Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start, again (queue Julie Andrews dancing in the Alps with a Torah). With the recent celebration of Simchat Torah on October 23rd and 24th, the full arc of the High and Holy days of 5777 has come to a close with joy, dancing, and yet another aspect of beginning again. Not only does Rosh Hashana open us into a new year with renewed values and possibilities as well as a solemn and celebratory encounter with the rebirth and renewal of the whole of existence, but Simchat Torah brings us into a new cycle of the annual Torah reading. From a Jewish approach to cosmic beginnings and personal beginnings, to chanting the completion of the last book of the Torah and the beginning of the first, we start all over again in our collective engagement with the central sacred text of Jewish life. The world is new, we are freshly awake, consciously realigned and new, and so we are ready to dive into Torah anew, primed for new discoveries and insights.
A people’s creation myth paints the universe with the colours of its values, its religious and poetic imagination and how that people sees itself in the world. Because the Torah is not meant to be read as a scientific text, but one of moral, spiritual, and cultural power and meaning, the rhythmic repetitions and Hebrew alliteration of the opening verses of Bereshit/Genesis render a stirringly evocative and poetic framing of the nature and value of existence and the power of words.
Bereshit begins: 1 When God began to create the heaven and the earth, 2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep; and the wind of God sweeping over the face of the waters — 3 God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. 4 And God saw that light was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Through the eyes of the Torah, the universe unfolds from tohu va’vohu — the unformed and void, the wild and waste of a watery darkness — into a world shaped by order, separations, and distinctions. The creation of light is the very first creation, uncontained radiance prior to the creation of the sun and moon. Before anything else is created, the light of consciousness, insight, and illumination are woven into the fabric of the universe. The light doesn’t eradicate darkness or chaos, but it contains them and stands brightly in contrast to them. The rest of Torah will wrestle with darkness and chaos, but throughout, light will be inextinguishable, powerful and will be repeatedly ignited to manifest Divine presence and human participation in that illumination (e.g. the menorah in the mishkan/desert Tabernacle).
After each act of creation, God sees the material reality that has just come into being, be it light or land or mammals, and God sees that “it was good”. The Torah imbues the physical world with goodness. The universe is not neutral. The irreducible, never-merely-utilitarian goodness of human beings, of the earth, of all of creation, are rooted here as the foundation of the Torah’s moral drive. Existence is fundamentally good and all the rest of Torah will unfold from this core assertion of sacred materialism.
The last quality I want to highlight is the fact that each act of creation comes into being through Divine speech. “Let there be …” The power of words to create means the words of the Torah are the very building blocks of Creation itself and a means to access Divine creativity. The Jewish love affair with Torah, with text and words, with interpretation and multiple meanings are all planted here. Midrash Genesis Rabbah (1:1,6) imagines that God looking into the Torah in order to know how to create the universe. Our Sages viewed the Torah itself as a cosmic blueprint. The text of the world and the text of the Torah mirror each other so that our learning through experience in the world and our learning through Torah study mirror each other, feed each other, and keep refining our seeing and understanding in conversation with one another. And both the words of Torah and the physical world are never merely what their surfaces reveal, but they are brimming and alive with sacred depths.
Here is our entry into Torah this year. Here is our entry into the world this year — animated by light, goodness, and the power of words. We have gotten off to a burstingly joyous start with the DJC’s recently held first-ever Klezmer Simchat Torah celebration. With a volunteer Klezmer band of 15 players (special thanks to Brian Katz and Danny Greenspoon), and a room brimming with community members of all ages, we marched seven hakafot, seven circles, with the Torot (plural of Torah), and burst into dancing with each circling procession. Everyone had an opportunity to hold the Torah, embrace it and dance with it in the centre of the dancing circles, including many in our community who have never held a Torah before in their lives. And everyone had the opportunity to come close to the Torah for an aliyah as we chanted the very last verses of Dvarim/Deuteronomy, the first verses of Bereshit, and had a special aliyah for pre-bnai mitzvah children under the chuppah of a tallit. It was such a wonderful night of beginnings/of Bereshit. With many more to come.
There are many exciting opportunities coming up to explore beginnings, light, goodness, and words of Torah. Please join us for LearningLab: Torah for the 21st Century, beginning with the first session, Raiders of the Open Ark on Saturday November 12th.