Bereshit: Bringing Light

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

We’re pleased here at rabbineal-list to be taking a new direction
between now and next Simchat Torah: instead of looking at the weekly
Torah portion, we’re going to look at the haftarah, which is the
selection from the prophets or historical books of the Hebrew Bible
which accompanies every Torah portion or holiday.

This week, of course, we’re starting the Torah reading over “in the
beginning,” with the story of Bereshit- the Creation narrative. So
it’s fitting that our haftarah, taken from the book of Isaiah,
references the work of Creation with an image of God spreading out the
heavens:

“Thus said God the Lord,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread out the earth and what it brings forth,
Who gave breath to the people upon it
And life to those who walk thereon” (Isaiah 42:5)

R. Shimson Raphael Hirsch notes that the word for “breath” in the
passage above- neshama- also means “soul,” in the sense of that unique
capacity for free-will and choice that makes us human. So just from
the first verse of our haftarah, we already have a commentary on the
Creation narrative: it’s not just about making the material stuff of
the cosmos, but also about humankind’s capacity to choose its actions.
This makes us unlike the heavens and earth and seas- they just sort of
do their thing according to the laws of nature. We, on the other hand,
have neshama, the Divine breath of life, understood as free-will and
the capacity for ethical discernment.

The next passage of our haftarah makes even more clear that our job in
Creation is not to merely obey the physical laws of nature, but to
fulfill a moral purpose:

“I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you,
And I have grasped you by the hand.
I created you, and appointed you
A covenant people, a light of nations-
Opening eyes deprived of light,
Rescuing prisoners from confinement,
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (42:6-7)

The rest of the haftarah goes on to elucidate the consequences of
unworthy spiritual choices and the promise of the Divine Presence with
the people Israel in their various journeys and sufferings, but for
the moment let’s just compare the images in the verses above with the
opening lines of the Torah itself. In the very first verses of the
Torah- you probably remember this- God brought light into being where
before there was only darkness. (“Let there be light!,” etc.)

In the haftarah, it is our job – not God’s- to bring light to the
darkness. Perhaps these “eyes deprived of light” are ones that suffer
from a moral or spiritual blindness, or perhaps, as the verse seems to
suggest, bringing light means bringing comfort and hope to those who
are trapped in a prison of suffering, alienation, or despair. God may
have done the Big Bang work of original Creation- however we
understand that process- but it is we who continue the work of
bringing light into darkness through our soul-capacity for compassion
and human connection. In the work of physical Creation, light comes
from the heavenly bodies; in the work of spiritual creation, which is
our task, light is a metaphor for the healing and lifting up which
humans can choose to do for each other.

Creation, in this view, isn’t finished- you may remember we even say
in the Siddur (prayerbook) that God “daily renews the work of
Creation.” Perhaps Isaiah is suggesting that this renewal is done by
giving soul-breath to humankind, and letting us be the ones who bring
light to the darkness, whenever we choose to see it.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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