The Rest of Shabbat – Parshat Bereshit 5781

A year ago after the High Holidays, I found myself completely run down, and I ended up with pneumonia. I knew it was coming. From the first cough just prior to Rosh Hashanah, I could tell this was going to be more than a cold or the “just a virus” my physician thought it was. However, instead of resting, I pushed forward. After all, I had services to lead and programs to run; it was the holiday season, and that’s no time for a rabbi to be sick. So, I coughed my way through Yom Kippur and pushed my way through Sukkot and Simchat Torah while nursing pulled muscles from coughing. Finally, my body had enough. In the midst of teaching on a Wednesday night, I started shivering. The 102-degree fever had set in, and my body was done. In the game of mind versus body, my body won out and left my mind no choice but to simply sit and rest for the next 10 days. 

This story may sound familiar to you. So nany of us have it in our nature to get our work done and not let others down, and we feel guilty for cancelling a meeting or missing an event, holding in us the expectation that we can be everything to everyone and do all the things. But that’s just not possible. We’re human, and we actually have breaking points. The one reliable answer is to force ourselves to rest, giving our bodies a break. This is such a fundamental need that it is one of the first mandates of the Torah.

This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the very first portion of the Torah. We begin again with our familiar story and move quickly from the days of creation through the narrative of Adam and Eve in the beautiful Garden of Eden to the first time someone challenged God. From there we have the story of Cain and Abel and the first explosive sibling rivalry. At the end we jump forward rather suddenly in time to the line of Noah.  

At the end of the creation story is the creation of Shabbat. Chapter 2, verse 3 of Genesis reads, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.” This commandment imposes a pattern of work and rest on the entirety of creation. However, before humans were created, there was no need for an earthly Shabbat. Animals rest when their bodies mandate it and wake when nature says it’s time. Human beings, however, have the ability to control our time, to schedule ourselves to death. It was humans who needed the mandated rest, and we could not have thrived without this commandment. 

I’ll be honest – as a leader in the community, I don’t often model the best self care. Yes, I take time to work out and connect with the earth on a walk each day, but I’m notoriously bad at taking the time to really rest when my body tells me it needs it. The creation of Shabbat in our Torah portion this week reminds us all that even God needed to rest, and now more than ever we need that time to refresh, renew, and reset.

I’m ME! – Parshat Bereshit 5780

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When Matan was two, he went through this beautiful phase of high self-centeredness and low self-awareness, as is appropriate for a two-year-old. With his long hair and love of dress-up, he was unphased by gender norms or stereotypes. If you asked him who loved him the most in the world, he would answer loud and proud, “Matan, me!” If you asked him whether he was a boy or a girl, he’d yell “I’m Matan!” Children have this wonderful ability to love themselves and others without much judgment. These moments made me smile because my little love wasn’t looking for differences between people, he was looking to be the best version of himself that he could. 

The Torah begins without delineating between gender as well. This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed with the story of creation, the time and care God put into creating each day, each being exactly as God wanted. We learn about the first people and their experience in the Garden of Eden: how they learned to build, grow, and be together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the first sibling rivalry gone terribly awry, and the very real consequences put into place after each of these events. At the very beginning of the Torah, we’re introduced to God as the parent, creating life and making sure everything has its own place.

In creation, God does not make any distinction in gender while creating animals. There is no list of boy cows and girl cows. There are simply cows. It isn’t until God moves on to the creation of human beings that gender is first introduced. The Eitz Chayim commentary offers that the reason for this is because it’s one way of differentiating ourselves from other creatures.

What’s interesting to note is we’re taught that the main distinction between other animals and us is that we’re created in God’s image, which is without gender. In other words, human beings were created to be different and unique, and yet simultaneously equal to each other and in our likeness to the “image” of God. The Talmud sees the difference between divine creation and basic replication through the example of minting. A king might cast coins from the same die, and they would all come out exactly the same. On the other hand, God creates human beings from the same basic mold, but each one, while still carrying the same spark of the divine, is wholly different. 

Parshat Bereshit reminds us to look for the unique, divine characteristics in each person we meet. Perhaps we should even return to the simple, sweet two-year-old definition of identity: we love ourselves first and celebrate the unique characteristics that make us exactly who we need to be.

 

And It Was Enough – Parshat Bereshit 5779

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Do you ever have those moments when you feel like you’re going nonstop and still not getting it all done? That definitely happens to me – those days when I wonder if I’m giving enough of myself to my job, to my family, to my husband, to me. And even if I’m able to check things off the to-do list, I feel defeated, thinking nothing is quite as great as I wanted it to be. Usually this happens when I’m approaching the deadline for several projects at once, and it’s crunch time. I get this feeling in my core that I’m being pulled in a million different directions, but I want everything to be just right. If I stop to focus on one project, everything else suffers. I know I’m only human, but it’s terrible to think I’m letting down my family or my community when I’m unable to make sure every detail is perfect or I can’t be at every event, program, or service. What if I could actually step back and say, “This is good”? Not great, not perfect, but just good enough?

