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.

parashat Shemini: Tragedy

In parashat Shemini, the Jewish world’s Torah reading for this week, the long process of building the first Jewish sanctuary – the mishkan – is completed, the priests – Aaron and his four sons – are ordained, the mishkan is dedicated, and the first sacrifices are finally being brought. The Israelites are thrilled to see the work of the entire community brought to a gratifyingly successful conclusion.
 
Then, inexplicably, in the middle of the celebration of the awesome Presence of G-d, two of Aaron’s sons are killed. 
 
Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense on it,
and offered strange fire before G-d, which had not been commanded.
And fire went out from G-d and devoured them, and they died there before G-d. (Lev.10.1-2)
 
They had just started out as consecrated kohanim, they had just started to serve – the purpose of their lives had just begun. The Israelites are horrified, and Aaron is silent, distraught. And we are left trying to make sense of it.
 
As usual in human situations, some of us look to blame Nadav and Avihu: they must have done something wrong, they must have deserved it. One commentary seeks meaning in the juxtaposition of a nearby prohibition against drinking wine while serving as a kohen, just a few verses later (Lev. 10.9). The two must have been drunk. Another interpreter argues that the text does not indicate that they “consulted with each other – as it is written, each with his own fire-pan – each acted on his own, individually.” (Vayikra Rabbah 20). Therefore, the transgression was in acting without coordination, perhaps, or without communication, or simply on personal initiative, without being commanded.
 
But there are other interpretations, such as in the ancient midrashic collection called Sifra: “In their joy, as soon as they saw the new fire, stood forth to heap love onto their love”. They came too close to the fiery Presence of G-d out of a desire to be that close. Jewish mysticism is full of a similar longing, and informed by a similar knowledge that to come too close is dangerous. That is why attempting a mystical experience, or even studying the mystical texts, is traditionally forbidden except to one who has a mature, deeply knowledgeable and thoughtful understanding of Jewish teachings and practice.
 
Yet, for some, there is a longing for that experience; it is so attractive, and can be so dangerous. Perhaps it is what some feel when hiking to the top of a remote and forbidding cliff; others love to sail the open ocean in a small boat, and feel most at one with the world there. 
 
The Sages of our tradition urged us to seek out that fire, if we must, carefully; to learn to be satisfied with a careful distance from it, and to protect ourselves with study, and with teachers, if we would come into proximity with it. I have more than once been asked by someone facing an unanswerable tragedy, “what shall I do now?” The best answer our tradition can offer is “more study – more Torah, more thoughtfulness, and more companionship in the struggle to face that which will remain an inexplicable mystery to us.
 
May we bring this lesson from Nadav and Avihu into our lives: keep your wits about you, don’t try this alone, and know that the highest and deepest love requires the greatest of care.