Genesis: Learning Beginnings

And G-d said: “Let there be a firmament…”

Genesis 1:6

It is written: “Forever, O G-d, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” (It is written: “Forever, O G-d, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” (Psalm 119:89) Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, explained the verse thus: “Your word” which you uttered, “Let there be a firmament…,” these very words and letters stand firmly forever within the firmament of heaven and are forever clothed within the heavens to give them life and existence. As it is also written, “The word of our G-d shall stand firm forever” (Isaiah 40:8) and “His words live and stand firm forever.” (From the morning prayers) For if these letters were to depart even for an instant, G-d forbid, and return to their source, all the heavens would become nought and absolute nothingness, and it would be as if they had never existed at all, exactly as before the utterance, “Let there be a firmament.”

And so it is with all created things, down to the most corporeal and inanimate of substances. If the letters of the “ten utterances” by which the earth was created during the six days of creation were to depart from it for but an instant, G-d forbid, it would revert to absolute nothingness.

This same thought was expressed by the Ari (Famed kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), of blessed memory, when he said that even in completely inanimate matter, such as earth and stones and water, there is a soul and spiritual life-force – that is, the letters of Divine “speech” clothed within it which continually grant it life and existence.

-Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

One year, following the Rosh Hashanah prayers, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi asked his son, Rabbi DovBer: “What did you think of during your prayers?”

Rabbi DovBer replied that he had contemplated the meaning of the passage, “and every stature shall bow before You” (From the “Nishmas” prayer received on Shabbos) – how the most lofty supernal worlds and spiritual creations negate themselves before the infinite majesty of G-d. “And you, father,” Rabbi DovBer then asked, “with what thought did you pray?”

Replied Rabbi Schneur Zalman: “I contemplated the table at which I stood.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Wooden Thoughts”
from the “Once Upon a Chasid” series
Commentary on Torah Portion B’reisheet

“I contemplated the table at which I stood” seems an odd way to begin a commentary on Genesis and the beginning of a new Torah cycle, but it tells us something about how Jews see life and, to some degree, the differences in generations. Maybe it also teaches us something about different levels of learning. Rabbi Zalman’s son, who was undoubtedly at a relatively early stage of his education, was focused on “the most lofty supernal worlds and spiritual creations negate themselves before the infinite majesty of G-d,” which is not such a bad thing to contemplate during prayers. But why then, would his father contemplate the table at which he stood?

What was God creating at the beginning of all things?

“Firmament” has also been translated as “expanse” (JPS Tanakh, NIV Bible, ESV Bible) or “space” (New Living Translation Bible) and can also be rendered as “canopy.” Although we may think of this as “sky” or “heaven,” there is an apparent “physicality” and “permanency” to God’s creating of everything. And why should God have to create the physical and permanent? For us.

Neither Rabbi Zalman nor his son was wrong about what they were contemplating during their prayers, but this also tells us something about the nature of God, man, and this week’s Torah Portion. Heaven and Earth aren’t necessarily the separate things we consider them in Christian thought. Everything, the physical and the spiritual, are from God, so we should consider them equally as eternal (or at least extremely long lasting) gifts from our Creator.

But I mentioned before about the differences between generations and the different levels of learning. The younger learner strives to reach up to God and the spiritual realm, and the older, more experienced Rabbi, has learned to see Him, even in a wooden table. I guess that tells us to relax a little when we think we can’t see God. He’s all around us anyway and in many ways. Even in the humble wooden table we’re standing next to when we pray. However, this isn’t always the traditional experience parents, Jewish or otherwise, have when trying to pass their traditions and culture from one generation to the next.

I also am not scoring high on the Jewish parent scale these days: my older daughter, who turned 9 in August, recently decided she hates all worship services and doesn’t want to go to Hebrew school. Even though she likes her teachers. My response, for now at least, is that she doesn’t have a choice about Hebrew school, so she might as well try to enjoy it. (Yes, I know, that sounds like the horrifically insensitive comment some clueless people make about rape.)

From toddler-hood until now was like a Jewish identity honeymoon; Ellie loved Hebrew school and her only complaint about services — they are a regular part of Hebrew school each week — was that she didn’t always get called up to the bima to read.

In fact, the first year we belonged to the temple it was my younger one — then 4 — who put up a fuss about Hebrew school, wanting instead to hang out with me on Sunday mornings. But after a few months of conflict, Sophie decided she adored her teacher and the teenage assistant teachers. Two years later, she has nary an objection (although I fear I’ll jinx that now), but Ellie complains constantly.

-Julie Wiener
“Tweens and Torahs”
from her “In the Mix” series

Wiener’s experience is probably more “normal” in terms of religious parents trying to make sure their children receive a “proper education.” I imagine Christian parents have similar struggles getting their “tweens” to go to Sunday school or some Wednesday night Christian kids meeting.

Last year, for this Torah portion, I talked about rerolling the Torah scroll as, in part, a way to reset the clock and turn everything back to the beginning. In the beginning, we not only find the familiar, but we look at it in new and different ways. That’s why I can write a commentary on Genesis from one year to the next and have them be quite different from one another.

But that’s a mature attitude. For a child, it might be, “Not Genesis again,” as if they were having meatloaf for dinner the third time this week. At a certain age, when children are in-between independence and childhood, they navigate a difficult course between parental priorities and their own.

