parashat bereishit: what is our part in creation? sermon 2019

Rabbi Simcha Bunem of P’shis’kha is said to have taught that “Everyone must have two pockets. In one are to be the words “For my sake the world was created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) and in the other “I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)

Reading the stories of Creation in parashat Bereishit, one cannot but think of this teaching – for what is the world created? What is our part in this?

The Mishna Rav Bunem quotes from is a long one, the context being how to ensure a witness is appropriate and truthful in court, especially where the trial was of capital cases and other lives are at stake.  It includes the following statements: “for this reason  the human being was created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, scripture imputes [guilt] to them as though they had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture ascribes [merit] to them as though they had preserved a complete world.

Furthermore, [Adam was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, that one might not say to the other, “My father was greater than yours”, and that the heretics might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, for if a person strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the Holy One  created every person in the stamp of the first person, and yet not one of them is exactly alike. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake” (Sanhedrin 37a)

There is so much in this Mishnah, which is devoted to fair trials and proper process in judicial hearings. We are reminded that all people are equal, that our uniqueness and diversity do not alter the fact we are all from the same Creator. We are reminded that everyone encompasses a whole world, that our having lived will echo down the generations long after we are gone. We are reminded of the power of the one true God, whose greatness and creativity are the wellspring of everything and everyone in this world. All of this emphasises and underlines the absolute and indivisible importance of the life of every human being.

So it is not surprising that the fear of a court of law giving out the death penalty improperly hangs over much of these texts; and even though Torah imposes it for a range of things – such as breaking Shabbat, bringing God’s name into disrepute, some sexual sins, murder etc., the rabbinic tradition – even though essentially acting only theoretically since the Romans had removed the right of Jewish courts to punish- works hard at making such a punishment all but impossible.  Any such court had to have 23 extremely competent and experienced judges on it; should they agree unanimously that the death penalty should be applied the person must be acquitted; The offence being tried had to have been witnessed by two people, who had to have warned the perpetrator before the offence was committed, that this would be a capital offence, etc. etc.  In Mishnah Makkot we read “A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.”

The sanctity and uniqueness of every single life permeates these rabbinic texts, so much so that every person ever born is obliged to understand that the world was created for them, that they are essential in the world.

Reading back into the two creation stories, this sense of the supremacy and uniqueness of human life – of every human life – is extraordinarily humbling. But at the same time it brings a potentially problematical phenomenon that could cause great arrogance and selfishness.  This, I think, is the reason why we have two pockets in Rav Simcha Bunem’s teaching – we are mortal, made up of very ordinary and rather undesirable elements. The quotation comes from Avram, when he is arguing with God over what will happen to Sodom and Gomorrah. He prefaces his words challenging God with the words that show he recognises his worth, that the chutzpah of his challenge:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V’anokhi `afar va’efer

“I am but dust and ashes”. Avram knows that his is a breath that can be gone from this world so easily. As psalm 103 puts it “God knows how we are formed, remembers that we are dust. As for human beings, our days are like grass, we flourish like a flower of the field but the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows us no more….”

We are mortal, we have the same worth as the dust and ashes cleaned out of every home each day, we will return to the earth after our lifespan, and melt back into the soil. We are tolerated on this earth only so long as the breath of God animates our bodies, and we should not lose awareness of this lowly and dependant status.

It is generally understood that Rabbi Simcha Bunem wanted us to be able to locate ourselves between these two positions, articulated by the quotations in different pockets. That when we feel low and worthless we remind ourselves that for us the world was created, we are the most beloved creation of the great Creator; that when we feel a little too proud we remind ourselves of our mortality, much as memento mori function in art or in as artefacts we carry with us. Generally memento mori were designed to nudge us along, to motivate our living full lives – a slightly different image to how most people understand the words of Simcha Bunem. Generally his teaching is seen as a way of balancing our sense of self-worth, providing a corrective for our unbalanced sense of ourselves, but I think there is more than this going on.

The two quotations – one from Avram challenging God to behave with righteousness, the other from a mishnah set in the context of potential judicial execution (one might see them as essentially being the same situation) both remind us that for the sake even of a very few good people, rather than destroy the innocent along with the guilty, we must err on the side of protecting everyone present, of defending all those who live, regardless of the beliefs they espouse or the behaviour they enact.

These two quotations work together. Far from being either/or, the two bowls of a weighing scale or a continuum along which we must locate ourselves, they are a reminder that human life, while sacred, has a limited span. So we must use that span as well as we can, and endeavour to live up to the holiness inherent within it as well as allow the holiness of others to have a chance to blossom.

Each of the two quotations holds an extreme position, neither of them are a way for us to encounter the world and thrive. For those who arrogantly assume the world belongs to them, it would be easy to abuse this earth, taking and taking without thought of the future. For those whose self-awareness of our limited mortal state is so acute as to paralyse, our lives would simply fail to grow and we would not develop anywhere near our potential.   In the words of Rabbi Professor Dalia Marx, “I understand the passage as a warning: Both statements caution us against equally dangerous attitudes. Both are indications of an incomplete self, and are laced with a narcissistic thread. An “it’s-all -about-me” stance often reflects a sense of worthlessness. Instead of reaching into either pocket, instead of pampering one’s ego or denying it, we are challenged to use the ego carefully.”

