As baseball philosopher Yogi Berra might have put it: "It's déjà Jew … all over again." For the 3,317th time – we the Jewish people begin the story again. Not just any story, but our story – our shared sacred story.
Did you pay attention to a sweet Jewish custom performed on Simchat Torah? It is universal and powerful. Immediately upon completion of the last parasha of Torah, called V'zot Habrachah ("end of Deuteronomy"), we straight away roll the Torah and call up someone to make a blessing over Bereshit ("Genesis"), the beginning of Torah. Indeed, zot habrachah – that is the real blessing of our people – and certainly, our genius. Just when you think that we have completed the task and finished the story, we do it all over again. The narrative continues, as does the Jewish journey. A Jew can never truly close out the books.
Listen to this delicious Chasidic insight. Why does the Torah begin with the second Hebrew letter, bet? Rightfully, it should have begun with the aleph.
This Chasidic aphorism suggests that just when you think that you've finished the story, you really haven't begun. Better yet, as much as you have rolled the Torah's columns and turned her pages, her wisdom is inexhaustible, and her depths will never fully be plumbed. That's why we engage with her again – to garner more insights and grasp more of life's wisdom.
The enlightenment philosopher Baron d'Holbach posited that the two words needed to be expunged from the lexicon were "God" and "create." Now, listen to the beginning of our story: Bereshit bara Elohim: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." Contained within this phrase is an exquisite mission statement for the Jewish people.
Yes, we are to view this world from God's vantage point, but with cognizance that this world and all that is in it is not to be devalued, disavowed or derogated. Our vision is to become God's partner in forming and fashioning a world that is ennobled. We are, in a word, to become God's ambassadors in bringing heaven to earth.
My father taught me a basic truth, and that is that "you have one shot to make a first impression." So in the midst of this vast and complex creation story, allow me to pose a question. What were the first words uttered by God? What did God intend as a first impression? The answer is: Yehiyeh Or – "Let there be light."
Lighting the Way
How illuminating are the thoughts of Rabbi Shimon in the Midrash, who suggest that "light" is a one-word synopsis for each book of Torah. If you count, you'll find that the word is mentioned five times in the creation story – each one corresponding to one of the five books of Moses. Torah is quintessential light; it is that which warms our souls, nurtures our spirits and enlightens our intellect.
The Midrash continues. "And God said, 'Let there be light' – This refers to the appearance of Abraham."
A Jew does not find enlightenment, meaning or purpose by being (to borrow the name of the book) the Jew in the lotus. For us, there's no either/or proposition. For a Jew, it's an or/or proposition. The only way to survive and thrive Jewishly is by being a member of a people – a particular people – a people with a purpose and a people with a sacred story, what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick termed "the covenantal community of faith."
Now let's refine the question.
Were you to ask: What was the first word uttered by God? The answer: Yehiyeh – "Let it be."
What a provocative idea in the best sense of the word. For with every "let it be," there is a recognition that things "are not yet."
Listen to a fascinating debate between Adam and Moses as articulated by the sages of the Midrash. Adam boldly claims that he is greater than Moses. Why? Because he was created directly from God. Moses claims greatness because he has worked hard to live a life elevating himself in spirituality and good deeds.
Our sages are grappling with a fundamental question: Which is greater – being or becoming? The answer: becoming.
Yehiyeh is an incredibly powerful, potent and empowering statement. Embedded in the nature of the cosmos and in humanity is the need to continually grow and ascend – to be more today than yesterday.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.