Thursday, 12 Oct 2023

Written by Jennifer Verson

Sputnikcccp, edited by MPFGenesis on egg croppedCC BY-SA 3.0

Bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha‘aretz.

There is a Jewish tension between history as facts and experiencing history through memory. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory considers Jewish memory as not only historical, but also cyclical and liturgical. Parashat Bereshit looms large as part of my not quite historical, not quite liturgical childhood memory of my father passionately relaying how his boss had discovered that the first line of Genesis could be read not only as in the beginning but also as

in a beginning

As my first D’var Torah as a student rabbi, it feels fitting to talk about ‘a beginning’ as a blessing from the memory of my father.  At many moments, it may seem difficult to consider the expression ‘four Jews, five opinions’ as a blessing but this reading of the very beginning of Torah which is part of a personal folklore offered me a moment to consider how deeply embedded plurality and difference of opinion is in the fabric of everything Jewish people do, from the very beginning.

On the second day of Reading and chanting the Torah at Leo Baeck College the teacher asked our small group of first year rabbinic students why the torah was not pointed. My first answer was that it saved time.  I had an instinct for the practical and immediately felt that without all of the intricate dots and dashes it would be easier to quickly compensate for sifrei torah lost and destroyed through forced displacements and voluntary migrations.  This instinct also pointed towards the long history of worker’s rights in Jewish tradition starting with the direction in Leviticus 19:13 ‘You are not to keep-overnight the working wages of a hired-hand with you until morning’ and continuing through time to influence contemporary Jewish culture and society.

This was not however, the answer that was expected by our teacher. Which gave me the opportunity to try again with my second instinctual answer which could be considered an ‘imaginative leap’ in contextual theology. An imaginative leap creatively makes a connection between two very different ideas to find new meanings in ancient texts that connect these texts to lived experience. The lack of pointing in the Torah I imagined protected the jobs of the Kohanim. Without the vowels to vocalise the letters, people who read Torah publicly needed literacy, training, and practice.

In many ways this was a classic Reform Jewish response. Progressive Jewish Movements for the most part, have rejected the lingering legacies of priestly hierarchies and have integrated transliteration of Hebrew into siddurim as an inclusive practice. In this way progressive Judaism has embodied the blessing offered in Exodus 19:5-6

‘Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Keeping Torah reading for the elite, however, was not the expected answer either. Taken together, however, my two instinctual answers point towards the beautiful answer passed down through Rabbinic Literature: the lack of pointing enables interpretation.

The answer that could be considered correct is that diversity of commentary and interpretation is in the very essence of the Torah as it is woven into the fabric of Rabbinic literature. Or as Hillel said when asked to teach the entire Torah standing on one foot (Shabbat 31a) That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.

Rabbi Bahya ben Asher in his 13th Century commentary explains very clearly that

The reason we have been forbidden to write the vowels in the written text of the Torah scroll is to enable a person to understand a variety of meanings in the text which he could not find if he were bound to a specific vowel pattern under or over the consonants.

This first D’var as I embark on a beginning of my Rabbinic journey calls our attention to the blessings of ambiguity that create space for intuition and imaginative leaps. It foregrounds personal memory as Jewish memory and honours the embodied knowledge that we all carry in very different ways. It has also helped me find a story in Parshat Bereshit that drew me close to a small gem of post Shoah theology that I often hold close in times of darkness, Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment which includes the absolute directive that we are ‘forbidden to despair of man and his world’.

At Simchat Torah there is barely a pause between mourning Moses and the creation story. This week we read about Cain murdering Abel and the anger of God at Cain’s ultimate transgression, where murder is compounded by lying and the assertion that

lo yada’ti hashomer achi anochi

When asked by God where Abel was, Cain responds, I do not know am I the guardian of my brother? If Cain is cursed from the earth arur attah min-ha’adamah for refusing to be his brother’s keeper, we can imagine what the opposite of this curse would look like.

Three Hebrew words in Genesis 25:9 are a trace of another story that offer an alternative to despair. After Abraham dies, he is buried by Yitzchak veyishma’el banav His sons Isaac and Ishmael. This is a trace of a different story, of two brothers who decide to watch over each other, through the shared act of burying their father. Imagining Isaac and Ishmael being blessed from the earth for looking out for each other in their moment of mourning feels like an enormous gift from the Torah at a time when it is so very easy to despair of man and his world.

Jennifer Verson LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.