One of the gifts I receive as a rabbi is to live and work with the full spectrum of humanity. In the morning, I play with toddlers on the floor and by noon I’m teaching a class to retirees. In the afternoon, I’m with adolescents teaching prayers or ethics, and in the evening I’m having a drink with young professionals. That’s just my Tuesday. There’s a real privilege I feel in experiencing the entire range of human experience on an almost daily basis. I see joy and pain. I see triumph and failure. I see spring awakenings and autumnal enervation. We live all at once, simultaneously careening into and out of life. Even in maturity life is inchoate. Emerging. Evolving. Becoming. It is a gift to see and feel the emotional and spiritual tapestry that make up the whole of life.
From out of the depths of life, immortal questions come to the surface. They might sound different at different times in life, but the questions are everlasting. Like the times when I was with a class singing about dinosaurs who happen to like making Shabbat and out of nowhere I get the question, “If God created the world, then who created God?” Whoa. Or when I’m sitting in our youth center at Valley Beth Shalom and a tenth grader looks at me from under her blue bangs and asks, “Who cares where this really comes from, I mean, it’s just a bunch of stories, right?” Or when an elderly gentleman asks me over a tuna sandwich, “I lived a good life, but how do I know if I made the right choices, you think God cares?” That’s just my Tuesday. Ultimately these immortal questions, clothed in different generations, comes down to the same unyielding question:
“Where does it all begin?”
We all love origin stories. It seems the best movies today are less about the hero’s journey of good overcoming evil, but where does the hero (or villain) come from. The new sequel is a prequel. That’s because beginnings matter. They frame our outlook and help us to tell the rest of the story. Perhaps now more than ever. With the absolute overload of information, the diminishment of objectivity, the attack on science and facts (let alone truth itself) we are yearning for a grounding – a place to plant our feet, a place to begin. In a world as rudderless as ours is today, our souls are begging for direction. If you can understand how something gets started, then you can understand what the road ahead might look like.
Which means that the first question, is never really the first question. “Where does it all begin?” is braided in the psyche to “How then, shall I live my life?” You can’t separate the view of the past from the experience of the present nor a plan for the future. It’s all one.
This week we begin again. The Torah is read in cycles from Genesis to Deuteronomy and back again. There is only a break of mere seconds between the last lines of the Torah and first – not even long enough to catch our breath from dancing. We could easily see chaos in that moment – a spiraling of meaninglessness that leads us to nowhere. Like the Greek mythical figure Sisyphus who forever pushes a boulder up a hill, a fixed reading cycle leads us in a useless direction. There are those who probably believe that such an image fits the historic moment in which we find ourselves.
Except, it’s precisely this kind of world, our moment in history, that meets the purpose of Torah itself, especially the Book of Genesis. More than any other book, Genesis creates the names for things, places and people. It is the prequel of prequels. Genesis attempts to tell the story of how we got to where are, and what we should know about being alive. It is an answer to the immortal question.
While the Torah is not science, it does not make what we find in it any less important. Jewish commentators have long recognized this truth that Torah does not begin with science. The process of creation in the Torah is not algorithmic. (Water exists in the first verse but is not created until the second day; light exists in the first verse but is not created until the fourth day.) The commentator Rashi, living in the 11th century (four hundred years before the Copernican Revolution) knew that the creation story was not science. He said, “The text teaches us nothing about the exact sequence of things” (Rash, Gen. 1:1) The Torah is not a scientific textbook. It’s life’s textbook.
The Torah begins with something prior to science. It begins at the beginning of the beginning. Before creation, before night and day, land and sea, the Torah begins with something very special and sacred. All things flow from it. While It’s not really stated clearly, the very beginning is there. It floats on the parchment right before the very first word, fluttering above the very first letter.
The Torah begins with an incendiary choice.
The existence of the Bible is itself a choice made by God and by us. It did not have to be written. The world could go on without it. Writing down these stories about our universe and our people was a choice made long ago. Against the chaos of the world, they chose to create a work of stunningly majesty and art. In Genesis itself the same theme is reflected when God looks out at the void and sees chaos. There is no up or down, there is no right or wrong – there is no purpose to it all. God is alone, and yet chooses to do something about it. God pulls the light out the dark (Genesis 1:3), pushes back the oceans, and calls out to the bubble of the world that what God is doing is indeed tov, good. (Gen. 1:4)
From the very outset, God looks out at the nothingness says there should be something more to life than just what is. Life as it unfolds naturally is not enough. You cannot find meaning inside of a meaninglessness world. You cannot find goodness inside the swirl of chaos. God decides in the most radical way to make the incendiary choice. Out of the darkness of the void, God chooses to light up the world – To create meaning and create goodness. The Torah begins, even before a word is written, sung or read, with an incendiary choice to light it all up.
“Where does it all begin,” is answered simply by stating that it begins with you. It begins with me. It begins with the godly choice to create a moral life filled with meaning, caring, kindness and spirit. God’s choice is indeed our choice at this very moment. Every one of us can see a world filled with violence and darkness, but it is our job to make the incendiary choice that sets the foundation for how to live. When we begin again, our very first act of partnership with God is to make the choice to look out at the darkness and vastness of the void and to light up the world by saying “Let there be light.”
i enjoyed your article greatly. It is hard for us human beings to think and understand that an entity may have no specific beginning or ending. But we experience this concept regularly, by reading Torah again and again; light was mentioned in Torah before light was created. May be the concept we should focus on is the cycles (breath, day, week, month, year, solar cycle), spiritual cycles. We can try to go deeper in Torah, learn and practice it more every time we read it. Every year we can try to become a better person. As long as there is growth, there is continuous youth.
Although Torah is not science, the more we understand science, the more we see that Statements in Torah align perfectly with scientific knowledge. Of course it would! Because the scientific rules that keep the organelles, receptors of a cell healthy and functioning inside a cell membrane, interacting with microorganisms or cells from other organ systems outside of the cell (synergistic, hostile or neutral) are similar to the rules that allow nations live side by side peacefully. The moral rules described in Torah may be similar to the cytoplasm inside a cell that keeps the cell together, moral rules may be similar to the biochemical rules that govern the functioning of different parts of the cell (mitochondria, ribosomes, signaling molecules, receptors, flagella etc).
So having a beginning or ending may be irrelevant. But a healthy, happy and long life may depend on all of us following the (moral) rules and the life rules in Torah. Being kind, understanding, sharing, reading, thinking, family, self control, hygiene, diet etc. We may need to change the way we structure life/society to make it easy to follow the rules.
Human beings follow the moral rules through consciousness. It does not happen instinctively. Therefore mental health is critical. When our consciousness is bombarded with external signals (media), many of which are manipulative and are not real, it becomes more difficult to follow the rules. This makes it more difficult to live a healthy, happy life. it makes it more difficult for nations to live in harmony internally and with each other externally. It makes it more difficult for human beings to live in harmony with nature.
This also increases the people’s need for rules. Torah and religious organizations are needed even more now to guide the people and help them live a moral (harmonious) life by the rules. Unfortunately, other institutions emerge to close the gap and they provide rules, but the rules they promote do not intend to support the harmony. They are not moral. This is very similar to a metastatic cancer cell which changes the environment it moves into to promote its own growth. If the metastatic cancer cell continues to grow unchecked, the organ system it moves into will die (liver or lung failure) and that will lead to the death of the person. So it is also not a question of how do I live “me” but it is a question of how do we all live, “all of us”.
Following the rules does not mean that one should not think, or change is not allowed. “Moral” rules emphasize kindness and kindness happens not unidirectional but it has to be 360 degrees and both directions.