Today, we begin reading the Torah – again – and so, usher in an annual cycle that we return to year after year. How can we be beginning now? Surely, life renews itself in the spring, not in the autumn? The autumn is a season of dying – in glorious shades and hues. Nevertheless, for Jews, the autumn is all about beginnings – from harat olam, the ‘birthday of the world’ on Rosh Ha-Shanah through our t’shuvah journeys urging us to ‘return’ to the true path of our lives and make a new beginning after the gates close on Yom Kippur. And then, the building of the sukkah, a make-shift hut, too flimsy to shelter us from the storms of life, reminding us that everything we build and create is like that: fragile and impermanent. Finally, we complete the cycle of Torah readings on Simchat Torah and begin again with B’reishit – Genesis.
So, here we are this Shabbat morning, preparing to read from the first parashah, the Torah portion, B’reishit. The first Creation story with which the Torah opens in Genesis chapter 1 is magnificent and majestic. Out of ‘formlessness and void’– tohu va-vohu – God summons Life, the world into existence; all its material elements; everything with the capacity of growth within it – from blades of grass and creeping swarms through creatures of the waters and the sky and the earth – including us: humanity. Save for the curious anomaly of the description of the creation of the Sun, Moon and stars on the ‘fourth day’, and the absence of our ape forbears, a Darwinian evolutionist with a penchant for poetry could not have said it better.
Of course, we may be returning to the tales of beginnings related in the Torah, but we know that we are not really beginning again. We are simply continuing with our lives, interrupted as they were for some remarkable moments during the sacred days that mark autumn each year. But let’s imagine for the sake of entering into the spirit of B’reishit, the first portion of the first Book of the Torah, which is all about beginnings, that the New Year is really a new year. Interestingly, the word for ‘year’ in Hebrew, shanah, is based on the root – Shin Nun Hei – that means, both, to ‘change’ and to ‘repeat’. It makes sense: the year goes around and around, the cycle is repeated, and yet, each New Year is a new year. The same can be said for the days of our lives: a new day is a new day. And so, even if very little seems to be changing in our lives from day-to-day, as we awake each morning to a new day, we have the opportunity of making a mini new beginning in the midst of our lives.
But how do we do this? It’s extremely hard. After all, for the most part, each day is spent dealing with so much that we feel we cannot change – on the domestic front, in our working lives. And as we grow older, the energy required to begin afresh is hampered and constrained by health issues that can make the effort involved just too overwhelming. And yet. One of the problems we face in trying to make mini new beginnings is that we tend to focus exclusively on the macro-level. When we become preoccupied with the enormity of everything around us and the massive issues that dominate our lives – Brexit, climate change, the global refugee crisis – we are likely to fail to notice refreshing signs of life on the micro-level – like the birds chirping with joy after the rain. And yet, even when we feel weighed down with our concerns about the world and our anxieties about ourselves and our loved ones, each new day promises micro-moments with the potential to lift our spirits and delight our senses – like the refreshing feel of water on our faces washing away sleep.
Most people could quote in English the first words of Torah, the opening words of Genesis chapter 1: ‘In the beginning’. Actually, the Hebrew doesn’t say that. The Hebrew is B’reishit – ‘In beginning’ not Ba-reishit ‘In the beginning’. There is no definite article: B’reishit bara Elohim eit ha-shamayim v’eit ha-aretz – ‘In beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth’. The ‘big bang’ aside, there is no time ‘back then’ we can designate as ‘the beginning’. Beginning is a process not a time. As we read in the Yotzeir blessing in the daily morning service: The Eternal One ‘renews the work of beginning continually every day’ – m’chaddeish b’chol yom tamid ma’aseih v’reishit. And so, it is with us. At any moment, at every moment, we have the possibility of engaging in beginning, and of crafting our lives anew out of our 21st-century version of tohu va-vohu, ‘formlessness and void’; the brokenness and chaos all around us.
