Happy 5779! Every year at this time, our Jewish tradition invites us to consider the possibility of starting over in our lives; that it is possible, and more, that there is much Jewish wisdom to support one who seeks to return, to renew, to restart. On this Shabbat when we begin again with the beginning, by studying parashat Bereshit, we are invited to see how central learning is to spiritual growth and personal development.
There is a way in which each one of us exists in a sense of consciousness that makes us the center of our universe; thus the 18th century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav taught: “Assert at all times: the world was created for my sake.” And therefore, “do your share to add some improvement, to supply something that is missing, and to leave this world better than when you first came into it.” (Kitzur Likkutei Mohoran, Bereshit)
This work is not only the social justice work that we Jews are so comfortable citing when we talk about repairing the world. That is the work “out there” and it is imperative; but we ourselves are not separate from the world, and the work we need to do is also “in here,” in our own families, in our work and social circles, in our spiritual community.
How are we to “do our share” in this overwhelming world? Although we move through the world inescapably alone inside our heads and hearts, facing our own singular responsibility for how we live and touch life, yet we who participate in meaningful community walk alongside others, and come to realize that in our struggles we are not alone. We can choose to face the work of our lives (both out there and in here) with others, and together to puzzle out the true and intimate meaning of the mitzvot that can help us to structure and understand life. Jews do this through shared study of Torah, both in that book itself and in the larger sense that includes Talmud, Midrash, Ethics, Mysticism, and more.
It’s endlessly illuminating when you catch on to the interpretive depth of Jewish teaching: for example, you know the mitzvah “you shall not murder,” but do you know that it is interpreted into interpersonal relationships in such a way that to embarrass a convert to Judaism by recalling their non-Jewish past is declared murder in Jewish law? “The blood comes to the face when one is humiliated, and then drains, and this is called shedding blood.” explains the Talmud. Another example: the Torah commands “do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” which is interpreted to include misleading someone who does not understand a situation. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” has no place in Jewish business ethics.
On This Shabbat when we start over again and begin reading Bereshit, the account of the Creation of the World, all over again, consider how your own world might be renewed through your own small acts to improve it, to supply something that is missing, to make it better for having been there. In these days of political upheaval and social unrest, it’s the micro-kindnesses that are most needed in the world at which each one of us is the center. Working on those together in our small intentional community, we can be a place of light in the encroaching darkness.
The Hebrew letters I’ve added above stand for the words b’siyata d’shmaya, an Aramaic phrase meaning “with the help of heaven” or “G*d willing.” I added them (it’s an old tradition to do so on documents) because I suddenly felt keenly that my weekly salutation is hopeful, and not necessarily an established truth. On this Shabbat of beginning again, I very much hope that in this coming year you will find communal Jewish study to be a support and a consolation in your life. Everyone is welcome at the Torah (life) study table; everyone has something to learn, and something to contribute to the learning.