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 Lekh Lekha: Finding Light in Darkness

One  of the more arresting insights about this week’s parashah is that it describes G-d’s third attempt to create a world.

The first attempt ended in a terrible, world-destroying flood. The second was not as cataclysmic, since G-d had sworn never to do that again, and set a bow in the clouds as a Divine reminder. Yet the second attempt also failed: even as the first humans had transgressed a boundary by reaching for G-dlike knowledge, so the Tower of Babel describes humanity’s naive hubris, displayed in an attempt to build a structure that would reach to G-d’s territory. Heaven, perhaps, or just a sort of safety unknown, and unknowable, to humans.
This third attempt shows us a G-d far less ambitious, a creation with far less impact. Not a world, and not all of humanity – just one person. What a picture: G-d reduced to searching through the world for one person who will listen, and follow.
How many times have you attempted to begin again? how disappointing it is to try once more after a failure! how much less shining the path looks, how much reduced one’s enthusiasm is…..
There is a story of a person who, in her youth, sets out to save the world. After some time and a few setbacks, she realizes that the world is a very big place, and perhaps it’s best to set one’s sights more realistically upon, perhaps, the nation. After a while the complexity of that mission overcomes her, and she begins to see how much work is needed just to lift up her own city. Then, having begun truly to see deeply, she realizes that her own neighborhood needs her attention. Then, of course (you can see it coming) she looks around and notices what needs doing in her own home. Finally, she understands: she has her hands full just to begin with herself. And that is, after all, a whole world, as the Rabbis teach: “one who saves one life, saves an entire [potential] world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.9).
G-d begins again with one person, possibly feeling – let’s just assume that G-d as a Creator, a role model we are meant to emulate, feels – a bit let down, that the Divine creative capacity has been disappointingly reduced. Where’s the special effects?
A great and difficult lesson of Jewish tradition offers you the insight that it is not in turning away from your failure, but in seeking within it, that one finds triumph.
Thus, in the seemingly humble beginnings of one person who listens, and who acts,  an entire people will emerge. The one person is called first Avram, then Avraham, but he calls himself ivri, “the one who crosses over”. Finally, a crossing of boundaries for good. And it only happened because of all those former boundaries that were destroyed.
Many Jewish commentaries on this parashah voice a sense of wonder that Avram is called out of nowhere, for no reason. It is entirely possible that G-d called out to many other people, who did not listen, and who did not respond. In one ancient commentary it is said that G-d’s call to Avram was not simply go forth but go forth, and light the way for Me. In the simple willingness to go forth and try again, you too can light up the world.