These are not words of comfort to be brought out to make ourselves feel better. They are carefully selected reminders that human beings are the creation of God, and that we are here to do the work of God. We do not have the right to judge others to the point of removing them from this world, we do not have the right to wallow in our own impotence in the face of the politics we face nor to feel this is not our battleground as we are ok.

There is a sin we confess to in the Al Chet prayer we have just been reciting in every service of Yom Kippur – “for the sin we have committed by giving in to despair”.

We each of us despair. We despair the pain of refugees, we despair the problems of climate change and environmental disaster. We despair about the terrorism and racism growing in our world. We despair about the future for our children and the present which seems to chaotic.

The two quotations from Rabbi Simcha Bunem are warnings. We are warned to remember both our value and our mortality, and we are to use the two together to spur ourselves to the work of God – to creation. Some human beings may cause us anger by their behaviour, others may cause us to feel impotent at the situation they find themselves in, yet others may horrify us by their rhetoric – yet we are reminded each of them are created by God, each of them has a place in the world. It is not for us to make decisions about them, our work is to be spurred on to partner God in creation, to use – and to overcome – our ego, our fear and our pride – and to build a world that will be better for our having been in it.

Sermone Bereshit 2019/5780  Di rav Sylvia Rothschild

Si dice che il rabbino Simcha Bunem di P’shis’kha abbia insegnato che “Ognuno deve avere due tasche. In una vi sono le parole ‘Per amor mio il mondo è stato creato’ (Mishnà Sanhedrin 4:5) e nell’altra ‘Io sono solo polvere e cenere’. (Genesi 18:27)”

Leggendo le storie della Creazione nella Parashà di Bereshit, non si può non pensare a questo insegnamento: per cosa viene creato il mondo? Che parte abbiamo in tutto ciò?

La Mishnà dalla quale Rav Bunem cita è lunga, e il contesto riguarda il modo di garantire che un testimone sia appropriato e veritiero in tribunale, soprattutto qualora sia in corso un processo per casi capitali e siano in gioco altre vite. Sono incluse le seguenti affermazioni: “per questo motivo l’essere umano è stato creato singolo, per insegnarti che a chiunque distrugga una sola anima, le Scritture imputano [colpa] come se avesse distrutto un mondo completo; e a chiunque conservi una sola anima, le Scritture attribuiscono [merito] come se avesse preservato un mondo completo.

Inoltre, [Adamo è stato creato da solo] per motivi di pace tra le persone, in modo che uno non possa dire ad un altro: ‘Mio padre era più grande del tuo’ e che gli eretici non possano dire che ci siano tanti poteri al comando nei cieli; di nuovo, per proclamare la grandezza del Signore, perché se una persona conia molte monete da uno stampo, queste si assomigliano tutte, ma il Signore ha creato ogni persona con lo stampo della prima persona, eppure nessuna di esse è esattamente uguale. Pertanto ogni singola persona è obbligata a dire: ‘il mondo è stato creato per me’.” (Sanhedrin 37a).

Vi è davvero tanto in questa Mishnà, dedicata a processi equi e a un’adeguata procedura nelle udienze giudiziarie. Ci viene ricordato che tutte le persone sono uguali, che la nostra unicità e diversità non alterano il fatto che siamo tutti dello stesso Creatore. Ci viene ricordato che in ognuno è racchiuso un intero mondo, che il nostro aver vissuto echeggerà le generazioni molto tempo dopo la nostra scomparsa. Ci viene ricordato il potere dell’unico vero Dio, la cui grandezza e creatività sono la sorgente di tutto e di tutti in questo mondo. Tutto ciò enfatizza e sottolinea l’importanza assoluta e indivisibile della vita di ogni essere umano.

Quindi non sorprende che la paura di un tribunale che emette la pena di morte incomba impropriamente su gran parte di questi testi; e anche se la Torà la impone per una serie di cose,  quali rompere lo Shabbat, screditare il nome di Dio, alcuni peccati sessuali, omicidi etc., la tradizione rabbinica, anche se agendo essenzialmente solo su base teorica da quando i romani tolsero ai tribunali ebraici il diritto di punire, lavora sodo per rendere tale punizione quasi impossibile. Ogni tribunale di questo tipo doveva disporre di 23 giudici estremamente competenti ed esperti; se avessero concordato all’unanimità sull’applicazione della pena di morte, la persona doveva essere assolta; l’offesa in corso di giudizio doveva essere stata testimoniata da due persone, che dovevano aver avvertito l’autore prima che fosse commesso il reato che questo sarebbe stato un reato capitale, etc. In Mishnà Makkot leggiamo: “Un sinedrio che decide un’esecuzione una volta ogni sette anni si chiama omicida”. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azarià dice: “Una volta ogni settant’anni”. Rabbi Tarfon e Rabbi Akiva dicono: “Se fossimo stati membri di un sinedrio, nessuno sarebbe mai stato messo a morte”.

