Archive for Bereshit

Bereshit: Blindness and Light

Torah Portion: Bereshit

Good afternoon!

I wish I could say I’ve been on some study sabbatical or world-wide adventure recently, out of wi-fi range and thus unable to post Torah commentaries, but . . well, that wouldn’t be true. With mid-week holidays it’s been beyond me to get it all done and get a drasha written too, so here’s hoping we’re back for the new cycle of Torah readings starting this week.

This week’s Torah portion is the first of the new year, Bereshit, or “in the beginning,” including the creation story and the expulsion from Eden. The haftarah, or prophetic reading, continues the themes of both creation and light (remember, light is the first thing created in Genesis 1.) The prophet proclaims that, just as the world was created for a particular purpose, the people Israel was also created with the intention that Israel shall be a light for the nations:

I created you, and appointed you

A covenant people, a light of nations —

Opening blind eyes,

Rescuing prisoners from confinement,

From the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)

Now, there are various views (hardly a surprise) about who exactly is the prisoner in darkness, and what it means to be a “light of” (or “light to,” or “light for”) the nations, but the simplest meaning seems to be that the people Israel is meant to bring light, meaning hope or goodness or justice- to those who are suffering, either our own Israelite tribes who were in exile at the time of the prophet or perhaps the nations of the word at large.* Just as the creation of nature is purposeful and meaningful in the Torah portion, so is the creation of a covenant people (which is not to say there couldn’t be more than one nation with a purpose or mission.)

On the other hand, if Israel is created to serve God by bringing light. . . . well, there’s a problem:

Who is so blind as My servant,

So deaf as the messenger I send?

Who is so blind as the chosen one,

So blind as the servant of the Lord? (ibid verse 19)

The text goes on to offer hope to the people for a future redemption and ingathering of exiles (again, perhaps it is the exiles who are in metaphorical darkness and confinement), but I’m struck by the contrast between the earlier verse saying Israel is to be a light to the blind, and this verse, saying Israel itself is like one who is blind, which in context seems to mean blind to its own mission, teaching and hope.

The simplest reading of the prophet’s message is that, although Israel falls short in its mission and spiritual purpose, nevertheless, God will eventually bring light for, or perhaps by means of the people Israel, in the form of a redemption from exile and bringing justice among the nations. That’s a great message and one we certainly need today: although the Jewish people is radically imperfect, often focused on its own internecine conflicts and institutional competitions, nevertheless we can be the instrument of a healing purpose, a flawed vessel for light and hope.

So one message is: don’t give up on our community just because it seems to fall so short of its ideals. Yet another message speaks very personally: we all might aspire to be servants of a holy purpose, but “who is so blind as the servant of the Lord?” In other words: be holy, but be humble. We all have blind spots, truths we don’t want to hear (who is so deaf as the messenger I send?), hypocrisies that others see which we don’t acknowledge in ourselves and even outright self-delusions, something no person can fully avoid.

In the end, I think the haftarah imparts a tremendous challenge: pick yourself up and be a light to the world, despite your failings and imperfections. Embrace the holy ideals for which you were created- but don’t forget that working towards holy ends does not mean divine perfection for messy, frail, confused human beings. We must be exalted in our aims but humble in our self-conception. If we aren’t exalted in our aims- to bring light to the world!- we stumble along in the darkness of complacency and exile from our truest selves. If we aren’t humble in our self-conception, religion can be itself a tool to bring great darkness; we are light, and we are sometimes blind, and knowing both is our truest hope.  

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*See here for more on these different possibilities and here for my earlier thoughts on the connection between the portion and haftarah.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Bereshit: Sin Couches at the Door

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

 
Torah Portion: Bereshit
 
“Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, but you can be its master. (Bereshit/ Genesis 4:7)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
Well, here we are again, starting over with another yearly round of Torah readings. We’re back at the beginning, starting with the story of the first humans, Adam, Chava, and their children Kayin and Hevel. [AKA Cain and Abel.] Without going too deeply into the conflict between the two brothers, it’s interesting to note that the Torah portrays God as warning Kayin that his negative emotions (because his brother’s offering was accepted and his was not) will get him into trouble, as we read in the verse above. 
 
There are many interpretation of “sin couches at the door,” but the image is that of an animal ready to pounce or a trap all set to be sprung. The basic idea is that nobody is free of the yetzer hara, or egocentric inclination, and if we’re not careful, we’ll be caught up in temptation and distraction before we know it. The image of “sin at the door” almost implies that our inner drives control us and seize us when we are not ready, as if they are something external, but the whole point of the warning is that consciousness of our urges is the first step towards mastering them. 
 
