Shabbat Bereshit: the power of naming

This week marks the beginning, again; once again we turn to the opening pages of our Torah and read of the beginning.

Except that we do not. The first words of our Torah are

בראשית ברא אלהים
 Bereshit bara Elohim

Which literally means “during the beginning, G*d created…”

And what does that mean? Well, we already know that at the “beginning,” there are already water, the abyss itself, and a divine wind. Beyond that comes midrash, with so many possibilities – we are taught that every verse, every word, indeed every letter of the Torah has seventy different faces, that is to say, different interpretations. Torah is like a prism: “turn it over and over, for everything is reflected in it,” said the Rabbis of the Talmud. 

One possible interpretation: during the process of the beginning, the following sub story occurred, and the creation of our reality is then narrated. Another possibility, well known to mystics: with the six upper sefirot, G*d was created. There are sixty-eight more possibilities, at least.

Torah is multivalent; it is an obvious step from there to say that the voice of G*d, or our awareness of holiness, must also, therefore, be multi-valent, since Torah is our primary source of understanding holiness in our lives.

It is less obvious, perhaps, to understand the human part in that glorious diversity of meaning, and the beginning of the book of Genesis is here to remind us. The first human beings are called adam and havah. “Adam” comes from the Hebrew adamah, which literally means that which, or one who, comes from the earth. Havah, from the Hebrew word root for existence, means giver of life.

In the first chapter of the book Bereshit, which we translate Genesis, w are told that both were created, and that in such a way, the Image of G*d came to be in the Creation of G*d. One way of understanding this is to interpret that two people were created, in two different and distinct genders. But another way to understand the verse comes from the well-known midrash that sees that one human being, who carried all the gender markings, was created. The first human was gender fluid, non-binary, and in the words of our tradition, perfect.

The next thing that the creation required was more names, and it’s fascinating to see that the Creator expected the Creation to name itself. That is to say, the animals were given the names that the human chose.

The responsibility of this naming echoes unto our own day. To name is to know; it is also to interpret; it may also be a way of accusing, of oppressing, or of lifting up. To call an animal an elephant is to distinguish it from a giraffe; but it is also a way of telling the hunter where to aim, or the arrogant what to consider less alive than oneself.

Thus we gaze upon and define our world, and each other. This old, old insight from the beginning of our identity myth is still astonishingly relevant. May we recognize our power to name, and its attendant responsibility, even as we recognize our power to create and to destroy. May the creative impulse be stronger.

Shabbat Bereshit: Starting Over Again

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.

Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.

Shabbat Bereshit: Get Naked

This week, as we begin again to encounter Torah, we are back at the beginning. The first chapters encompass so much: The world is created: human beings exist, and interact with all other forms of life on earth as well as with each other. And there, of course, is where it gets complicated.

Here’s where we start:  “They were both arumim, the man and the woman, and they were not embarrassed.” (Gen.2.25)

This is followed immediately by “The nakhash was arum, more than any other creature of the field which HaShem had made.” (Gen.3.1)

What is most interesting here is that first instance of arum here is translated “naked”, and the second is translated “clever” or “wily,” or, in Talmudic usage, even “wise.” We can explain this away as an instance of a homonym – two words that sound alike but mean different things. Or we can consider that this was originally an oral text, heard rather than read as words on a page. The similar sound of these two words invites us to consider the associations that we may experience.

In what way might we need to be naked in order to become wise? 

To be naked is to be vulnerable. Sooner or later we all feel that we are under attack; our natural response is to withdraw behind layers of covering. Perhaps one covers oneself with guile, or wariness, or a lot of joking around. None of those “clothes” are impenetrable, though; and what one learns as one lugs one’s suit of armor around is that it gets tiring. To be vulnerable is to be human, and sooner or later we all must admit to that kind of nakedness. Significantly, it is only through that vulnerability that we connect. It is scary, and sometimes it hurts, but in the end it is the only human way.

To be naked is to be open to connection. For example, in order to immerse ritually in a Mikveh one must be naked, radically so: one is not only to remove all clothing, but also any piercings, paint, and jewelry. As you came into the world, so also you go into the Mikveh. Only in this way is a ritual immersion possible; only when all that exists between you and the water disappears can you truly experience tevilah, immersion. To be naked is to be open to your connection to that which is outside you but is also part of you: you are physically connected to the water of the mikveh; religiously, to the community that creates the mikveh; spiritually, to the Torah, which is compared by our ancestors to life-giving water, and the G*d we seek through it.

To be naked is to be seen. The story is told of a Rabbi dying, disciples gathered around. “Rabbi,” one pleaded, “give us your blessing.” The Rabbi responded, “May you revere G*d as much as you do your neighbor.”  “But Rabbi,” another protested, “what kind of blessing is that?” “Ah,” replied the Rabbi, “if you think your neighbor sees you, you watch your behavior. May you always remember that G*d sees you.”

It is written  לעולם יהא אדם ערום ביראה – “One should always be arum in reverence [for HaShem]” (Proverbs 15.1) May you learn how to go around naked all the time inside your clothes, and thus may you find your life blessed by immediacy, joy, and, finally, the wisdom that only comes to those who dare to be open and vulnerable to life.

Shabbat Bereshit: We’ll Keep the Light On

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereshit 1:2)

First comes darkness, then light.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 77b)

At the beginning, there is darkness. This is not only true of the account of Creation as we find it in the Book we call Bereshit, known in English as “Genesis”. It is true of life, as well – our own, as we are conceived, and of much of the rest of Existence.

