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.
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Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot: Why Bother?

The Festival of Sukkot is seven days long, no, wait, eight; literally, the Jewish folk tradition is that G*d didn’t want to part from us after seven days of joy together, and so asked us to wait one more day before going home. That last day is called Shemini Atzeret, literally, “stop here for an eighth [day].”
It’s a sweet parable, and entirely ridiculous; G*d is everywhere, how could we “go home” from G*d? G*d is home. But the sense of sharing a special closeness at this time of year is something we can recognize. Rosh HaShanah brings together people who don’t see each other, perhaps, all year long except for this gathering, and we welcome the moment. Yom Kippur, for all its discomforts, is rather like a slumber party, with our congregational family and dear friends  hanging out all day long together. And Sukkot brings us the sukkah raisings we do together, the special gatherings for prayers of gratitude and remembering, and the visiting of each other’s sukkot. Finally, everyone starts to move to “go home,” and G*d says, as it were, “stay one more day.”
It rather reminds one of an old joke which I heard in Israel (the ethnic groups are playfully interchangeable): Brits are the people who leave without saying goodbye, and Jews are the people who say goodbye without leaving.
This year, though, I don’t want to leave the closeness. The world feels hostile out there beyond the albeit soft and permeable Sukkah roof and walls, and I am grateful for the sense, however fragile, of a barrier between me and the painful upheaval in our larger world.
One can feel the attraction of the cloistered life at a time like this. To turn away, to go and meditate for six months with no news and no social media, to drop out of society as we know it, rather than to participate in the next demonstration, send the next letter, make the next effort that needs making.
Why bother? Isn’t it all over too soon anyway? What does it matter?
On Sukkot we are bidden by our tradition to consider the harvest of our lives’ effort, and to offer the first fruits of it to G*d. I suggest that in our own day, a relevant way to understand this is that we are lucky enough to be part of a people that at least once a year considers not whether or not to be involved in the world, but rather feels ourselves called upon to choose what participation we might define as our gift of thanks, to the world and it Source, for the gift of life.
Why bother, then? One reason you may have heard, which is very Jewish at heart, is this: “I act, although I may not be able to change the world, so that the world does not change me.” The mitzvah of pursuing social justice is expressed not only in whether we “win” some big “battle,” but at least as significantly in so many micro-kindnesses, if you will – noticing who needs a smile or a kind word is as significant as clothing the naked, supporting the sick, feeding the hungry, and keeping faith with those who have died, as our siddur (prayerbook) puts it.
And after all, there is no Jewish word for “cloistered.” Even the nazarite was not sequestered from society; during the designated time of self-defined difference from their usual way of being in the world, s/he was still expected to fulfill her/his/their role as a Jew in the world, participating in the struggle for justice in the world, and in the creation of a better world.
Why bother? because here in the little world we each call our life, we can never know all that we mean to each other. On this Shabbat of Sukkot, may you understand what acts of your life fill your hands, for it is this that defines the harvest of your life.
Shabbat shalom and mo’adim l’simkha!
Why Bother?
Because right now, there is                  someone
out there with
a wound                                     in the exact shape
                                                           of your words.
Sean Thomas Dougherty
from The Second O of Sorrow