Bereshit: Before the beginning

tohu vvohu

“Nothing comes from nothing.  Nothing ever could.”

Life is lived in the lyrics of musicals, it’s true.  Ok, it’s true for me, but this lyric from perhaps one of my less-favorite songs/scenes in “Sound of Music” rings true for this week’s parasha, Bereshit (Genesis).

It is the beginning, so we read, “When God was creating Heaven and Earth, the earth was chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.”(Gen 1:1)  Read that carefully.  There were things in existence before Creation.  The earth was there, though it was chaotic.  Water was there, and it was chaotic, too. And,of course, God was there.  The rabbis were well aware of the existence before Creation.  One midrash says the world was created with the letter “bet” because it’s closed on three sides, and only open in the direction of moving forward.  Therefore, we should focus on what was created in our time and place, and not investigate what’s above the heavens, below the earth, or before the six days. (Gen Rabbah, 1:10)  Rabbi Gamliel said that the “tohu v’vohu” (chaos, void) was created by God, too, riffing off of Proverb 8:24,  “When there were no depths, I created them.”

So, is what God did really more of a re-arranging of the cosmic furniture that was already there?  What’s creation, then?  We talk about people having creativity, but are they creating something out of nothing, or are they working with materials already in existence?  I know from experience that musical creativity comes from having mastered the “instrument” enough to go to new places, and visual art still requires the materials with which to create something.  The creative actor needs words, character, and imagination.  God had imagination; the Creativity to do something new with what was at hand.  Does the fact that there were things in existence before the “beginning” make what came next less awesome?  I think not.

God had at the ready the raw materials needed for the vision to come to frution.  God had earth and water and something sky-like, and from that, God created life, the kind of life that would be sustained and could grow beyond the beginning.  Chaos became creation.  God differentiated what was already there, and revealed, or maybe released, the wonder that was trapped inside.

There is so much trapped inside us, so much ready to be released.  But we have to calm the face of the chaotic waters first, and that is so difficult, at least for me.  There’s no lack of chaos, but there is a dearth of time and silence and opportunity to hover over the waters and see what could be.   That’s what Shabbat is for.  No matter how you experience Shabbat, know that it’s that chance to make order out of the chaos in your mind, heart, or soul.

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Weigh the pros and cons of something old vs a new choice with words on a gold balance or scale comparing a newer or older product or object

That’s odd.  The calendar on my phone has each week’s Torah portion written in, but it was blank.  I logged on to to see why there was no Torah portion listed for this Shabbat.  I knew it couldn’t be Bereshit, (Genesis 1:1)  the very beginning, because we need to get past Simchat Torah for that, and Simchat Torah is next week.  But I was pretty sure we’d read Haazinu, the last Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy, last week.  What a quandary!

So where are we?  Literally hanging between the end and another beginning.  We are off the grid, floating in space, betwixt and between, between wilderness and the void.

We read Chol Hamoed Sukkot this Shabbat – that is, the Shabbat of the middle days of the week long holiday of Sukkot.  Following me?  And of course, the great Torah reading planners found the perfect section of Torah to read:  Ki Tisa.  We’re back in the wilderness, just after our Exodus from Egypt, and facing some of our very dramatic moments as a new people.

Here are a few of the “highlights” from Ki Tisa:  Building the Tabernacle.  The Golden Calf. Moses sees God, but only from the back, from a cleft in the rock.  God forgives the people for the Calf incident.  There’s a lot here.

So why read this section now, suspended between the end and the beginning, out in the wilderness?  First, there is a very real connection to building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and our Sukkot.  We build these fragile little huts every year to remind us of the time in the wilderness, and in Ki Tisa, we get the detailed instructions of how to do that.  But it’s not just about putting joint A into brace B.  It’s what happens inside that space.  Our Sukkot aren’t anywhere as fancy as the Mishkan was –I certainly don’t have any gold cherubs or copper lavers in my sukkah.  Holy things happened in the Mishkan, for an entire nation.  Holy things happen in our sukkah, for only one family.  But the holiness is the same – joy, community, ritual.  Both structures are temporary; the Israelites collapsed the Mishkan when they broke camp, and set it back up again when they made camp. We break down and re-build the Sukkah every year.  Both are fragile, yet stand for eons because of what happened inside then, and what happens inside now.  That’s what lasts, that’s what is holy.

