Savoring Genesis

A friend of mine, who is also a rabbi, once tried a new way of reading the Torah in his congregation. He chose to follow an ancient form of the triennial cycle in which the Torah was divided into 150 portions and read consecutively over a three year period. (The modern triennial cycle divides each portion into thirds and reads the first third of every portion in the first year of the cycle, the middle third in the second year and the last third in the third year.) In the ancient cycle, a congregation would begin reading the Book of Genesis in the fall, right after Sukkot, and instead of finishing the book in 10 weeks would finish it in six months. My friend experimented with this ancient cycle but ultimately abandoned it because his congregation thought it was awkward to be out of sync with the Torah reading cycle followed by the rest of the world.

It was a nice idea, though, because it enabled the congregation to dwell on many of the stories and lessons in the Torah without feeling rushed. As my friend once told me, “while the rest of the world is reading about animal sacrifices we’re still savoring the juicy stories of Genesis and Exodus (of course, while the rest of the world was on Numbers and Deuteronomy they were “savoring” Leviticus!).

I feel that way about the Book of Genesis. There are so many wonderful stories and messages contained in each portion that it’s a shame to pass them by so quickly. This week’s portion—Lech Lecha—is a good example. The parasha spans chapters 12-17 of Genesis. There’s simply too much material to read and study all of it. Usually there’s one D’var Torah offered during the synagogue service, and maybe those who attend a class or a meeting will hear a second D’var Torah. Once we finish reading the parasha in the synagogue on Shabbat morning, we set it aside until we return to it next year.

One thing we can do to savor the stories of the Book of Genesis is to spend some extra time reading and studying on our own. There happen to be many books on the Genesis narratives. Some of them are written by psychologists, some by scholars, and some by lawyers. So I encourage you to acquire some of these books and spend some time delving into the juicy stories of Genesis during the next couple of months as we read this fascinating book in the synagogue. I guarantee that you’ll find something of meaning to enhance your life and your relationships with family and friends.

Below are some of the better books on the stories found in Genesis. Most of them are very readable and accessible. Pick one or two and get ready for some enjoyable insights into everyday life.

Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights For Our Lives

By Norman J. Cohen

The Beginning of Wisdom

By Leon Kass

Wrestling With Angels: What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships

By Naomi Rosenblatt

The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law

By Alan Dershowitz

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

By Bruce Feiler

The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Genesis: A Living Conversations

By Bill Moyers

The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development

By Burton Visotzky

Our Fathers’ Wells

By Peter Pitzele

And…no list of books about Genesis would be complete with a wonderful book by Oheb Shalom’s own Ada Feyerick. Genesis: World of Myths and Patriarchs is a marvelous book about the civilizations that gave rise to the world of Genesis.

Poverty, or Not?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, the Torah makes two apparently conflicting statements, both occurring in chapter 15. The first statement is “There shall be no needy among you since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion” (Deuteronomy 15:4). The second, coming a few verses later, is “If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” (Deuteronomy 15:7). And that is followed by “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…open your hand to the poor” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Is it inevitable that there will be poor people, or not? The Torah tells us that there will be no needy among us, but quickly follows that statement with two opposite statements that instruct us to be generous with the poor, for they will surely exist among us. The answer to this quandary may be found in the second part of verse 4: “If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” The first verse quoted above, the one that seems to promise that there will be no needy among us, is conditioned upon our loyal and dutiful embrace of God’s commandments, chief among these being the commandment to create a just and balanced society in which those who are blessed with plenty share what they have with those who are less fortunate. So the answer to the quandary is mixed. There may be people in need, but not for long as their needs will be addressed. Some of us will have more and some will have less, some will have good fortune and some will not, but if we create a society based on generosity and sharing, poverty won’t become institutionalized. Those in need will be taken care of.

Judaism has, from time immemorial, mandated a response to the existence of poverty. Rather than consign ourselves to the reality of the poor among us, rather than turn our backs and turn inward, we are commanded to be generous. Yes, commanded, because generosity doesn’t always come naturally. There are rules for giving tzedakah that aim both to uphold the dignity of the recipient and protect the giver as well. These rules are intended not to eliminate poverty, but to accommodate those in need by providing the basics of life to those who cannot provide for themselves. Judaism is not primarily a socialist system, in which everyone is guaranteed to have the same possessions and entitlements. Rather, we are a capitalist system which recognizes that some people will work harder, are more capable, or will have greater fortune, and therefore will have more than others. Our capitalism is modified by a large dose of compassion and mandated generosity for those who do not have enough to get by.

That system may leave us with the dilemma of knowing how much to give, to whom, and how to know that gifts to the poor will be used properly. To some degree, those questions are answered by the laws governing tzedakah. And, to some degree, they are answered by making a leap of faith when we give to the poor, a leap that is rooted in the knowledge that whatever material blessings we enjoy ultimately come from God.

Same Old, Same Old

I have a confession to make: I am a serial “upgrader.” I usually try to get the latest Smartphone or computer laptop on the market. The reality is that I probably don’t need the latest device, or even the one with all the “bells and whistles” that I currently have, and I could easily make do using the same devices I own. But living a vibrant Jewish life calls for an ongoing, thoughtful and reflective assessment of how we practice our religion. Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing the daily rituals of Judaism as unappealing and even boring.

We encounter this idea within the Torah portion we’ll read this Shabbat—Beha’alotecha. In chapter 8, we read a straightforward verse: “Aaron did so…he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” The commentaries on the verse do not see the verse as so straightforward. A 19th century Polish rabbi, Meir of Premishlan, seemed to be taken aback by the statement in the Torah that Aaron did as God had commanded Moses. Aaron was the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, so why wouldn’t he, of all people, do as God had commanded? Rabbi Meir writes that the verse teaches us that Aaron, despite his ascension to the role of High Priest, remained the man he had been, involved with others, making peace between individuals, remaining true to who he was and fulfilling his daily responsibilities. Regardless of personal success and status, Aaron kept about his daily routine.

The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, 18th century Lithuania) had a different take on the verse. He wrote that the verse teaches that there was no difference between the way he performed the commandment to light the lamp the first time and the way he performed it thereafter for the following 39 years, day after day. The Vilna Gaon credits Aaron with equivalent enthusiasm for the same task and not letting it become a matter of rote to him.

Perhaps that was true for Aaron, but I wonder if it is for the rest of us. While continuity of tradition is an important facet of Jewish life, we also need to be open to new ideas and new ways of experiencing Judaism. Not only do we need to see that Judaism remains relevant in our eyes, helping us to respond to the realities and trends of the times in which we live, but our practice of Judaism needs to grow and change as well. This is true in the arenas of prayer, ritual, holiday celebration and education.

Jewish tradition is a gift to each of us seasoned and sanctioned by time and the experiences of generations who have come before us. But as we embrace our tradition and prepare to pass it on to those who come after us, we should be willing to allow it to grow and change in new and exciting ways. We too can light the lamps, but perhaps we’ll find new and more exciting ways to do so.