We have danced, celebrated, fasted, and prayed for weeks, as we entered the High Holidays, moved through them, and now truly begin our Jewish new year. This Shabbat, we begin reading the Torah again with the first chapters of Genesis, parashat Bereishit.
We read of the beginnings of the universe, the world as we know it, and the human condition. Einstein believed that the universe is not a defined, static thing, but that it continues to expand. Our Sages taught us that creation renews itself every day, and that the creative elements God embedded into the universe will always renew. Our worlds of science and faith are both telling us that nothing around us stands still – everything moves toward growth and expansion.
With that in mind, we do not read the book of Genesis again, we read it anew. It has new things to tell us, unique perspectives we haven’t heard before. The entire Torah begins with the word ‘Bereishit’ – ‘in the beginning’. It begins with the letter ‘b’ (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Our commentaries point out that it would be more appropriate to begin the Torah with the first letter, ‘a’ (aleph). One reason is to show that there is always something more to know, something that pre-exists, something connected with ‘a’ (aleph) that is hidden and inviting us to explore. But the Torah must begin with the second letter because we know we are entering a process that is already moving forward.
Though we are careful not to read Torah searching for endings – we engage with Torah as we search for beginnings. Each person finds their unique starting place, knowing there is so much that exists before them – before anything they recognize. The goal is not to unlock a mystery of the past, it is to courageously step in and enter the expansion.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
I, like most people in the world at this moment, am spending more time at home. One of the things I’m doing is cleaning out closets and looking in old boxes that have been stored away. In one of those boxes, I came across a gift I had given my husband on our first anniversary. It was a mirror for his keychain. One side had the mirror, but the other side had the gift: the message I wanted to communicate. It said: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was going to blame you.”
Over the anniversaries, I have continued to gift my husband little mementos of my ‘truths’. For a few years he liked white chocolate, but I would buy him dark chocolate and leave it in his pocket with a note that white chocolate is really chocolate that is confused about its self-identity and I could not support such thinking. He has since developed a taste for dark chocolate.
I also found a small wooden plaque in the box that says: “I love you more today than yesterday –yesterday you really ticked me off!’ I’m a strong believer in clear communication.
Anniversaries are often celebrated as milestones of past events, markers of history. But, they can also be opportunities of focused growth and insight beyond what we thought we knew from before. Reading the Torah every week is no different.
This Shabbat, we start reading the Torah again from the beginning with parshat Bereishit. Genesis, the beginning, Adam, Eve, snake, trees, disobedience and accountability are all introduced to us as we learn of the human condition. Yet, when we look closely at the text, we start to notice that certain details are missing that we all assumed were there.
We usually understand that God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Except, Eve wasn’t created when God forbid eating from that tree, only Adam was commanded not to do that. Maybe, we assume, what’s commanded for one is commanded for all, except Jewish law doesn’t work that way. Also, the commandment to be fruitful and multiply was given to Adam before Eve was created and Jewish law holds that for that reason men are commanded to have children while women are not. That’s why the legal Jewish discussion surrounding birth control always asks whether we are discussing it for a man or for a woman, since they do not have equal obligation to that commandment. In other words, if the commandments before Eve was created are only obligatory on Adam, why do we assume Eve broke a commandment by eating from the Tree of Knowledge?
We not only assume she broke the commandment, we go further and lay ALL the blame on her. She brought death into the world, since God said that the day Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge he will die. Over time, this idea gets linked to a woman’s menstruation — she will have a monthly reminder that it is because of her that blood is shed in this world. There are some communities that slap a young girl across the face when she has her first period. Let me be clear, there is no justification for this within Judaism, but young girls have been slapped across the face globally, and within various faith and secular communities, for generations. The shame of spilling blood has been branded onto the cheeks of girls in a horrible custom of blame.
Interestingly, Adam was told that because he ate the fruit, he would have to toil the earth for food, but there’s no custom to hit a man in the face when he brings in his first harvest. Somehow, Eve has been held as more accountable than Adam even though she never received that particular ‘thou shalt not’ in the first place.
The constant blame attached to the woman would lead us back into the text to see if, perhaps, Eve was as guilty as history has made her. The Torah states that when God responded to Adam, Eve and the snake for what each had done, God is very specific with only Adam and the snake. God tells the snake: “because you have done this thing”, and God tells Adam: “because you ate of the tree”, but when God addresses Eve, there is no mention of what exactly she has done. There is no ‘because you…’ statement addressed to Eve, she is just told of the changes that will now occur. It is informational not accusatory. The Torah has neither obligated the woman, nor punished her, for anything specific that happened in the Garden, but throughout time, millions upon millions of girls are taught to pay Eve’s price and bear her shame.
In fact, if we’re looking for who to blame for all of it, it seems no one is ready to accept accountability for anything. When asked what happened, Eve tells God that the snake enticed her. The snake isn’t asked anything, he’s already proved himself a liar, and you don’t ask a proven liar to testify to anything since you are setting them up to lie again–that’s on you. When Adam is asked what happened, he tells God that ‘the woman YOU gave me…’ which is an incredibly bold way of saying that, in fact, the whole thing is God’s fault since it was God’s idea to create Eve, who was enticed by the snake, who was also God’s idea. So, if God’s looking for someone to blame…
We thought we knew that story inside and out. Adam and Eve eat, are punished, are exiled and we learn about sin, repentance and accountability for our actions from then on. Except, the Torah never says they sinned, it isn’t blaming Eve for anything, no one is accepting any accountability and the only one humanity blames for anything is God. Exactly which story did we think we knew?
We live in a world that fills us with ideas, traditions, artwork and ‘truths’ that claim to be from the Bible. The first chapters of Genesis contain one of the most commonly known narratives in Torah and yet, on close reading, it might not be saying what we thought all along. Starting to read the Torah from Genesis this Shabbat is the Jewish anniversary of our Torah study year. It is not an anniversary where we hit ‘repeat’ to read it again, it is the anniversary to read it anew.
If you would like to learn more about this story in the Torah and Rachael’s commentary on what truly took place, consider taking The Garden of Eden: The Best of Times and The Worst fo Times. The next course begins Tuesday November 3rd. More information on our Learning Page.
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!