Friday, October 24, 2008


Tomorrow morning, my weekly Torah study group, along with thousands of b'nei mitzvah children all over the world, will begin the Torah over again. The beginning comes, in my opinion, at the exact perfect moment, when the chill in the air and the gorgeous vibrant leaves and the deep azure of the Sound all bring the beauty of G-d's handiwork into sharp focus. It's as if, no matter what troubles or joys you are facing, you simply have to notice what a beautiful world we live in. And as a writer, very few narratives intrigue me as much as our sacred story of creation. Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz - in the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth - is one of those perfect first lines - in fact, it is THE perfect first line. And I think any writer worth their keyboard would agree.

Consider how some of the most compelling and intriguing stories begin with lines like: Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Or, Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet. The perfect combination of wanting to know more about the character and the action inherent in the text. From the moment you read it, you're hooked. Face it: you can't let the story go.

When I think about "in the beginning" it always makes me wonder. The beginning, by definition, can only take place once. And yet in life, we are innundated by beginnings, second and third acts, countless chances. The old saw, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is a powerful statement, but I'm curious as to whether it is actually true. Our gift of teshuvah, of personal evolution, of the ability to turn and change, and the not-so-unimportant blessing of other people's short term memory gives us that second chance all the time.

Just like with Torah: every year, we begin again. We rarely read it the same way twice. In each reading cycle, we are informed by internal and external circumstances, life changes, personal experience, and the opinions and ideas that other people bring to the table. The fact that we are not supposed to study alone makes that last quality perhaps the most important. Reading about the death of Miriam one year made me consider the justifiable frustration and anger of B'nei Yisrael having been "led on" through the desert, and now facing a crisis of inadequate water and supplies for the journey. A year later, having faced incalculable loss in my own life, all I could see was a distraught and grieving Moses simultaneously struggling to lead a people and mourn for his sister. That point of view had, of course, been at the table the year before - many of those teachers of Torah with whom I share in study every Shabbat had the knowledge way before I did. But it took looking at the text through my own lens of mourning to see it clearly.

Beginning again is also the hallmark of so many aspects of my own life: by definition, the writer is always beginning, whether it is a new book, a new chapter, a new sentence. And as is the case with so many fellow Jews-by-Choice, living life in a new faith and according to a new set of lifecycles accounts for numerous beginnings throughout the learning process of becoming Jewish -- and beyond. Consider the process: taking Intro to Judaism; beginning Hebrew classes. Starting with aleph instead of the letter A. Realizing that your day now starts at sundown rather than sunrise. Even figuring out how to keep kosher (which I still haven't managed to do) or how to conduct that first Seder or bake that first Rosh HaShana apple cake calls for looking at things in a way you've never seen them before, beginning again, over and over. It is certainly no accident that many of us who have trained as URJ Outreach Fellows call our discussion group for Jews-by-Choice "New Beginnings."

As I wrote recently, sometimes being at the beginning again can be scary. It is learning how to mark time and move forward poised between old knowledge and new, between who you've been and whom you've yet to become. Perhaps still reacting to old ghosts and ideas from the past and perhaps fearing what the future holds. It's an odd place to be.

But as my dear friend Reb Marci taught me in our recent online discussion about the death of Moses, Torah does not really allow us to dwell in the past; the story's very momentum commands us to move forward. And before we know it we are back at the table, in awe as our eyes behold the heavens and the earth, the stars in the firmament and every living thing according to its type. And perhaps there is nothing more perfect to say than the Holy One's own words: Ki tov.

1 comment:

Marci B. said...

I am so honored that you quoted me! Your posts are so lovely. It really is a "great first line." BTW - I am preaching about Lilith tonight. Yay for women's rights :)

Shabbat Shalom, bubbeleh!