Parashat Bereshit

Just following Simchat Torah, we begin the cycle of Torah reading again, with the stories from Bereshit that set the themes for the rest of the book, and in a sense, for Judaism. These stories should be understood metaphorically, not literally, holding deep truth although not scientific or historic. Each of these could lead to a lifetime of study and learning.

The first story is that God is the Creator of all and that one of the most important ways we experience God is through the sanctity of time. Judaism does not insist that we reject the notion of evolution or science when we speak of God the Creator. Rather, these very opening verses of the first seven days serve as a construct, explaining that behind all matter is a sense of mystery and purpose. Moreover, on this planet, the most evolved creature is the human, who is able to perceive time and through dedicating time for rest and reflection, develop a spiritual self. Shabbat, which means “stop”, is the day we as Jews have designed to stop from our production and consumption, in order to reconnect with our soul. It is a time all more crucial for each of us overwhelmed with the 24/7 onslaught of information and activity.

The second story focuses on the creation of the singular human. As the rabbis teach, this story becomes one whose intent is to teach principles of equity and egalitarianism. According to a more accurate reading of the Hebrew, the woman is taken not from the rib but from the side of human (parallel to the Greek story of the creation of two humans, one male and one female, from a singular androgynous being). The rabbis say this teaches that no human being can say that “my blood is redder than yours” and that “whoever saves a single life saves the entire universe.” The sanctity and primacy of life is taught from this story, let alone egalitarianism (alas, not accentuated by the tradition) and obligations for justice.

Finally, the story shifts to God issuing a simple command to the human, not to eat of the “fruit of the tree of knowledge.” This most paradoxical story creates a tension with which we continue to live. On one hand exists free will and the human choice of good and evil; on the other is “paradise”, where as the Talking Heads say in their song “Heaven”, “nothing ever really happens.” To be in the world of action, to move into history, means leaving behind innocence. With choice comes pain and consequence. The Torah unfolds as the story of the celebration of Creation, the responsibility of free will, and the expectation of repair and right action. The words of the festivals just completed should echo in our ears as we ree-ncounter the stories of Torah yet another year. May we understand them yet more deeply and apply their truths ever more meaningfully.

King Solomon who, according to tradition, is the author of the book. He says:

I know there is nothing better for man than to rejoice and do good in his life. And also, that every man should eat, drink and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.”

(Kohelet 3:12–13).

Sukkot is the festival described in our calendar as the “z’man simchatenu / season of our joy”. The one festival where we are commanded to rejoice and be happy, to celebrate and be glad. All the traditions connected with Sukkot assist us in bringing the joy of the festival to the fore; eating and drinking in our sukkot with friends and family, smelling the distinctive, refreshing scent of the etrog, shaking the lulav with its beautiful greenery, and reading the book of Kohelet to inspire us to live with better purpose and more joy. Kohelet stresses the importance of enjoying the bounty with which we are blessed, of eating and drinking, of sharing special moments and being grateful for the blessings in our lives. And it is particularly meaningful that we read these words in the sukkah, in the temporary structure and dwelling in which we live for the seven days of the festival.

The sukkah is a fragile structure. It is not the solid bricks and mortar of our homes, rather, it is exposed to the elements, offering some shelter but not providing much protection from a storm or unrelenting heat and sun. The sukkah though, by its very nature, causes us to do what Kohelet is encouraging through his words: to take stock and think about what is really important, what in our lives is temporary and what is permanent. When we sit in the sukkah, we begin to realise the fragile nature of our material possessions — that our homes, as safe as they might be, could be gone in an instant.

Sukkot is a poignant reminder that there are many in the world who are without the shelter that we sometimes take for granted: those in our own larger community who are without homes and others for whom their home is not a safe environment of shelter. This Sukkot we are also witnessing on tv the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. There are more people currently seeking refuge than ever before. During this time in our calendar we are reminded to address the issues faced by those without a home, to think about what we can do.

In our Torah portion this week, Moses concludes his final address to the children of Israel. He does so in poetry, as if that is the only way possible to convey the depth of meaning and significance of these last few words. He calls upon heaven and earth to witness his speech and then, in some of the most beautiful imagery in the Torah he asks:

May my teaching drop as the rain,

My words flow as the dew,

Like showers on young growth

Like droplets on the grass.”