That is, once we know that we’re fallible, we can take steps to address our individual, particular moral challenges. Think of it this way: if I know I can’t resist chocolate, or alcohol, or gossip, the first thing I have to do is remove myself from contexts where the presence of such things will overcome my willpower. I heard once that the image of the door is to teach that just as each house has its own door, leading to a unique interior, each one of us, and each society and community,  has a unique “sin” or area of spiritual challenge which we must beware and seek to overcome. 
 
As I understand this verse, the Torah shows a positive and not pessimistic view of human nature. We are all capable of mistakes, but all capable of learning. We are liable to being led astray by interior forces which are hard to understand, but we are also made in the Divine Image, which is understood to mean the capacity for choice, compassion, and goodness. 
 
Sin may lie in wait at the door, but forewarned is forearmed. It’s up to each of us to open the doors of our hearts and souls, take inventory of our strengths and weaknesses,  our broken places and extraordinary gifts, in order to navigate a life in which we do, indeed, become the keeper of our brothers, sisters, and as much of the world as we can. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Bereshit: Seeing Beauty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

This year, our theme will be looking for links between the weekly
Torah readings and Jewish liturgy: there are lots of connections
between the weekly readings and the daily, weekly and festival
prayers. We might not do this each and every week, but certainly this
week, when we start our yearly reading with Bereshit, the story of
creation, is a good week to start. Every single day, in the daily
prayers said on weekdays, Shabbat and festivals, we praise God for the
“work of creation,” bringing the very idea of creation into our daily
spiritual awakening.

More specifically, we praise God as the “creator of lights” and the
“one who renews daily the work of creation.” This happens before the
Shma- the affirmation of Divine Oneness- with the blessing of
gratitude for Torah between them.

Now, I can hear the questions already- OK, we know the Torah says that
God created the lights of the heavens and all that, but we find more
plausible the scientific story of creation: a Big Bang followed by the
expansion and cooling of the cosmos and eventual slow evolution of
life on Earth.

To me, there is no contradiction- none- between the creation narrative
of the Torah, its poetic rendering in our daily prayers, and
scientific understandings of how the world came to be. In fact, I
think the siddur gives us an opening to make a connection between an
understanding of cosmic unfolding and the spiritual awareness evoked
by prayer: by speaking of God as the One “Who daily renews the work of
creation,” we can see creation not as a single event, either a big
bang or “Let There Be Light,” but as a sacred process of life becoming
and renewing, a continual growth and development of Being on this
terribly beautiful planet. Creation happens not in seven days or seven
billion years but every day, as life on Earth interconnects and
unfolds; the Torah doesn’t teach us science but instead points us to
perceiving all of creation as infused with the Divine Presence.

When we praise God for daily making creation happen, we”re choosing
to orient ourselves towards perceiving the Divine in all that is- what
could be more beautiful than living in a world where the Sacred is
manifested in each leaf and bud?

That is the world Judaism opens to us, and invites us to see.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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Bereshit: Creating On Shabbat

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

If you’ve been celebrating the holidays I hope they have been full of
joy and insight. It’s time to announce a slight in of focus for this
weekly commentary- we’ve now completed three years of Torah study
focused on the texts and commentaries, and so I hope you’re ready for
something a bit different. At the urging of the new Chancellor of the
Jewish Theological Seminary, many Conservative rabbis have been
speaking over the holidays about the mitzvot, or “commandments,” but
understood broadly as the actions and spiritual disciplines which are
the core of Jewish practice. I too spoke on Rosh Hashana about the
meaning of mitzvah (notes for those sermons will at some point be up
on the TBE website) and I want to continue the conversation here on
rabbineal-list.

Thus, we’ll still look at the Torah portion every week, but for the
coming year I’ll bring to your attention a mitzvah which is connected
to or found in the parsha, along with my suggestions for how to apply
this mitzvah in your life.

Please feel free to offer feedback, commentary, and suggestions as we
go along.

And with that. . . . .

Tonight we observe Shimini Atzeret, the final holiday of the fall holy
days, the second day of which is known as Simchat Torah, when the
yearly Torah reading is concluded and a new one begins. Because
there’s no space between Simchat Torah and the regular Shabbat of the
new year, we’re going to leave the holiday discussion for next year
and go right into the portion Bereshit, at the beginning of the book
of the same name, Bereshit/ Genesis.

