Creation: Some Questions

This week we begin reading the Torah again from the beginning, starting with the two famous creation stories in Genesis 1 – 3.

That’s right, two stories. They aren’t long. For this exercise, go read them both. One begins at Genesis 1:1, and the other starts at Genesis 2:4. Take notes as you read, just a quick list of what happens in each. Then compare the two lists for the two stories.

See anything interesting? These are two different stories! They contradict each other in many ways. We are often conditioned by Sunday school classes to “blend” the two stories to avoid seeing the differences, but I encourage you to look for those differences.

Now ask yourself: why are there two stories that contradict each other? (Please, I would love to hear your answers in the comments!)

OK, now I am going to be a pushy teacher and instead of leaving you with your own delightful thoughts about that question, I’m going to offer you an idea of my own about it. If you’d rather not, by all means, just stop reading at the little line below.


My theory: those two conflicting stories are there as a clue that we were never intended to read these stories as history. They aren’t “what really happened” – they can’t be, they contradict.

What they are is a collection of  basic ideas about the world, a Jewish worldview:

  • The world is not chaos, there is an underlying Unity of some kind.
  • Human beings are constructed to live in relationship with one other.
  • Human beings  do not “own” creation.
  • Life is not easy.
  • … and many more.

I imagine you can distill other ideas from these stories, ideas about the world and our place in it. I hope you’ll share those ideas in the comments.

The Creation of Jewish Time

The Jewish “day” begins at sundown. This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with anything.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

Why not accommodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because in Judaism, time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.

Notice the cycle of seasons.

Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention!

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:

“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

It is In Our Power: Creating a Better World

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

Chapter 1 of Genesis teaches us that words create worlds.

That’s all. You can get hung up on “days” or evolution if you wish, but the message there is plain as day: words create worlds.

Jewish tradition teaches us that this kind of creation did not stop with the first Shabbat: each of us has this beautiful, terrible power to create realities with our words. Jewish tradition teaches us that saying embarrassing words can cause wounds so real that they are the equivalent of murder.

Recently I saw a clip of a 1962 speech by Malcolm X, and in it he elucidates the ways in which our media create a reality that frames the way we interpret violence. His point was very Jewish: words create reality. If most of what we see of African Americans in the news is about criminal activity, then we are less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to any African American who is arrested or injured by police. If any good news about an African American is framed as a “remarkable accomplishment,” then we are inclined to think that most are not capable or not willing.

Words create worlds. When I hear that someone has been stopped for questioning, do I assume that they are guilty of something? What if I hear that a person I know has been stopped? What if I hear that a person like me has been stopped? And what if I hear that a person from a stigmatized category has been stopped? What do I think then?

We have to fight for the world in which we wish to live. We have to create a good world every day, with our speech and with the words to which we choose to listen. We have to speak that world, live that world, will that world into being. We have to root out the remnants of any other world from the dusty corners of our psyches and say: Begone! For only then will we be free enough to fulfill the command:

 Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

Vayeshev: What Changed Joseph?

This post was given as a sermon at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada on December 12, 2014, Shabbat Vayeshev

I’m going to start tonight with a personal question, a question I want you to answer only in your own heart:

Was there ever been a time in your life when you felt utterly abandoned by everyone? A time when you felt that the people you depended on had failed you, or turned on you? When you had no friends at all, and you were in awful trouble?

Maybe you have been fortunate, and have never had that experience. If that’s the case, I ask you to imagine it.

That’s exactly the situation our ancestor Joseph is in at the end of this week’s Torah portion. He is sitting in prison. His brothers debated killing him, and instead sold him into slavery. He managed to rise to a position of trust in the household of an important man, and his employer’s wife turned on him. He managed to make an influential friend in prison, and that friend has forgotten him.

There is no question that Joseph started out as a foolish young man.

He was spoiled by his father. When at age 17 he went to his father to tattle on his brothers, Jacob did not teach him about lashon harah. He did not teach Joseph not to talk about others. Instead, Jacob gave him a fancy coat.

Joseph was so naive that it never occurred to him that his brothers’ hatred was serious business.

