Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beginning Again -- But What Exactly are We Beginning?

Beginning Again – But What Exactly are We Beginning
Sermon for Parshat B’reishit – Friday October 1, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel, Bowie, MD

I am going to tread VERY lightly this evening into a very deep subject. And I am at the same time going to be as unsubtle as I know how to be. A contradiction? Better – a mystery! I begin by acknowledging our Bat Mitzvah and her family – Morgan. This, in itself, is NOT unusual – it WOULD be unusual if I did NOT find a way to acknowledge her. She deserves our acknowledgment – as does her family – this is a significant milestone she and they are celebrating AS PART OF OUR COMMUNITY AND WITH US, as she becomes our newest Jewish adult member.

Someone many years ago made a comment to me on such an occasion. They said something to the effect of “I love that you make the bat mitzvah and her family feel so important and special on their special day. And how next week, you will make THAT bar mitzvah and HIS family feel so special and important.”!! Although I am honestly still not sure whether this person’s ultimate motive in making the comment (and let me add, for the record, that this conversation did not first occur here!) was benign or malignant, what I chose to hear in their words was an appreciation of the tap dance that I, and all others who celebrate personal milestones in public functions as part of a community’s expected ritual, face. On the one hand, each celebrant is entitled to feel special and appreciated in their turn; on the other, having to publicly express that appreciation over and over risks becoming clichéd and losing its impact!

There is another more hidden trap – one made explicit by Jewish teachings on loshen hara – literally, “evil speech.” Most of the aspects of loshen hara are obvious and beyond debate. Such is the power of words to do damage, often unintentionally. Our sages went so far, however, as to teach us to be careful in giving compliments, even when deserved. They understood, as I do after 20 years of doing this, that someone might take an unintended inference in your words of praise of someone else that their own efforts were not worthy of such praise, and therefore, less appreciated.

A long introductory JTM – Jewish teachable moment – to get to this statement – every time there is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate with, I make a joking point to invite those who are disappointed in not hearing us read Torah tonight to join us tomorrow when the kids read. And I did so again tonight, in exactly the same way I always do!
And tonight, also as I always do, I am going out of my way NOT to step on Morgan’s message that she will deliver tomorrow in any way. But then, I am going to add the following statement of why I am being particularly careful tonight: I have heard and read Morgan’s D’var Torah for tomorrow. And while I take pride in being the Rabbi of Lake Wobegon, where all our children are above average, if you can get here for tomorrow morning to hear THIS message, you owe it to yourself to do so – her message is that good! Anyone who feels slighted by this extra appreciation of THIS message very well derived and presented – please just let it pass, and give yourself the chance to understand where my admiration comes from by being here to hear it for yourself, tomorrow!

Fortunately, our portion for this Shabbat is B’reishit – truly an embarrassment of riches. Even with Morgan addressing several hot button points in the portion, I still have a huge number of choices for my remarks this evening! We could talk about Cain and Abel, and the incredible intensity of sibling emotions and rivalry – for good, or for evil, and how it impacts us as an extended congregational family! We could talk about Adam and Eve and the serpent, in any one of a half dozen different ways – including a rather brilliant hypothesis expressed by our own Steve Cohen, who postulates that God KNEW that Adam and Eve would fail the test and eat from the tree of knowledge, and that, in fact, this was not only a desired outcome, but a necessary one! We can learn from the 2 versions of the creation of man and woman about gender roles and equality. Or more.

But tonight I want to talk tonight about a single word – the first word – B’reishit. A word we think we understand, but probably don’t. We think we get it, because, for years, we were taught that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” B’reishit – we know the bet at the beginning means “in,” the members of the advanced class recognize the root reish, aleph, shin, as in Rosh, as in Rosh Hashanah. So, presto, we accept “in the beginning.” Except….

There turns out to be only two problems with that translation for b’reishit – one is grammatical and linguistic; the other is philosophical and contextual. Or, restated more accurately, “in the beginning” is a nice translation. Nice, but relatively useless if our goal is true understanding of how we began!

Let me try to explain. Philosophically, )and Morgan will actually deal with this aspect tomorrow morning,) “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” means to most of us that first, when God began to make the universe, God began by creating the heaven and the earth. Even God had to start somewhere!
Which leads to the obvious question, which was first so eloquently put to me by a 5 year-old about 20 years ago “If God created everything, Who (or What) created God?” The philosophers have dodged this question for years by defining God as being beyond the realm of time – nice, but again, not terribly helpful, especially in answering that 5 year old! The scientists, and pseudo-scientists, have long posited that this indicates the arrival to our portion of the cosmos (from somewhere else) a super-being, capable of manipulating matter in ways we still cannot explain, to “create” new objects and life forms.

In other words, this statement, rendered as we have it, forces us either immediately into the “leap of faith” – that is accepting as true that for which we have no clear proof, or else searching for equally improbable and unprovable “scientific” explanations – all because of putting a temporal causality on Creation by understanding that “In the beginning,” God already existed, and fashioned objects called “heaven” and “earth” first. Again, nice, but not helpful, and therefore, to be avoided if possible.

