Parashat Bereishit (Genesis, 1:1-6:8)
As the saying goes: “All beginnings are difficult.” We are reading Bereshit, “In the beginning…,” again. It is the start of a New Year and I am filled with the tentative joy and trepidation of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem.
Just at the opening of the gates at Kol Nidrei, I stood with my three-month-old granddaughter, Naomi Tzipora, in my arms—my daughter and son-in-law by my side—filled with hope and awe, holding our wholeness along with the shards. We were bound by tiny threads, but I felt that any blast–a hurricane or a harsh word—could tear us apart.
That day, Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, the founder of Congregation Tzion in Jerusalem, spoke about the opening of a book, or rather, the Book of Life.
What is inscribed there? According to the sages, when Adam was first created, God presented the Book of Life to him, as it says, “This is the book of human begettings [zeh sefer toledot adam]…” (Gen. 5:2). He showed him his progeny, but also the progeny of every generation to follow [dor ve-dorshav], the generations of the prophets, the generations of the scribes, and the generations of wise Rabbis, and so forth. Each and every soul that was to be born and to die was inscribed in the Book (Seder ‘Olam Rabbah ch. 30, cf. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 38b). Why show Adam the Book, if the fate of each being was already determined? Wherefore free will? Why would we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life if our fate has already been set? What does that prayer even mean? Even the most secular of us tremble at the words: “who will live and who will die…who by fire, who by water…” from the great liturgical poem of U-n’taneh Tokef of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Especially in Israel, we feel our fragility close to the bone. Yet, as the sages teach, we can change our fate. During the Days of Awe, God may move from the Seat of Judgement [kis’ei ha-din] to the Mercy Seat [kis’ei ha-rahamim] (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 16b).
So too, Adam was shown the Book in order to teach him a great principle, as the quote continues: “This is the book of human begettings [zeh sefer toledot adam]. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God” (Gen. 5:1). Being made in the image of God implies that you can change the inscription in the Book. The midrash teaches us that Repentance was created before the world )Babylonian Talmud 54a). The possibility of change was built into the fabric of Creation, was built into the seeming irreversibility of time’s arrow. Repentance rages against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
That is, we may move our own lives from the “Judgement Seat [kis’ei ha-din],” from being judged in the image of our ancestors, imprinted with the mistakes of our parents, our grandparents, in cycles of wrong-doing without end, to the “Mercy Seat [kis’ei ha-rahamim]”. Teshuva allows us to step out of that circle, to change. Rabba Appelbaum asked us to consider the story of Esther. She was beautiful (Est. 2:7), like her ancestors—King Saul (1 Sam. 9:2) and Joseph (Gen. 39:6), and like the matriarch, Rachel (Gen. 29:17). But she was caught in a web of external appearances, a victim of her good looks like Rachel—the most beloved of Jacob, whose marriage was tragically deferred—and like Joseph, who refused the wife of Potiphar’s advances and was thrown in jail, and like Saul, admired for the way humans see, but not as God sees, “for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look with the eyes, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). When does Esther step out of what is inscribed for her in the Book? When she breaks out of the cycle of her ancestors’ characteristic and transforms her beauty into a source of salvation.
Likewise, consider the stories of deception that lead up to the Davidic line in the Bible: the story of Lot’s daughters lying with their drunken father and conceiving the founding fathers of Ammon and Moab (Gen. 19); the story of Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law, Judah, posing as a harlot by the crossroads (Gen. 38); and Boaz and Ruth, the Moabite, in the granary (Ruth 3). As a descendant of Judah, Boaz might too have been duped, seduced, for the sake of conceiving a child; Ruth, the Moabite, might have played the same bedtrick as her ancestress, Lot’s daughter. When do they step out of the fate inscribed in the Book? When Boaz wakes up at a midnight, startled to see Ruth lying at his feet, and asks:“Who are you” (Ruth 3:9). As a result of their union, which entails recognition before the seed is planted in the womb, a child is born who becomes the grandfather of King David, founder of the messianic dynasty.
We each have our dark secrets in the family, cycles bound to be repeated inexorably, but we can choose not to replay them again. So God presents the Book to Adam, and tells him: You are made in the image of God. You can change. You are a partner with God in that image making.
I hold my beautiful granddaughter in my arms, Naomi Tzipora, named after my own Bubby (Frances “Fayge” Bromstein, z”l), and I pray that she will carry her grandmother’s laughter and light, but also that she not be bound by the dark fate of our own family tragedies. I look into the Book and hold those words that could be unbearably heavy or buoyant, inscribed as cuneiform letters in stone tablets or as feathered wisps of ink, and know that she will determine her own fate. I can only show her the Book of her begettings.
All beginnings are difficult, but may this year’s Bereshit, “In the beginning…”, set you free.
Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She received her PhD at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. When she is not writing books, articles, or divrei torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.
Don’t miss the Hebrew College Ordination Programs Open House and Day of Learning, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 6, 2017. Meet Professor Adelman and learn more about our Rabbinical School at Hebrew College.