Monday, October 15, 2012

D'var Torah: Bereishit

This is the d'var torah I gave last Friday night at Shir HaMa'alot, a minyan here in Brooklyn. If you've read other things I've written, you might think that some of this sounds familiar - and you would be right, because I completely, unashamedly stole from myself.

Every year, I’m a little surprised by the number of people I see celebrating the end of the chagim. It’s a very specific type of celebration – the closest analogue I have is the way that people celebrate at the end of a session of summer camp. The idea is that Jewish time is over, and now we can get back to the real world and our regularly scheduled lives.

I think I find it surprising because I don't feel like anything is over. When Simchat Torah ends, it’s not like Judaism is over - we just go back to the beginning of the cycle and start all over again with Parsha Bereishit. And it’s not even a new beginning – we’ve heard it all before. “Bereishit bara elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz;" “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." and on and on, etc., etc.

To live in the Jewish community is to operate at a heightened awareness of time – we are living in the middle of four concentric circles – the daily rhythm of prayer surrounded by the weekly rhythm of Shabbat, the monthly cycle of Rosh Chodesh, and the yearly cycle of the holidays. I sometimes find that it can be exhausting and overwhelming to contemplate the idea of starting this cycle over yet again. After all, how am I supposed to pay attention to the words of Bereishit, when I’ve heard them at least 25 times before?

There’s a fantastic scene in The Muppet Movie, when all of the Muppets are gathered around a campfire in the desert and Gonzo sings one of my favorite songs of all time: 

     This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.
     Almost unreal,'s too soon to feel yet.
     Close to my soul and yet so far away;
     I'm going to go back there someday.

Clearly Gonzo isn’t singing about Jewish time or the Torah – in fact, he’s an alien singing about an experience of flight – but nevertheless, the words resonate. "This looks familiar, vaguely familiar" - we’ve been here before.

In this week’s parsha, God literally creates time by creating the stars and the sun and the moon, separating between day and night, and dictating that the seventh day will be a day of rest. In this conception, time is a very regular and linear progression. Day by day, week by week, year by year, time passes. But there are other ways for us to conceive of time.

Over the summer, I read an essay from Contents magazine called “10 Timeframes” by Paul Ford. You might have heard me talk about it before, because I completely fell in love with it. The piece covers a number of different topics – but my favorite by far is Ford’s conception of the measurement and value of time. “The only unit of time that matters is heartbeats,” he writes.

“Even if the world were totally silent, even in a dark room covered in five layers of foam, you’d be able to count your own heartbeats. …There is an immense opportunity to look at our temporal world and think about calendars and clocks and human behavior, to think about each interaction as a specific unit, to take careful note of how we parcel out moments.”
It would be reasonable, right now, for me to talk about how important it is for you to value your time, and to use it wisely. But the truth is that I’m not particularly concerned with how you spend your personal time. You are people with gifts – you are skilled and talented and young and bright - and you’re going to make smart decisions. I don’t need to tell you to spend your heartbeats wisely, because I’m pretty sure that you already do.

What I want us to think about instead is, what does it mean that an entire year's worth of time can pass and yet we find ourselves exactly where we started out, at the beginning of Bereishit yet again?

I know that my life looks nothing like it did the last time I heard these words. In the past six months alone I quit my job, attempted to bike from Chicago to D.C., got clipped by a bus in Pittsburgh, and started graduate school. I made new friends, gained new family members, mourned the loss of dear ones, and felt those wounds begin to heal. I feel, in many ways, like an entirely different person.

My point is this: it’s true – the text of B’reishit isn’t any different than it was a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that – and it’s not going to be any different a year in the future. But maybe the point of reading the same things year after year after year is that they don’t change – but we do. What we’re doing when we revisit the parsha for the umpteenth time isn’t reading the words of the Torah, but rather, we’re reading ourselves.

My challenge to you, then, is not to celebrate the end of the chagim, leaving Jewish time and returning to the real world. It’s to embrace Jewish time, and let it guide the real world. Whether we’re counting the stars in the sky to calculate the end of Shabbat, or counting our heartbeats as we interact with friends and family - let’s spend the next year eagerly anticipating the return of the chagim, embracing the weekly encounter with a familiar story as a chance to reflect on where we have been and where we are going.

Shabbat shalom.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Free Hit Counter