Sunday, September 22, 2013

Beginning with Questions (Bereshit)

Years ago, at a conference, I heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein suggest that one could spend a lifetime of Jewish learning focused on just the questions that God asks in the Torah.

This week, at Simchat Torah, we will complete the scroll, with the death of Moses, and then begin anew with the creation narratives in Genesis.  Studying this material, I’ve been thinking of Rabbi Feinstein’s wisdom, because the opening of the Torah contains God’s first three questions—which, in a way, encapsulate the entire enterprise that follows.

The first comes in the Garden of Eden, just after Adam and Eve have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Feeling guilty, they try to flea from the presence of God, who asks, “Ayeka—Where are you?” 

God is not interested in playing hide and seek.  S/he knows very well where they are, physically and spiritually.  But God is giving them an opportunity to step up and acknowledge their actions, to say, “Hineni—Here I am, ready to accept responsibility for my choices."  When they, alas, fail to do so, God gives them a second chance and asks: “What have you done?”  Again, they do not rise to the occasion, as Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent.  God’s first two questions present opportunities, lost to Adam and Eve.

So, too, with Cain.  Just before he kills his brother, Abel, God asks him, “Why are you angry?”  And after the first fratricide, God (knowing very well what Cain has done) inquires, “Where is your brother?” Cain replies with a cynical question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Again, the Holy One offers the opportunity to reflect and learn through questioning, and again, the human blows it.

But we can do better.  We are each Adam and Eve and Cain.  God’s questions are addressed to all of us, and, in the end, it really comes down to these three: Where are you?  Where is your brother?  What have you done?

Where are we? 
In this still-new year, we reflect on where we’ve been and where we are headed.  Are we ready to accept responsibility for our choices and to make changes, when needed?

Where are our brothers and sisters?
It is not enough to address our own spiritual concerns.  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  When others suffer, we must not stand idle.   One cannot be religious without engaging the wider world and working towards healing—tikkun olam.

What have we done?
And what will we do?  As Hillel reminds us, if not now, when?
The time to begin making repairs, both within our own souls and in the world at large, is here and now.  The hardest part is to begin.  As we read portion Bereshit—In the Beginning—we learn of God’s beginnings and find inspiration toward our own.

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