This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed with the story of creation, the time and care God put into creating each day, each being exactly as planned. We learn about the first humans and their experience in the Garden of Eden, how they learned to build, grow, and exist together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the fist sibling rivalry gone awry, and the very real consequences put into place after each of these events. God is like a parent birthing new life or like a CEO organizing her staff, figuring out each day what is necessary to be done and when there is time to stop, step back, and simply take it all in.

When we talk about the story of creation, we tend to think of the seventh day as the only time God rested. But since this parshah suggests different creative acts on each day, there must have been at least a brief rest between each day. In fact, as God goes about the creation of the world, God pauses at the end of each day and says, “It was good.” On day one there was the simple separation, and then a stop until day two. On day two there’s more creation, and it was good. Day three, a little bit more. You get the idea. There is something remarkable in the fact that God was able to stop at the end of each day of creation, take in what had been done, and simply stop until it was time to add the next layer.

Sometimes we feel as if we live nonstop lives in a world that also never stops. With tiny computers in our hands all day, there is always an email to be answered, a Facebook post to check, bills to pay, and work do be done. It’s not easy to simply slow down, let alone stop. How can we possibly let go of our desire to produce more, and instead look at what we’ve produced and say it is good? Parshat Bereshit teaches us that we must. Each day, we must take note of when we’ve done enough for the day and give ourselves the permission to step back, take it all in, and celebrate our accomplishments. If God can save some of the work for tomorrow, so can we.

Organized Chaos – Parshat Bereshit 5778

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I have an organizational system that I’m guessing many of you are familiar with. It’s often referred to as organized chaos. I have piles and piles organized throughout my workspace, and to the untrained eye they might just look like piles, but to me it makes complete sense. I have my “deal with right now” pile and my “recycle me” pile. I have a “for Duncan to deal with” pile and a “never look at again but don’t want to throw out” pile. Sometimes the items get moved from pile to pile until they end up in their permanent home (either an actual folder or the recycling bin) and my life feels organized and manageable. Every once in a while I get fed up with the size of the piles, go through them all, and whittle them down to the bare essentials. And then the process starts all over again.

Organized chaos is not a new management system. In fact, this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, originates this concept. As the Torah begins anew we start with the very act of creation itself. We begin again with our familiar story and move quickly from the days of creation through the narrative of Adam and Eve in the beautiful Garden of Eden to the first time someone challenged God. From there we witness the first explosive sibling rivalry with Cain and Abel. The end then careens us forward in time to the line of Noah.

As the story of creation begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was Tohu Va’Vohu.” A modern translation could read this as “organized chaos.” When I read this I always picture God looking around at various piles trying to figure out what goes where. Sort of like the sorcerer in Disney’s Fantasia, I imagine God moving a wand around, organizing the heavens, the earth, the waters, the plants, and the animals and people until they are in just the right place to work together in harmony.

So often we think of God as being this perfect entity who fashions a perfectly deliberate creation with everything in the right place and placed in an orderly fashion, yet here we are reading the first few sentences of our Torah, telling us that even God has piles all around.

This notion of “organized chaos” is comforting to me. It’s a little counterintuitive to think of comfort in chaos, but life is full of chaotic moments. Whether it is my piles all around or running from activity to activity, it’s easy to feel like the world is whizzing by, However, we read Parshat Bereshit this morning and are reminded that from the chaos we create order. Just please excuse the mess.

 

Happy Days – Parshat Bereshit 5777

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Is it just me, or do you also hear the Happy Days theme song in your head when we read the story of creation? In both cases, we go through the days of the week and call them “happy” or “good.” In fact, you could substitute the words “it was good” in place of “happy days,” and you’d have a nice little Bereshit theme song:

Sunday, Monday, it was good.

Tuesday, Wednesday, it was good.

Thursday, Friday, it was good.

Saturday, what a day, I think I’ll take a nap.

At the end of each day of creation, God takes a moment to step back and take note of all that has been accomplished in anticipation of the next productive step. It makes me wonder if God would still have had the satisfaction of “good” if there hadn’t been this daily check-in. Perhaps the “good” isn’t a direct response to the creation at all, but actually God taking a moment to simply stop at the end of the day. We focus on Shabbat as God’s rest after creation, but the division between the days seems to indicate there was also a “rest” after each day.

This is the lesson of creation. Setting aside a moment at the end of the day to look at what we have accomplished and what is good – in our professional and personal lives – means that we are actively checking in with ourselves and those around us. Furthermore, setting aside an entire day (and believe me, as someone who “works” on Shabbat, I know how hard this is to do) means having the ability to reconnect with one another and refresh for the next week.

The happiness conveyed in the theme song is a helpful reminder to stop and take these moments of appreciation. Every week when Duncan and I look at our calendars and plan our schedules, it reinforces how frenetic and fast-paced our lives seem to be. In order to get any family time or down time, we have to schedule it in. This section of text in parshat Bereshit details the creation of the world day by day, but also asks us to reflect on our own “happy days.” As we enter another year and another cycle of Torah, let us work to make every day a day that brings happiness, connection, and our own creation.