Tag Archives: Bereshit

The Divinity of Vulnerability – Bereshit 5778

The holidays are over; we have concluded three weeks of introspection, of asking for forgiveness from God and each other, of celebrating and building and dancing and eating and praying and so forth.

You might be inclined to think that the High Holiday season ended yesterday, when we paraded the Torah and danced and sang with abandon. A better case could be made that they actually ended on Wednesday morning, on Hoshanah Rabbah, when we marched seven times around the chapel with our lulavim and etrogim, and then beat willow branches on the floor until the leaves came off, chanting three times, “Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer,” “A voice proclaims, proclaims and says.”

‫הושענא רבה - נוסח חבאן (בי"כ מפעי, מושב ברקת, תשס"א ...

Says what? A curious statement, indeed. The piyyut, the liturgical poem that features these lines in the siddur / prayerbook is incomplete; there is no direct object to the two verbs, mevasser (proclaims) and omer (says).

The line seems to reference a passage in Isaiah (52:7) heralding redemption.* But why did the author of this poem in the siddur, El’azar ben Qillir, the 6th-7th century CE Palestinian payyetan, leave off what it is that the voice is announcing?**

Well, I’m going to propose an answer: that the mysterious voice is God’s (OK, not such a stretch), the still, small voice (I Kings 19:12) that will guide us as we move forward into the new year, and yet reminds us of the vulnerability that we emphasize on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is this vulnerability, after all, in which you may find the Divine spark that makes us at once profoundly human and yet Godly. And the origin of this vulnerability is to be found in Parashat Bereshit, which we read today.

The fourth most-viewed TED Talk of all time (videos of short, inspirational lectures, usually by people who are not celebrities) features the “researcher-storyteller” Dr. Brené Brown, and is titled, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Has anybody here seen it? Dr. Brown is a professor in the social work school at the University of Houston. Some of her research has been devoted to recording and analyzing people’s stories of shame and vulnerability.

She speaks of her own fear of being vulnerable, and how, while she is trying to manage this fear, her research reveals that it is, in fact, embracing being open and vulnerable that makes us feel worthy, that makes us live, as she says, “wholeheartedly.”

Among the wisdom revealed by her research, we find the following gems:

  • Our essential goal is connection. The ability to feel connected is what gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.
  • Shame is the fear of disconnection.
  • People who have a strong sense of love and belonging feel that they are worthy of love and belonging, and the way to achieve this is to expose your vulnerability, to embrace it, to allow your true self to be seen.

Dr. Brown’s point is that we as a society tend to misunderstand the importance of vulnerability. None of us is perfect; that we leave for God. But it is, in fact, our vulnerability that makes us strong; it is our vulnerability that makes us attractive to others, the willingness to pursue love, careers, parenting, and other types of human relationships despite our fears of failure and rejection.

And that is one of the primary messages of Bereshit – that we are not perfect. We are not immortal. Rather, we are human. We are fundamentally flawed.*** When we lose Eden, we learn the extent of our vulnerability. What does God say to Adam as he and Eve are being shooed out of the Garden? We read this a little while ago:

אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה, בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ, בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכְלֶנָּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

Cursed be the ground because of you;

By toil shall you eat of it

All the days of your life…

By the sweat of your brow

Shall you get bread to eat,

Until you return to the ground —

For from it you were taken. (Gen. 3:17-19)

Henceforward, says God, human life will be difficult. Nothing will be provided for us; we must work hard to eat, to live, to love. And we will try and fail, try and fail again. We will try to plant wheat, and thorns and thistles will grow instead. We will reach out to others for love and be rejected. We will work hard at making senior partner, only to be passed over.

This is, of course, from the second Creation story, the more human of the two, Gen. 2:4b ff. The first story (Gen. 1:1 – 2:4a) is about order: six days of God admiring God’s own perfect work, and then resting. Shabbat is today that aftertaste of perfection, a little hint of the Garden of Eden here in Pittsburgh and everywhere else for 25 hours every week.

But the other six days are days of toil and suffering. And that is what makes us human. We are subject to the elements, to the economy, to the vagaries of human relationships, to political forces, and so on. We are vulnerable.

But wait a minute. Didn’t God make us this way? Is not our tendency to feel shame also Divine?

When Adam and Eve eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they suddenly realize that they are not wearing clothes. And what happens? They feel ashamed. They feel vulnerable. Recognizing this new emotion in the creatures God has created, the Qadosh Barukh Hu asks them (Gen. 3:11), “Mi higid lekha ki eirom atah?” “Who told you that you were naked?”