Those who should have taught him and protected him failed him again and again: His father did not teach him. His brothers turned on him in anger.

And let’s face it, the boy seems to have been pretty clueless.

So he winds up in Egypt, a slave. He has one piece of luck: he is purchased by an important man, Potiphar. He rises to a position of trust in the household. But then, because he is young and foolish, because he has no one to advise him, he makes another mistake.

Just as he failed to see the danger in his brother’s anger, he fails to see the danger in the desire of Potiphar’s wife.

A wiser man would never be alone in the house with her. A wiser man might have made sure there were other servants around at all times. After all, he was the steward of the household! He gave the orders!

Instead, he was accused of a terrible crime for which he had no alibi. His master, furious, put him in prison.

And there he sat, without friends, without family. He was a foreigner. He had been accused of a terrible crime. He had no way to prove his innocence.

Even when he made a friend – Even when it looked like there might be hope, he was forgotten. He had been left to rot.

The chapter ends with Joseph in jail, abandoned.

The next chapter begins two years later, and Joseph seems to be a different man. As foolish as he had been before, Joseph became wise.

The text leaves us to wonder what happened during those two years sitting in Pharaoh’s jail?

When there is a gap in the Biblical story we look to Midrash, to the stories of the rabbis to help us understand.

Midrash tells us that Joseph spent his time in jail learning.

He learned the languages of all the men imprisoned there. 

He reflected upon the lessons of his father Jacob,

who had taught him about the One God who demands that we act with justice and kindness.

So the boy who was sold into slavery

The boy who was only interested in himself

Became a man who was interested in other people.

Became a man who learned languages so that he could understand people.

He became a man who reflected not on his own dreams but upon the dreams of others.

Joseph the spoiled brat became Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous Man.

So what’s the lesson here? What’s the point?

One thing we can learn is what to do when, like Joseph, we feel that we have been abandoned by everyone, when everything is hopeless.

We can learn.

Instead of focusing on what others have done to us, we can do what Joseph did: we can learn how to listen and how to talk with others.

Instead of allowing bitterness to fill our souls, or worse yet, plotting our revenge, we can reflect on a God who commands that we act with justice and kindness.

We can learn to let go of “me, me, me” and look beyond ourselves and our own aggrandizement.

Psalm 1 tells us this about the tzaddik, the righteous person:

“His delight is in the Torah of the Eternal; and in God’s Torah he meditates day and night.”

Torah is often translated “Law” but it is more correctly translated “Teaching.” And what Joseph teaches us, and the Psalmist underlines, is that when we feel that things can get no worse, the best thing we can do is learn.

By this I don’t mean “learn our lesson,” although sometimes, that’s one thing we need to do. Rather, I mean something much larger: we need to learn everything we can about how to connect to other people. Because when we are sitting in that lowest place one of the things that has gone wrong is our connections to others.

Torah teaches us many ways to connect:

Abraham teaches hospitality.

Isaac teaches how to get along with angry neighbors.

Jacob teaches us how (and how not to!) deal with our relatives.

Joseph taught us many things, but in his great moment of teshuvah in the prison, he taught us the most important lessons of all:

Learn Torah.

Learn about ourselves and our mistakes.

Learn about others.

Learn how to speak and to listen to people different from ourselves.

Learn new ways to be with others.


For it is by learning that we grow, it is in learning that we expand our horizons.

It is in learning that we begin to connect with the world outside ourselves.

If we can do that, if we can learn how to go from the narrow prison to the wider world,

We can become agents of our own change,

agents of Torah in the wider world.  

Shabbat shalom.

Romantic Comedy – in Genesis?

CamelsOne of my favorite stories in the Bible is the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac.

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. – Gen 24: 63

The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that Isaac was out saying his evening prayers. He finishes them, and looks up. Note what he sees: he sees camels.

And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she alighted from the camel. – Gen 24: 64

There is a parallel structure and a little comedy here: Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees camels. Rebekah lifts up her eyes and sees Isaac. Then, despite the translator’s attempt at decorum, the comedy broadens to slapstick. Rebecca sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. This translator says “alighted” but the simplest translation of the verb  וַתִּפֹּל, מֵעַל הַגָּמָל is “and she fell from [her seat] upon the camel.” Rebecca sees Isaac, and she loses it: she quite literally falls for him.

