Why I Believe in God – Parshat Bereshit 5776

Chaplain

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?

When We Were Younger – Parshat Bereshit 5772

As a child I had a Cabbage Patch doll named Helena Zena.  Helena Zena and I went everywhere together, including family vacations.  On one such vacation I was holding Helena Zena by the ankle, dragging her on the very bumpy rocks on the shore of one of the Great Lakes.  My parents asked me to stop and I responded, “But she likes it!”  But of course the truth was that I was the one who liked it.
As children we learn what we like and don’t like very quickly.  Children are able to engage in a world of discovery and pleasure.  When they discover what they like, they prefer to continue to do it over and over again, generally without regard for safety or other children.  Children under a certain age lack the cognitive ability to understand self control.  While pleasure and pain are two basic instincts, understanding how our actions effect others requires a developed conscience and an understanding of the world that only happens at an older age.
Parshat Bereshit, the first parshah in the Torah, reminds us of the blissful nature of ignorance and the consequences we learn as we grow.  The parshah begins with the narrative of creation when God brings order to a chaotic entity, creating the world in which we live.  Then comes the narrative of Adam and Eve, the first human inhabitants of this world.  As the first human beings, their first moments in the Torah are euphoric.  They are placed in a luscious garden with plenty to eat, animals to watch and each other to keep company.  While they might be fully grown human beings, they are still new to the world and therefore in the mindset of a small child.  We can picture them roaming from place to place in Gan Eden taking in every new experience.  The only rules were to refrain from eating from the “tree of knowledge of good and bad.”  But, every child likes to test boundaries, and that is exactly what they did.
With a little prodding, Eve eats from the tree and convinces Adam to do the same.  At this moment, neither Adam nor Eve has been introduced to the concept of consequences.  They are living in a world without conscience, and judging from God’s strong, negative reaction to their act, it appears as though God had intended for human beings to be created to live in a world of pleasure, to understand boundaries and not cross them or question them.  Anyone who’s ever spent time with a three-year-old knows that boundary testing is a given.
After the rule is broken, Adam and Eve receive their consequences.  For Eve, the punishment is pain in childbearing, attraction to her partner and male dominance.  For Adam, he is to work the ground; no longer will food come easily.  He will be forever tied to the dirt of the earth.  After God hands down these consequences, He states in chapter 3, verse 22:  “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad…”  The text implies that up until this moment, God was the source of moral awareness and the only being that could understand good and evil.  Now, human beings have gained the capacity to make that distinction, and God becomes concerned with the outcome.
Through one simple act, Adam and Eve and all human beings gained a conscience.  From this moment on, they could no longer eat or live instinctively; their minds were now open to the rights and wrongs of the world.  The innocence of childhood, of learning pleasure and pain, is short lived.  But once we’ve acquired our conscience, we have the ability and responsibility to do good in the world.  The punishments of Adam and Eve teach us that knowledge requires action.  Each of them is expected to work in order for their world to make sense.  And so each of us is in turn asked to listen to that internal voice, to be guided by our innate knowledge of pleasure and pain and instead of continuing the cycle of evil, we are to act in a godly fashion, to become like God in righting the wrong in our world.  It is when each of us accepts this responsibility that we will have taken steps towards the order that God set to the world in creation.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: Judaism is a beautiful religion in that we are trained to continue finding meaning in a text we’ve read over and over again.  Rabbi Ben Bag Bag in perkei avot, ethics of the fathers teaches that we are responsible for looking over the Torah text again and again because there is always something new in it.  Make this year the year that you read the parshaheach week and learn from it.  Some great, English commentaries are: The Bedside Torah by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Women’s Torah Commentary, published by Jewish Lights, The Torah Portion by Portion by Seymour Rossel.  Feel free to ask me for more suggestions.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  Parshat Bereshit reminds us that 6 days of our week are meant to be spent creating, engaging physically with the world, but that on the 7th day, God ceased creating.  There’s no time like a new beginning to try refraining from creating.  On Friday night as Shabbat begins, talk about what each of you has created in this past week, how have your words, deeds and activities led to creation?  Then, stop creating, challenge your family to spend 25 hours enjoying what already is, not creating something new.