Tag Archives: Genesis

#TieBlog #Beresheet

8 Oct
It all starts here...

It all starts here…

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Tapping into “Adam II” on Shemini Atzeret

4 Oct
Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Over the next several days the various Nobel Prizes will be announced, so I thought it would be worthwhile to refresh our memories of the origins of the Prize. Alfred Nobel made his vast fortune after he invented dynamite. Initially, it was used to build railroads, but it wasn’t long before it was used for military purposes. In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. In one of the most infamous journalistic errors, newspapers carried the obituary of Alfred with the headline: “The merchant of death is dead.” The story described Nobel as a man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Alfred Nobel was stunned to read this account of his legacy and set aside most of his estate to create the five Nobel Prizes that highlight peaceful advancements for humanity.

Alfred Nobel’s revelation relates closely to the theme of a recent book The Road to Character, by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He opens the book: “Recently, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.”

Brooks is inspired by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in which he contrasts two opposing sides of human nature that he derives from the first two chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, we meet humanity on the move, assisting God in the creation of the world. Rav Soloveitchik called this Adam I. In modern terminology, Brooks renames Adam I is  “Résumé Adam,” the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature that seeks to build, create, produce and discover things.” In contrast, there is Adam II, derived from the character by that name whom we meet in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. Adam II is internally focused. Adam II seeks a serene, inner character, a sense of integrity in the face of life’s moral dramas. Adam II will never admit it, but he (or she) cultivates the positive attributes that will appear in his or her eulogy or obituary. We, the descendants of Adam, live in the contradiction between the outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam.

Brooks argues that our current generation’s ethos is more heavily weighted to Adam I. In this mindset, “[i]nput leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest….Impress the world.” Adam II lives by a different mindset, a moral logic. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.” Brooks adds: “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”

Brooks laments that our society today has lost touch with Adam II to a large extent. Prior generations spent more time cultivating character and eulogy virtues, while our generation is heavily tilted towards résumé virtues.

Like Soloveitchik, Brooks advocates a balanced approach to the duality of human nature, and laments that we as a society have lost our way.  “The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied with the struggle to achieve.” (p.259) Using Google, Brooks discovered that the language of economics in books and publications has increased, but words having to do with morality and character have declined.  Words like conscience, virtue, bravery, gratitude, and kindness are all down over 50% over the course of the 20th century.  We are losing the language to talk about values, and we can’t nurture Adam II without it.

Brooks calls those who confront their imperfections “moral realists.”  They are aware of their flaws and strive to improve.  This is in accord with Jewish wisdom that teaches:

איזהו גיבור?  השמח בחלקו “Who is a hero?  The one who conquers his weakness.” (Avot 4:1)  Indeed our heroes such as Moses, David, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Esther, and other biblical characters had to cope with their insecurities and ultimately overcome them, making them our role models.  Jewish Heroism lies in the work of Adam II.

Our gathering today on Shemini Atzeret is an opportunity to reflect on the Adam II side of our character. Shemini Atzeret is prone to get lost in the shuffle of the fall holidays. Our holiday today follows the high drama of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the pageantry of Sukkot. Outside of Israel, the revelry of Simhat Torah is postponed until tonight and tomorrow.  Sh’mini Atzeret seems more like a way station than a destination.

The midrash explains Shemini Atzeret as an opportunity to look inward. It’s a call to tap into our Adam II. Commenting on the designation of this holiday as “atzeret” the rabbis understood it in the sense of stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.’”

The midrash is both simple and profound. We spend all of the High Holidays and Sukkot reaching out to God, asking for forgiveness, for redemption, for life itself. We want to carry on with our lives of building and creating. Along comes Shemini Atzeret to remind us that God seeks an intimate relationship with us. This text complements another midrash that explains the sacrifices over the seven days of Sukkot as honoring the seventy nations of the world. In contrast, on Shemini Atzeret, the sacrifice honors the special relationship between God and Israel. For seven days we’re hobnobbing with the other nations, each showing off to God their greatness. Today, we confront God directly, and in so doing we confront ourselves.

Sh’mini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. If the other holidays this month up until today have been Adam I, outward focused days, today is about Adam II. It is inward-focused.

Tomorrow, when we begin reading the Torah anew, we will read the creation story. The operative verb of Genesis 1 is bara—God creates. So too, Humanity creates. That is Adam I, and it is a necessary part of life. However, tomorrow’s reading ends with Shabbat. God ceases creation. Shabbat redirects attention from the outside to within. The verses describing Shabbat are the prelude to Adam II, the inner-focused aspect of humanity.  We need Adam II to ground our actions in the moral character that we hope will burnish our legacy. When we tap into our Adam II, we create a more intimate relationship with God that molds us into the kind of people we ought to be.

Perhaps it is the image of divine-human intimacy that spurred our tradition to add Yizkor to this holiday. We miss our departed loved ones. We miss the meaningful relationships that they created with us. We miss the quality time that we spent with them on Shabbat and Festivals and other times when we just enjoyed each other’s company. When they died, we realized that their résumé virtues did not matter so much. What mattered most were their eulogy virtues—their kindness; their character; their integrity. On Shemini Atzeret, we remember our loved ones for these essential qualities, and we miss them terribly as a result.

