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Friday, October 19, 2012

Bereshit and Noach: On Wisdom and Rest

Last week we began the annual torah-reading cycle over once again with the reading of Parshat Bereshit – the first chapters of the book of Bereshit/Genesis. This week we continue the narrative with Parshat Noach (Noah), which includes not only the story of Noah and the flood, but also the Tower of Babel.

As many of you are aware that there are certain portions in the Torah that are combined when it is not a leap year in the Jewish calendar and separated in leap years (when an entire extra month is added). Though Bereshit and Noach are not two such portions, I decided to treat them as if they were and see what might happen.

The first thing that struck me was the name of this new double portion – Bereshit Noach. This could be translated as "In the beginning. … rest." This new name fascinated me for many reasons. For in the beginning of the Creation narrative there was chaos and formlessness. This is followed by an almost frenetic six days of creative activity on God's part, separated by what seems like a momentary pause for God to remark "this is good!" before moving on to the next phase of creation. Only after the sixth day, when land animals and human beings are created, does God finally stop to rest and, reviewing all of the Divine work of creation proclaims, "this is VERY good!"

However, the words used to refer to God's rest are not from the same root as the name Noach (which does mean "rest" in other places in the Bible). The verbs used to describe the seventh day are all forms of the word "shavat" (the root of the word Shabbat/Sabbath). Though also translated as rest, this root refer to a cessation of work that only takes place this one time and which is experienced only by God. However, the Jewish people continue each week to attempt to recreate this unique type of rest on Shabbat. Later in the Torah, when we read about Shabbat in the narrative surrounding the Ten Commandments, we are told once again that God "shavat va'yinafash", ceased working and renewed, or more accurately, 're-souled' Godself!

And so how can we understand the name of the newly combined Torah portion, Bereshit-Noach? As human beings, perhaps it is impossible for us to ever reach the level of non-creation and total cessation of work that God was able to experience on that first Shabbat. Rather, we can only achieve the ordinary kind or rest referred to as noach and not the more divine rest of shavat. Yet, we continue to strive for that goal in our actions (or non-actions) on Shabbat and hope and pray for it in the words of our prayers. Still, perhaps there is another way to read this new name that I have conceived.

In various commentaries, the rabbis translated Bereshit as "with reshit" (for the prefix be' can be translated as either in or with). Reshit (from the word for head, or beginning), so said some rabbis and later the kabbalists/mystics is actually hochmah/wisdom. And wisdom is the Torah. In other words, the essence of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is wisdom. And the Torah and its wisdom were actually the blueprint for the work of creation. With wisdom/Torah, God created the heavens and the earth. Therefore, Bereshit Noach can mean with wisdom, with Torah, comes noach … rest. In experiencing the connection to the eternal wisdom of the divine that is within ourselves and our world (if we simply take the time to notice it) we can find rest. With Torah – the teachings of our ancestors, as well as our contemporaries and ourselves – we can find tranquility. Yet, this rest is still not the total cessation of acting or thinking, for that is something that is beyond the ability of human beings.

On the contrary, when we connect with the Eternal source of wisdom we often find ourselves in the position of feeling internally like we are anything but restful, for when we access the wisdom of the ages our mind begins to whirl. This is not what I would call restful! Yet, if we take the time to simply be still and simply experience whatever we are feeling, we can eventually experience a kind of stillness and repose, even in the midst of the whirlwind of our mind. In the end, isn't that what Noah did? In the midst of the storms and flood, he was somehow able to maintain a sense of composure as everything around him was destroyed (or so we imagine). Nowhere in the text is there any intimation that Noah's mind or heart are disturbed by the death and destruction around him. One can imagine that somehow he was able to remain at rest in spite of it all.

