Tag Archives: bereishit

Shabbat Bereishit – The Sound of Your Brothers’ Bloods Cry Out to Me From the Earth

Here is my D’var Torah from this past Shabbat:

It was sometime in the Fall of 1986. I was on my second visit to Jackson, MS; and particularly to Beth Israel Congregation, where I would become the Rabbi in July of 1987. Laura and I were staying with an incredibly gracious elderly couple from the congregation. (They would go on to become dear friends, virtually surrogate parents and grandparents during the five years we would spend in Jackson.) It was just about bedtime and the husband, I’ll call him Joe, called me over so he could show me something. For the next ten minutes he walked me around their large and beautiful home, showing me all the spots in which he had guns, of different shapes calibers and sizes. I was polite, but I was aghast. Later in the same visit I was casually informed that several of the men had been talking and they could not wait to take me hunting. Naive New Yorker that I was I said, “Jews don’t hunt.” “Rabbi, we do hunt. And we can’t wait take you.” To myself (I hope) I muttered, “This Jewboy doesn’t hunt.”

It’s now over 28 years later. I have not been hunting. In fact, I’m not sure I can even remember holding a gun. It’s not on my bucket list. However, as I said in my remarks during the Holy Days, I understand that people can hold differing views about gun ownership and how the accessibility to and ownership of guns should be regulated. I believe that. I also believe that the bell is ringing louder and louder, as gunshot after gunshot rings out, taking one after another innocent life.

Following my remarks on Yom Kippur a member of our community noted that he appreciated the sermon. He also offered that surely I must know that the problem is not gun control and regulation. It’s that we are not adequately addressing mental health issues. It’s now only a handful of weeks since that exchange. In these weeks there have been several more incidents, shootings and threats of violence – on different campuses in different states.

I agree, the matter of how we should approach the discussion and resolution of gun ownership and regulation is a matter of mental health. But I do not mean it in same manner as those who push back against any attempt to hold a debate, let alone pass laws which might reduce gun violence in our nation. There are valid points to be made about restricting access to guns to those with mental health issues and histories. I see the mental health angle from a different perspective. In my eyes the most pressing mental health angle of the gun debate is the sheer insanity of believing that more guns are the answer. It’s the lunacy of believing that we must maintain status quo on the gun control debate, allowing our elected officials and nation, to be held hostage to the powerful gun lobby led by the NRA and backed by the manufacturers of the weapons. To believe that doing nothing to responsibly control access to guns and, expecting the number of deaths to decrease of its own accord is insane. Friends, mental health is an issue in this debate – but not in the ways the NRA and the gun manufacturers suggest. This morning we awoke to news of another shooting at Northern Arizona State University.

DylnaquoteOn Yom Kippur I cited Bob Dylan’s iconic words, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Since I spoke those words, one candidate for President has declared that the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon a part of “stuff that happens.” Another posted on his Facebook page, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” These are not responsible responses from leaders seeking credibility and votes for the highest office in our land. I do not intend my comments as partisan commentary on the Presidential race. I would like to see our candidates, on both sides step up and hold a mature, responsible and hopeful productive debate which would move our nation out of the cycle of shootings, recriminations, and intensification of positions.

We all know that this Shabbat we begin the book of Bereishit/Genesis from the beginning. As we often do, we focus on the Torah’s creation narratives, and the role of humanity in God’s world. This Shabbat, this season, I believe we must pay attention to another well-known story from this week’s portion. In Genesis 4 we read the story of the world’s first siblings, Cain and Abel. We read: “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” (Gen. 4:1-5)
A few verses later we read, “Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” The words that follow cry out to me – Notice me! Learn from me! Pay attention to me! In verses 9 and 10 God asks Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God responds: “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” The blood, the bloods of those whose lives have been taken by gunfire are crying out to us!

On a visit back in Jackson we made early in our years here in Newton, we visited Joe and his wife. During our visit, Joe sheepishly told me, “One day, my grand-daughter found one of my guns. I’ve gotten rid of all but two and they are locked up.”

Friends, the bloods of those gunned down across our nation cry out to us! When will we respond with sanity and responsibility?

Shabbat shalom!