Add to the philosophical issue the contextual one – understood in this way, the first verse is not true, unless we understand the concepts of “heaven” and “earth” only in the most rudimentary and generic of ways. Because, in truth, it is on the SECOND “day” (and don’t get me started about what the word “day” really means here!) that God, by creating the expanse that separated the waters above from the waters below, created “heaven” – in fact the name “shamayim” – heaven -- is given on the second day to the waters above the divider! Likewise, it is only on the third day, when the waters below are gathered together to form seas and oceans, that the dry land masses appear as a result – and these are called “eretz” – earth. In other words, that which is “created” at the outset according to verse one is not defined by further creative action or by the definition of the terms used in verse one until days 2 and 3!

Still with me? Good! Because now we can turn to the word itself. The form of the noun reishit (having removed the bet prefix) is difficult. The noun in this form doesn’t exist alone – it is ONLY found in combinational forms with other nouns to give more specific understanding (the concept sounds confusing, but think of “school bus” – a specific kind of bus -- or the anachronistic “phone booth” – a specific kind of booth). It most accurately should be understood as “the beginning of” something, with the necessity of that specific something being clearly stated in the text. In this verse, that expected second noun that would provide clarity is absent!
So wait, Rabbi, are you telling us that Torah begins with a typo!!?? Well, not exactly. I AM saying that the Torah begins with an unexpectedly deficient grammatical form, that greatly complicates our complete and confident understanding of how the word should be translated into our native English. Or, put in a different way, the beginning of the Torah text, like the origins of Creation itself, or even God’s origins, is shrouded in mystery that we mortals are not fully able to unravel! And, when restated that way, suddenly, all of my problems with the word b’reishit disappear!

Except for two practical ones – first, how do we express all of this in a simple and clear translation? In truth, we don’t – if our goal is to express all the depth and nuance the Hebrew contains with how we say it in English, we actually face the harder challenge of translating it into English in a way that equally expresses in the mystery! In short, our best translation should be philosophically artistic rather than linguistically accurate, since the likelihood of doing both at the same time is small!

Part of the challenge is whether we are hearing or reading the translation? When I speak the words to be heard, I am likely to lean on linguistic accuracy, because the artistry of the mystery will not fully be captured in the delivery of the words. But, in writing a translation for others to read, I can utilize ellipsis in unexpected ways to capture the sense that something deeper is missing, but intended to be sensed!

And so, I give you this effort:

“At the outset … of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth (and all that is in them),”! In written form, both the (seemingly unnecessary) ellipsis and the use of parentheses hint at the larger mystery contained in the Hebrew and the philosophical challenges that mystery creates. In oral form, we still hear that there is more to this verse than a complete understanding, even if only in its connection, by comma, to the next verse, rather than being ended definitively by a period. We acknowledge the introductory nature of the verse, by adding to the words, parenthetically, details that come later. In short, we start, but do not finish; we do not separate the verse to stand alone, but force it to lead us into all that follows – by making it one flow of dependent clauses – the heaven and the earth are dependent on God’s creation, which is, in turn, dependent on whatever that mysterious beginning really was!

And then, there is the second practical question -- what exactly are we starting with this word? In some very profound and obvious ways, the answer is everything. And yet, at the same time, particularly in our tradition of reading the entire Torah text annually from beginning to end, each year, as we emerge from the High Holy Days completely after Simchat Torah, as we do this Shabbat, we start AGAIN by starting FROM THE BEGINNING. By our usage, God’s initial creation, ex nihilo – from nothing (which distinguishes God from us!) – is, in practice, a RECREATION, observed to start each new year, and each new cycle of gaining wisdom from the Torah!

This may be the most power lesson of all for us! As we truly start our new Jewish year, as we celebrate the apparent victory of having been inscribed for another year of life, we seek to act on those “New Year’s resolutions” that our atonement seeking made us aware were needed in our lives. We do NOT seek to recreate ourselves from scratch – that would be virtually impossible. We DO, however, seek to recreate ourselves in a new and improved version 5771.0, gaining from the mysteries that came before of why we were not the best we could be, in order to build a stronger and better self, family, congregation, community, nation, and world. We begin with a clean slate, on the one hand, the past wiped out as if we WERE starting from scratch. But we begin still as who we are, still very much the same flawed humans whose survival was an open question just 2 weeks ago, and not yet as who we hope to be – as we recreate ourselves more in God’s “image” of perfection as the year goes on and we grow! Even in our beginnings of our new Jewish year, we find that aura of the unknown and unknowable at this moment – that which we hope for, but which has not yet come to be!

All from one single challenging word! Imagine what Morgan will do tomorrow with the entire rest of the text!! Or better still – don’t imagine! Find out! KYR!

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