Bereshit #showupforShabbat

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
October 26, 2019

Today is a bittersweet day. Our Torah reading is one of the most familiar to so many. The two creation narratives, Adam and Havvah, Cayin and Hevel, and even the challenge of violence that Noah responds to are all in the Torah’s opening. Shabbat is a day of joy, a taste of the world to come. When we lose a loved one, shiva is paused for Shabbat. It is not traditionally a time of memorial, or a time of sadness, yet one year after the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha, New Light, and Dor Hadash, it is hard not to be at least temporarily mournful.

On Simchat Torah, I mentioned the grammar of the first word of the Torah, “Bereshit”. It is a word that has been mistranslated for generations as “in THE beginning.” The is definite. It is singular. It implies no other. Yet the Hebrew is indefinite. “A beginning” or connecting it to the verb “When Gd begin creating”. While our lives may begin when we take the first breath and end when we take the last--as Adam’s did, we all can see so many beginnings over the course of our lives.

Our lives begin:
When we go to school
When siblings are born
When we learn something new
When we lose someone dear
When we meet a new friend, partner, love
When we see the children of others
When we see our own children
When the world changes for evil
Or When the world changes for good

For many of us, the shooting in Squirrel Hill was a new beginning. While we saw violence and far too many acts of violence and murder from the easy availability of automatic weapons, we may not have seen ourselves as targets. We feared for our children. We wondered if our mall or movie theater might be next. Yet, we thought of our sanctuaries as sanctuaries. Rising anti-Semitism has been present with us for too long, but turning terrible words into more terrible actions was a bridge too far. Last year, we brought together hundreds of people at Temple Beth-El, uniting the county and finding blessing together.

In our community and so many others, questions of security became far more regular at board meetings, in hallways and in the parking lot. We adjusted policies, locked more doors, made other changes and used human resources--spending tens of thousands of dollars annually to ensure police protection here at every Shabbat service and major event.

Thinking to the words of Yom Kippur’s martyrology, Eleh Ezkerah:
These I remember and pour out my soul
How the arrogant have devoured us, like an unfinished cake.
Joyce Fienberg
Richard Gottfried
Rose Mallinger
Jerry Rabinowitz
Cecil Rosenthal
David Rosenthal
Bernice Simon
Sylvan Simon
Dan Stein
Mel Wax
Irv Younger

What is the desire of anti-Semites? They strive to erase Jews and Judaism. It is not a new problem, but a very old one. For too long it was baked into the faith of some. I am thankful that in the last century, many faiths have examined their theology to see how anti-Semitism can be eradicated. There has been anti-Semitism in virtually all faiths and political parties, in nations around the world--and even in Jewish areas. There has been an epidemic of violence against Orthodox appearing Jews in Brooklyn and Queens. I saw an article this week that significant numbers of Jews regularly hide their faith for fear of those around them.

How do we respond? Yes, we must declare our faith openly, but even moreso, we must live it. We must love it. We must teach it to our children. We must show that the joy, the meaning, the power of our traditions far outweigh any fears we may have from those who hate us for who we are. This is one lesson from Genesis, from Bereshit.

When we look at our parsha, we see creation twice. The first creation narrative is from the opening of the Torah to 2:4. In that telling, creation is over seven periods of time, billions of years, too frequently (and incorrectly) understood as seven literal days. This story goes from the biggest picture to the creation of human beings. In the second telling, humanity comes first, and Gd creates everything else in the garden for humanity.

“In contrast to perek Aleph where man was God’s final Creation – the most sophisticated – and blessed to exert his dominion over the entire animal kingdom; in Perek Bet we see how man is simply a servant of God, tending to His Garden (see 2:15-16), and searching for companionship (see 2:18-25). In perek Aleph, he emerged as ‘ruler’, almost like a god himself (“b’tzelem Elokim”); in perek Bet he is a servant.”

Rashi, the medieval commentator, wrote extensively on the opening of the Torah. He wondered why we would begin there and not with the mitzvot found later in the Torah.

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Rashi argued in one way that the opening of the Torah was an argument AGAINST anti-Semitism, against anti-Israel rhetoric. If only everyone would listen to him! In a world where that is NOT the case, we still have so much to do! We must continue to begin, again and again. We must continue to inspire, to love, to live, to celebrate!

This Shabbat is a new beginning for us all. For weeks we have been immersed in the holidays and now we find ourselves starting our normal rhythms again. This is the time when we are most likely to slide back into old patterns of behavior, into old choices. Instead, we must tizku l’mitzvot, we must work hard to merit many more mitzvot. We should strive to live with Torah on our mind, with the mitzvot on our mind, in our hearts and in our actions. Shabbat Shalom.

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