Unlocking the Beauty and Power of ‘Genesis’



BERESHIT, Genesis 1:1-6:8

Do you remember the first time you ever looked up into the heavens on a dark night and discovered that the sky was full of twinkling, magical stars? Whatever your age — whether you were alone or with a sibling, holding the hand of a parent or other trusted adult — do you remember your awe at its vastness and a simultaneous sense of your own smallness?

Throughout our lives, each of us has such encounters with the cosmos: on visits to the beach, camping in the mountains, sitting in backyards or on city decks. If we're lucky, we may recapture, for a moment, a sense of the enormity of creation and a concurrent sense of the limits of our own power. This is the essence of Bereshit, the first portion of our Torah.

Our sages knew that we must read the first chapters of Genesis again and again to unlock the power, beauty and meaning of the ancient words. The chaotic, unformed dark world becomes light, and the world as we know it begins to emerge. Over the course of five "days," waters and seas and earth are gathered and arranged, then flying and creeping and swarming creatures emerge. On the sixth day, more creatures arrive, first, four-legged animals, and then, human beings. And on the seventh day, creation is completed when God "ceased from all the creative work that God [had chosen] to do."

All too quickly, the harmony of the first garden and its inhabitants is shattered when the first human siblings turn on one another. By the fourth chapter of Genesis, Cain has murdered his brother Abel. This shocking and heartbreaking tale of fratricide challenges us to action and engagement in this new year.

Gun violence has become an epidemic in our city, threatening the gardens we plant, the peaceful projects we tend and the sources of light we nurture. Yet because we know the power of hope, we who are re-energized and inspired anew each year by the words of Torah can take action against this evil.

Last winter, as part of an interfaith peace effort, Heeding God's Call, I met with the owner of Colosimo's Gun shop at 933 Spring Garden St. My colleagues and I asked Mr. Colosimo to adopt a 10-point "Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership Code" developed by Mayors Against Gun Violence. Mayor Michael Nutter helped develop this voluntary code, meant to diminish the "straw purchasing" and illegal trafficking of handguns.

The code has been adopted by Wal-Mart, the largest purveyor of guns in America. Over the past nine months, while members of Heeding God's Call held peaceful vigils in front of Colosimo's, urging him to sign this code, the federal government was preparing an indictment against the store. On Sept. 30, the shop closed forever, after Colosimo pleaded guilty to knowingly allowing straw purchasing at his store. The combined efforts of a group of individuals from different traditions helped bring attention to the illegal actions of one purveyor of lethal weapons.

This week, as we reread Bereshit, let us step outside of our homes and look up into the heavens. As we are amazed by the vastness of creation, let us also be reminded of the power that we have to dispel the darkness that results when individuals behave like Cain and use guns to take the lives of their brothers and sisters. In this new year, let us be among those who increase the light of peace in our city.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the Worship Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.


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