The Rabbi's Column
Don't Let the Light Go Out - February/March 2020 - Creation Day 4
God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times - the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.: and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day. [Gen.1:14-19, New JPS Tanakh].

When asked to list what is created on each day of creation, the fourth day is the one that stumps most people. After all, light is created on the first day, so how is it that the things which create (or, to be completely accurate - create or reflect) light - the sun, moon, and stars - are not created until day four£  Our scientific understanding seems to rebel against this idea - there cannot be light without sources.  Yet, those who try to squish the Biblical story into our latest cosmological theories posit that the creation of light is the big bang, and only later does matter coalesce into stars, planets, satellites, etc.  As we have seen in the whole story of creation, sometimes order can emerge - bit by bit - from chaos.

In our synagogue innovation, we often travel along the same path.  Many times, an innovation that has become a signature of our Temple Sholom community - the trimester/family track program, sunset kabbalat shabbat, that our Hebrew School goal is to help our students become “leaders of meaningful (Reform) Jewish worship”, and others - come from the sudden burst of a great idea or revelation, that then takes time to coalesce into the reality that becomes the change in our community.  Contrary to the universe, however, there are many more big bangs then there are suns, moons, and planets in our congregational stellar system.  That happens for many reasons. Sometimes brilliant ideas do not seem so brilliant upon reflection. Many times, the ideas are beyond the resources of our congregation - whether that resource be staff time, program space, or funds.  Too many times what keeps those possible new stars from forming is not the lack of substance, but our inability to bring together the right group of congregants to bring that idea into our firmament.

When congregants join our congregation, we still ask in what areas they are interested in engaging.  In our old model, we would forward names to committee chairs, who would reach out and invite new members to committee meetings. In our new governance model, we have less standing committees and more limited time task forces to accomplish programs and tasks.  The lack of regular structure does not lend itself toward the regular influx of new members.  Sometimes that means new congregants fail to ignite, and our programs sputter for lack of fuel.

We need to commit from both sides - from current leadership and from engaged congregants.  Leadership needs to find ways to better reach out for new involvement, and congregants need to not only be open and looking for such opportunities, but ready to jump when the opportunity arises.  People often say that they come to join our congregation because of what they have heard - because of the light that we give from afar.  Once they are a part of the community, we often fail to discern the general glow from all the orbs that radiate and reflect.  Our job is to help make a little order out of that chaos; to keep the light glowing by each of us choosing a flame or two to tend.

Send an e-mail or call the office - let us know where you would like to help. We will try to do our part to help structure that energy into the light that warms and nurtures us all.

Show Your Work - December 2019/January 2020 - Creation Day 3
God said, “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” and it was so. God called the dry land “earth”, and the gathering of waters, God called “seas”. And God saw that this was good. And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed bearing plants of every kind, and  trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.  [Gen. 1:9-13 New JPS Tanakh]

Biblical scholars note that one of the reasons for the precision of the Genesis chapter one story of creation is to differentiate Jewish culture, and its foundational stories, from the surrounding cultures.  In the Mesopotamian creation story, the goddess Tiamat (like the Hebrew word tahom - the deep mentioned in Torah) is killed by the god Marduk, who creates the earth from her remains. Human beings sprout up as the body deteriorates.  Our Biblical story is not only more focussed on the intentionality of the world’s creation, by a single divinity, but also puts forth a story of order, to counter the chaos that came before.  Each day has its specific category of creation, and the second three days echo the first three  - light on day one; sun and moon on day four; heaven and seas on day two, and fish and birds on day five; land and grasses on day three, and animals and humans on day six.  That one day builds on the next is evidence of order.  Order is evidence of planning and intention.

On the third day, plants are created - each according to their kind, and with their own seed included.  Each plant is created with the ability to reproduce itself.  There is no concept of evolution - necessary things come to be and then will always be, as planned at the beginning.  For people living in a chaotic world, order and intention are a comfort.  It is harrowing to imagine that planting a peach pit might yield an apple tree or a banana bush.  We want to know the end result, before we start off at the beginning.

