Hope you had a great week and a great end of Sukkot.
At this point in the Jewish calendar, we start reading the Torah from the beginning again. The very first chapter of the very first book: Genesis. It is a milestone and we mark it by naming this Shabbat: Shabbat Bereishit.
We read the Torah over and over again, not because it’s ‘same old – same old’, but because we search for new perspectives on things we think we already know. We are not seeking the information, so much as we are seeking the innovation.
I thought I might explore a few things we thought we knew and maybe a few new perspectives.
It seems pretty straightforward, in Genesis, that God created man and then took a rib out and created woman. Understood that way, man is created in God’s image and woman is, quite literally, a side effect of the process. At least, that’s what it says in the English.
In the Hebrew, the word we translate as ‘rib’ is not so straightforward. There is a strong reading, in ancient Jewish texts, that translates the word as ‘side’. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai specifically describes the first human being as a two-sided, androgynous being – one side male and one side female. According to him, they were joined back-to-back and could therefore never look at the same thing in the same way at the same time. If they communicated well with each other, they would create a totality of view, if not, they would argue about what each was seeing because, in fact, they were seeing different things.
According to this reading, God puts the human to sleep and removes one side (not one rib), thereby separating male and female so they can now face each other. It creates a partnership between the genders and not a hierarchy.
Ah, the things we thought we knew. No more movies named ‘Adam’s Rib’ (one of my favourites), no more references to ‘women are from Venus and men are from Mars’ (thank God no one came from Pluto – we know what happened to Pluto…). A new perspective on dialogues that are incomplete unless both voices are recognized and heard.
Yet, once the word translates into ‘rib’, Rabbi Shimon’s opinion retreats into the quiet background.
But Genesis does not only give us the beginnings of the world, it also gives us the beginnings of religious law. The first ‘thou shalt’ (be fruitful and multiply) and the first ‘thou shalt not’ (don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge), followed by the first ‘don’t blame me’ human response.
Which brings us to the question of Judaism and the commandments.
There are 613 commandments in Judaism, with the full recognition that no one can possibly keep all 613 of them. Interesting, although we understand no one can keep them all, we still judge each other and label entire communities based on the commandments they keep. Somehow we have concluded an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ attitude toward the mitzvot, and we can’t agree on what constitutes a penny or a pound.
We expect that if a woman observes Shabbat, she shouldn’t be wearing pants. If a man puts tefillin on in the morning, he should be wearing a kippah all day. The list goes on and on (remember, 613 of these things). One of the judgmental statements I’ve heard people say about someone is that they pick and choose which commandments to keep. It is never said in a positive way.
Yet, Judaism expects us to pick and choose. Once we say we can’t do all of them, it now necessitates that we pick and choose. The ‘Code of Jewish Law’, the book that lists all the mitzvot, is a mistranslation of the book’s actual name: Shulkhan Arukh’ – the Set Table. A ‘code’ means you must adhere to everything, whereas a set table invites you to take a seat and fill your plate. Only you know what to put on your plate. If you put too much, you will overeat and make yourself sick; if you put too little, you will walk away hungry. Every now and then you will be curious to taste something new and see how it feels. Some people like to sit at the table and watch others enjoy, though they themselves choose not to eat. Judaism invites you to the table, assures you there is a seat ready for you with a set table of soulful delicacies – who could resist?
And so, we learn to pick and choose, we learn to grow and try more, or to leave something for now, knowing it is still there for later. The difference is, we should pick and choose with pride!
Judaism never describes a hypocrite as someone who keeps one commandment but not another. On the contrary, the Talmud repeatedly describes a hypocrite as someone who keeps many commandments with a false nature, or worse, for the purpose of misleading others.
According to Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, Heaven will judge those who wrap themselves entirely in their tallit. The ones who use mitzvot to isolate themselves from the suffering of others, from the world around them. That is a Jewish hypocrite.
Things we thought we knew…new perspectives on old information. Can’t wait to start reading Genesis again!