These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Start Somewhere: Parshat Bereishit 5776

Posted on October 15, 2015 by Hannah Joy

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(Cross-posted from Hannah Elovitz’s blog Finding Joy in Jerusalem:

Good Yuntiv. Just kidding. Good Shabbos.

This time of year always feels like endless new beginnings to me.

For those of us connected to the academic calendar in some way, it’s the start of a new school year. Perhaps for some of us the start of a new fiscal year, the marking of a new job, moving to a new town, or a new apartment.

And Jewishly, these past two months have been filled with endless celebrations and commemorations – I don’t need to tell you twice. We take the time to engage deeply in cheshbon nefesh (taking an accounting of our souls and our lives), thinking about the past year and how we want this new year to be different. We start with the piercing sound of the shofar every day in the month of Elul, then bring in the New Year with Rosh Hashana, spend ten days reflecting and repenting even more during Aseret Yemei Tshuva (Ten Days of Repentance), and then pray our hearts out on Yom Kippur… which is followed by Sukkot – a time of joy and a sort of coming back to reality – with the focus on the tangible world around us – through building a sukkah and bringing the arba minim (four species) together under its temporary roof, we’re reminded of just how short and fragile this life is. Finally we end with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah – where we symbolically end and begin a new torah cycle.

And then we have this shabbat. Right now. This moment. Which I would suggest is perhaps the most important one.

Finally it’s “after the holidays.” We made it through the marathon. No more holiday meals to plan, strangely broken up weeks to adjust to, and no more explaining to your boss what a Shemini Atzeret is. And also – no more excuses. All the resolutions and plans we made for this new year – now’s the time to start, right?

So where on earth do we begin? When looking at the blank page of a new year, or into an abyss or system that can feel so chaotic, how do we choose where to start?

I think Bereshit might have some hints for us:

Bereshit Bara elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Vhaaretz hayta tohu va’vohu v’choshech all pnei tehom.

And the earth was chaos and void, and darkness fell on the face of the deep. [Genesis 1:1-2]

There are many different interpretations of tohu va’vohu. Rashi says:

Chaos (tohu) and void (bohu):Tohu (chaos) is an expression of wonder and desolation that a person would wonder and be bewildered about the bohu (void, emptiness) of it.

Shadal, a 19th century Italian commentator, says that tehom (depths), comes from the same root as tohu (chaos). It’s an expression of disorientation and wonderment – specifically here describing how the entire earth was covered completely in water, and darkness, “a frightful image of desolation above and desolation below.”

While chaos and void may sound like opposites, I think they may be two sides of the same coin. Encountering something completely void and empty, like a blank word document, may be just as terrifying as encountering a system that is in complete chaos and disarray – maybe a broken system at the office, or the traffic and metro delays we face every morning getting to the office. Both may leave us feeling helpless and stuck.

It looks like Hashem was encountering the same predicament we are. A completely new world. Uncharted paths. Wonderful, and also bewildering. Where do we go from here?

First Hashem turns on the light – Vayomer Hashem Vayehi Or, Vayehi Or. And God said let there be light, and there was light.

Hashem goes on to create order and make sense out of this unformed and chaotic world, separating light from dark, the sky from the sea, creating and categorizing animals and creatures of the land and the sea, and finally creating human beings.

And after each step, God takes a moment to evaluate what He just created. When He sees that it was good, Vayar elokim ki tov, he calls it a day. Vayehi erev vayehi boker, And there was evening and there was morning – yom echad, yom sheni, yom shlishi, yom revii, yom chamishi. (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5)

And after He makes human beings – Hashem looks back at everything He created – vayar elokim et kol asher asa – and sees that it was very good, v’hineh tov meod. And God calls it THE day. Shabbat. Only the 6th and the 7th day, Yom Hashishi and Yom Hashvi’i, are referred to with the definitive article ‘hey’ before them. Hashem separates the day of rest, from the days of creation.

So, how does this all relate to us? Right now? At this very moment?

When we’re staring into the big scary unknown, a horribly broken system, the blank page of a new year – first we have to turn on the light, to gain an understanding of what we’re encountering. And then sometimes, we just have to start somewhere. It may not be tov me’od, very good, the first time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was the world. Often times we need to get that bad first draft on paper to formulate what we’re conceptualizing, so from there we can continue to mold and create what we’re ultimately hoping to achieve. Living our lives in beta, if you will.

The funny part of new year’s resolutions, is that we don’t actually need the start of a new year to create change. We have this very moment. And this one. And this one. And the next one.

And perhaps in the coming days and months when we feel like our resolutions and plans for the new year are starting to look unrealistic, or we’ve already failed, or broken them – we actually don’t need to wait until next year to start again. We can decide to change them. Right now. And perhaps that’s a more healthy way to approach resolutions. Maybe 3 weeks from now you’ll realize that your resolution wasn’t practical, or maybe actually isn’t a healthy goal for you at this time in your life. And that’s okay. We’re always changing, and so is the world and everyone around us. The ability to create, and then modify, adjust, and tweak, and then to pause and reflect, and then start the process again next week – is what’s so beautiful about being human, and partners in creation with God.

Every new moment, is a fresh start. I think this time of year, with its many holidays, beginnings and transitions, helps us to see that. But I also hope that as we get back to reality, we don’t forget that every moment, we can start anew. I hope we don’t feel like we have to stick to old patterns and scripts by which we feel compelled to live.

Just as God creates, evaluates, creates, evaluates, and sees that it’s very good, and then rests, my bracha (blessing) for us this year is for us to have the courage to remember that every moment, we can change. May we always have the courage to start somewhere, even when we know we won’t get it perfect the first time, and to continue to create, and tweak as we go, and then take the time to pause and reflect, to be proud of our accomplishments, and then, moment by moment, continue to change our lives and the world.

Shabbat Shalom.