Organized Chaos – Parshat Bereshit 5778


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


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.

Why I Believe in God – Parshat Bereshit 5776


During rabbinical school I spent one summer doing a unit of clinical pastoral education at a hospital in Michigan.  My reasoning for spending that time in a hospital setting was twofold. First, I needed to get over some of my fear of the hospital environment and learn how to bring the most comfort to the most vulnerable.  Second, I have long had a fascination with medicine, and this intensive program put me on overnight on-calls, trauma teams, and in the ICU standing right with the medical professionals.  This was a lifechanging experience for me on so many levels, but most notably with my belief in God.  

I was honored to be invited to sit in on an autopsy as the team worked to identify the cause of death.  I stood in the room with my colleague and watched as the professionals went to work.  To my amazement, their tools included a saw. Our bones are so hard and strong, they need the force of a heavy saw to cut open, and yet this woman died from bleeding caused by the tiniest pinhole tear.  In that instant I became truly aware of the complexities of the human body, the intricacies with which we are created.  In that moment I knew God existed.  In a sense, for me this was the beginning.

This week we read parshat Bereshit, the 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 experience the narrative of Cain and Abel and the first explosive sibling rivalry.  The entire section of texts ends by careening us forward in time to the line of Noah.  

But we begin with the beginning.  “When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth being unformed and void with darkness over the surface of the deep…” The Torah begins with this sentence, acknowledging the beginning of all beginnings.  Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic sage, taught, “Just as the existence of a house testifies to the builder and the existence of a garment testifies to the weaver, so the existence of the world testifies to God who fashioned it.”  

On the surface, Rabbi Akiva’s proof of God rests in the mere existence of the world, but what he is implying is that the divinity of the architecture is in the complexity of it. The beginning of my belief in God was that moment in the hospital.  I believe in God because I saw firsthand what unique systems and works of art our bodies are, and they are beyond anything my mind can consider creating. In that small, sterile basement room, I met God, and it was a moment that opened my eyes to a miracle which I cannot understand outside the realm of faith.

It’s not my job to persuade you to believe in God. As far as explanations go, you might take an approach that is purely divine, one that is purely scientific, or one that falls somewhere in between. Nevertheless, starting our year and our Torah cycle anew does compel us to see the world in a new light. However the story of creation resonates with you, in this new light may we find moments of belief, moments of clarity, and perhaps moments that acknowledge the presence of God in some way.

Two of a Kind – Parshat Bereshit 5773

Did you catch a certain video that made the rounds earlier this year featuring Doug Pitt, the second most famous Pitt in his family? As you might have guessed, Doug is Brad’s brother, and the video is a commercial for Virgin Mobile Australia, in which Doug explains how normal and understated his life is compared to his superstar brother Brad.  When Doug was interviewed on Today, Matt Lauer asked him if he would ever want to trade places with his brother; after all, Brad Pitt has fame, fortune, a gorgeous wife, and everything he could ever want.
It’s natural to think Doug should be jealous.  We learn about jealousy early on in parshat Bereishit with Cain and Abel, the first sibling relationship in Torah.  Cain and Abel are typical brothers; they argue, they fight, they drive each other mad, and each one wants to be the favorite.  At the outset we learn that Abel, the younger child, is the keeper of sheep.  Cain, the oldest, is a tiller of the soil.  This is the first comparison between the brothers and the source of a number of inferences by the commentators.  Perhaps Cain became a farmer to be just like his father, or maybe to somehow reclaim what his parents lost by leaving the garden and live out their dream.  Abel is the shepherd, a position held by many younger children (Abraham, Moshe, David), which gives us certain clues about Abel’s perspective.  The commentators help us see similarities and form conclusions based on these surface qualities.  Four chapters into the Torah, and we’re already analyzing.
After a while Cain brings an offering to God from the fruit of the soil, and Abel brings the choicest fruit of the firstlings of his flock.  As we learn, God chooses Abel’s offering over Cain’s, and Cain falls to the ground in emotional pain, wondering why he and his offering aren’t good enough.  Ultimately, Cain kills his brother Abel out of rage, and when confronted by God about this, he answers “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a questioning of the entire concept of brothers and what it means to be related.
It’s a complicated lesson that Cain and Abel teach us, especially because no one really shines through as truly good.  Even today we don’t hold Adam, Eve, Cain or Abel in high esteem as part of our lineage the way we do with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses or even Noah.  One reason is because it’s not enough to either differentiate yourself or take care of your relationships.  You have to do both.  Cain saw neither the value in his uniqueness or the responsibility to his family.
The Torah, which we begin anew this week with parshat Bereshit, is a living document that not only shares with us the narrative of our past, but the entire spectrum of human emotions and actions.  Reading the Torah from the beginning each year reminds us that our understanding and connection to our narrative changes too.  As we all start our new beginnings with the New Year, we must remember that no matter who we’re related to or what we think is expected of us, what we each have to offer truly matters.
May we find the strength and the vision to see each other not as a copy of another or as merely the “second most famous,” but as individuals joining together on this journey.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Big Brothers Big Sisters, our nation’s largest mentoring network, was started over 100 years ago to provide role models for children and help them succeed as individuals.  Which person from the Torah do you think would have made a good “big brother” or “big sister” role model?  Which person from the Torah do you think most needed a “big brother” or “big sister” role model?