The more complicated our lives become, the more difficult it is to count our blessings. At times, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration, despair, or sorrow. We may be wracked by physical pain or unable to free ourselves from serious bouts of depression. As in this week's Torah portion, B'reishit, darkness precedes light and chaos precedes order. Metaphorically, we may have so much on our plates that we can't decide what to do first and when we do, may frequently lose focus. Sometimes I begin my day by saying to myself: "I have so much to do, I wish today were 48 instead of 24 hours." Consequently, I rush to accomplish as much as I can, often feeling harried and dissatisfied, not fully able to enjoy moments for which in hindsight, I wasn't fully present. When we begin the cycle of Torah readings each year, however, I am reminded that God's first creative act, even before God brought the sky and earth into being, was to create light. Darkness already existed on the face of "chaotic waters" (Genesis 1:2). Yet as God's spirit glided over it, God created light, choosing not to inject the light into the darkness, but rather to create it as a distinct entity which God proclaims to be good (1:3).
In many ways, Parashat Noach is filled with as many theological problems as answers. Chief among them is why after creating the world and all living things, God destroys "all that lives under the heavens" (Genesis 6:17). The reason that God gives is the "violence" or "lawlessness" (chamas) of humankind. Yet what about such godly virtues as patience, love, and forgiveness? Apparently, God possesses less of them than one might wish. Does saving Noah, his family, and a male and female of all living species in order to ensure continued reproduction make up for God's actions? Is saving them a sign of mercy or of pragmatism?
Almost 25 years after God calls Abram to leave his home in Mesopotamia and go to the land of Canaan, God formally establishes a covenant with him (Genesis 17:4ff.). Like that established with Noah, his descendants, and all living beings (9:8ff.), it is unconditional, everlasting, includes blessings and promises, and carries with it a sign decided upon by God. However, unlike the rainbow, placed in the clouds and passively received by humanity, the sign of God's covenant with Abraham — male circumcision — is something with which Abram and his descendants, not God, are entrusted. They are to circumcise their sons and other male children in their household on the eighth day after birth as a physical sign of the covenant. The punishment for failing to do so is severe. "An uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the flesh of his foreskin," says God, " … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (17:14).
Vayeira is an especially challenging and memorable Torah portion for it provides us with two very different models of what it means to live in covenantal relationship with God.
In Haazinu, Moses recites a poem telling the people of Israel that they must give glory to God and be true to God whose ways are just. He instructs them to consult their elders and “remember the days of old.”
The beautiful, melodious liturgy of Yom Kippur suggests a heavenly court in which God reviews each individual and decrees the destiny of each person for the coming year. This is powerful poetry that should make us stop and think about our lives and our behavior.
In Leviticus, we are commanded to dwell in a sukkah for one week every year “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” What does the sukkah teach us about the Jewish experience?
In B’reishit, God tells Adam he may eat the fruit of any tree but the tree of knowledge. But when Eve offers him the fruit, he eats it and then blames Eve for the transgression. Is Adam’s evasion acceptable?
Parashat Vayeilech is read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of transition for all of us. We've brought in the new year with hopes, prayers, and the shofar, and we look toward Yom Kippur, where we are tasked with letting go of the last year and moving forward.