Bereshit! Again!

On Simchat Torah this year (Tuesday Oct. 9) we finished reading the entire Five Books of Moses and rolled the Torah scroll back to the first of the Five Books, Bereshit/In the Beginning, more commonly known by its Latin name, Genesis.  This Shabbat, October 13, our parasha (weekly Torah reading) is called Shabbat Bereshit, and we start the annual reading cycle over again with Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.  I don’t know about you, but I think new beginnings are exciting in and of themselves, partly because we have an expectation that something new and surprising is going to unfold.

No matter that we may have read these verses before — in fact, we may have read them many times. And no matter that echoes of these verses have entered our lexicon and the consciousness of Western Civilization. After all, here is the biblical creation story — the poetic rendering of the way our world began. This is where we here sonorous, lofty phrases such as “Let there be Light!” This is where we meet some of the best known Bible figures: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah.  Lots of us have memories of these guys from our childhood, from the comic book version of the Bible, or a beautifully rendered children’s book.

These first five chapters and the first 8 verses of chapter 6 are so chock full of interesting things — so many puzzles, so many questions, so much angst and drama and so many beautiful images — that it is really hard to focus on just one thing.  In fact, the creators of the G-dcast produced TWO renditions of this Parasha; watch both — each has different big ideas!

Chapter 1 gives us the famous creation story. But right away, in chapter 2, we get another creation story!  How does that happen? What are the differences between these two stories? Which do you like more?  Why do you suppose that the editors of the Torah kept both stories?  Chapter 3 gives us the story of the Garden of Eden, and how the two humans interacted with their new pristine environment, with each other, and with God.  In Chapter 4 we read more about this first human family, the two sons born to the first couple, and the first murder!  Chapter 5 provides the first biblical genealogy, which some folks think has lots of fascinating tidbits to chew on.  And in the first verses of Chapter 6, we get the set-up to the flood saga…

Doesn’t it seem like this should be divided into at least a month of Shabbat readings instead of all being packed into one week??

Lots of people have favorite parts in Parashat Bereshit. I happen to love verses 27 and 28 of Chapter 1:

And God created adam (human) in the Divine image,
in the image of the Divine God created It —
male and female God created them (gender sensitive translation)
God blessed them and God said to them:  “Be fruitful and increase
fill the earth and master it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky
and all living things that creep on the earth.”

Why?  Well, it embodies a core Jewish belief—that each human is created in the image of God, and, at the very beginning, the first human was both male and female, some mystical androgynous being that later was separated.

The Death of Moses and The Torah’s End

Every year, like clockwork, we get to the last chapter of the Torah on the very last holiday of the fall season, Simhat Torah (literally: “rejoicing with the Torah”) coming exactly 23 days after Rosh Ha-Shana (the new year.)   On Simhat Torah, we read Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, describing the death of Moses, the greatest prophet of Israel, the last to speak with God face to face.  Then we begin the Five Books of Moses (aka the Torah) all over again with Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1 verse 1.  Since Bereshit typically gets all the press (who can resist the story of creation with its Garden of Eden mysteries…) perhaps it’s worth a moment to reflect on the end of the torah, called, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing).

Moses winds up his lengthy speech (basically the entire book of Deuteronomy) by speaking to each tribe and bestowing a final blessing, in the form of a poem. Each tribe is reminded of its past and the figure after whom it is named—each of Jacob’s sons.  NEW SENTENCES:  After all, the tribes need some final message as they are at the brink of going into the Land promised to their forefathers, way back in Genesis.  They will continue under new leadership—under Joshua—and will finally take hold of their special inheritance. 

Back in Deuteronomy, after Moses’s final poem, we read a prose narration of how Moses, at the ripe old age of 120, takes his leave of this life.  He has a final conversation with his best friend and confidant, God; God tells Moses to take one last look at the whole land set before him, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo.  Moses sees the entire land bequeathed to the Israelites, although he himself will never enter it.

Verses 5-7: So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord.  He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beit-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.

Wow!  Moses dies with all of his vigor at the age of 120, his eyes “undimmed!” Pretty remarkable!  And who is it exactly that buries Moses?  The text hints that it is none other than the Holy One, the Rock, Moses’s closest and most intimate ally—God.

This last poignant scene has inspired many poets, painters, and other artists to create their own vision of what happened in those sacred moments of transition.  It is Moses’s transition from life to death, but it is also the transition of the Children of Israel to a new period in their development, with Joshua at the helm.

Here’s how Zora Neale Hurston, the African American folklorist and author, describes the scene in her 1939 novel, Moses Man of the Mountain:

But Moses did not sleep on the mountain.  He sat on the mountain top for a while gazing at the dim shapes of things over Jordan in the night…He took his rod in his right hand and lifted it and Nebo trembled.  The moon in its reddest mood became to him a standing place for his feet and the sky ran down so close to gaze on Moses that the seven great suns of the Universe went wheeling around his head. He stood in the bosom of thunder and the zig-zag of lightning above him joined the muttering thunder…The voice of the thunder leaped from peak to plain and Moses stood in the midst of it and said “Farewell.”  Then he turned with a firm tread and descended the other side of the mountain and headed back over the years.

