Sermon, Parshat Breisheet 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
We are now officially through the mother of all Jewish holiday seasons, our fall fiesta of festivals, which ran from Selichot in mid-September through Simchat Torah last Monday night and Tuesday. As wonderful as each and every Jewish holiday is in its own right, it remains something of a relief for rabbis and cantors and we few, proud hybrid-types that the long lingering line of celebrations is finally over.
Of course, that also means that we now have to begin to catch up on all the other work we neglected in the run-up to the holidays and the Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah observances themselves. And for that we have the new month of Cheshvan, which begins this coming week. This Jewish calendar month is nicknamed Marcheshvan, literally “the bitter month” because it is the only one in the entire Jewish year during which we have no actual Jewish holidays; but following close on the heels of the festival frenzy of the Jewish month of Tishrei, that’s really not such a bad thing.
But before we leave the festival season in our rear-view mirror, I have one last Simchat Torah story.
This tale took place when I was a student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and I arrived there just before Simchat Torah evening services. I was hired to be the cantor in the Chapel at HUC, but before assuming that role I had just conducted High Holy Days services in Vancouver, British Columbia. New to Cincinnati and that campus of Hebrew Union College, I wanted to watch how things worked before leading any services myself. To be honest, it was a pretty disappointing experience. I sat through the first few Hakafot, the parades with the Torah, listening to the dull, boring songs they were doing and watching stiff, dutiful, lifeless processions around the sanctuary. Finally I turned to the Dean of the College, Rabbi Ken Erlich, and asked him what was going on. Like me, he is mostly descended from Eastern European Jews who do Simchas Torah by singing and dancing with great enthusiasm and energy—a nearly wanton celebration, like ours here at Beit Simcha last Monday night. Dean Erlich explained to me that when he first came to Hebrew Union College the Torah hakafot for Simchat Torah were done in a slow, stately procession, accompanied by plodding organ music. He himself had turned to a professor and asked "it's Simchas Torah--how come they are marching not dancing?" And the professor answered "They are German Jews --they are dancing..." And apparently some of that heritage remained years later when I arrived in Cincinnati.
I guess marching is how Germans dance.
Anyway, speaking of Torah, now that the the final fall festival has passed we can return to concentrating on the Torah portions that begin our new cycle of readings. These parshiyot are so remarkably rich and diverse that they invite investigation, probing and questioning. Plus, they are genuinely fun to explore.
And this week, we begin with the very beginning, an exceptionally good place to start.
There is something exciting and new about starting over with Breisheet this Shabbat, rediscovering the tabula rasa, the Creation ex nihilo that commences our greatest textual creation as a people. Genesis, at its inception, is all about the incredible promise and potential inherent in our universe. It is a blank slate, a fresh page, a first kiss, the exciting start to a trip we will take together on a fresh, open road around an unturned corner. It is discovering the world anew.
Poet Stanly Barkan puts it well in his verse, “As Yet Unborn”:
Oh to be Adam
With all his ribs
Yearning for a woman
As yet unborn,
Of the taste of apples,
Ears without the hiss of snakes,
Mindless of nakedness and shame,
In the garden of gentle creatures
Waiting for a name.
Most of us—perhaps all of us—have read this text of Genesis before, and we know that this creation epic doesn’t end as well as it begins. Humans will be created, we will immeidately make mistakes and transform this perfect creation into something much more recognizably flawed. But still, there is something remarkably exciting, even thrilling, about the start of Breisheet, something extroardinarily energizing. From nothing, something amazing is about to happen. And that inherent, untapped potential makes this a narrative that has almost limitless ability to interest, inspire, confuse and tantalize the reader.
Take, for example, the first lines of Genesis, which describe the creation of light with God’s first words in the Torah, Yehi Or, Be, light! We think of that as the great initial moment of singularity, the expansion of divine energy into a void that leads ultimately to the evolution of the universe we now know. And it is that—but it is also an incredibly beautiful description of the holiness of beginning from one single, solitary point and moment.
It took a long time for contemporary cosmology to come to some level of agreement with Genesis on the conception of creation. Only in the mid-20th century did physics produce the Big Bang theory—the scientific concept, not the TV show—and today it is among the most widely accepted ways to understand the creation of the universe. In recent years the development of the Large Hadron Supercollider has brought the possiblity of looking back to that moment ever closer, allowing us to see what happened just after the singularity, the moment creation took place, to observe the Big Bang, to voyeuristically gaze at Breisheet itself.
We are all interested, at least a little bit, in the very beginning of everything, aren’t we? The dawn of creation. The first single event in our universe’s history. The instant of conception, or inception. An amazing, holy moment.
The black zero of beginning.
From that inception point, in one singular event, everything starts. According to physics, a great flash of energy expanded outwards. One holy instant. “Breisheet Bara Elohim… yehi or, at the beginning of God’s creating… there was energy.”
The power of that initial unity, what physicists call a “singularity,” is woven all through Judaism. One beginning from God. One source of morality and truth. Oneness first, with rich diversity evolving from that initial Divine creative burst, born out of it to populate this gorgeous, complex world.
At the risk of overstating things, I also think of Breisheet, that moment of creation, when considering our young congregation, Beit Simcha. We began almost exactly a year ago, although since we began in October 2018 with the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, which is coming up in two more weeks, technically this remains our very first Breisheet Shabbat. That makes this our first Shabbat of creation, if you will, which seems a most appropriate time to give thanks for what we have: the opportunity and the reality of having created a community of love, joy, warmth and support, a shul that nurtures Jewish life and seeks to have it truly flourish. While we don’t pretend to have created Gan Eiden just yet, a Garden of Eden, Beit Simcha’s course has already proven to be a wonderful journey, filled with growth, creativity and generative events and moments.
I trust that we will not have our Adam-and-Eve-expelled-from-the-Garden experience next: certainly we have had challenges from various building and fire inspectors, but we have now passed them all. No, the congregation we’ve been creating over this year has proven to be many wonderful things, including resilient and resourceful. I would hope that God approves of us and our work, and says about it in Genesis’ immortal lines, “It is good.”
In this week of beginning the Torah again, as we celebrate with gratitude the many guests we have welcomed to our congregation and invite anyone who wishes to begin the joyous journey of membership as well, may we each find the wholeness, and holiness, that is an underlying truth present everywhere in the universe that God began to create. And may we seek, and find, good new beginnings in this post-holiday 5780 year, and great joy and creativity in the variegated patterns of our own lives.