Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

"Living God and Master of the Universe
on high and dwelling in eternity,
His name holy
and He is sublime
and created His world
out of three words: sefer, sfar, sippur – letter, limit, and tale.
"

So begins the ancient treatise, Sefer Yetzirah, which focuses on sound and its magical capacity for "making" and "world building." This book takes on the grammar of creation as expressed through the Hebrew language.

In acknowledging that all our beginnings are made through language, this year we have an opportunity to be more mindful of how we use language to create and destroy realities, through each letter, its limit, and the tale that we chose to tell. Sefer Yetzirah shares this mutual concern for "making" and "world building" that is at the core of Genesis.

The story of creation we read this week is a story of beginnings and creative inspiration, and all of this transpires within the creation that has already occurred – the divine Creator creates more than once. God as Creator forms the first human body from the unformed earth, blowing a living breath into it to form a soul. A help mate, Eve, is then formed for Adam. Moving from a state of radical loneliness to begin building community happens in relationship. But not all beginnings bode well or even last, and creation begins again with Noah, a righteous man alone in a corrupt world.

Are the end and the beginning of these episodes in the human condition "always there"? If so, what does this teach us about the way we wander and dwell in the here and now?

As we reflect upon how we use language to create and destroy realities, consider catching Israeli artist Victoria Hannah during her current residency at Magnes Museum when she performs her own rendition of 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Sefer Yetzirah. Victoria draws inspiration from each Hebrew letter, which is said to symbolize or relate to a specific element in the universe and in the human body, each letter an exact signal, sound, and frequency in space. Stylistically, Hannah's creations span from traditional Jewish music to new music and hip-hop.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Genesis 4:15: "...and the Lord placed a mark on Cain that no one who find him slay him." What exactly is the mark or brand of Cain? From ancient times through today, biblical scholars and rabbis debate what is meant by the Hebrew word ot, which is variously translated as "mark," "sign," "pledge," or "oath." Many ancient interpreters insisted this mark was meant literally, a symbol that consisted of fearsome animal horns. Here, we see such a sign painted on the wall of a desert cave along with a number of falling human forms. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Toldot — Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

facebook_coverdesign_toldotWhat was the nature of the blindness that Isaac succumbed to later in life?

Commenting on Genesis 27:1 ("When Isaac was old his eyes were too dim to see"), Rashi suggests something subtle: "When Isaac was bound to the altar and his father wanted to slaughter him, at that moment, the heavens opened up and ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears came down and fell into his eyes; therefore ‘his eyes were too dim to see’."

This raises the larger question of how we embody and deal with conflict that extends beyond our immediate selves and beyond our immediate families – say, those that impact nations. Do we turn a blind eye to it or do the tears of trauma blind us from seeing what truly stands before us?

The challenge of Judaism is for each of us to continue striving to be better and truer in our relationships with both the children of Abraham and Adam, a diverse family of which we are all proud members.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In this week's artwork, Esau's profile casts a red shadow on Jacob's face. Much Jewish polemical literature casts Esau, the ruddy, hirsute outdoorsman, as the progenitor of the Babylonians, the Romans, and, later, Christendom, all sworn enemies of the Jewish people. Jacob, the bookish younger twin, stands in for our tribe, the prototypical yeshiva bochur. Yet the relationship between the brothers, like that of all siblings, is not so one-dimensional – they are as interconnected as they are opposed, and the illustration hints at a yin and yang dynamic. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1-6:8

facebook_coverdesign_bereshitNew Beginnings: How do I want to begin again this year?

Whenever a new chapter in life is about to begin, it is wise to take a step back and ask: How do I want to begin? What are my hopes, aspirations, and dreams?

The Jewish New Year is a time to ask ourselves similar questions: How do I want to begin again this year? And, as we begin again at the Torah scroll's start, with Genesis, what role does my kehillah kedoshah (my sacred community) play in this new beginning?

Six decades ago, on Yom Ha'atzmaut, the American Jewish community was searching for a way to begin again with its religious Zionist dreams. Rabbi Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik (z”l) delivered a now-classic talk about religious Zionist philosophy at Yeshiva University. "The Voice of My Beloved Knocks (Kol Dodi Dofek)" elaborates upon God’s tangible presence in the recent history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel — does this relationship constitute a "covenant of fate" (berit goral) or a "covenant of destiny" (berit yi’ud)?

Let's contrast fate and destiny. Although Jonah did not necessarily experience the joys of fate once the lots were drawn and he was cast off the ship by the sailors, we can still discern four positive consequences of the awareness of a shared fate: 1. shared historical circumstances; 2. shared suffering; 3. shared responsibility and liability; 4. shared activity. As opposed to the "covenant of fate," which was made with an enslaved people without free will, the "covenant of destiny" was made with a free nation which could, and did, make up its own mind. God does not simply impose the Torah on community; God offers it to us. And every year, God is still awaiting our response — anew. As a "people" (‘am, from the word ‘im, meaning "with"), therefore, we have no way to determine our own fate; as a "nation" (goy, related to the word geviyah, meaning "body"), however, we have the ability to forge our own destiny.