And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her veil, and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. –Gen 24: 65-66

Rebecca, now sitting in a heap on the ground, asks the servant, “Who’s that?” And the servant gives her the answer she hopes for, and she realizes she’s a disheveled heap on the ground. She takes her veil and covers herself. She’s embarrassed: this handsome fellow has seen her and she’s come across as a klutz who can’t even stay on a camel!

The servant, though, is oblivious: his business is with Isaac. Interesting, isn’t it, that he now reports to Isaac, not Abraham?

Our story (or at least this chapter) has a happy ending, with a twist:

And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother. –Gen 24:67

He brought her into his mother’s tent, which isn’t as weird as it sounds to a modern ear. Earlier in the chapter, Abraham insists that Isaac not go to find a wife, but that the servant must bring her back with him. Modern commentators suggest that this is because the tribes at the time were matrilocal: men went to live with their wives’ relatives, not the other way around. Abraham was concerned that Isaac stay in Canaan, where he believed the future of his descendants lay. So by taking Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, Isaac is telling Rebekah that she is the new matriarch of this tribe.

There’s no elaborate wedding; the betrothal [kiddushin] happened back at Rebekah’s childhood home, with the gifts of gold, and sex [nisuin] seals the deal. Somewhere along the line, Isaac also falls for Rebekah: the text says that he loves her.

Then we get the line about comfort, and post-Freud, it all seems a bit much. Keep in mind that the Biblical author never heard of the Oedipus complex. Rebekah is the new matriarch, and she fills the shoes of Sarah.

Do you have a favorite love story in the Bible?

Sarah’s Choices

Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky
Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Imanu Sarah: Sarah, Our Mother. Sarah was the wife of Abraham, and yet she is a mystery. The Book of Genesis has many passages that mention her:

She was the half-sister and wife of a chieftain. (Genesis 20: 11-12)

We know that she was beautiful, so beautiful that the Pharaoh of Egypt wanted her for his harem.  (Genesis 12:11)

She was sometimes cruel in her dealings with her servants. (Genesis 16)

She had a sense of humor, but laughed at the wrong moments. (Genesis 18:12)

At 90, she was still so beautiful that the king of Gerar wanted her for his harem. Twice in her life her husband handed her over as a concubine to men that he feared. (Genesis 20)

Later that year, she conceived a child by Abraham and gave birth – at age 90. (Genesis 21: 1-8)

She was fiercely protective of her son Isaac, and demanded that his half-brother Isaac and his mother, her servant, be sent out into the desert to die. (Genesis 21: 9-21) The text is unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing to Isaac, but certainly he was an older male with a claim on Abraham’s estate, and Sarah was ruthless in getting rid of him and his mother.

At some later date, Abraham believed he had been told by God to take Isaac and sacrifice him. God intervened, and Isaac lived.

We do not know what happened between Abraham and Sarah after that. In Genesis 23, the text says that Sarah died at Hebron, where she was apparently living apart from Abraham, since he had to “come” [vayavo] to mourn for her and bury her. We know from the previous chapter that he had taken other wives or concubines, and had children by them.

We know nothing about Sarah’s feelings, except for the times that she was jealous of Hagar. We know about the time she laughed at Abraham, although God covered for her and said she was laughing about herself. (Genesis 18: 12-13) We don’t know how she felt about being passed off as a “sister,” handed to two different kings as a concubine.

We know that her son mourned her for a long time. (Genesis 24:67)

All that we know, we know through a narrator who was much more interested in other people and things. But even that narrator cannot deny that Sarah’s decisions had consequences: her choices to twice play along with the fiction that she was single, to give Hagar to her husband, to banish Hagar and Ishmael, to protect Isaac. Even though she was not much more than property in the world she inhabited, Sarah’s choices had world-changing consequences.

When ever I feel that no one is listening, that I am too small to matter, I remind myself of Sarah. Every choice we make has powerful potential.

Choices have consequences, sometimes long-ranging ones. May we all make good choices this week, for we never know when it may turn out to be important.

Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)
Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.