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.
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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?

Shabbat Bereshit 5774: Take a Bite

 This is very simply a photograph of an apple I bought at an Israeli grocery store.

Image

The sticker on it it what makes it priceless: Bereshit (“Genesis”) / taam Gan Eden (“the taste of the Garden of Eden”)

The term Bereshit is the name of an Israeli fruit produce company. The word eden is related to the Hebrew word for pleasure, edna. The obvious reference is to the fruit of the garden of Eden, but the more playful reference is specifically to the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We don’t know what fruit is at the heart of the story, only that it is delights the eyes, and, we assume, the mouth as well. The Rabbis of the Talmud speculated on several possibilities, including figs, grapes, and even wheat. (See Wikipedia’s article Forbidden Fruit for more on this.) The association with the apple is probably a Christian speculation based on the fact that the Latin word “evil” is closely related to the Latin word for “apple”.

Whatever fruit it was, Eve and Adam were not supposed to eat of it. The fact that G-d created us with brains and seemed to be telling the first humans not to use them, not to consume and interiorize moral knowledge of good and evil, perplexed many rabbinic commentators. Some interpretations of the story declare that this was a test of our obedience to G-d and had nothing to do with learning morality. If so, the sources all agree, we failed miserably – and not for the first time.

There is a modern approach to understanding the story which comes from the science of psychology, which suggests that the entire Garden of Eden story is an allegory for human life and growth. In the Garden, Adam and Eve, and we, are as children; all we need is provided, and all we have to do is to clean up after ourselves, even as G-d told the first humans to “till and tend the land”. 

According to the story, it was Eve’s initiative that led to the first humans disobeying the command to leave the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil alone. She ate of it at the serpent’s suggestion, then gave it to Adam, and he ate too. One thing led to another, and ultimately the two were banished from that perfect Garden of pleasure.

But a Garden of perfect, eternal pleasure does not seem to be what we humans really desire. According to the great medieval Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, the act of our creation was not completed – we did not become fully human until we could learn the difference between good and evil. We do not become human beings, not really and not completely, until the day when we develop the ability to understand and work for good, and against evil, until we can distinguish between right and wrong, and when we have developed the agency to act, knowing the costs of our actions and their promise. 

Living in a perfect paradise is not satisfying; it is boring. And that is why, according to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), the human race should thank Eve for grabbing that apple – or whatever it was – and taking a bite. By acting to complete her creation, as G-d’s partner in the creation of her own sense of self, Eve opened the way toward our more complete development as human beings – struggling with the dangerous frustrations of our physical urges, the unruly storms of our emotions, and the soaring, exalting heights of our intellectual and spiritual ability. That’s why she is named Eve – Mother of All the Living: she opened the way for us to true, deep, mysterious, full Life.

On this Shabbat, as we bid farewell to a full and intense season of holy days and festivals, consider the spiritual year you are embarking upon: how can you follow Eve’s lead and live fully and meaningfully – physically, emotionally, intellectually.