The German (Christian) poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in the early years of the 20th century writes “The Death of Moses”:

None of them were willing, just the dark
defeated angel; choosing a weapon, he cruelly approached
the commanded one. But even he
went clanging backward, upward,
and screamed into the heavens: I can’t!

For through the thicket of his brow, Moses
had patiently noticed him and gone on writing:
words of blessing and the infinite Name. And his eyes
were clear right to the bottom of his powers.

So the Lord, dragging half of the heaven behind him,
came hurling down in person and made up a bed from the mountain;
laid the old man out. From its orderly dwelling
he summoned the soul; and spoke of much they had shared
in the course of an immeasurable friendship.

But finally the soul was satisfied. Admitted
enough had been done, it was finished. Then the old
God slowly lowered down over the old
man his ancient face.  Drew him out with a  kiss.

and into his own older age. And with the hands of creation
he closed the mountain again. So it would be like one,
one created all over again among mountains of earth,
hidden to us.

Translated from German by Franz Wright; from Modern Poems on the Bible by David Curzon.

And finally, a favorite, by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

Moses saw the face of God just once and then
forgot.  He didn’t want to see the desert
not even the Promised Land, only the face of God.
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock,
climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke
the Tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through
fire and smoke, but he could remember only
the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm,
not His face. Moses was like a man who tries to recall
the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face
and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter
leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes.
He sent that picture to all the tribes of Israel,
up and down the desert, but no one had seen,
no one knew. Only at the end of his life,
on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing
the face of God.

Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld from Open Closed Open, “The Bible and You, the Bible and You and Other Midrashim.”

TO CONSIDER:

  1. What do all three modern renditions of the scene of Moses’s death have in common? How are they different?  Why did both poets imagine that Moses died with a “kiss from God”?
  2. How does the description of Moses’s death make you feel?  Is there still regret, or does Moses know it is his time to die?  Do you ever imagine your own ideal death?

Sukkot’s Special Scroll

On the Shabbat of Sukkot, the harvest festival that the Pilgrims chose as a model for Thanksgiving, the scroll (or book) of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet (in Hebrew) is read in the synagogue.

The scroll has 12 chapters and is considered part of the “wisdom literature” of the Bible, reflecting on the nature of the world and the God who created it, and on the place of humans in this creation. Its author is thought to be King Solomon, the wisest king of the Israelites, and it is believed to be Solomon’s musings at the end of his life.

In the 3rd chapter of Kohelet, he writes verses that will be familiar to lots of people. In fact, these magnificent words provided a young American folk singer, Pete Seeger, with the lyrics he set to music in 1959, calling his new song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Seeger recorded it in 1962 and it became an international hit in late 1965 when it was hevel,” the same word that is the name of one of Adam and Eve’s sons: Abel/Hevel. In Kohelet, the word appears a whopping 38 times!!

If a key word for Kohelet is “hevel” (futility or vanity or air/breath) maybe he’s asking us to reflect on our own lives and what we harvest from all the days we have lived so far. Is time on this earth just a fleeting little breath…. or is there some substance to our days?

These days of early fall, as harvests are celebrated, seems a perfect time to reflect on the big questions of life and its meaning. Kohelet knows that all life eventually comes to an end — and that end is death. He also knows that we cannot know what comes after our death, what will remain of us in the memories of the living, and what will happen to our souls. Kohelet concludes that since we cannot know the future, it is important, perhaps even wise, to enjoy the fruits of our labors now, while we are alive.

To consider:

  1. Do you think of life as a mere fleeting breath, or utter futility? What mitigates against that feeling for you?
  2. Where and when do you take time to reflect on the big issues of life? What makes this reflection possible? Friends? A quiet space? A beautiful scene in nature?

(You might also enjoy listening to versions by Judy Collins (circa 1966) or Roger McGuinn at the Kennedy Center in 1994, honoring Pete Seeger.)

Yom Kippur

The most solemn and holy day of the entire Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which starts the evening of September 25 and goes through nightfall on September 26. We pause for 25 hours or so to re-enact our death and re-birth by wearing white, not drinking or eating, reflecting on where we have gone astray (as one ideally does on one’s death bed) and devoting many hours to serious contemplation of how we lead our lives.

There are 4 different readings from Scripture on Yom Kippur:

  1. During the morning service, the reading from the Torah is Leviticus 16. Focusing on the awesome, arcane and mysterious rituals for atonement performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies (most consecrated part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem) on the Holiest Day of the Year, it’s a triplet of holiness. This ritual includes sacrificing a scapegoat flung into the wilderness and another identical goat offered up to God.
  2. Also during the morning service is the Haftarah, written by the prophet Isaiah during the 6th century BCE after Cyrus, the Persian monarch, allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. We are privileged to read an absolutely beautiful and inspiring sermon which serves as an antidote to the earlier Torah reading from Leviticus. Isaiah adjures us to repair the world; he warns us against empty fasts and rituals that ignore the suffering of others. When you read Isaiah’s strong words, you sit up and pay attention, and resolve to do better to fix the woes of the hungry and homeless in our midst.
  3. In the afternoon service, when the fast has really begun to have maximum effect, we hear either chapter 18 or 19 of Leviticus, known as the Holiness Code, found in the very middle of the 5 Books of Moses. Chapter 18 is filled with sexually unacceptable behaviors and Chapter 19 has some of the most salient commandments about what it means to be holy: “Love your fellow as yourself… You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not profit by the blood of your fellow…” etc.
  4. Finally, also in the afternoon service, we read the four short chapters from the Book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from doing God’s bidding, telling the people of Nineveh to repent.

