Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bereshith 08

Tonight we begin anew our annual reading of the Torah. In the Orthodox tradition, the entire Torah is read every year, in fifty-four sedrot or portions. Today many congregations, ours included, actually take three years to read the entire Torah, reading a third of each portion, the first third in the first year, the second in the second year, etc. Either way, the Torah marks an important annual cycle, and the readings are timed to begin and end on Simchat Torah, twelve days after Yom Kippur and the conclusion of the High Holy Day season. So tonight is a beginning, and that’s probably a good thing to observe given the state of affairs that look to so many people like the end of their world.
Bereshith bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha aretz. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. What does that mean, “in the beginning?” We are told that God has no beginning and no end – in Adon Olam we sing b’li reshit, b’li tachlit – without beginning and without end, and also v’hu haya, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihyeh, b’tifara – God was, God is, God will be, glorious in majesty. So the opening of the Torah can’t mean in God’s beginning, but rather in the beginning of the world. Or it could indicate, as many scholars think, that God was a baseball fan and created the world in the big inning.
The familiar story in today’s Parshah recounts the creation of the world in six days. Again, this can’t mean what we familiarly call “days.” For one thing the Sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it can’t mean a solar day. Psalm 90 says that with God “a thousand, or even a million years are but as a day that is past.” Rather, the beginning of each period of creation is called morning, and the end evening in much the same way that we speak of “the dawn of an age” or “the evening of life.” Importantly, the order of these is “there was evening and there was morning,” and that’s why we begin our days as Jews in the evening and end them at sundown.
The other very familiar refrain in Bereshith is that with each cycle of creation God looked at what was created and called it “good.” Judaism at its source is optimistic. The world is not something at odds with God or independent of God – God did not wind the world up like a clock and then let it tick. Rather everything exists for, in, and because of God. There is a school of theology called panentheism – all in God. Don’t confuse it with pantheism – all is God. Panentheism has God pervading the universe – God is in everything and everyone and is also greater than the sum of all things. The technical terms are immanent (present) and transcendent. From this school comes the view that humanity and God are in a state of developing together – neither is finished, both are evolving or becoming – as humans strive to realize and fulfill the immanence of God – to recognize in themselves and others the divine spark, God also evolves and is fulfilled in transcendence. When both humanity and God are fully realized, the immanent will become the transcendent. In Judaism this is the Messianic Age, in Christianity it is the second coming, in Buddhism Nirvana – in every case, the unity of humanity and God is restored.
All of this is very abstract unless we tie it to our own experience, and that’s hard to do. In her account of a massive brain hemorrhage in which she temporarily lost the function of her left hemisphere, the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor describes the experience of the right hemisphere as “being at one with the universe” and uses terms like “I lost the sense of where I ended and the world began.” Her book is an eloquent description of this experience and how, as she regained full functioning of her brain, the experience became harder and harder to hold on to. You see, the left hemisphere of the brain is conceptual and logical it’s the home of both concrete and abstract thinking – in fact thinking at all, and the right brain experience can’t be fully and accurately expressed in thinking terms. It is in this right brain experience of “being at one with everything” that, I believe, the immanence of God is realized. It is there that we experience connection – connection with God, with other people, with the physical world, and with our self. It is, I contend, the primary religious experience that is then expressed via the left brain as religious teaching, and that degenerates into religious dogma, but that’s a subject for another time.
It is this oneness, this interconnectedness of all things that is the essence of Bereshith. God creates and divides – light from darkness, water from land, fish from fowl – but God pointedly does not set anything against anything else. On the sixth day, after everything including people has been created, Bereshith I, 31 says: “And God saw every thing that God had made and, behold, it was very good.” The commentary says that each created thing is “good” in itself, but when combined and united, the totality is proclaimed “very good.” One commentator said “this harmony bears witness to the unity of God who planned this unity of nature.” In Hebrew, unity is echad – as in Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. There are two words in Hebrew that translate as “one” – echad and yachid. Echad is a unity greater than its parts, as in "one+one+one is three", and as in "God is one" - not one as in "one and only," but rather a unity of multiples becoming one as, for example, a man and woman are “made one flesh” in marriage. Yachid - means individual, single, singular, as in "every single one of them", Yachid does not have the denotation of "whole" that echad has, but does mean "unique” or “singular." In the Yigdal hymn we find the phrase “echad v’eyn yachid” in reference to God – oneness without severalness.
So the first full chapter of Genesis is about the creation of this “very good” unity. In the first chapter there is only ‘good” and ultimately “very good.” We are used to thinking in opposites – if there is good, there must be bad, if there is up there must be down. And in the physical, left-brain world in which we live that is basically true, although we tend to ignore the unity of opposites – you can’t have the a front without a back, a black without a white. In the world of the first chapter of genesis this is not so – the apparency of opposition is created by the act of l’havdil – to separate. In the second act of creation, after God has created the heaven and the earth, God said “va-y’hi or” – let there be light – v’haya or – and there was light…and God divided the light from the darkness and called the light day and the darkness night.” God did not set the light in opposition to the darkness, he just assigned each to its time in the cycle of days. Was there darkness before there was light? Not possible – the light and the darkness were created together by dividing them, and each had its place.
So in this first chapter there is only good and no evil – this is the “good” of transcendence, the “good” of the primary religious experience where we experience “being at one with everything” – being part of everything and everything being a part of us. Think about it – is one part of your body better than another? Is your right arm good and your left bad? No. And when we are in touch with the immanence and transcendence of God, there is only good, no bad. It is only when the left brain comes into play that we get opposites.
In the second chapter of Genesis we have the story of Gan Aden – the Garden of Eden and Adam v’Chava – Adam and Eve, and the first instance of something other than good. God has put the fruit of one tree, in the center of the garden, off limits to Adam and Eve. The serpent, for reasons of hissss own, makes something up – if you eat that fruit you will be the equal of God because you know only good, but God knows both good and evil. We don’t have time to go into everything that is wrong with most ordinary interpretations of this simple concept, but for our purposes suffice to say that in that interaction, evil was born. Not in any act of immorality or perfidy on Eve’s part, but in the serpent’s planting the idea that there was a disconnect between God and the world – that there was something other than the purity of spirit that was inborn in Adam and Eve and that if Eve turned her back on that spirit there would be something to be gained that God had hidden from them. The traditional interpretation is that, when she ate the apple, Eve became conscious of sin and its conflict with the will of God which brought in its wake shame, fear, and the attempt to hide from God, to hide from her true nature. I think it’s even simpler than that – I think Eve discovered the distinctly human ability to pretend that we are separate from God and therefore separate from each other and from nature. In that separation lay the Fall.
There is an old, I believe Talmudic, story that says that the Messiah will come under one of two conditions – one Shabbat sees every Jew in the world observe Shabbat or when one Shabbat sees every Jew in the world fail to observe Shabbat. You see, the key is not observance, not even observance of Shabbat, it’s unity.
Shabbat Shalom.


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