For Jews, the additional layers aren’t just the religious but the cultural. While Julie Weiner is a Jewish agnostic and thus does not transmit a strong religious tradition down to her two daughters, the fact that she is Jewish means she must transmit a strong Jewish cultural identity to her two daughters. The fact that she’s also intermarried adds another wrinkle to the fabric, but that’s what her blog is all about.

It’s also what my blog is all about. It is sometimes incredibly interesting to be intermarried. There was a time when I attended Shabbat services at the local Reform-Conservative synagogue with my wife and kids (who are all Jewish). I felt pretty out of place at the time, but in my heart, I was worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If I had it to do over again, I would have become much more involved in the synagogue community, but I wasn’t in the right place mentally and spiritually back then.

I had no intention of evangelizing or making a nudnik (pest) out of myself. I tried to fit in as best I could but it wasn’t my culture or my identity. I followed the service and spoke to God, but none of that made me a Jew and really, I wasn’t practicing Judaism. I was worshiping alongside the Jews in the congregation (and since it was Reform, I wasn’t the only non-Jew present). I was “in the mix” to borrow from Weiner’s blog, in a group fraught with “mixes,” but I still was and am a Christian.

Rolling the Torah ScrollI mentioned quite recently that I see the mission of Christianity, and particularly those Christians who have an affinity for Judaism, is to support, promote, and encourage a return to the Torah for the Jewish people in our midst. An extension of that mission is to communicate to other Christians what our mission means and how we see it fitting in to the expansive plans of God.

Julie Weiner is trying to pass down Jewish identity from her generation to her children’s. That presupposes Weiner, as a Jew, having ownership over her Jewish identity. That would seem like a no-brainer for the vast majority of people including the vast majority of Christians and Jews, but as I said before, there are some Christians out there who seem just a little confused about who is Jewish and who isn’t. That question extends outward into the larger, “What is Judaism?” which includes What is Messianic Judaism?

The answers aren’t easy, but we can start at a basic foundation. We can see that being Jewish isn’t just a “religious” thing. Wiener (remember, she’s agnostic) can take her two daughters to Simchat Torah with encouraging results.

For Simchat Torah, I dragged the whole family to services, because I remembered how much fun it had been two years earlier (we had to miss it last year), and both girls love dancing. When I was invited to carry one of the Torah scrolls around the sanctuary, I asked Ellie if she wanted to join me, assuming she’d roll her eyes and say absolutely not. To my surprise, she not only came along (eagerly trailed, of course, by Sophie) but then, when offered a small Torah scroll of her own to carry, proudly took it. To her delight, someone took a picture of her marching around the temple with the Torah. (Yes, it’s a Reform temple, we take pictures on Jewish holidays. Go ahead and judge, judgmental reader.) And she danced with gusto for the rest of the night.

There are a lot of Jews in my area who attend Erev Shabbat services at our local Reform-Conservative shul largely for social, cultural, and community reasons as opposed to “being religious” (the Saturday service is thought as “too religious” by many of the Friday night folks).

Those of us who find Jewish cultural and religious practices attractive for whatever reasons, must strive to remember that attraction does not equal ownership. Julie Wiener and her daughters own their Jewish identity, religious and otherwise, because they’re Jewish. Chances are, most of you reading this blog are not. Chances are, most of you reading this blog have no problem with not being Jewish and thus not claiming Jewish identity, either conceptually or by behavior.

We are at a beginning point in the Torah reading cycle. Jewish children are at a beginning point in understanding and establishing a Jewish identity at the levels of religion, culture, ethnicity, and spirituality. It can be very hard to grant someone something that you don’t understand. How can we give the Torah and Jewish identity back to Jews and Judaism? We may think the Bible has told us all we need to know to comprehend what it is to be a Jew, but unless we grew up in a Jewish home and were raised by Jewish parents, in a lived, experiential sense, we don’t have a clue. We just have a little knowledge and a lot of imagination.

In Genesis, God creates the world and its various components and life forms and He creates man and woman. In Abraham, He created the first Hebrew by covenant relationship. At Sinai, by covenant relationship, He created the people and the nation of Israel, who were separated in perpetuity from the rest of the nations; the rest of humanity, in order to serve God in a very, very specific way.

While we Christians were also “created” in covenant relationship to God through the blood and death and life of Jesus Christ, and we are equal in God’s heart and God’s love to the Jewish people, we are not the same as the Jewish people. How all that will work out after the Messiah comes and after all things that are supposed to come to pass, have long since come to pass, I don’t know. I just know that right now, I’m a Christian. People like Julie Wiener and my wife are Jewish. Being Jewish means a whole lot of things and maybe not exactly the same things to all Jews. On the other hand, when you’re not Jewish, it’s pretty obvious, or it should be. For kids in intermarried families, it can be confusing, but the world has done away with enough Jews over the last 3,500 years or so and we need to stop. We need to make it easier for Jewish kids with intermarried parents to recognize what it is for them to be Jewish and not “muddy the waters” for them, so to speak.

Let the Jewish children have their beginning and discover who they are. We Christians should be busy discovering who we are and then teaching that to our children. May the Jewish and Christian children one day find out who they are in relationship to each other, and may all of our generations on that day, stand before the Throne of God and worship the One.

3 thoughts on “Genesis: Learning Beginnings”

  1. Thanks, James. Thought the “most lofty supernal worlds” (as Schneur Zalman means it) are imaginations, “contemplating the table” is very significant and your post is wonderful.

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