The Story of Creation
By Rabbi Judith Edelstein
For rabbis and cantors – as well as for many congregants who are involved in synagogue life, this is the most challenging and stressful time of year. No sooner have we rabbis concluded our Academy Award winning soliloquies and day of starvation than we have to change out of our kittels, or gowns, and go from the divine to the arcane as we wave an odd assortment of flora up, down, left, and right. Talk about stress, pity the left-right dyslexic and large-picture thinkers among us! The grand finale, immense commotion and ceremony surrounding the sacred scrolls before we slump into hol, the daily routine.
How do we keep the energy going? What magic gets us out of bed and keeps us on the bimah following the high drama of these weeks? What I grapple with the most, however, because I only have High Holiday responsibilities, is: How do I maintain the vision and commitments of these last weeks? What can I do to sustain my desire to strive towards holiness, forgiveness, and mercy?
While I can still vividly recall the prayers I chanted with deep sincerity and the multitude of texts I studied in preparation for the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe), at the same time I am aware of my own intentions beginning to slip from my grasp. At Sukkot services, my pre-Elul mindset reared up again, and I made all sorts of judgments about the people around me. That night I initiated an argument with my husband over something silly. With Simhat Torah and the reading of Bereishit (Genesis) around the corner, I tremble. Is this the beginning or the end? Do I have to wait another forty-nine weeks for next Rosh Hashanah in order to be rejuvenated?
The answers to my questions began to appear as I selected which passages I would chant for the reading of Bereishit. When I reviewed the pages of the tikkun, the Torah chanting preparation book, I was immediately aroused by the sounds themselves as I sang the opening lines, which I knew by heart. The act of chanting, itself, even before I began to consider the meaning of the words, is renewing. I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands of voices that have sung in the past that will be singing these same words now and in the future. The music reverberates in my heart as the melodies wrap around and then slide off my tongue like honey.
I segue into the next level. The knowledge that the words impart crowns like a new born. I am eager for the opportunity to reread the passages with which I have grown so familiar over the years. Which commentator shall I focus on this year? Which translation shall I use for a new understanding? The possibilities are endless. I look through my bookshelf, reassured by the predictability of the content of the first
parashah (weekly Torah reading) as well being curious to see what I will learn this time around, now that an additional, and hopefully wiser, year has been notched onto my belt.
“In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unformed and desolate, and darkness covered the surface of the abyss.” (Gen. 1:1) Among other explanations, in his commentary on verse 1, Rashi tells us that the world was created for the sake of the Torah. I cannot agree more, having observed how my own Jewish soul is reignited together with the Torah and the commentary through exploring the text as I study. The world begins anew as we: the Torah, the commentary and I, create new meaning together. The gift of study and discussion promotes new understandings which give me hope to begin the process again: to formulate new insights out of recognizable sources. This practice is both an inspiration and a comfort.
How manifold are the opportunities within the structure of Jewish life to be creative! Just one word, Bereishit, “In the beginning,” has spawned thousands of words of discussion and speculation. As I review the parashah, memories tumble upon one another. I recall: this image signifies that; the Ramban, a 13th century philosopher and Biblical commentator, said this; The Women’s Torah Commentary has an interesting perspective, etc.
As I immerse myself in the lingua franca of the Torah, my vision and commitments of the Yamim Noraim return. The faces around me in shul are once again unique. “Though the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be the One, fashioned everyone from the die of the first human, not a single one of them is exactly alike. Hence, each and every person should say, “The world was created for me.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a.) Implicit to this notion is our call to honor the world and the differences among us.
The words and images that depict the beginning of the universe and humankind, if taken seriously, are provocative. May they energize all of us to our own creations.
Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.