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An Ode to Bereishit

First lines matter. The first line of a novel, of any story, is critical. If it falls flat, forget it. If it’s all punch, and there’s nothing behind it, why continue reading? A good first line grabs your attention, and fills you with a sense of wonder. It drags you to the next sentence, which builds and leads to the next, to the one after that, and beyond. First lines play on an individual’s appetite for adventure. We sit in comfortable reading chairs, hot mugs of coffee nearby, and light music in the background, and we crack the spine, crease the opening pages, and then… who know’s what’s in store?!

Consider the first sentence of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” Three words, five syllables. All pointed and direct. We wonder: To whom is Ishmael speaking? Is that even really his name? Is he a version of the biblical Ishmael or some other being, entirely?

Read on, dear friends, and join Ishmael in his adventure: “Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about and see the watery part of the world.”

Within these first two sentences, an epic adventure, an echo of the Homeric Odyssey, recalling tales of sea-going travel and encounters with the Leviathan from before. We are hooked. We are drawn in. We turn page after page after page. Hairs stand on end, and all we feel are anticipation and excitement.

First lines can also be comforting. A child who climbs into your lap and wants a story read to her before bedtime grabs a book that begins with the opening “Once upon a time…”

With that opening line, the child encourages us: Can we please dream delightful dreams tonight? And we, desirous of the same delightful dreams, go about telling that fairy tale. We find joy in telling the story; she finds joy in being in the story.

Great first lines are ornamented gateways into human imagination. Give me a good line to a short story, to a novel, to any book really, and I will ignore the outside world until I have emerged from those pages. I’m doing it right now with Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. And it makes me think of the time in which–much to her chagrin–a friend of mine confessed having neglected her own children for a good first line.

Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code had just been released. My friend had dropped her kids off at school, and then come home to do some stuff around the house. Before she started with all of that, she made a pot of coffee, and sat down for a few minutes to start the novel. She said, from the first line, she was hooked. She sat there, reading page after page after page. Finally, she got up to fill her coffee cup, she glanced at the kitchen clock, and discovered that it was 3:30 in the afternoon, and she was an hour hour late to pick up her children.

Such is the power of a good first line. It is the experience of the first bite of a phenomenal meal, the discovery of flavors and texture that someone else has dished up for you, but you know the secret: you were the one meant to savor every bite.

The biblical authors understood the power and magic of the first line. It is contained within the first line of Genesis, within the first verse of Bereishit, within the first word, within the first letter, even, as we begin Torah anew.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” We can’t argue with it. Our most sacred text begins with a great first line. Bereishit, In the beginning. This first word is a finger pulling us into the story, gesturing for us to engage, to take part, to give in, to uncover radical awe and amazement as God creates. Bereishit, this first word calls us to consider more and more and more. Rashi feels that pull. He calls out Darsheini! Interpret me! With the first word of the Torah, from the very beginning, we are called to the task of interpretation for meaning out of this story. The first word cannot go unexamined; it must be expounded upon.

Even within the first letter there exists the opportunity for understanding. Why not ask, Why does the Torah begin with the letter Beit? To this our Sages had an answer, “Beit was chosen to commence the Torah to teach us that just as the Beit is closed on the top, the bottom, and the right sides, but open toward the left–in the direction of reading–so too should we concern ourselves with the day the world was created and onward. Here and now.”

From the first day of creation, everything flows. Out of the letter beit, Torah begins. Out of the letter beit, we encounter Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, the People of Israel, the Prophets, the Psalmist, Solomon, and Ezra the scribe. Out of the letter beit flows a text that teaches Chokhmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge); a text that communicates Brit (Covenant)–a sense of relationship we hold with one another and with God. Out of the beit we build arks and we build towers, we build tabernacles and we build cities of gold, we leave the narrows of Egypt and we–as a People–stand at Sinai. Out of the beit, out of Bereishit, out of Bereishit bara Elohim, we begin the story of our People, of our Torah, of our God–a story that lives, has lived, and will continue to live.

Words are powerful, and beginnings draw us in. May we find ourselves pulled into our most sacred stories, and there discover a love affair with our most sacred words.

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