The opening words of Bereshit are familiar to many: “In the beginning.
. . ” with a description of the seven days of creation following. The
seventh day is Shabbat, the Sabbath, because:

“. . . on the seventh day God finished the work that God had been
doing, and The Holy One ceased on the seventh day from all the work
that God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it
holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that The
Creator had done.” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:2-3)

The word “Shabbat” comes from a Hebrew root which has among its
meanings to “cease” or “stop,” so when the text says that God “ceased”
the work of creation, the lexical connection is clear: our day of
“ceasing” is a reminder that God stopped creating after the sixth day.
(As an aside, let me be clear here: the official position of
rabbineal-list is that there is no conflict between Biblical
narratives, which teach spiritual truths using narrative and metaphor,
and scientific explanations for the world’s origins.)

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book called “The Sabbath,” points out a
slight tension in the text, which is a bit ambiguous as to whether the
work of Creation was finished on the sixth day, leaving the seventh
day with no “creating,” or on the seventh day itself. Heschel quotes a
midrash which says, yes, there was something created on the seventh
day- “menucha,” commonly translated as “rest” but understood to be
more than physical renewal. The rabbis posit that something was
created on the seventh day in order to teach that menucha, as a
concept, is not just “not working” but a positive, active state of
contemplation, of renewal, of peace and wholeness.

The paradox is that we can only achieve menucha- a heightened state of
perspective and spirituality and renewal- if we create space for it by
not filling up our lives with other activities. Heschel stresses over
and over again that Shabbat is not just a bunch of restrictions, but
the ceasing of some kinds of activities creates the opportunity for
something else to happen- the positive experience of menucha, as he
emphasizes.

The mitzvah of Shabbat is central to any serious Jewish spiritual path
because of a simple truth: the world keeps us so busy doing things we
often don’t have time or space or context for just be-ing, for
appreciating the wonder of our existence and our connections to God,
nature, and each other. The practice of Shabbat is something that
grows over time, but initially, one can turn off the tv, the computer,
and the stereo, so that learning, talking and thinking is uncluttered.
Shabbat creates space for walking, sitting in a garden, or reading
something which touches your soul, none of which can happen without
choosing to create menucha on the seventh day.

Moadim L’Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Bereshit: Divine Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

It’s yet another wet, soggy, dreary, rainy, misty, foggy, damp day in
Poughkeepsie (not that I’m complaining or anything), so while reading
this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit/Genesis, when I came across the
verse about God gathering the seas to make “dry land,” I immediately
thought, “Good idea! Can we have some around HERE for a change?”

OK, enough kvetching, let’s study Torah. This week’s Torah portion
starts the yearly reading cycle all over again, from the verse “in the
beginning.” However, the creation narrative is only the first two
chapters of Bereshit; after that, the story of humankind begins: Adam
and Chava in the Garden, then Kayin and Hevel [Abel] out in the
fields.

Yet the story of the emergence of humankind, and our unique capacity
to make moral (or immoral) choices, is an integral part of the earlier
creation narrative. In Bereshit 1, God decides to form humankind in
the “divine image:”

“And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our
likeness. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 1:26)

Now, clearly, this cannot refer to a physical image- not only because
a basic idea of Biblical theology is that God has no image or body,
but also because each human being is distinct and unique in
appearance, a fact obvious to our ancestors. So “the Divine Image”
must refer to some moral or spiritual quality- for today, let’s assume
that it refers broadly to the capacity for free will and moral choice,
without which questions of “good and evil” become irrelevant.

However, any consideration of what it means to be in the “Image of
God” has to grapple with another aspect of this verse, which is the
plural form of “let us make. . after our likeness.” The Hebrew is very
clear: “na’aseh adam betsalmenu kidemutenu.” OK, so who was God
talking to?

This is a classic problem of Biblical commentary, which cannot be
explained away through simple grammar. You might say “Elohim,” the
word for God in this verse, is a proper noun in a grammatically plural
form, and thus requires plural forms for the verbs and nouns following
it, but the first word of the verse, “vayomer,” or “said,” is
singular, referring to God alone. So some commentators have theorized
that God was talking to angels, who share in the Divine Image, or even
the animals, who partake of the “breath of life” which animates
creation. (See the Etz Hayim commentary for more on this.)

Our friend Rashi goes with the explanation that God was speaking with
the angels, but even so, what I love about his commentary is the idea
of God’s humility in seeking consultation and permission from others:

“Let us make humankind. . . . Even though they [the angels] did not
assist God in creation, and there is an opportunity for the heretics
to rebel (to misconstrue the plural as a basis for their heresies),
Scripture did not hesitate to teach proper conduct and the trait of
humility, that a great person should consult with and receive
permission from a smaller one. Had it been written: ‘I shall make
man,’ we would not have learned that He was speaking with His
tribunal, but to Himself.”