In the part we actually read this Shabbat, Moses asks for some clarification from God:  Will God really stick with this people?  How will the people know? And even when God agrees to re-affirm the covenant, Moses asks to see God, “Oh, let me behold your Presence!” (Ex 33:18)  God agrees to that too, but only from behind, never seeing God’s face.  Then God tells Moses to make the second set of tablets, and start the whole Revelation course over again.

During the High Holy Days, we re-affirm our personal connection with God.  During Sukkot, with this reading, we re-affirm our national identity, as the ones who followed God into the wilderness on the flimsiest of promises, the most fragile of arrangements, followed a dismal path into idol worship, got forgiven (as a group, not as individuals, like last week) and continued on toward receiving Torah, a bit chastened, sadder but wiser, and ready to find the holy.  We stand in between – between the end of the Torah, and the beginning, balancing our individual and communal identities, between the sky and the ground, peeking through the coverings of our Sukkot, to glimpse even the back of God.

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Vayelech: Coming and going

coming and going“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.  He said to them:  I am now 120 years old, I can no longer be active (come and go)”  (Deut 31:1-2)

There’s a period of time in our lives when we balance between telling people how old we are, and not advertising our age.  When you’re really young, the “halves” are important; “I’m 9 ½ ”  We don’t hear, “I’m 20/30/etc and a half”   Sometimes, though, we hear, “I’m 88 ½ years old!”  The halves become important again.  There are, one hopes, an awful lot of decades in between where we may not be standing on a mountain and shouting our age, like Moses.   For women, it is an especially delicate balance.   It’s no secret that youth is valued, and billions of dollars in the cosmetic, surgical, and fashion industries are spent, focusing women on staying young, looking young, acting young.

There are built-in big birthdays, like 18 and 21 (get out that new ID, c’mon, I dare you to card me!), and all the ones that end in zero, of course.  Each age comes with new responsibilities, but also new awareness that we can’t do what we used to do.  Moses says that he isn’t so good anymore with coming and going.  The JPS translation is that Moses can no longer be active.  Anyone who has tried to get out of a car, get groceries in, bring garbage out, and so many other activities, will relate.  I try to spend a lot of spare time in theater productions, and let me tell you, I love those dance rehearsals, but certainly, I can’t dance the way I did ten years ago.  God bless the young’uns who do the shows with me; they help me out, and are extremely tolerant!!  But let’s face it.  I’m never going to tap, flap and shuffle and turn like they can.

In addition to this being the Shabbat of Vayelech, this is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It’s the balancing Shabbat, between being written into the Book of Life and getting sealed into it.  It’s another year, another moment to tell us perhaps that the things we did last year, we may not be able to keep doing this year.  Our coming and our going might get bumpier.  But in addition to reminding us that we are held in God’s hands, balancing between t’shuvah, (re-turning, re-pentance) and continuing on our ways that were less than perfect, we balance between coming and going.  Are we coming closer to the kind of life that will increase kindness, satisfaction, and generosity, or going back to the life that led to more isolation, sadness, and intolerance?  Will we stay active, continuing to come and go, take part and take note?   Will we live lives of purpose and meaning, accepting the changes in pace, perhaps, but not in passion?

Moses stayed passionate and active till the end of his life.  We should do no less.

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Nitzavim: This day

ALL-of-US-Together-rev“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer – to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God, which  Adonai your God is concluding with you this day…” (Deut 29:9-11)

All of you.  All of us.  I’m not sure if there is a more concise, clear statement that acknowledges that all of us are included in this covenant than the one that appears here in this week’s parasha, Nitzavim. Moses makes this blanket statement, so that the entire community will be invested in the success of the experiment to come:  entering and settling the Land.  The people will be creating a society that values righteousness as a group, enacted by the way the most vulnerable are treated.  The widows and orphans, the least powerful members in town, are to be protected.  The needy will be taken care of with dignity.

As Dianne Cohler-Esses says in her commentary to this text in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (p1230), focusing on the words, “this day”:  “It is for us, as students of Torah and members of the covenental people ,to help construct our very lives in a way that takes text out of its historical context, out of its male dress or costume and applies it to our own time.  In this way, we redress Torah – and address it to ourselves and our own community, much as the rabbis who authored the Midrash and Talmud did.”

Maybe in the past, most of the laws and subsequent traditions revolved around men.  They were the tribal leaders, the “heads of households”, and admittedly, the women were relegated to background roles.  But “this day” means today.  It means that the way we have struggled and grappled with the texts, and the understandings and insights that have emerged from those interactions are “this day”.  They are who we are now.  The covenant is being re-accepted every day we encounter it.

