Friday, September 25, 2009

New Beginnings: New and Old

In a few weeks we will return to the beginning of our Torah, its readings and lessons as we annually do with the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the notion that in our repeating and involving ourselves in this cycle of reading, we do not just re-read what we already know as “old stuff”, but are challenged to experience it in new and original, even challenging, ways. Where are we this year that is significantly different from where we were in years past, emotionally, professionally, intellectually, personally, and in every other way? What do these time – honored and familiar messages bring to us both in the ways of comfort and challenge as we continue to move through the many paces that make up the collage of the lives we lead?

We begin anew the complete cycle of Torah readings with these words:

א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם: ג וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר:

Bereshit Bara Elokim … – In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth. The earth was “tohu v’vohu” (null and void, chaotic, unformed, who knows what?) and darkness was on the face (?) of the void and the spirit/wind of G-d blows (hydroplanes?) upon the face of the waters. And G-d said “let there be light and there was light.”

So, we all have visions of what the words in this brief beginning passage (and the verses to follow) means. We have shared understandings of light, heaven and earth, wind, waters and the like. However, given that this is G-d – language, I think we would do better to come to an understanding that just as words in their very naked being are symbolic representatives of concepts that are so much larger and more varied than their mere mixture of letters can suggest in our world and context, how much more so this must be true when approaching G-d - language.

What would happen if instead of trying to subject these verses and those that follow to the scrutiny of this or that system of proof, we act “as though” we understand it and “accept this on faith.” I have come to learn that faith need not be a dirty word to anyone in any pursuit or philosophical stance. The most rationalistic person I have ever met ultimately must accept some basic truths on faith. After all, what proof do we have today that basic historical, scientific or mathematical truths are just that? Did any of us meet the historical giants from the past? Do we have handwritten, photographic or other proof that so many figures about whom we speak so easily and constantly really existed? It’s like the joke about the coins that were found dated 300 b.c.e.; how do we know with absolute certainty that so many things we take as given actually occurred when and how we say (and are taught) they happened?

So for me, the lesson of these words and returning on a regular basis to this particular telling of the Creation of the World as we know it is that we cannot possibly know exactly what happened, but rather we must continue to grapple with the messages contained. Rather than trying to come to terms with the exact tangible elements that these words mean to us, we would do better to look at the lessons these words convey. Years ago, I was having one of the many manifestations of this conversation with a medical doctor who did not understand how I could believe and have faith in these “stories” or in G-d, clearly the pivotal protagonist of these narratives in so many ways. So, I asked him “So, how do you think everything that is here and allows us to be alive began?” He went on to explain in scientific terms how he thinks the earth and its contents had its beginnings. So, I went further to ask him “Well, what came or happened before that?” Within a short while, he just threw up his hands and said “I don’t know.” At that point I said to him that his unanswered question is where G-d fills in what is missing for me (and so much more). I continued to explain that for me, G-d exists before all that is here and is The One who began the process. As for my needing to absolutely validate G-d’s existence, he quickly realized that he could not prove his version of beginnings any more than I could prove the words of Bereshit. Faith was the difference between his impasse and my understanding that human limits will necessitate such an impasse. Of course, I would argue that in the end, we all have to have some faith in some thing when we say “I don’t know what came before that!”

Theoretically, we could use this notion (and perhaps should) of questioning “what we know with certainty to be true” in so many different venues. We often talk of “loving someone,” for example. What does this mean? There is no tangible loving in the same way that there is reading, swimming or running. We act as though we love by engaging in other actions that are supposed to reflect our love. This is not the same as other words which convey concrete actions and ideas that we can all contextually agree upon. Just because love is not a concrete or tangible representation of the concept it conveys, it is no less real. So it is with believing in G-d. So it is with our reading of Bereshit and attempting to understand the beginning of our world and existence. So, a yom in G-d – language might best be interpreted as “a period of time” (not day) for us, removing the problem of “how long ago exactly did all of this happen?” By not using pronouns which are limited in meaning (i.e. He), we do not create unnecessary problems of understanding in speaking about G-d and G-d’s actions. By realizing that we may not be quite sure of the identity of the adam in Chapter One of Bereshit and relegating it to G-d – language, we do not have to engage in the conflict of what this being was exactly like or when precisely its history began. Simply put, we do not know with certainty what these words mean, even with the voices of many commentators trying to guide us through the quagmire of their potential meanings.

I find the notion very meaningful that G-d language is the stuff of which the beginning of Bereshit is made (thank you, Gerald Schroeder, for this teaching) and that we only come together, humans and G-d, when G-d acts upon the human a bit later in this first portion of the Torah in Chapter Two, verse seven of Bereshit, as follows:

ז וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

And G-d created/formed (?) the human being/earth being/adam(?) out of the dust from the earth and G-d breathed into the nose of the human being/earth being the breath of life and this human being/earth being became a living soul.

I know the words and can analyze and convey all types of shades of meaning for them, but once again can not be precise and concise about their exact conveyed meaning. This is still G-d language, but it is at this point, according to Schroeder and others, that G-d brings the human being that G-d has created into G-d’s orbit and partners with this human being/living soul in carrying on in the world/universe that G-d has also created. We must take note that since G-d created this being in G-d’s way, we cannot “prove” this either. Neither can we prove with absolute certainty or agree how this being came into “its” own through the various explanations of science, evolution, or otherwise.

Ultimately, we all have to believe in something in order to explain the basics of our existence and further, we have to take what we believe to be true on faith. This is true as much for scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and historians as it is for people of faith/religion (not to be necessarily mutually exclusive from the aforementioned groupings).

So, as we move into the beginning of this new year of 5770, perhaps a new challenge (and beginning) we can all take on is to find the faith within ourselves to believe in our understanding of how things happen and G-d’s role in it all, and accept that others will do the same. May we all have new beginnings, and continue to accept new challenges for ourselves and our understandings of all that is!

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