Rashi glosses this verse as follows: “Me-ayin lekha lada’at mah boshet yesh be-omed arom? Ha-min ha-etz?!” “From where did you learn what shame there is in standing naked? From the tree?!”

That’s when they start pointing fingers, blaming each other and the serpent to alleviate their shame. (Dr. Brown: “blame” is defined in the relevant academic literature as, “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.”)

Of course it was not from the tree. Shame was also created by God in those first six days of ostensibly “perfect” Creation.

So when Adam and Eve lose paradise, and are told that they are on their own, that fundamental vulnerability comes from God. It is Divine. It is the essential piece of humanity, the finishing flourish, if you will, of Creation.

So what is the voice proclaiming at the end of the holiday season? Embrace that God-given vulnerability. That is what the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, are all about: we are frail, we need help. And carry that sense of frailty into the rest of the year. Live with it, because it will make you more wholehearted.

Dr. Brené Brown concludes her talk by pointing out that the way that we deal with our vulnerability is by trying to numb it through addictive behaviors. “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history,” she says.

But the problem with this is that you cannot selectively numb particular emotions, and so we have also numbed our ability to experience joy, gratitude, and happiness, and this has led to a whole host of other social ills. We are increasingly isolated, increasingly certain and inflexible in our beliefs, increasingly willing to assign blame rather than accept who we are.

She offers that what we need to be teaching our children is, it’s OK to be imperfect. It’s OK to be flawed and wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. I would append to this the idea that God created us that way, way back in Bereshit / Genesis.

During Sukkot, we “invite” key figures in Jewish folklore to come and sit with us in our sukkah, in a ceremony known as Ushpizin. We call on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth to honor us with their presence. But we often forget that these characters were human, and hence imperfect. Abraham twice identified his wife Sarah as his sister, because he was afraid of being killed. Sarah laughed when promised a son late in life. Moses was ashamed of what may have been a stutter. Aaron made the Molten Calf, for crying out loud! And David, the great King David, slept with his neighbor’s wife and then had her husband killed in battle, because he was ashamed. These were flawed people!

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But they lived with their vulnerabilities. They are on display for all to see in the stories of the Tanakh. And we too must embrace our own insecurities, and raise our children to accept their shortcomings. Nobody’s perfect, my friends. Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer. Remember the still, small voice, calling out from the New Year. The imperfection within us is Divine; now get out there and be proudly vulnerable.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/14/2017.)

* Isaiah 52:7, a verse that we read over the summer in the Fourth Haftarah of Consolation:

מַה-נָּאווּ עַל-הֶהָרִים רַגְלֵי מְבַשֵּׂר, מַשְׁמִיעַ שָׁלוֹם מְבַשֵּׂר טוֹב–מַשְׁמִיעַ יְשׁוּעָה; אֹמֵר לְצִיּוֹן, מָלַךְ אֱ-לֹהָיִךְ

How welcome on the mountain

Are the footsteps of the herald

Announcing happiness,

Heralding good fortune,

Announcing victory,

Telling Zion, “Your God is King!”

** Yes, if you study the words of the piyyut / liturgical poem carefully, you will find that it speaks of “various prophetic descriptions of apocalyptic events in the end of days,” (Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 211). But the repeated lines at the beginning and the end are incomplete, and we repeat them five times.

*** Please note that while some Christian denominations point to this episode as the source of “original sin,” Judaism reads the first few chapters of Bereshit / Genesis differently. God did not create humans to be immortal, and the first humans were not perfect. In other words, the expulsion from the Garden was inevitable, like the classic arc of tragedy.

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Drawing Lines in the Data – Earth Day / Shemini 5777

Last Monday, the 7th day of Pesah, Beth Shalom member Chris Hall spoke during morning services about the relationship between science and religion, and one element that he presented is that they answer different questions. In my mind, there is no conflict between science and religion because while science might tell us how the world works, it does not attempt to answer, “Why?” That is for the theologians.