The story of creation we read of this week in Genesis 1:1-6:8 is a story of beginnings and creative inspiration, and all of this transpires within the creation that has already occurred – the divine Creator creates more than once. God as Creator forms the first human body from the unformed earth, blowing a living breath into it to form a soul. A help mate, Eve, is then formed for Adam. Moving from a state of radical loneliness to begin building community happens in relationship. But not all beginnings bode well or even last, and creation begins again with Noah, a righteous man alone in a corrupt world.

Are the end and the beginning of these episodes in the human condition "always there"? If so, what does this teach us about the way we wander and dwell in the here and now? I suggest that God offers us the opportunity to begin again by becoming a goy kadosh ("holy body") not only at Sinai (in the Book of Exodus), but also at the beginning of each year's Torah cycle – we have this opportunity for real growth.

Whether we live up to the challenge and take hold of Torah in our lives is really our choice – and our destiny. Each of us has the potential and creative power to harness a renewed covenantal relationship with our kehillah kedoshah, our sacred community at CBS. May this year give us all another opportunity to join and deepen our relationships to each other as we take hold of Torah – once again at the beginning everafter...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by one of the best known lines in the Torah. "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." (Genesis 1:3) The image was created with both the Kabbalistic creation story (the nitzotzot, or sparks of the divine) and prevailing cosmological theory (the Big Bang) in mind. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ilan Salomon-Jacob's Bar Mitzvah

facebook_ilanShalom, my name is Ilan and I’m in the 8th grade at the San Francisco School. I enjoy playing sports, making videos, composing music digitally, and playing drums on my own or in my band. I also like talking, laughing, and hanging out with friends.

My bar mitzvah is this coming Shabbat and, to be honest, I have a whole swarm of butterflies in my stomach! I am very excited to share this day with my family, friends, and members of the congregation.

I will be chanting Torah from Parashat Beraysheet. In it, God creates the heavens and the Earth, along with all living beings, in six days. God then takes a day of rest. On one of those days, God creates Adam and Eve, the first humans, and puts them in the Garden of Eden. When they disobey God’s orders, they are cast out. They have two children named Cain and Abel who don’t get along so well. Cain is jealous and kills Abel. The parsha ends with a recounting of many generations of descendants, and God is unhappy with the actions of many of them. It finishes on a positive note, however, as God finds hope in a man named Noah.

I would like to thank my family for being supportive throughout this process. I would also like to thank my tutor, Marilyn Heiss, for teaching me how to chant Torah, and Rabbi Glazer for helping me write my d’var Torah. Lastly, I would to thank the Beth Sholom community for always welcoming me and making me feel at home.

Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1-6:8

Jan_Brueghel_de_Oude_en_Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Het_aards_paradijs_met_de_zondeval_van_Adam_en_EvaIn attempting to capture the fleeting nature of creative genesis, T. S. Elliot (1888 - 1965) once famously wrote in The Four Quartets:

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.


This week, the story of creation we read in Genesis 1:1-6:8 is a story of beginnings. Much like the painter, the poet, and the musician struggle with the fleeting nature of creative inspiration and the creation that ensues, so too the divine Creator creates more than once. Like a potter shaping sculptural works from clay, the Creator forms the first human body from the unformed earth and then breathes into it in order to bring the soul into being. From this state of radical loneliness, a help mate, Eve, is formed for Adam.

In the Garden of Eden, everything is given, the only caveat being the command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The ascent and descent of humanity can be traced back to this moment of choice: to eat or not to eat from the forbidden fruit? Rather than achieving eternal life from the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve make a choice that results in their being banished from the Garden, and humanity's forever experiencing death and mortality -- the human body inevitably returning to the earth.

The narrative continues with the human condition extended through progeny. The sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel leads to many more such conflicts in Genesis; more immediately, it leads to the first murder, and the perpetrator, Cain, becomes a rootless wanderer. The third son of Adam and Eve, Seth, leads eight generations to his descendant, Noah. Creation begins again with Noah, a righteous man, alone in a corrupt world.

Read with these ascents and descents in mind, one wonders if the end of humanity, its destruction in the flood, and recreation thereafter is all inscribed in the beginning moment of creation? Are the end and the beginning of these episodes in the human condition “always there” and, if so, what does this teach us about the way we wander and dwell in the here and now? Let us consider the artistry of living amidst the endings “always there” in each new beginning this year.

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: "The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man," by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1615

Listen to the audio file of this d'var Torah below!
[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TorahByte_ParshaBeraysheet_5776.mp3"][/audio]