What an amazing idea! To me, the spiritual idea at the heart of
Rashi’s comment is that both humility and deep awareness of the
dignity of others are deeply connected with what it means to be a
human being created in “the Divine Image.” To put it another way, if
what it means to be “in the Divine Image” is the capacity for wise,
compassionate choice, then the very way the Divine Image is created-
in humility, consultation, and concern for others- indicates what
Godly choices and actions would look like.

To put it yet a third way: if Judaism teaches a story about God
consulting before acting, and that story tells us who we are,
shouldn’t we, who don’t have the Big Picture of creation, consult,
communicate, reach out, and be humble enough to receive counsel in
much less dramatic circumstances? To do so brings forth the Divine
within, which is the very reason we came to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- here are our usual links:

Summary of the parsha with study questions:
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bereishit_summary.\
htm

Further commentaries:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bereishit_index.ht\
m

Text of the Torah portion and haftarah, plus a nice commentary from
Dr. Eisen, the Chancellor Elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Family Shabbat Table Talk:

http://urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2085&pge_prg_id=29219&pge_id=3720

Kid’s Parsha Page:

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=Canaan_Hora&cid=4694&state=detail

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Bereshit: The Beginning of Transcending Ourselves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

The leaves are turning from green to gold to brown, and the Torah
scroll is turning back from Moshe on the mountaintop across the
Jordan Valley, all the way back to The Beginning. We start our
learning anew this week, and I’m delighted that you’re joining me!
It’s been a privilege and an honor to write these weekly
commentaries, and I thank you sincerely for the questions, insights
and feedback you’ve shared. If you’ll keep reading them, I’ll keep
writing them!

Now, onto the first parsha, Bereshit. Many of you know the famous
parts of this parsha: the seven days of Creation ; Adam and Even in
the Garden; the Expulsion; Cain and Abel. What you probably didn’t
notice amidst all the dramatic stories was the little narrative that
comes just after Cain kills Abel. I’m going to quote it in full,
between the dotted lines:

———————————————————————
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then
founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. To Enoch was
born Irad, and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methusael, and
Methusael begot Lamech. Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of
the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore
Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst
herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor
of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-
cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of
Tubal-cain was Naamah.

And Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.
I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a lad for bruising me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth,
meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of
Abel,” for Cain had killed him. And to Seth, in turn, a son was
born, and he named him Enosh. It was then that people began to invoke
the Lord by name. (Bereshit/ Genesis 4:17-25, modified JPS
translation)
———————————————————————-

That last verse is what I find so interesting about this story; it
turns out Bereshit is not just the story of the beginnings of the
world and its inhabitants, but also of religion and spirituality: “it
was then that people began to invoke the Lord (YHWH) by name.”

So the next question is: why then? Why didn’t people call out to God
earlier, perhaps even in the Garden of Eden, when things were going
great? The little story before this verse is complicated, and there
is no standard interpretation among classic or modern Bible
commentators, but notice that it’s about Lamech, a descendent of
Cain’s, who himself seems to be caught up in a cycle of violence. He
pleads – or, perhaps, boasts- to his wives that he, too, has done
harm, or is capable of it. Some commentators see his poem as an
anguished cry of guilt and shame; others see it as a victory song, or
perhaps a lament over some tragedy or accident.

The origins of Lamech’s poem are obscure, but it clearly involves
violence, death, and vengeance. The next verse takes us back to Adam
(yes, THAT Adam, since in Genesis, the early characters are portrayed
as living impossibly long lives), who has another son, Seth, as a
consolation after the murder of Abel. Seth then has a son, named
Enosh, a word related to the word for “human,” or “people.” This is a
key point: the name Enosh is a different word for “human being” than
the generic “Adam,” which is related to “adamah,” or “Earth.”

The first human- Adam- was a creature from the Earth, a physical
being. Now humanity, marked by the change of name, Enosh- is
beginning in earnest: with family pattern of good and evil, loss and
love, death and rebirth, grief and consolation. So maybe what
Bereshit is telling us is this: what it means to be human is to try
to exceed our physical existence and touch that which is
transcendent, especially at times when the cycle of life can be made
into a sacred occasion.

Lamech is caught up in something he cannot transcend on his own, and
Adam turns again to the power of life to renew itself. Both are
examples of humankind’s innate desire to be more than a physical
being- in either case, we reach beyond ourselves, we call out to God,
to experience fully the sacred dimension of earthly existence. To
invoke God is to be fully human, for in transcending ourselves, we
become what we were created to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: If you know any Jewish singles in their
20’s-40’s, please tell them about a great weekend retreat, the
Basherte Workshop, (with yours truly as part of the staff team)
coming up this Veteran’s Day weekend in the Berkshires. Details at:
<http://www.basherte.org>.

PPS- The text and additional commentaries for this week’s parsha can
be found here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/bereshit.html

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