It’s a lot of scriptural reading on a very long day.

If you have never read Jonah, I recommend starting there:

It’s a universal story of one flawed human, called upon to be a prophet but he resists his task. Even the sailors on the boat he travels on and the regular townsfolk of Nineveh appear to know more about repentance than Jonah. What is this story about? Why read it on the holiest day of the year?

If you are somewhat familiar with the readings, think about the brilliant decision 1500 years ago to juxtapose the two very different morning readings: one all about rituals that are very distant and foreign to us, about slaughtering animals to expiate our sins; and the Haftarah, by Isaiah, demanding social justice. This prophet’s words still seem aimed at each of us here in 2012 and, I’m guessing, will always be relevant.

If you fast, may it be meaningful.

Writing Our Legacy

Outside, even here in northern California, we feel the seasons changing — time to shut the windows at night. It’s the new month of Tishray, the month loaded with Jewish holidays. It’s officially fall, which signals the very end of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah portions. This week’s portion is VaYelech which means “And He Went” (Deuteronomy 31) — the “he” referred to is Moses. This little chapter and the 3 following it comprise the epilogue to the 5 Books of Moses (the Torah). We hear God’s voice telling Moses that it is time for him to die (Moses himself admits aloud that at the age of 120, he no longer has the strength to lead the nation in battle).

In VaYelech, we read Moses’s preamble to his final poem, or “song”, as it sometimes called; he is tidying up loose ends. And what does he say? He repeats one phrase several times:

Be Strong and Courageous…don’t be afraid of what is before you, the Lord, your God, will not forsake you; He will be with you.

Along with this message we read of the appointing of Joshua, to take over as leader.

But how will Moses enable the people to remember to “be strong and courageous”? Good question! He and God have figured out that they must write down all of the history and laws so that this “teaching” or “Torah” will exist forever and will be recited in front of the entire people — men, women, children and strangers in the community. God and Moses both know that there will be backsliding, that things will go downhill, but, the fact that “the Good Book” exists in writing means that the “Teaching” will be around as a guidebook, “in the mouths” of the people, remembered and followed for generations.

For your consideration:

  1. When someone tells you, “put that in writing” what does it mean? What is it about the act of “writing” down words on paper (or parchment) that makes it different from only hearing those same words spoken?
  2. What is the written legacy you would want to leave behind before you die? What do you want your family and closest friends to know about life?

Rosh Hashanah: A Family Thing

OK, I admit it: I watched the recent Democratic convention in Charlotte, and Michelle Obamas’s speech stole my heart… and got me to thinking about how important it is to both presidential candidates to highlight their families. Some of the most intense feelings and experiences in our lives happen in the intimate spaces of family life. Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah and lo and behold, the Torah readings are narratives that takes place in the cauldron of familial relationships: Husband/Wife, Father/Son, First Wife/Concubine, Siblings.

On the first day of the new year, we read about Sarah, wife of Abraham, becoming pregnant at the age of 90; when she heard the news, she laughed, of course! She later names her son, Yitzhak, from the Hebrew root word for laughter. Unfortunately, Yitzhak’s life was anything but a barrel of laughs, as we find out on the second day when we read one of the most troubling narratives in the Torah, the “Akeidah,” the binding of Yitzhak (Genesis 22).

Back on Day 1, our narrative from Genesis 21 contains a story about Sarah’s maid servant, Hagar, whom Sarah earlier gave to Abraham to impregnate, in order that the elderly couple would have offspring. Hagar and her son, Ishma’el, are cast out of the household by Abraham at Sarah’s demand. Sarah sees Ishma’el, the big brother, playing with her toddler Yitzhak, and she is none to pleased. We don’t really know what Ishma’el was doing with Yitzhak, but the verb comes from that same Hebrew root that makes up Yitzhak’s name. And whatever is happening makes Sarah very angry. Abraham is distraught but God tells him to listen to Sarah, despite the fact that he loves Ishma’el as well as Yitzhak (and maybe he even loves Hagar too).

What a boiling pot of familial intrigue and passion!

The expulsion of Hagar and Ishma’el and the binding of Yitzhak have given philosophers (Kierkegaard for one), rabbinic commentators from 1800 years ago, poets, painters, playwrights, and others much to contemplate. Our questions way outnumber any satisfying answers.

I invite you to read the stories and talk about what happens in them. And why in the world do we read these particular stories on Rosh Hashanah as we renew ourselves and re-start our yearly Torah cycle?

Wishing you a sweet and bountiful year of blessings!

Nechama