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Back To the Beginning One More Time ~ Parashat Bereshit

We learn from Jewish tradition that we must never be far away from the study of Torah! This past week, Jews all over the world celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah. We rejoiced together with singing and dancing because we completed the reading of the entire Torah! But as soon as we completed the last verse of the book of D’varim, we begin again to study Parashat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. This coming Shabbat, we shall read the portion of Bereshit, and we are sure that there are new insights that we shall glean from visiting these very familiar verses again!

Let us review a few basics: The Torah consists of five books: Bereshit/Genesis; Shmot/Exodus; Vayikra/Leviticus; B’midbar/Numbers; and D’varim/Deuteronomy. These five books are divided into 54 portions. On most Shabbatot, we read one portion. Since the Jewish/modified lunar calendar is comprised of 50 or 51 weeks, there are some Shabbatot that we must read two combined portions.  Seven times in every 19 years, there are leap years when we add an entire month of second Adar to the calendar. During these leap years, we can make use of the extra four Shabbatot to read one Torah portion each week.

The very first parashah has the same name as the first book: B’reishit. The portion is filled with very familiar narratives that we have all been reading since our childhood.

In the 1917 Jewish Publication Society English translation, as well as the King James translation, the very first word, Bereshit, is translated as “In the beginning…” The mid 20th century Jewish Publication Society New  Jewish Version changes this phrase to “When at first…” The URJ Gunther Plaut translation used at KI opens as follows: “When G-d was about to create heaven and earth, 2. the earth was a chaos, unformed…” The creation narrative does not begin at a specific date in time, according to this modern understanding.

We read in the first chapter about the seven days of Creation. On the first day, G-d Almighty forms darkness and light. On the second day, Elohim(name of G-d) creates the heavens, dividing the upper and lower waters. On the third day Elohim establishes boundaries of earth and water, and causes green plants to sprout. On the fourth day, Elohim places the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars, in their appointed locations in order for us to calculate time and measurements. On the fifth day, Elohim creates fish, birds, and reptiles. The sixth day is the pinnacle of creation: Elohim creates land animals and finally the first human being.  This is such a major moment, that G-d looks for help to complete this task: “Let US make human beings in OUR image, after OUR likeness, and let them hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth.”(1:26) The creation of Man, and subsequently of Woman, is considered to be the climax of the creation. On the seventh day, Elohim rests from His arduous labors of creation, leading to the sanctification of the seventh day as Shabbat.

The Biblical description of each day of creation except the second includes the sentence, “and G-d saw how good it was.” The third day of the Creation Week is made special because of the two repetitions of this verse, “And G-d saw how good it was.”(1:10 and 12). For this reason, Tuesday, beginning on Monday evening, is considered an especially blessed day to plan a Simhah, a joyous occasion, or any major event for which we look for G-d’s personal blessing! Many Jews will choose Monday night and Tuesday for a wedding, and for moving to a new home. Ellen and I did for both!

In chapter 2, the creation story is told again, but in an opposite order. We read: “Then G-d Eternal fashioned the Man—dust from the soil—and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that the man became a living being.”(2:7) The creation of Man is the first act of creation in this retelling, and everything else follows.

The creation of Man is followed by the creation of Woman from one of Man’s ribs. They are married, and then placed in the Garden of Eden. They are commanded not to eat from Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they violate this first commandment. After they are banished from the Garden of Eden, Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel. When they grow, Cain murders Abel. When Cain is confronted by G-d. “Where is your brother Abel? He replies, How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”(4:9)

Eve has a third son, Seth. The Eternal One sees how evil everyone has become, and Adon-I (G-d’s second name) decides to destroy His creation and begin again.

In these opening five chapters, G-d is called both Elohim and Adon-i. Traditional commentators view these names as reflecting different aspects of the Divine. Modern scholars view the name variation as reflecting two different source documents from which the Creation story was compiled.

I studied as a teenager at Camp Ramah how to understand these poetic narratives. Professor Shalom Paul, of blessed memory, (a Philadelphia native) Bible professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Chairman of Bible Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, taught that we should consider these narratives as “Historiosophy,” the use of historical events to teach us a world view or philosophy. We do not learn pure or literal history from these stories. We do not learn what happened, nor do we learn scientific reality! We learn instead to understand that the editors are teaching us that G-d Almighty created the world, and expects us to obey His divinely inspired moral code in order to be worthy to live here. This is an ongoing lesson for us to the present moment!

There are two musical settings of the Biblical Creation worthy of our attention. “In The Beginning” was written by Aaron Copland, one of the greatest American 20th century composers. This very difficult a cappella choral work is a complete setting of 1:1-2:7 of Bereshit, from the King James translation. The piece was composed in 1947. Here is a superb recording:

The great Stephen Schwartz, whom we all know as the composer of Wicked, Pippin, G-dspell, and so many other Broadway hits, wrote a totally different style of music based on the Biblical narrative. Several years ago, I was privileged to present a concert of Stephen Schwartz’s choral music of Jewish content. Schwartz emceed and played piano. He told me that Children of Eden is his favorite extended work!

Schwartz used a variety of musical styles, including rock, gospel, pop, ballads, and dramatic oratorio writing, to set his retelling of the Biblical narrative. From Children of Eden, here is “Generations of Adam.”

As we begin our new year of activities at KI, Shir KI is beginning again! Cantor Levy and I encourage you to sing with Shir KI. Our fantastic adult choir reunited for the first time in two years to prepare the High Holy Day musical repertoire. In spite of singing with masks, the music sounded exciting and fresh. We are now preparing a magnificent Shabbat concert of operatic music in honor of Rabbi Sussman, a major opera lover. This program will take place on Shabbat evening, December 10th.

I urge you to come to our rehearsals, beginning this coming Tuesday evening, October 5, at 7:30 pm. Give our music and our singers an audition for one month! I promise you that you will be hooked as we sing music by Gershwin, Verdi, and so many others.

Ellen, Avrum, Rabbi Howard and Naomi, Alana, and our grandchildren Micah and Sophie join me in wishing you a New Year of Good Health, happiness, beautiful music, and normalcy!