(Deuteronomy 32:2–3)

I read this and I can just imagine Moses’ words falling gently from the sky, settling softly on the shoulders of the people, touching them with the life-giving sweetness of the wisdom of Torah. Rain and dew, two different forms of water, each one having its own lessons to teach us, each having its own way of bringing us into the embrace of tradition.

The commentators ask what words that fall like rain and flow like dew have to teach us. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Poland says that rain falls on the earth and its effect is not felt immediately. It takes time for the flowers, grasses and trees to grow. And it is the same with words of Torah. Sometimes we cannot immediately see how they can be helpful or relevant, but in time their wisdom is revealed. Rashi teaches that rain, although essential for life, is not welcomed by everyone. Farmers, and those who rely upon the rain for sustenance, rejoice in it; but those who are traveling, or a wine-maker who has an open vat, will not be so happy. In the same way, sometimes the words of Torah will be difficult to hear, they may present a challenge, they may confront us and at other times they may be life giving, providing us with inspiration, hope, joy and love.

But, says Sifrei, dew is always beloved, it is soft, gentle, constant, it is always there, dependable and reliable, so much so, that sometimes we do not notice it at all. We take it for granted and don’t take the time to pause and really see and appreciate it. In the same way, Torah is always there, teachings for us to hear, learn and be moved by. But because of its constancy, it is easy for us to take it for granted, to forget to stop and notice and we lose an incredible opportunity to grow and be touched by something greater than ourselves.

As we move into the festival of Sukkot we focus on the weather, especially on the rains. Simchat Torah is the celebration of the completion and beginning again of the Torah reading cycle, so we find again the link between rain and Torah. Sometimes the words of Torah will be like the life giving rains — they will sustain, inspire and guide us. Sometimes they will be challenging, causing us discomfort and struggle, they will be more as the unwelcome rains. But Torah is always there for us, a text with which to grapple, learn and to help us grow. But. like the dew, we must not take it for granted. We have an incredible opportunity to learn from the wisdom of our ancestors and to draw from their teachings. An opportunity for the Torah to inspire us. But in order for that to happen, we need to engage with the text and its teachings — to find meaning, and to grapple with different understandings and interpretations. Tradition teaches that every passage of the Torah has 70 facets; 70 different meanings for us to uncover.

This new year, as we begin the cycle again, we sit in our sukkah and contemplate the fragility of life and existence. May the words of Torah fall gently upon us like the rains and the dew. May we find guidance and wisdom within it and may we find many opportunities to study its words together.

This week’s Torah portion contains the very last of the 613 commandments: “write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel: put it in their mouths in order that this poem might be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deut. 31:19). In its most literal sense, this verse is commanding Moses and Joshua to write down the words of the poem God is about to utter and to hold it as evidence of the connection between God and the people of Israel. But over the years, the oral law interpreted this ruling as a commandment not just to Moses and Joshua but to all of Israel to write their own Torah scroll. The command is expanded from merely writing the poem which comes in next week’s Torah portion, to writing an entire scroll of Torah. Every one of us, according to this understanding, is to write our own Torah scroll.

This is an onerous commandment and not something many of us are likely to achieve in our lifetime, so the rabbis said that if a person commissions the writing of a scroll or if a person writes even one letter in a Torah scroll, then they have fulfilled their obligation. We, at CBTBI, have been incredibly privileged during the past few years, to have been given the opportunity to participate in the writing of three Torah scrolls for our congregation. We were given the chance to commission the writing of a letter in the scroll and others were given a beautiful gift of a letter. To watch the scribe write a letter just for you is incredibly powerful and creates a special connection with the text and the Torah.

The Jewish people have always had a strong link to the Torah scroll. I often think about how incredible it is that we still make the scrolls just as they did in ancient times. We write on parchment, we use ink which is derived from plant materials in a quill and we write the text by hand. There are a number of rituals connected with writing a Torah scroll and they have been handed down from one generation to the next. Despite the fact that it would be cheaper and more convenient to just print the Torah or these days, to download it and read it from an iPad, we don’t do that. We read the handwritten scroll just as our ancestors did before us. There is great power in that link and bond to our past. To imagine that Moses himself wrote the Torah as commanded in this week’s portion, in the same fashion that we do today, is something sacred and to be treasured.