A new year begins in a few days, and it’s fitting that we read Nitzavim this week, because it sets a tone for us in the coming year.   I wish for us all that we find a way to make “this day” today, the day to claim the sacred story for ourselves.  After all, “this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, and impart it it us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”  (Deut 30:11-14)

Make it yours.  Get to know it better.  This day. This year.

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Ki Tavo: What makes the Land so special?

sandWhy is this so hard to remember sometimes?  I mean, it says so, right there in the text, what our priorities should be:  When you get to the land, create a holy society.  Be good to each other.  Treat the vulnerable with care.

And oh yes….remember where you came from.

In Ki Tavo, as we get closer to the very end of Devarim,  and the end of the Torah (well, does it really end?  No. So, shall we say, as we get near to the end of the 5th book), we read about what we’re supposed to do when we get to the Land.  Now, since it talks about bringing the first fruits, clearly that doesn’t happen on the first day, right after unpacking and the boxes aren’t put away yet.  I mean, the crops have to be planted, and tended, and then harvested and then brought to the place where we’re told to go.

But, when that first crop is harvested, we are told to say the following, as we offer up the basket of food, “My father was a fugitive Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.  …Adonai freed us from Egypt….and brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 26:5-9)

See?  First things first – remember that you are in this place by the grace of God, and that you know what it’s like to be oppressed and treated badly.  Don’t forget this, because it is so easy, among all that milk and honey.  It’s easy to forget that you weren’t the first people there, that you came into a land that was settled by others, and that your presence there has to be a holy one.

In the next chapter, Moses exhorts the people to stay true to the Instruction.  As soon as you get in the Land, set up holy places.  Establish the holiness in the place.  And then, gather the community together and speak aloud all the things you must do.  Don’t insult your parents.  Don’t move your countryman’s landmark (i.e. respect boundaries!) Don’t misdirect a blind person.  Don’t subvert the rights of the vulnerable.  Respect family relationships.  Don’t accept bribes when a person’s life is at stake.  And to each of these, the people are to respond, “Amen!”  It’s a community buy-in.

If this land is to be truly holy, then we need to get back to these precepts, and hold fast to them.  The land is only holy when we bring holiness to it, and Ki Tavo tells us exactly how to do it.  Who is listening today?  Bringing holiness into the land isn’t about creating division and intolerance, or tossing aside the law to gain a temporary advantage over another.   The opposite! Bringing holiness into the land is about remembering what it was like to struggle, what it was like when family relationships were discarded, what it was like to have bribery and dishonor, and discarding the rights of the weak.  If we don’t do that, well….it’s not a holy land, it’s just land, and it’s land that sees fighting and hatred and destruction.

In the wilderness, what made the sand (chol, the Hebrew word) holy was what took place on it.  One patch of sand was no different than another out there, yet our weekly Havdalah blessings tell us to make a distinction between “kodesh” (holy) and “chol.”  Chol doesn’t mean profane, it just means ordinary, regular sand.  What made the other sand/chol holy was what happened on it – the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  If the Land today is to be kodesh, holy things have to happen on it.  Otherwise, it’s just sand.

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Ki Tetzei: Moses and Gene Kelly

dignity Gene KellyRemember at the beginning of Singin in the Rain, when Gene Kelly is recalling how he got started in show business? With Donald O’Conner by his side, he says, with a straight face, that the bywords of his life were, “Dignity.  Always dignity.”

Moses is still trying to get the last words in, with this week’s parasha, “Ki Tetse” , making sure the people get it.  There are only three parshiot (portions) left in the whole Torah, and one of them is after Moses dies, so he really is down to the wire here.

Laws and instructions come tumbling out in no particular order.  It’s like a braindump, and Moses is just all over the place – things to do/not do with the Land. Things to/not do with virgins, how to build port-a-potties outside the camp, what to do if you find your neighbor’s ox wandering around your yard. (Hint:  get it back to the owner, but take care of it in the meantime.)

And so we come to the dignity, always dignity:  “When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge.  You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge to you.  If he is a needy man, you shall not go to sleep in his pledge; you must return the pledge to him at sundown… shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…you must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it…”  (Deut. 24:  10-15)

When you loan someone money, you must respect the dignity of the recipient.  Don’t come into his home to collect; for as Abarbanel  (15thc Portugal) says, “For you would embarrass him by seeing his impoverished situation. Moreover, if he weren’t home, you could be alone with his wife, and either start a quarrel with her, or tarnish her reputation.”  Wait outside and conduct business in public, like respectable men.

