Archive for the '1.01 Bereishit' Category



Tasty Education

Tonight at dinner we served the kids tofu, sushi rice, and nori.  They love it. It has become one of our weeknight staples. Once we give them little bowls with soy sauce for the dipping they are in heaven.

But at some point Yishama and Yadid made a bit of mess. I asked them to clean it up. Yishama smiled and said that he was making ” Tohu V Vohu. He obviously has started his Genesis unit at school. Without missing a beat Yadid said, ” No you are making a Tofu V Vohu”. I sat for a while basking the depth of all of us sharing a good laugh.

While it is chaotic imagining how we will pay for Jewish education as a family or as a community, there is no mistaking the value of a good Jewish education. Jewish education adds depth to the human experience and it makes life tasty as well.

No Narrative No Nomos

Early in my own religious evolution I was swayed toward Orthodoxy by their a critique of Reform Judaism. It seemed artificial to separate ritual from moral law. In my experience keeping Shabbat itself made me a moral human being. How could one be judged separately? While I understood that people might not see any relevance in Jewish law in general, the line between these two areas of law seemed arbitrary. One would not need to make-believe that it was Judaism. There was no shame in being moral secular humanist. A Halachic mind  sees ritual life as an integrated context for moral living. This approach cultivated people to respond to the world systematically and habituated its adherents to behave justly. In retrospect I can see over time my own views grew in nuance. In general and now with all of the horrible religious coercion going on in Israel more than ever I would not make that claim for Orthodox Jews, but I  still would make the claim for those committed to living according to Halacha ( And yes for those following at home they are not the same).

As time went on and I spent more time in yeshivah, I was overcome by the what I found there. How many times did we skip through an aggadic section in the Gemara in pursuit of the Halachic section? The same people who lodged the above mentioned critique perpetrated the same division in their own lives.  Just like the Reformers, the Roshei Yeshiva (and most of Chazal) had trouble realizing that within learning these aggadot we are creating meaningful context for the law. Without these laws we lose boundaries; without the stories we lose direction.

At the start of Genesis Rashi asks why the story of the Bible starts with the creation of the world. Why not start with the first Law given to the Jewish people? So too, one might ask the question by the start of Exodus. Why not start the book of Exodus off with Parshat Bo, when we read “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim  – this month is to you the head (first) of the months.”(Exodus 12:1) It is clear that  in the case of the entire book of Genesis and the start of Exodus, we need a context for the law. Or in the terms set out by Robert Cover, we cannot have the nomos removed from the narrative.

Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. Rituals are themselves an enactment of stories over time. In this way stories are the pillars of our society. That being true, it is troubling to realize how difficult it is for us all regardless of religious affiliation to realize this truism. If we forget our law or our lore we will not endure in making our collective contribution to the world.

Big Word Theory

Here is a  short word on creation for Bereishit, this last week’s Torah portion. There we read, “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. ” (Genesis 1:3) Time and again throughout the story of creation we read how the spoken word creates. It is hard to conceptualize how this worked. How could sound cause matter to come into existence?

According to my simplistic understanding of the Big Bang Theory this is exactly what happened. Reality as we know it started with a huge noise with the expansion of matter. So far beyond and before any notions of logos, there was the first sound. From the sound of a pin dropping to Beethoven’s 9th that sound of creation has been in the background.  It is hard to conceptualize this inaudible sound like that.

It might be easier to visualize it. So we turn our attention to  cymatics, the study of visible sound and vibration. Typically the surface of a plate or something  is vibrated and different patterns emerge depending on the geometry of the plate and the driving frequency. Take a look at this short TED talk, it will explain a lot.

Visualizing sound gives us insight into the very nature of existence. It is no surprise that revelation at Sinai was described as seeing the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). The experience of synesthesia seems essential to the human experience. This experience itself might be the link between the Big Bang Theory, the Divine utterance that caused creation, the revelation of the Torah,  and the  image I see every morning when Emunah, our 2-year-old wakes me before dawn. Even though it is dark out, it is quite a sight. I feel blessed to be part of that world that she is creating with her uttering the word Abba.

– Check out other another post on synesthesia

All Kinds of Trees

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

1 I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.2 I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’3 I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.4 I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; 5 I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. ( Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam. If only we could conquer on inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have. In this time of year as we return to nature in the Sukkah we try in different ways to return to Eden. Last year I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point. Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed.

Outside the Garden of Commons

Over the last 10 years I have found myself engrossed in ongoing conversations as to how Torah learning for your adults might look in the 21st century. First in Yeshivah, then on campus, and now working with camps. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to participate in another one of these conversations at the Third Space Conference. We were joined by Gary Rosenblatt so you can learn more about it in this week’s Jewish Week.  In short the conversation tried to reframe Torah learning in the context of regaining the commons.

While there I learned an interesting learning from Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt who will be working for Hillel Intergalactic as the Director of Campus Initiatives. The text touched on the concept of Cain’s punishment being that he would have to wander the world. But being in the larger context of discussing this reestablishing the Jewish access point to the commons I started to rethink the story of the Cain and Abel.

There we read,

2She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. 3In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; 4and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, 5but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. 6And the Lord said to Cain,

“Why are you distressed,And why is your face fallen?

7Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you,Yet you can be its master.”

8Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. 9The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! 11Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:2-10)

I used to understand that it was just an issue of sibling rivalry or I read into the fact that Abel brought the best while Cain just brought what ever her had from the field. Cain has anger management issues and that is all. But if you look at this story through the Rabbinic lens the story changes. In the Gemara in Sanhedrin we learn that a shepherd was incapable of bearing witness because of his habit of encroaching upon other persons’ pastures (Sanhedrin 25a). The assumption is that the shepherd does not know how to treat the commons. Cain is not just someone who wants to defend the pasture (aka his crops) out of personal interest, Cain is a misguided defender of the commons. The problem is without public discourse ( read here the commons itself) Cain’s response in defense of the commons is murder. Cain is a vigilante and a true sinner, but in this context we have to recognize the role that Able had in compromising the commons.

This story underscores the basic need for us to find a way to find a way to restore civility and seek out a common place for serious discussion and disagreement. As we have learned, “Sin couches at the door”. Horrible things will happen in our personal spaces when we all do not find ways to preserve that Third Place. The punishment of wandering makes sense, we will be forced to deal with the dangers of the world without a community.

Shabbat or Death

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakel Pekudey we read,” And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whosoever does any work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:1-2) While the idea of the Sabbath is critical to the Jewish world-view, the Torah’s prescription of death for violating the Sabbath seems a bit harsh. Why is breaking Shabbat a capital offense?

It is interesting to note the context in which we read about this law. It is sandwiched in between to two descriptions of the construction of the tabernacle. In the context of our building a home for God we are told that if we act in certain way we will die. There is an interesting parallel here to the story about God’s building us a home, the Garden of Eden. In Genesis we read, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.'(Genesis 2:16-17) Similarly, in Genesis if Adam did something the consequence was death. While they are connected by their punishments, what is the meaning of the connection between eating of the tree of Knowledge and working on Shabbat?

In both cases, God is charging humankind to be more then just creatures of habit. We are not just animals that eat and build. Our true humanity is in our capacity to reflect. We cannot let ourselves be just a derivative of our work lives. We have to seek meaning in our lives both through and beyond the physical. So too in our lives, we cannot be satisfied without taking a break from the everyday experience. We need to strive to be more then what we do for a living. If we do not remember that fact, we are already dead.


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