We might be tempted to dismiss the Torah’s story of Creation because it conflicts with the story that current scientific opinion tells us. But I think it is essential for us to consider what we learn from both. While astrophysicists have determined that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and that the after-effects of the Big Bang can still be measured to this day, we learn nothing from this about our responsibility for the world we have received. That we can learn from the book of Bereshit / Genesis. What is our relationship to the Earth, says Bereshit? Le’ovdah ulshomerah. “To till it and to tend it.” (Gen. 2:15)

Now granted, we haven’t read that parashah since October, so I am not going to dwell on it today. But something that does appear in Parashat Shemini is a list of things we are permitted to eat and not eat. And there is a lesson to be drawn from that as well.

But first, a little science.

Today, you may know, is not only Kylie’s bat mitzvah. It is also Earth Day, the annual, global awareness-raising event that brings people together around the world to remember the obligations of Genesis. To that end, I would just like to share a few items with you:

  1. 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third straight year in a row of record-setting temperatures since record-keeping began in the 1880s. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/science/earth-highest-temperature-record.html
  2. This past February, the average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century. That may not sound like a lot, but in climatology terms, it’s huge. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/03/17/globe-second-warmest-winter-on-record/99303812/
  3. The great plume of plastics that continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean is now flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I could cite numerous other such bits of data: how much oil we consume each day, how much food we throw away, how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere per hamburger eaten, and so forth. But what does it mean to us? How might we regard that information and take action? What might our Jewish tradition teach us about our responsibilities vis-a-vis Creation?

On this Earth Day, let us turn to kashrut, the principles of holy eating, for answers.

What does the word “kasher” (accent on the second syllable) mean? Fitting, appropriate. (“Kosher” is the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation.) The word does not appear in the Torah at all, but in rabbinic literature is used to denote anything that may be used for a holy purpose, not just food. What makes something kasher? That it is legally permissible under Jewish law to eat it or use it for ritual purposes.

In Parashat Shemini, we read a list of animals that are appropriate to eat. Some are identified by certain categories – the split-hoofed ruminants, like cows and deer and sheep – and some are named specifically, mostly the birds. The Torah does not tell us why these are allowed and not camels or shrimp or alligators. All we know, at least from the parashah, is that God does not want us to eat those other things, which are called “tamei” (impure) or “sheqetz(literally, an abomination; this is the Hebrew origin of the Yiddish slur sheygetz / shiktza, and why one should never use these terms).

It is curious that the Torah provides no rationale. Did the authors want us not to ask why? Was the answer known to the ancients, and so obvious that it did not need to be stated? Perhaps this “why” is left dangling for us to discover ledor vador, in each generation according to what is relevant in its time.

Or maybe it is that the only reasoning we might be able to glean from this passage is that, well, some things are in and some things are out. That when God gave Creation to us, to till and to tend, that there were simply some natural limits to our behavior. That not all things are available to us. That while we are permitted to take advantage of some things, others are off limits. That we must leave some parts of Creation untilled and untended.

Perhaps, as Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Shemini, #7) suggests, the goal of kashrut is to teach us mindful consumption:

“The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?”

Perhaps we might learn from this that the drawing of boundaries in the natural world should lead to our ethical behavior in other spheres: in our relationships with others, in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with the animal realm. Perhaps the drawing of lines in what we consume as individuals will lead us to draw lines in how we as a society consume our resources, to determine where our limits are as we continue to advance as a civilization.

Where are our lines?

How will we know when we have crossed them? When the Arctic ice is gone? When the giant, swirling heap of plastic currently in the Pacific Ocean has filled the Chesapeake Bay? When the bumblebees are gone?

I recall a curious incident in a rabbinical school theology class. Most of my classmates were not science people; they had degrees in literature, or history, or Judaic studies. I know you may find this hard to believe, but I was somewhat unusual in that I had two degrees in chemical engineering. I do not recall the apropos, but the subject of science vs. God came up, and I said that our understanding of God changes, but science does not. Several of my classmates jumped on this, saying, “But science does change.”

Actually, no. As with God, our understanding of science changes. As we move forward, we learn more about the world that we have been given, and so we adjust our understanding, our theories and formulas, to reflect the data that we collect. But science and God do not change. Their nature and secrets are revealed to us as human civilization matures. Just as God continues to be revealed to us, so does science.

The principles of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics and math that govern how our world works are immutable. And they will neither teach us about faith nor answer the hard questions that we face every day.

But our tradition teaches us to act. And act we must. We must till, we must tend, and we must draw lines. We do not have free reign to use and abuse Creation.  With God-given power comes God-given responsibility.