This Shabbat as we look ahead to Yom Kippur, we think of the generations that have come before us. We think of those who are no longer with us this Yom Kippur, and the journey we have all travelled to reach this moment. Just like Moses in our portion, we reflect upon the days which have passed and we look ahead to the future. We reflect and contemplate; we think of ways we might change and improve in the year ahead. And through the Torah scroll we connect this process with our ancestors. It is our ancient link with the past. Just as they read from the Torah, learned and studied the laws and were inspired to live their lives, so too do we. And as it called to them it calls to us, especially at this time, to join hands across the ages, to find meaning and beauty in the ancient texts and traditions, and to live lives true to the values of Torah. If we do that, we can each become the Torah scoll, we embody its teachings and wisdom through the way we live our lives, then whether we write a letter or a scroll, we can fulfill the commandment by becoming the Torah for ourselves and for others.

I wish everyone a shana tova and well over the fast.

This is a time of year filled with awe and wonder. We stand on the edge of a new year, looking back on the one which has passed and looking forward to the future. It is a time of anticipation and reflection, filled with memories, hopes and dreams.

Our Torah portion this week mirrors the cycle of the calendar year. The Israelites stand together with Moses at the top of the mountain, looking forward to the land they are about to inherit. The future is stretched out before them, an amazing tapestry of possibilities which they consider with excitement and joy. At the same time they are looking back at the road they have travelled; their miraculous escape from Pharaoh, the years of wandering in the desert, their mistakes and achievements, the moments of triumph and the times of sadness, transgressions and misdeeds.

Moses, the man who has led them on their epic wanderings is preparing for his own death, preparing for the moment when he has to leave his people in the hands of a new leader. He knows these will be amongst his final words, his last chance to leave an imprint upon them. The Israelites are gathered together, all in one place, together with the generations who were and those yet to be, to listen to the voice of their past and move towards the future.

On Sunday night we celebrate Rosh Hashana the time when we, like the Israelites, will gather together and move into our future. We will greet the new year with all the possibilities it holds. But before we cross to a new land, we like the Israelites, spend time looking back on the past, reflecting on its lessons, recalling its joys and its sorrows. We too remember those who are no longer beside us but whose presence we continue to feel. We recall the triumphs and glories as well as the moments of degradation and sadness. And we undertake a process of cheshbon ha nefesh, soul searching, where we repair our relationships and ourselves so we can walk into the new year and all its possibilities, refreshed, cleansed and ready to begin again.

This year we would like to offer you the opportunity to participate in a wonderful initiative by Reboot called 10Q. The ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are a time for reflection and contemplation, and Reboot has a way to help us in that process. If you sign up to 10Q for each of the 10 days you will be sent one question. Answer it in your own secret online 10Q space in any way you like and when you are finished, push a button and your answers are sent to the online vault for safekeeping. One year later the vault is opened and your answers are sent back to you for reflection. It is a wonderful way to help us consider the year that has passed and to prepare for Yom Kippur but also interesting one year later to see what has changed during the course of the year, how we have grown, and what has remained the same. I encourage you all to sign up for 10Q by going to the website http://www.doyou10q.com.

On behalf of all of us at CBTBI I wish each of you Shana Tova, a year ahead filled with happiness, sweetness and blessings.

As we approach the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ sets forth a series of blessings and curses to reinforce the covenant that the people are entering. They are opposite of each other — as life affirming are the blessings are the curses damning and terrifying. The section of curses is so horrific that it is read softly, all 44 verses in one reading. There are those who look at these curses as prophetic — others who look at them as a historic insertion, reflecting the calamity that befell our people during the destruction of the First Temple. The events commemorated at that time of Tisha B’av have been interpreted as a fulfillment of the prophetic side of the curses – that is, for our disobedience to God, we were exiled and nearly exterminated.