But wait! Is that what we aspire to? Is it our wish that we learn how to remain restful and content while death, destruction, pain and suffering goon around us? No … and yes. For what we must do in the face of the pain and destruction around us is to pay attention to and even experience that pain, while also learning how to maintain a sense of balance and restfulness. In this way, we connect with the suffering of the world, but we do not allow ourselves to get swallowed up by it. In this way, we can find the rest of Noach, but we do not become inured to the suffering around us. Finding that balance between experiencing the pain and finding tranquility leads us not to apathy or indifference, but rather to a sense of compassion and caring.

According to some commentators, Noah's biggest fault was his apathy and inaction. According to Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great Hassidic rebbe, Noah was the kind of tzaddik/righteous person who maintained his righteous behavior in terms of himself and his relationship with God, but NOT in terms of his relationship with others. Levi Yitzhak claimed (based on an earlier Talmudic interpretation) that Noah did nothing to convince other people to become righteous and to serve God. He did nothing to save humanity and the rest of the world, even when he knew that it was to be destroyed. He took care of himself and his family, but he cared for no one else. He lived up to his name in that his self-centered righteous behavior allowed him to be at peace, restful, with himself and God, while the rest of the world sat poised on the brink of destruction.

After the flood, Noah and his family began to rebuild the world, but we sense no remorse on his part that he did nothing to save his fellow human beings. And as we read of the re-population of the earth, we also find the sense of self-centered hubris once again increasing, finally reaching a pinnacle, as it were, in the story of the Tower of Babel. Here the people try to create a tower that will reach – and even exceed - God in the heavens. Yet, one might say this is not self-centeredness. After all, it was a group effort in which all the people were cooperating. But what this story really shows is how being self-centered can eventually beget a kind of communal hubris where people believe they are indeed the center of the universe. It is all about us as humans, not about the other parts of God's creation, such as animals or the environment. And in the end, not even about God.

Human beings believed so much in themselves and their belief that they were indeed the center of the universe, that they believed themselves able to build a structure that would put them on the same level as God, if not higher! Of course, as we know, the tower crumbled when God confounded them by creating different languages, thereby making it impossible for people to communicate. In the end, they learned that ultimately they were not the center of the earth.

The generation of the Tower of Babel found no rest because they were so caught up in their own grandiose sense of self-importance. Noah found rest, but it was a rest that separated him from creation and allowed suffering and destruction continue. Neither of these are examples to which we aspire.

And so where does this leave us? It leaves us back at the first words of the Torah. "Bereshit … with reshit …wisdom, God created the heavens and the earth …" Out of the chaos and formlessness that existed, God's wisdom created the earth. It was wisdom that created light, darkness, life, death, beast, fowl and human. It was wisdom that brought the world into existence and brought God into the world.

It is with hochmah/wisdom that we can create holiness for our world and ourselves and create a sense of noach/rest as well. By simply listening to the voice of God within us all, feeling the breathe of God in our lungs and sensing our connection with all of creation we can begin to feel a sense of peace, rest and repose.
It is from this place that we can achieve a sense of understanding of our place in the world and our purpose in life. It is this understanding that comes from the Eternal source of Wisdom, which enables us to clear our minds so that we can be at rest. It is from that place of restful knowledge and understanding that we are then able to see our world and ourselves more clearly. When we do this,
we, unlike Noah, see more clearly the pain within our lives and our world. We see more clearly what it is that we must do in order to decrease suffering and increase joy for all of humanity.

If Noah had accessed this type of restful knowledge perhaps he would have awoken to the reality and begun to try to help his fellow human beings. If the generation of the Tower of Babel had taken the time off from their work to realize this perhaps they would have ceased their futile efforts, given up their sense of self-aggrandizement and instead worked together to improve the situation on earth for all of God's creatures.

If only …

BereshitNoach .. connecting with the Divine wisdom within our world and within each of us, we have the ability to bring rest to ourselves and to our weary world. We have the ability to end suffering and bring holiness into the world. We have a limitless potential for compassion and joy! All we must do is stop for a moment, pay attention and realize it. That is how it all begins.

Shabbat Shalom.

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