We are so desirous of knowing the end of things, because life so often throws us twists and turns.  We may enjoy surprises - but really only good surprises.  We are much happier knowing there is a prize in the CrackerJack box, then imagining the fictional Harry Potter’s Bertie Bott’s jellybeans that may be delicious, or may be disgusting.  In a discussion the other day, an agnostic said that they were quite comfortable with not knowing the answers, and that trying to imagine God really existed was difficult.  I responded that God is the concept that we put in as the answer, for whatever question it is that plagues us.  We wish that, like our childhood math books, the answer is at the back, so that eventually we can just figure out if we are right or wrong.  The most annoying thing in math class was that our teachers always insisted that we show the work, when we just wanted to get to the end.

Perhaps Genesis teaches us a lesson - that God is not the answer, not the one missing piece which causes everything to make sense, but God is really in the messy scribbles that we make on the side of the page.  We would love for God to be the answer - let alone an easily accessible and understandable one, but we are closest to the Divine when we are doing the work of living, not trying to skip to the end.

It would be lovely if we knew that each thing we planted would reproduce the ideal that we had when we planted it; even that the recipes of our grandparents would turn out just like we remembered them.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.  Sometimes, they even turn out better.  But, the love and memory is not found in that fleeting moment of consuming, but in the process of remembering and reconstructing.  When we imagine engaging in the same acts as those we have loved, they (and their memories) inhabit us, so much more so than at the end.

The Torah gives us the story of creation - not just a list of what has been created.  Our job is not to be impressed by the order, but to be inspired to do the work on our own.

The Sky's the Limit - October/November 2019 - Creation Day 2
God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.” God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. God called the expanse shamayim (sky/heaven). And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. [Gen. 1:6-8, New JPS Tanakh]

When I was in rabbinic school, my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, taught us that havdalah was not the only moment of distinction marked by Judaism.  Havdalah, which means “separation”, is our acknowledgement that Shabbat is different from the other days of the week. In the last prayer of the ceremony, we mark several distinctions - between Shabbat and the other days, between that which is kadosh - holy - and that which is ordinary.  This trimester, as we explain about lifecycle events in Judaism, we talk about how life might continue uninterrupted, if we did not stop to notice differences.  I asked our Religious School faculty (teachers and madrichim - high school aides) when they became, or thought they would become, adults.  As every time when I ask this question, answers ranged from going to college, moving into a first apartment/home, having a child, when a parent dies.  We create a moment of adulthood, or at least the beginning of Jewish adulthood, with bar and bat mitzvah.  The moment is special because we have decided it is so.  We make a distinction which allows us to celebrate a process that is much longer than one moment.

A lens to understanding Judaism is that it teaches us to discern things in the world - one day from the next; one week from another, one just act from another which may be unjust.  We must learn to distinguish difference before we can make choices.  The Torah teaches us that this knowledge began when our first ancestors ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but our first story of creation is all about separation and difference. The very concept of day is created after the first separation of light from darkness.  The second day consists of a separation which is difficult for our modern cosmology - the construction of a barrier between the waters; making waters above, and waters below, separated by the heavens.  For our Biblical ancestors, there was water underneath the earth (That’s why wells work.) and water above the earth (That’s where rain comes from.)  Without a firm barrier between them, all is water - as the flood story was not just about rain, but about the waters rising up from below as well; the firmament being removed.

The kabbalistic mystics influenced by Rabbi Isaac Luria imagine that before creation, God was everywhere.  God, being perfect and therefore unchanging, had to withdraw (tzimtzum) from a portion of the universe in order to allow space for the world. Let us think about that image.  All around the world we live in is our ideal, our aspiration to the Divine.  We are separated from that aspiration by the skies above, the heaven that we imagine.  On the one hand, how frustrating to be able see perfection, but be unable to attain it.  On the other, as the poet Browning said, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for£” [Robert Browning, in the poem “Andrea del Sarto”]  There is no moment that we as human beings are satisfied that we cannot be better, do better.  Part of human nature is to be unsatisfied.  What better focus for that dissatisfaction than in striving to bring heaven to earth£

This year, as we mark another cycle around the sun, five thousand, seven hundred and eighty such spins, as our text counts since that first day of creation, we can look again to the firmament - the barrier that does not keep us from the ideal, but draws us forward and upward.  The waters have been separated, not to remove us, but to inspire.  Let us look up and be inspired.

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