My personal rabbi on the subject of our responsibility to Creation is the author Theodore Seuss Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. In what I consider to be his finest work, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss reminded us of our responsibility vis-a-vis the Earth. The Lorax, after failing to prevent the destruction of a piece of unspoiled land, a beautiful, holy gift of plants and animals and scenery, takes his leave from an altar labeled “Unless.”

unless

We can make personal, individual choices to reduce our own energy footprint. We can use LED light bulbs and compost our kitchen scraps and recycle our plastic and even buy electric cars. We can draw many personal lines in our own behavior.

But unless we as a society make some collective decisions for change on a grand scale, nothing will change. Unless we draw some lines, we will continue to monitor and watch and take data that give us no answers.

The time to act is now.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/22/17.)

 

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Torah and Science: Living with Contradiction – Bereshit 5776

My daughter is in third grade. She loves being Jewish, and Judaism is the fabric of her life. Last year, in second grade, she started to express ambivalence about God and the Torah. She had encountered the theological conundrum that many of us face as young adults or even later in life. How can we accept the story of Creation as truth, when scientific inquiry has yielded a vastly different story? How can we accept the Torah as legitimate if it is not verifiably true, according to scientific principles? Doesn’t the whole Judaic enterprise come crashing down if the Torah conflicts with science? (OK, so she didn’t really ask those particular questions, but in any case I was not expecting this for many more years…)

I have arrived at my own response to these questions, and we’ll come back to that in a few minutes. But meanwhile I would like to take you on a wee tour of the first chapters of Bereshit / Genesis.

There are not one, but two Creation stories in Bereshit. The first is the six-days-of-Creation- followed-by-God’s-resting-on-the-seventh-day story. That is all of chapter 1 of Bereshit (begins on p. 2 / 3), plus the first few verses of chapter 2 (p. 6 / 13).

The second story is a different take on Creation, and features “HaAdam” and “HaIshah” (the man and the woman) as the first two human characters. It begins in the second half of 2:4 (p. / 13), and continues for the rest of chapter two (until p. 10 / 17).

These two stories are very different for a number of reasons: the first is ordered, numbered, logical. It constantly reminds us that God admires Creation and labels it “good.” It suggests the tone of an engineer designing a linear, sensible world, in which everything is measured and put in its proper place. The creation of humans, man and woman together, occurs at the end of the process, because we all know that human beings will inevitably foul this orderly, organized world.

The second story, however, is somewhat more chaotic. It presents a different order of things, in which HaAdam, the man, is fashioned from the ground (“adamah”) much earlier in the process, and is almost a partner in Creation. The woman appears later, only after God realizes that the man must be lonely (2:18). The woman, of course, is fashioned from the rib of the man, and for this reason the second story seems to suggest a much more complex relationship not only between HaAdam and God, but also between HaAdam and HaIshah, a complexity that will play itself out in events later in the parashah.

In addition to the content of the story, it is also immediately apparent that the style of writing between the two stories is quite different; the first is almost mechanical, while the second tells a story of the interplay between the three characters (God, man, woman) as the world comes into being. They use different names for God, and draw on a different vocabulary. The second story speaks of emotion; it describes one origin of the human condition.

Torah

The classic medieval commentators, who detected these differences, tried to resolve the two stories by explaining that the second story is merely an elaboration on the first. (Rashi, for example, glosses this difficulty by citing a hermeneutical principle that suggests that the Torah frequently states a general idea, e.g. the creation of people, and follows it with specific details, e.g. that HaAdam helped in naming all the plants.)

But the commentators can only take it so far because their agenda is to resolve problems, to make sure that the Torah seems like a unified document, that everything flows nicely and is not contradictory.

Problem is, it breaks down under close scrutiny!

A better way of understanding these two stories, of which we are capable because we live in the 21st century and not the 11th, is that they do not have to comment on each other. There is no need to resolve them to make sense. Rather, here is one story, and here is another.

Why is this OK? Because we can handle it. We are committed enough to our Judaism to accept that this is just one more contradiction of many: How, for example, can God be all-good and all-powerful if humans suffer needlessly? How could Moses have taken dictation from God about his own death (as we discussed on Simhat Torah, Baba Batra 15a)? How could Haman be a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites if King Saul and the judge Samuel killed all of them? How can it be that the shofar is permitted on Rosh Hashanah but not on Shabbat? How can it be that the Talmud explicitly permits women to be called to the Torah, but contemporary Orthodoxy still forbids it?*

Anybody who wants you to believe that everything makes sense in Jewish life is trying to sell you a bill of goods. It doesn’t. And we have lived with many of those contradictions for thousands of years, sitting there on the Jewish bookshelf.

