Bereshit 5781

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman sits at a table and studies from a Braille Talmud

After a Tishrei like no other, here we are, beginning our Torah anew, just as we do every year. Bereshit, like all of the parshiyot in Genesis is filled with foundational ideas and narratives. In the opening perek/chapter, we are told that human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine. This seemingly simple idea has been understood by our sages and commentators in a variety of ways. One chief idea is that being created in the image of The Divine means that we are each endowed by Hashem with inherent dignity, value and worth, without regard to external markers of human-fashioned social hierarchies, oppressive systems and biases. No human being is created any more or any less in The Divine image. We all have within us a spark of The Divine, a spark which cannot be sullied, but yet, we also were given free will and the ability to choose whether to reveal that holy spark or conceal it. We reveal and make manifest in the world that holy spark through our interpersonal interactions, through how we treat our planet, and generally through how we choose to show up in our lives. Do we treat people with dignity and honor? Do we strive to build a better and more just world, a world in which we all can thrive? Or do we choose to conceal that spark? One cannot consume news media without hearing, seeing, or reading about the utter failure of humanity to live up to the best of who we can be.

I feel such gratitude to be a part of a spiritual tradition and lineage which does not seek to claim that human beings are perfect or above reproach. Indeed, our Holy Torah shows us repeatedly in Sefer Bereshit/the Book of Genesis and beyond that we contain multitudes—we are capable of great goodness and great evil. We return to our Torah’s narratives again and again because in every generation, they speak to us anew. The times in which we live grant us the opportunity to unearth novel insights into eternal, ancient texts.

I was drawn this year to the end of our parsha in particular. Ten Generations have elapsed between Adam, Chava and Noach. Hashem is growing increasingly frustrated with human behavior, noting that humans are wont to behave violently and lawlessly all of the time. In a collection of Agadic Midrash or narrative midrash, which are rabbinic expansions and interpretations of Biblical texts called Bereshit Raba, we are told that ours was not the first world Hashem created. Disappointed with the many other worlds created before our own, Hashem found it necessary to start over. And here again, Hashem’s disappointment is manifold. Regretting that humanity was ever created leads Hashem to bring about a totalizing flood, saving only Noach, his family and myriads of animal species of all kinds. Sometimes, change is so great, disappointment so deep that we cannot but destroy the very foundational structures that form the building blocks of how we understand our lives and the universe. We don’t like chaos, striving always for binary categorization. Our frustration, too, can cause us to lash out, destroying anyone or anything in the line of our fire.

Many of us are grappling with feelings of profound frustration, disappointment in our fellow human beings, disconnection, rage and even disgust during these days of pandemic, anxiety and unrest. That disappointment can lead us to feelings of unending despair, apathy and disaffection. In a time of tremendous change, how are we to find our footing? At a time of such a profoundly necessary societal reckoning, not to mention myriads of interpersonal reckonings and shifts in priorities, it feels for many of us like we are at a turning point, and it is time for the world to be reborn and remade a new. How do we breathe and build that world into being? Though we may resonate with Hashem’s disappointment, we must also remember that after the flood, Hashem promises, in a covenant with all of humanity, never to destroy the world like that again. We return, then, to our first teaching. That holy spark of The Divine, when revealed into the world, allows us to make manifest the absolute best of who we can be. What would it feel like to live in a world where all beings could thrive without fear? Let us take this anxious time as an opportunity to actualize our deepest desires for a better world through action and spiritual practice rooted in our traditions and rooted in resilience.


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