Maamar HaAggadot, Introduction to EinYaakov)
In the Future.....G‑d will tell the North…to yield all of its goodness to the righteous…
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 Purgatory.
Another verse, however, states, "How great is the good [i.e. the light] that You have hidden away [in Hebrew, 'tzafanta', related to the Hebrew word for 'north', 'tzafon'] 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 for "hidden away" ["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 [meaning that which is 'hidden away' - in Hebrew "tzafun" - i.e. Gan Eden] to yield all of its goodness to the righteous.
Purgatory and Gan Eden are opposites. How can one word represent both? And what does this have to do with the breached side of the world?
Rather, the truth is that North ["tzafon"] is the side of gevura and Isaac, just as South is the side of chesed and Abraham. Chesed is also associated with the element of water [which expands and spreads forth]. Similarly, Abraham performed chesed for the whole world.
These two places that emerged from the breached northern side of the world both preceded the world…
Isaac, on the other hand, embodies gevura and the element of fire, i.e. the 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 some game for me. 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 explanation for this seeming anomaly is this:] Just as Jacob and Esau both emerged from Isaac, so also Gan Eden and Purgatory emerge from the North, the breached side of the world.
Similarly, just as Gan Eden and Purgatory 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 to the East [in Hebrew, "mi'kedem", which also means 'from before']. (Gen. 2:8) Similarly, we know that Purgatory 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": beit (the number 2) - 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.
[Annotated translation by Avraham Sutton of Likutei Torah, Chumash HaAri, Bereishit, p. 5-6.]