Please now recall our guiding principle when discussing the Torah: “What does this mean to us?”

Let’s return now to another contradiction: the Torah tells us a few things about the creation of the world. But those of us who have had a secular education (i.e. just about all of us) know and understand that science tells us a story that cannot possibly be resolved with either story found in the Torah: that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, that it originated in an infinitely dense point that suddenly exploded outwards (the “Big Bang”), that the Earth is hardly the center of the universe, that various forms of life evolved gradually from simple self-replicating proteins to the many complex species that exist today.

“Miller-Urey experiment-en” by GYassineMrabetTalk✉This vector image was created with Inkscape.iThe source code of this SVG is valid. – Own work from Image:MUexperiment.png.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg#/media/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg

Yes, there are people who will tell you that the six-day story of Bereshit chapter 1 is meant to be interpreted such that each day represents a much longer time (an average of two billion years per day!), and that the order in which things were created roughly echoes the way that scientists have envisioned the unfolding of the universe. While this explanation might satisfy some, I cannot accept it – it requires too much force to squeeze the first Genesis story into that scheme. How is it, for example, that there could have been liquid water (1:2) at the beginning if the initial act of Creation (i.e. before vayhi or, “let there be light”) was a cataclysmic explosion? And how could there have been green plants and fruit-bearing trees (vv. 1:11-12) when there were not yet Sun, Moon, and stars (1:14:18)? And then what happens to the second Creation story? No, I am sorry to say that this does not work for me, either.

So what is a scientifically-minded chemical-engineer-turned-cantor-turned-rabbi to do? The only possible answer to these questions is not to try to resolve them. They can occupy two different parts of our brains, and not be troubled by each other. Just like the two Creation stories that disagree with each other are side-by-side in the opening chapters of the Torah, so too can these two perspectives sit side-by-side in our heads.

Because, really, the apparent challenge of the scientific story vs. that of the Torah is a bogus challenge. They do not need to be resolved, because they are, in fact, answering different questions.

There was an article in the New York Times magazine back in April about the language of science vs. religion which spoke to these apparent contradictions. The author, T. M. Luhrmann, pointed to recent scholarly articles that suggest that religious belief and scientific understanding occupy two entirely different areas of our consciousness. We use different words and concepts when discussing faith or science. Religion speaks to “Why?”; science answers “How?” Religion uses the subjective language of belief, but science is about observed laws and principles and measurable evidence.

Ms. Luhrmann cites a story that suggests that the non-intermingling of the two areas is both healthy and common, courtesy of the anthropologist and physician, Dr. Paul Farmer,

…about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. “But if you believe that,” he cried, “why did you take your medicines?” In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

In one realm, that of the rational person living in a time of great technological advancement based on the principles of science, the Big Bang model answers all of the questions surrounding the origin of the universe. It is an answer that makes sense through the lens of academic inquiry.

In another frame of mind, that of the Jewish person of any era who turns to our national Jewish story to help make sense of this world, the stories of Bereshit answer our greater questions.

The Torah and the Big Bang are indeed contradictory, but they can both be understood to be true in some sense. They are different lenses through which we can understand our world. They occupy different places in our consciousness; you might say that the Big Bang belongs to the mind, while Bereshit resides in the heart.

The Torah teaches us values, how to live a meaningful life, why we should care about others. It helps us to answer the question of “Why?” Science is not concerned with meaning – it toils in the “What?” and the “How?”

We need both the “Why?” and the “How?” and the answers that follow them. We need both science and Judaism, so that we can be in balance with ourselves and our world. We need the Big Bang, and we need Bereshit.

Shabbat Shalom!

* See Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23a. The reason given in the Talmud for not calling women to the Torah is “kevod hatzibbur,” “the honor of the community.” However, in a world in which women can be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, professors, and perhaps President of the United States, why would calling a woman to the Torah be shameful to the community? Furthermore, traditional Jews who indulge in the apologetic claim that women are exempt from mitzvot because they are “on a higher spiritual plane” and therefore don’t need them are perhaps unaware that it seems ridiculous that women are on a higher spiritual plane but nonetheless cannot be called to the Torah. Wouldn’t we want those endowed with extra “spirituality” to be the ones who lead us in prayer?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/10/2015.)

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