I have a poem pinned to the noticeboard in my study at home. It’s by Marge Piercy and is called Nishmat, after the prayer that is part of the morning service: Nishmat kol-chai t’vareich et shimcha, Adonai, Eloheinu – ‘The breath of all Life shall bless Your name, Eternal One our God.’ It’s quite a long poem, but I want to quote it in full – and will end with it – because it has so much to teach us about the challenge of rising to embrace every new day – and also because, as we resume the Torah reading cycle with tales of beginnings, it may inspire us to find ways to navigate the micro- and macro-worlds we inhabit, and strive to renew our lives day by day.
Nishmat by Marge Piercy
When the night slides under with the last dimming star
and the red sky lightens between the trees,
and the heron glides tipping heavy wings in the river,
when crows stir and cry out their harsh joy,
and swift creatures of the night run towards their burrows,
and the deer raises her head and sniffs the freshening air,
and the shadows grow more distinct and then shorten,
then we rise into the day still clean as new snow.
The cat washes its paw and greets the day with gratitude.
Leviathan salutes breaching with a column of steam.
The hawk turning in the sky cries out a prayer like a knife.
We must wonder at the sky now thin as a speckled eggshell,
that now piles up its boulders of storm to crash down,
that now hangs a furry grey belly into the street.
Every day we find a new sky and a new earth
with which we are trusted like a perfect toy.
We are given the salty river of our blood
winding through us, to remember the sea and our
kindred under the waves, the hot pulsing that knocks
in our throats to consider our cousins in the grass
and the trees, all bright scattered rivulets of life.
We are given the wind within us, the breath
To shape into words that steal time, that touch
like hands and pierce like bullets, that waken
truth and deceit, sorrow and pity and joy,
that waste precious air in complaints, in lies,
in floating traps for power on the dirty air.
Yet holy breath still stretches our lungs to sing.
We are given the body, that momentary kibbutz
of elements that belong to frog and polar
bear, corn and oak tree, volcano and glacier.
We are lent for a time these minerals in water
and a morning every day, a morning to wake up,
rejoice and praise life in our spines, our throats,
our knees, our genitals, our brains, our tongues.
We are given fire to see against the dark,
to think, to read, to study how we are to live,
to bank in ourselves against defeat and despair
that cool and muddy our resolves, that make us forget
what we saw we must do. We are given passion
to rise like the sun in our minds with the new day
and burn the debris of habit and greed and fear.
We stand in the midst of the burning world
primed to burn with compassionate love and justice,
to turn inward and find holy fire at the core,
to turn outward and see the world that is all
of one flesh with us, see under the trash, through
the smog, the furry bee in the apple blossom,
the trout leaping, the candles our ancestors lit for us.
Fill us as the tide rustles into the reeds in the marsh.
Fill us as the rushing water overflows the pitcher.
Fill us as light fills a room with its dancing.
Let the little quarrels of the bones and the snarling
of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego cease.
Let silence still us so you may show us your shining
and we can out of that stillness rise and praise.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
26th October 2019 – 27th Tishri 5780
The Yotzeir (‘Creator) – known by the first word of the blessing that differentiates it from other blessings – is the first of two blessings that precede the Sh’ma in the morning service. According to the notes in Siddur Lev Chadash, (Liberal Judaism, 1995, p. 666), the sources of the blessing are found in the Mishnah: B’rachot 1:4 and in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 CE), tractates B’rachot 11a-b, 12a and Chagigah 12b. The first liturgical version of the prayer is found in Seder Rav Amram, I, 20 (by Amram ben Sheshai, c. 860 CE, Babylonia. Ed. Daniel Goldschmidt, 1971). ↑
The Art of Blessing the Day. Poems on Jewish Themes by Marge Piercy. Five Leaves Publishing, 1998, pp. 115-117 ↑
According to the notes in Siddur Lev Chadash, (Liberal Judaism, 1995, p.670), the sources of Nishmat are found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractates B’rachot 59b, P’sachim 118a and Ta’anit 6b – inspired by biblical verses found in Psalms 35:10 and 103:1. The first liturgical version of the prayer is found in Seder Rav Amram, II, 21. ↑