At the Confluence of Darkness & Light, Waters Above & Below, Earth & Earthling, Good & Evil
In a beginning … בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים
… B’reishit Bara Elohim …
“B’reishit bara Elohim … When God began to create …”
This Shabbat, around the world, Jews in synagogues, in homes, online, in bomb shelters, barracks and tents, will read from the opening chapters of Torah. We will also sit with the grief and existential angst that shattered our lives last Shabbat, a day on which we traditionally celebrate the end of our festival of Sukkot, mo’adim l’simcha — a season of rejoicing. Holding the pain of a modern-day pogrom in Israel, the murder of innocent civilians, the suffering of so many kidnapped and held captive, their families in anguish … it is difficult to hold this in any context given the unimaginable evil we cannot help but see in the present. And, we are a people who have witnessed terrible suffering and evil in the past. In fact, many of us are leaning into the resilience of our ancestors over the past millennia to restore our hope.
Rather than continuing to be traumatized by the callousness of too many of our neighbors and doom-scrolling on social media, many of us have begun to actively move forward — burying the dead, caring for the wounded, searching for the missing, finding housing for the displaced, caring for the mental anguish of the living victims of terror, defending breached borders, rebuilding grassroots efforts for peaceful coexistence in the Land, and creating spaces to discuss a meaningful solution for the innocent in Gaza and Israel, and a future beyond war. Some of us have been fasting in our sorrow and praying for the living — innocent Palestinians and Israelis who just wish to live side by side with basic human rights and dignity, justice and peace. We feel an urgency in this return to a beginning in which humanity is created with sacred purpose and with a balance of confidence and humility in our ability to co-create holiness and ordinary.
We call this portion of Torah B’reishit (in a beginning; [when God] began), taken from the first word of the book of the same name, and also called Genesis by many who read scripture. Although many languages have turned this beginning into “the beginning,” the Hebrew continues to be read without the vowel that would change the meaning of the words to dictate a singular and specific beginning. And this certainly feels like a year to re-imagine a beginning of human existence that is more compassionate, respectful, and caring, of one another and our planetary home.
Our Location in the Flow of Time
In B’reishit 3:9, God calls out to Adam, “Ayekah — Where are you?” Of course, God is well aware of where this first earthling is within the Garden, and yet, this is the question asked. Perhaps, rather than this question being about Adam’s geolocation, it is more about Adam’s frame of mind and context.
Where are we in this beginning? We have just completed a long stretch of Jewish time designed to return to our best selves, clarify our vision and direction for the coming year, reconcile with those we have hurt and those who have hurt us, welcome the stranger and make wide our sukkot (impermanent dwellings of harvest and bounty). This long period of teshuvah and celebration ends with Simchat Torah/Rejoicing with Torah, when we dance and then return, once again, to the beginning from the end of the scrolls that hold our sacred story and mitzvot. Each year we reread our sacred story of creation, generations of complex family relationships, promise of a homeland, slavery, freedom, receipt of Torah, and wandering in the wilderness in preparation for entering the good Land. Why do we read Torah again and again and again, year after year, generation after generation, the same words, stories, outcomes? Why do we discuss what it means to us across continents and generations, the sagacious and the simple among us invited to interpret the words on the parchment and find their relevance and application to our lives?
I have always loved the idea that we read Torah again and again because we are not static. It is likely that each year, we have a new answer to the existential question “Eiyekah? Where are you?” And we are all welcomed into the conversations of our people, across generations and continents. In addition, there is always something new to discover in the ancient words scribed with ink on parchment, a visceral reminder of how very long we have held our Jewish traditions and innovations sacred. The words do not change; however, we change. Each of us holds the potential of creation through the cultivation and nourishment of our innate curiosity, creativity, energy, kindness, intellect, and compassionate reflection. We are created b’tzelem Elohim — in the shadow/image of the Divine Mystery many call God.
So how do we explain evil?
There are many commentaries in Jewish wisdom tradition about the evil inclinations of humanity, beginning with midrash (storied commentary) about the angels trying to convince God not to create humanity because of our potential to thwart peace, among other reasons. This Torah portion also brings us the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the blaming of Eve for her “rule bending” act of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the likely groundwork, for much of the negativity placed on women over the millennia, and certainly, for Christianity’s concept of “original sin.”
As fascinating as these commentaries can be in an academic thought exercise, I have not found them valuable this week in a spiritual sense, as I struggle with my own emotions around the horrible events unfolding and as I sit typing these words in the sunshine and fresh air I am privileged to take in today. So, I am choosing to set them aside in favor of growing the good within the initial chapters of Torah. As God creates, God recognizes the good. You can call that naiveté or hope, and I am leaning into the latter.
There will be time to discuss evil, and for now, there is no room for evil or war-mongering in the wake of such raw grief. There will be continuing loss of innocent life in the unfolding war. This region of the world (and, sadly, many others) is not currently known for its peacemakers. May we see a time, soon, when arrogant and power-hungry men (or humans of any kind) and terrorists are not the ones who get to write this chapter of human history as we return to B’reishit this week. May this be a different beginning than the ones that have been written before. May we enter this Shabbat, this day for a renewal of soul and strength, with a commitment to grow the good in ourselves and one another and across difference.