These days, many people no longer believe in the doctrine of reward and punishment that is at the heart of these blessings. We no longer accept that God intervenes in our lives in the way that our ancestors did. As autonomous individuals, we understand the fullness of our own power, and question God’s. Moreover, we cannot accept that a loving God would also be a punishing God. So, the doctrine of reward and punishment, of blessings and curses, wanes. However, one core aspect of the doctrine should remain – and that is that we should never forget our responsibility for each other, for our society. We are not exempt from communal, societal and global movements.

Ironically, our greater sense of independence and individuality has not led to a greater sense of responsibility. While we no longer imagine that God rewards and punishes, we have not yet taken the next step of assuming responsibility for our own actions. Rather, we prefer (and this is not just our politicians, but most if not all of us) to blame someone else when something goes wrong. We live in an age of profound challenges — from the definition of family, the construction of community, concepts of social welfare and also new global realities regarding climate, economics and communication. While we have no control over any of these realms, we have our responsibility and influence.

As the saying goes, when you point a finger at someone else, three are pointing back at you. Less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah we read from Ki Tavo and are called to internalize its message. Reward and punishment, blessing and curse, comes from within. We must learn as autonomous individuals to accept responsibility for our actions, and to make amends when our words and deeds require that of us. Our rabbis remind us, as we come toward the New Year, to think that the whole universe is in the balance, and that each one of us has the potential to tilt the scale toward goodness, life and blessing.

According to the tradition there are 72 mitzvot in this parashah, more than 10% of the 613 ascribed by tradition to the Torah. This statement raises the question, “Says who?” Anyone who has read the Torah will realize that nowhere does it state that there are 613 mitzvot — in fact, nowhere is there any official enumeration of mitzvot in the Torah. In fact, there is no mention of there being 613 mitzvot in the most major ancient codification of Jewish law, the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE. The one statement found about there being 613 mitzvot in the Torah is actually part of a conversation drawing out core principles of Torah, found in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a. Rabbi Simlai teaches there that there are 613 mitzvot, 365 corresponding to the number of solar days in the year and 248 positive ones, corresponding to the number of bones in a person’s body. The conversation continues that David reduced the precepts to 11 principles (as learned from Psalm 15), Isaiah to six principles (as in Isaiah 33:15–16) and Micah to three (as in Micah 6:8). A closer reading of the only passage in Jewish tradition that teaches that there are 613 mitzvot reveals that it is part of a broader conversation of what it means to be a Jew, engaged in the study of Torah and the connection with God.

Nevertheless, over the centuries the tradition that the Torah had 613 mitzvot grew and in the Middle Ages rabbis began writing books enumerating them. There are many different versions, none of which agree as to which are the 613 mitzvot. However, since the Middle Ages, the list of 613 mitzvot enumerated by Maimonides has become the authoritative one, to the extent that one’s observance of these has become the litmus test of Jewish authenticity. Few know that of these mitzvot, nearly half have not been and cannot be observed since the destruction of the Second Temple, almost 2,000 years ago. In other words, it is incumbent upon each of us, if we are to live our Judaism with meaning, to understand how the traditions have developed and what is there contemporary significance.

To this day, one cannot read the Torah without further commentary and instruction to discern which are its mitzvot, which are not. For example, this week’s portion has the famous teaching of the “rebellious child” who is to be put to death. This passage becomes the subject of much Talmudic discourse, leading to the conclusion that the law has never been applied nor will it ever be. Rather, its presence in Torah is to help us learn how to learn Torah. Other laws, such as those regarding divorce, have been extrapolated from this Parashah leading to the horrible situation in some forms of Judaism of the agunah, or the “chained woman” who cannot be freed from her abusive husband. Others commit us to looking after the most underprivileged in society.

In today’s world in which there is so much conflict regarding religion, it is incumbent upon us to converse as to how we understand the words of Torah, how we understand the concept of mitzvah — commandment. Just because we understantd the notion that there 613 mitzvot as a rubric, not an exact enumeration, does not mean that we should eliminate the idea of there being a notion of being commanded. The question in front of us, however, will be how to read the Torah through the eyes of the rabbis, the received words of our tradition. But the tradition does not end in the past, but continues through us, so the further question will be which rabbis and teachers inspire us to see the Torah through a lens of more deeply connecting with the life source that unites us all.


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