Friday, October 12, 2012

The Challenges of New Beginnings - D'var Torah - October 12, 2012

  “All beginnings are hard. . . . and sometimes I add what I have learned on my own: ‘Especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That's the hardest beginning of all.’"

    David Lurie, the main character of Chaim Potok’s book, IN THE BEGINNING, delivered that message two pages into the novel.   This declaration resonates with us on this Shabbat as we begin again our cycle of reading the Torah with this week’s parashah, b’raysheet.  It expresses the values embodied in the biblical narratives about humanity’s first family, which seems to never miss an opportunity to receive a rule and then disobey it.
     The unwise ethical choices of Adam and Eve and their son Cain were very much a part of what made humanity’s beginnings hard in the biblical story.   There are, however, positive insights embedded in Genesis Chapter 2 about what it means to be a community. Verses 15 through 23 of Chapter 2 begin with God placing the man in the Garden of Eden and conclude with the Adam’s first words, a verbal response to the sight of the woman, his EZER K’NEGDO, his helpful and equal counterpart. 
    As Rhonda and I have been in Las Cruces for 15 months, and now that our home in our previous community is no longer ours, it seems appropriate to reflect on beginnings.   Any of you who have moved from one community to another without successfully selling the house you left behind know the feeling well.  It is as if you have ALMOST taken your “giant leap” into a new life, but no more than “almost.”   You may feel like you are not yet home in a place that you are trying to make your home.    So when the “old home” sells, it is like a new beginning, a conclusion to a process that you hoped would take less time.  
      That is not the only challenge of moving from one community to another.    We are required to learn new names and faces; street names and directions; customs; laws; and the ways in which people are related to and relate to each other.  Beginning in a new community means having to reestablish yourself in a neighborhood and, perhaps, in a professional position,  all over again.   There are aspects of this process that are like a rebirth, which can be invigorating.  Yet, it can also be discouraging, when the process of integration in a new city doesn’t move as quickly as one would hope.   Along with the adage “all beginnings are hard” at the start of Chaim Potok’s novel is the statement, “be patient.”   Patience is a virtue while moving through a transition and it is important to identify the challenges that are central to any new beginning.
      Genesis Chapter 2 actively hints at what those challenges might be.   When we move to a new place, we need food and shelter.   The man, ADAM, upon being placed in the Garden of Eden, had ready-made shelter – the Garden itself, which was under God’s watchful protection.  There was abundant food, so there was no need to go the local grocery store or farmer’s market.  The ADAM could eat all he wanted from any tree in the garden.  Well, not any tree – there was one exception.  If he ate of the tree of all knowledge, he would “die,” but not immediately. Eating of that tree would let the human being know whether or not he was satisfied with his life.  He would have to make decisions, moral and otherwise.   Mostly, he was not allowed to possess the many types of knowledge that we take for granted and still retain his immortality.   So that was the one “NO” for the ADAM’s existence. All the rest was a resounding YES – almost. 
      God had said in Chapter 1 of Genesis that everything was TOV – good – and that making human beings rendered all of creation VERY GOOD – TOV M’OD.   Many scholars say that Genesis Chapter 2 is a second creation story in the Torah that serves a different purpose than the narrative in Chapter 1.  The central lesson of the passage that I am about to read is that God saw that it was LO TOV – NOT GOOD - for the ADAM to be alone.  The order of creation didn’t matter here.  What was important was that feeling of a lack of completeness in the human being’s existence.  ADAM needed a counterpart – an equal – who could be a challenger when necessary, but, mainly an EIZER K’NEGDO, an equal and opposite helper and source of support.   Don’t think for a minute that this phrase meant that the helper would be subordinate to the ADAM.   The language and several commentaries agree that God was hoping to provide the ADAM with a true partner to stand by his side and carry the burden of their shared life, whatever it might be.
      In the same way that we familiarize ourselves with the names of new people we meet and the streets on which they live when we move to a new place, the ADAM gave names to all of the animals who potentially could have been an equal helper.   They could offer the man EZRA, assistance, to some extent.  None of the animals fit the requirement of K’NEGDO – opposite him, a definite equal who would complement and supplement the ADAM.    What was missing from the Garden of Eden was true human community.   So GOD gave the ADAM the best divine anesthetic available in the Garden, and engaged in the first episode of human cloning, using a rib.   God didn’t just MAKE – OSEH – the human counterpart for the ADAM who would be called ISHAH.  God BUILT – BONEH – the ISHAH.   God had fashioned – VAYITZER – the ADAM from the dust of the soil like a sculptor.   God built the woman like an architect would create a building, indicating that the EZER K’NEGDO needed to be strong in living alongside the ADAM.   The words fashion, create and build all refer to what we do to foster a sense of community.  This building process doesn’t just happen by itself.  It takes work, time, patience, fortitude, energy, and partnership.    It isn’t good to be alone, and that is what being a community is all about.  We seek the ties of community so we will have people around us with whom to make our lives meaningful and to whom we can turn when the challenges of inevitable changes come our way.   Fellow community members can be our very own OZRIM – helpers to see us through difficult times. 
    Finally, at the end of this section that I will be reading, the ADAM saw the ISHAH and spoke for the first time, offering what is actually a poetic form of address:
This time – or, perhaps, at this moment
Bone of my bone
Flesh of my flesh
Let this one be called woman – ISHAH
For this one is taken from ISH – man.
   Up to this point in the text, only the word ADAM meant a human being.  This short poem uses  two words for human beings: ISH for the male and ISHAH for the female, with both of them as part of ADAM, humanity.   The declaration of the ISH was not meant to lay a claim of superiority or ownership on the ISHAH.  It was an exclamatory acknowledgement of the arrival of his EZER K’NEGO – his counterpart that turned his solitude into community.
     One of the reasons that I like to sing “HINEI MAH TOV” at the beginning or end of a service is that it is one of the most classic and accessible Jewish statements about what community should look like, especially because it includes the words SHEVET – dwell – and YACHAD, together.   We know that the tale of the man and woman, commonly known as Adam and Eve, continues in Genesis with unfortunate violations of God’s rules about the tree of ALL KNOWLEDGE and about the value of human life.    Even then, the portion B’raysheet concludes with the beginning of a human community that was called upon to face life’s challenges with strength and wisdom.  This story is likely in the Torah to remind us that all beginnings are hard, but that they are just a little easier when we face them together, even when we ourselves choose to leave everything behind to start a new phase of our lives.  So when we see people in our community engaging in new beginnings of their own, may we offer EZRA – help – and CHOCHMAH – wisdom – to make their path smooth and fruitful in a way that will offer all of us strength and hope.  And let us say AMEN.

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