Darkness is a challenge to those of us life forms which depend upon our eyes to navigate. In the light, we orient ourselves by looking around; we judge our surroundings by visual cues; we can assess threat or safety at a distance, and signal the same. But in darkness we wander, disoriented, perhaps even lost. We seek to relieve it by finding a source of light, and the relief you have felt when you realized that the batteries were still good in the old flashlight is recognizable to us all.

These days of our lives are meant to be so full of joy, as we have just come through our Days of Awe, our fall Sukkot harvest festival, and our yearly blowout with our beloved Torah. But there is increased violence here at home; today there are reports of more than one random shooting in a public place. And there are terrible reports coming in from Israel, where one act of violence after another has led to speculation in Israel’s newspaper of note of a third Intifada. And there are other sadnesses: medical workers come under attack in a bombing raid. Refugees face indifference, and worse. A homeless man begs on a street corner near you.

Here is the real challenge to our lives and the way we live them: do we really believe that the things we do bring light to this world of ours, which so desperately needs it? Jewish tradition urges us not to underestimate the power of the choices we make, and the acts by which we are known. Every small spark of kindness can add to the light in this world by which we find our way out of this terrifying darkness. But the challenge is to stay focused upon the power of a small act, when one might give in to the impulse to believe that there’s no use, that it doesn’t matter.

On this Shabbat, consider your own morale and your purpose in the world. Do you perhaps wonder about whether you can really make a meaningful difference in the misery you see all around you? If so, remember this: your own personal ethics either stay with you under this kind of stress, or they need an upgrade. To turn away and say that there is nothing you can do is to misunderstand your purpose in the world. As another teacher put it:

“Let there be light” was the first statement in Creation, because “light” is the true purpose of existence. To bring light is our purpose: that each of us transform our situation and environment from darkness and negativity to light and goodness. Through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvot, we strengthen the light of creation. 

It’s getting darker. It’s getting colder. And this is when you need the most support for your own ethical choices and your confidence in them. Refuse to give in to cynicism. Get that free upgrade by lending your presence and getting strength from your religious community. This is the village that devotes itself to keeping the light on – through davening, study, and the kindness that can be shown only through social justice work.

Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: a man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: brother, show me the way out of this forest! The other replied, but I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere. They have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Hayim would add: so it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.

Shabbat Bereshit: Beginning Again, But Not at the Beginning

Here we go again with the beginning!

This week we begin once again to read the Torah. Our parashah is Bereshit, “in [the process of] beginning”. We all know how it begins, and we all know what happens in the story: creation of the world, then of plants, animals and human beings, and then the trouble starts. There’s a snake, and the first murder, which is a fratricide: Cain kills his brother Abel.

Life can seem like a nightmare of repetition some days; somewhere in the world, another war is breaking out. Another famine is causing the suffering of millions. Another act of violence is diminishing the humanity of all it touches. It makes you want to turn off the news forever.

It seems hopeless, yet Judaism teaches hope. In our liturgy, our theology, and our seeking of justice, we are trained always to hope. Not in an irresponsible way, but hope, nevertheless. It is said that in the Warsaw Ghetto, above the entrance to a shul, were inscribed the famous urging of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav: “No matter what, Jews, do not despair!” Jews historically vote for rehabilitation, not capital punishment, because there’s always hope. In Jewish law one may never assume that someone is no longer living, even if the person was last seen in a war zone, or is very old and frail. There’s always hope.

As we begin again at the beginning, we know that we will soon read again of sin, of murder, of war and of misery.

We will also read of courage, of kindness, of righteousness, and of how many stars can be seen in the sky on a night when we remember to look up.

That’s the reason, we are told, that we are to hope. We are not automatons, doomed to repetition. We learn from our experiences, and we listen to those who are wiser than we. We sometimes feel trapped in repetitive patterns – but we take part in being trapped, and we can choose to change the pattern, and our part in it.

You will continue to repeat what you are doing until you learn what you need to learn from it. That learning is “Torah” in the widest sense, for it is your capacity to learn life lessons and plumb their truth depths. And then you will walk away from the damaging repetitions of your past, because you will have learned what you needed to learn from them. And then, feeling a new sense of strength, you will be ready to face the next challenge.

How will this year be different from all other years that have come before it? This year we are in the third year of our Triennial Cycle of Torah reading. We will begin not with the very beginning of Bereshit, but much later, near the end of chapter 4. One of the first verses we read is this:

א  זֶה סֵפֶר, תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם:  בְּיוֹם, בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ.

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created the human being, in the likeness of God it was made;

ב  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בְּרָאָם; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָם אָדָם, בְּיוֹם, הִבָּרְאָם.

2 male and female created it was created, and G-d blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

We will begin with an entirely different beginning – after the Garden of Eden, past the snake, way past the misunderstanding and bad feelings that led to murder. The terrible news from the world around us does not define our future, only our present. This verse from chapter five is not the first statement, but perhaps it is the result of some learning, some experience, and some re-thinking. It offers us a simpler, essential version of human beginnings: one single being, made up of all the human potential in the world. From this verse the tradition derives the teaching that despite all that divides and differentiates us, each individual, precious life is worth the life of the world, because in each one is a whole world of potential.

And therefore, in each one of us is that hope – of an entire world of potential. How will your year be different from all those before it?