If you take a cloak for a collateral, give it back at night- don’t literally strip him of his clothes waiting for payment.  And for God’s sake…literally…, if you hire someone, whether Jewish or not, pay wages on time.  He depends on it, or as Rashi (11th c France) translates, “he carries his life on it.”

Dignity, always dignity.  The daily transactions of life carry with them opportunities to infuse them with holiness and acknowledgement of God’s creation – humanity.  We humans are a most unique creation, and the only one identified as having been made in God’s image.  Torah is telling us to treat each other, no matter the economic conditions, with dignity. Pay a decent wage, and pay it on time.  Don’t humiliate the one who owes you money. This is fundamental to honoring and respecting the inherent dignity in each other.  There will always be an element in society that is needy or vulnerable.  “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.” The way we treat the neediest among us tells a lot about our society.  With these words in our hearts, how do we assess the righteousness of our society?  Apply these words to fair wage, foreclosures, protecting day laborers from harm, lack of jobs, policies that keep people in poverty, and more.

So that the vulnerable won’t “cry to Adonai against [us] and [we] will incur guilt”, dignity must be our guiding premise.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Shofetim: Faith and Law

scales of justice“When he [the King]  is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll….let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere Adonai his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deut. 17:18-19)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  (First Amendment Constitution of the United States of America)

This week’s parasha is Shofetim, one in which the judicial system is laid out for the Israelites, once they get into the Land.  Other things are covered, including what to do with false prophets, ethical warfare, (one of my favorite texts, which I’ll address maybe next year at this time….mark it down) and what to do with the Levite Priests and land holdings.

But this snapshot of a King with a copy of the Teaching by his side struck me as remarkably pertinent in light of the upcoming primaries and elections next year.  So many people this year (ok, mostly Christian men) of faith keep proclaiming the depth of their beliefs, and that this makes them the best candidate for office. They speak of changes they’ll make in the law based on their personal faith system.  And doesn’t the text from Shofetim back that up?  It seems to say that the King should have the Torah by his side, that is, the State shall be ruled through the lens of Faith.  Doesn’t that conflict with the idea of the First Amendment?

No.  Not if you look at both texts carefully. First of all, God isn’t too happy about setting up a King inside the Land anyway.  God feels that the Torah should be good enough.  But, if the people want to be like other nations, and they really want to set up their society with a King, well then, ok, but God has some suggestions.  The Torah text says that the King/Ruler/President/Prime Minister should have a copy of the Law beside him.  He reads it, keeps his faith in God, and observes the Law personally.  If, indeed, one is ruling from within a theocracy, then this would suggest that laws for society and laws within a faith group are one and the same.  The holy texts dictate secular law – or rather, there is no such thing as secular law.   But theocracies don’t work – never have – and we are not a theocracy.  Here, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith (even no faith) society, we make a distinction between faith and law.  Faith guides your personal life, and helps you make decisions about your behavior, but law is determined separately.  This is where the First Amendment comes in:  government doesn’t establish religion.  Government doesn’t legislate from faith.

This is a very nuanced distinction, but one that is so crucial, so important, and so hard to keep in our sights. I can hear you thinking, “Well, Anita….what’s the difference between relying on your faith to pass moral, ethical laws, and having your faith dictate law?”  Like I said, it’s nuanced.  But if the laws you want to pass stem from a point of view that excludes people, or makes one group dictate behavior to another, well then, my guess is it has crossed the line to legislating faith.

I think about this every time I read this passage, because it usually comes around an election (or gearing up for one!)  At the very least, it should make us think carefully about where and how our laws are being developed in this country.

This is a very nuanced distinction, but one that is so crucial, so important, and so hard to keep in our sights. I can hear you thinking, “Well, Anita….what’s the difference between relying on your faith to pass moral, ethical laws, and having your faith dictate law?”  Like I said, it’s nuanced.  But if the laws you want to pass stem from a point of view that excludes people, or makes one group dictate behavior to another, well then, my guess is it has crossed the line to legislating faith.

I think about this every time I read this passage, because it usually comes around an election (or gearing up for one!)  At the very least, it should make us think carefully about where and how our laws are being developed in this country.

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