May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to nurture our character so that we may bring God’s presence into the world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers

9 Jan
"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain's protestation into the essence of Judaism.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain’s protestation into the essence of Judaism.

(This D’var Torah was inspired by a D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins at JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, January 8, 2015)

As we begin reading the book of Exodus, it’s fitting to review one key aspect of the previous book, Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis. Normative Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not have a concept of original sin. We are all born with a clean slate, and we have free will to do good or evil and shape our destiny. Further, one can argue that Adam and Eve should not really be considered to have committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit because 1) They didn’t hurt anyone; 2) God bears responsibility for planting the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the first place; 3) How could God have NOT desired that humans understand the difference? As far as the direction of the Torah and Jewish tradition is concerned, the first real sin in the Torah is when Cain kills Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answers: לא ידעתי–I don’t know–השומר אחי אנוכי Am I my brother’s keeper?

Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis. There is terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, even if it is not physically violent. Brothers are not kind to brothers, sisters are not kind to sisters and brother are not kind to sisters, such as Laban treating his sister Rebecca like a piece of chattel to sell for a significant sum. Simeon and Levi’s response to Dina’s liaison with Shechem–they’re not protecting her, they’re protecting their honor through horrific violence. One chapter after another, generation after generation, and our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers.

Then, suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He relents. He says אני יוסף אחיך–I am Joseph your brother. He welcomes them into his palace in Egypt. This is the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history. Genesis closes with siblings serving as shomrim, guardians for one another.  Genesis begins with a question–will siblings guard one another?After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is finally yes.  This resolution sets the stage for the opening of Exodus.

A new Pharaoh arises who enslaves the Israelites and afflicts them with pain. Despite the pain, the Israelites are not broken. As the narrative zeroes in on one family, we see a reason why. An infant Moses is guarded closely by his sister Miriam until he is safely in the care of Pharaoh’s daughter. An adult Moses is called upon by God to lead the people out of bondage. He’s terrified and tries mightily to avoid the task. God tries to impress him with a fiery bush not consumed by fire. God turns Moses’s staff into a snake and turns his hand white as snow only to cure it just as instantly. God presents one final ace in the hole: Moses won’t be alone. His brother Aaron will be by his side to help. Only then Moses goes forward.

Exodus presents a new model. Siblings are each others’ keepers. They support one another and care for each other. The Torah is making a powerful statement. Sibling rivalry is natural. However, when siblings are there for one another, other people who are not biological siblings are more capable of looking out for one another. Indeed, a nation is born. When a nation of disparate tribes comes together, they have the capacity to enter a covenant with God.

The power of brotherhood, sisterhood or, if you will, siblinghood is as real for us today as it was for our ancestors. This weekend we join with people of good will of all faiths and persuasions in abject horror over the brutal terrorist attacks in France this week. The massacre of at least 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the apparent murder of at least four at a kosher market in a related incident on Friday remind the world that the   depravity of militant Islam knows no bounds. Every time a horrific incident like this occurs, whether in Israel, Europe, the U.S. or anywhere, we hope that maybe, just maybe, the world will finally understand the Torah’s teaching that we are all created in God’s image and that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. After all, what does it take for the world to get it?

It is easy to fall into despair when we observe such evil and horrendous violence in our world. To a large measure it’s beyond our control, and we feel powerless. And yet, time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring loving kindness into the world.

This weekend, our community is celebrating a historic moment in the life of our congregation. We honor the trust, the fellowship, the sense of responsibility to the Jewish people that brought together two congregations, Temple Torah and Temple Emeth, to form one vibrant congregation, Temple Torat Emet. Our new name means the Torah of truth, a powerful phrase that is found throughout our liturgy, including the second blessing we say in a Torah aliyah. How do we discover the truth of the Torah? By acting as guardians of our brothers and sisters as we see in today’s Torah reading.

Our new venture as Temple Torat Emet came about through courage, trust and a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish people. Our success in the future depends on choices we make based on the Torah’s guidance. As a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community, our task is to create a sense of caring for one another as if we are all brothers and sisters. Let us build a community in which we see one another, listen to one another, rejoice with one another, and, when necessary, weep with one another. We must ensure that all activities in our building are conducted with dignity and respect. At every service and program, we must remember the higher purpose to which we are called in creating this sacred community. Our sense of community and fellowship must extend beyond the walls of this building and include Shabbat and holiday meals in each other’s homes where we will build true and lasting friendships.

Our world is, tragically, a vicious place. We need a refuge. We need a laboratory for goodness and loving kindness. That is what Temple Torat Emet must be for our community.  If we can model for the broader community the meaning of shemirah, looking out for one another, we will give ourselves and the world a desperately needed gift. Let me close with the words of the Psalmist:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד

“How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.”

May we be worthy of this sacred task.

 

 

#TieBlog #SimhatTorah and #Beresheet

25 Sep
On Simhat Torah we celebrate our completion of the Torah reading cycle, and we begin again--from the beginning.

On Simhat Torah we celebrate our completion of the Torah reading cycle, and we begin again–from the beginning.

It’s a #TieBlog doubleheader as we head into the last round of fall holidays. On Simhat Torah, we engage in the powerful ritual of completing the book of Deuteronomy and immediately returning to read the beginning of Genesis. I think these ties speak for themselves. Hag Sameah!