La santità e l’unicità di ogni singola vita permea questi testi rabbinici, al punto che chiunque sia nato è obbligato a capire che il mondo è stato creato per lui, e che lui è essenziale nel mondo.

Rileggendo le due storie della creazione, questo senso di supremazia e unicità della vita umana, di ogni vita umana, dona una straordinaria umiltà. Ma, allo stesso tempo, porta un fenomeno potenzialmente problematico che potrebbe causare grande arroganza ed egoismo. Questo, penso, è il motivo per cui abbiamo due tasche nell’insegnamento di Rav Simcha Bunem: siamo mortali, composti da elementi molto ordinari e piuttosto indesiderabili. La citazione viene da Abramo, quando egli discute con Dio su ciò che accadrà a Sodoma e Gomorra. Abramo premette alle sue parole di sfida verso Dio le parole che mostrano che egli riconosce il proprio valore, e qui sta la faccia tosta della sua sfida:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V’anokhi `afar va’efer

“Io sono solo polvere e cenere”. Abramo sa che il suo è un respiro che può andarsene da questo mondo facilmente. Come dice il salmo 103 “Dio conosce il nostro istinto. Si ricorda, ricorda che noi siamo polvere. I giorni dell’uomo sono brevi come quelli dell’erba, e la sua fioritura dura come quella di un fiore di campo, poiché basta che un alito divento passi su di lui ed egli non c’è più ed il luogo dove si trovava non lo conoscerà più… ”

Siamo mortali, abbiamo lo stesso valore della polvere e delle ceneri spazzate in ogni casa ogni giorno, torneremo alla terra dopo la nostra vita e ci scioglieremo di nuovo nel terreno. Siamo tollerati su questa terra solo fintanto che il respiro di Dio anima i nostri corpi e non dovremmo perdere la consapevolezza di questo stato umile e dipendente.

Resta generalmente inteso che il rabbino Simcha Bunem voleva che fossimo in grado di collocarci tra queste due posizioni, articolate dalle citazioni nelle due diverse tasche. Che quando ci sentiamo giù di morale e senza valore ricordiamo a noi stessi che il mondo è stato creato per noi,  che siamo la creazione più amata del grande Creatore; che quando ci sentiamo un po’ troppo orgogliosi ci ricordiamo della nostra mortalità, proprio come la funzione del ‘memento mori’ nell’arte o negli artefatti che portiamo con noi. Generalmente i memento mori sono stati progettati per spingerci avanti, per motivare il nostro vivere vite piene, un’immagine leggermente diversa da come la maggior parte delle persone intende le parole di Simcha Bunem. Generalmente il suo insegnamento è visto come un modo per bilanciare il nostro senso di autostima, fornendo un correttivo per il nostro squilibrato senso di noi stessi, anche se penso che ci sia molto di più.

Le due citazioni, una di Abramo che sfida Dio a comportarsi con giustizia, l’altra di una mishnà ambientata nel contesto di una potenziale esecuzione giudiziaria (il che potrebbe essere visto essenzialmente come la stessa situazione) ci ricordano entrambe che per amor di poche brave persone, piuttosto che distruggere gli innocenti insieme ai colpevoli dobbiamo sbagliare per proteggere tutti i presenti, per difendere tutti coloro che vivono, indipendentemente dalle convinzioni che sposano o dal comportamento che mettono in atto.

Queste due citazioni funzionano insieme. Lungi dall’essere “o l’una o l’altra”, o i due piatti di una bilancia o una linea continua lungo la quale dobbiamo sistemarci, ricordano che la vita umana, sebbene sacra, ha una durata limitata. Quindi dobbiamo usare questo arco nel miglior modo possibile e sforzarci di essere all’altezza della santità insita in essa e di permettere alla santità degli altri di avere una possibilità di fiorire.

Ciascuna delle due citazioni ha una posizione estrema, nessuna delle due è un modo per noi di affrontare il mondo e prosperare. Per coloro che presumono con arroganza che il mondo appartenga a loro, sarebbe facile abusare di questa terra continuando a prendere senza pensare al futuro. Per coloro la cui autocoscienza del nostro limitato stato mortale è così acuta da paralizzare, la nostra vita semplicemente non riuscirebbe a crescere e non ci svilupperemmo così da arrivare vicini al nostro potenziale, con le parole della professoressa Rabbina Dalia Marx: “interpreto il passaggio come un avvertimento: entrambe le affermazioni ci mettono in guardia contro atteggiamenti altrettanto pericolosi. Entrambe sono indicazioni di un sé incompleto e sono intrecciate con un filo narcisistico. La posizione ‘tutto ruota intorno me’ spesso riflette un senso di inutilità. Invece di entrare in una delle tasche, invece di coccolare il proprio ego o negarlo, siamo sfidati a usare l’ego con attenzione.”

Queste non sono parole di conforto da mettere in risalto per farci sentire meglio. Sono promemoria accuratamente selezionati: gli esseri umani sono la creazione di Dio e siamo qui per fare il lavoro di Dio. Non abbiamo il diritto di giudicare gli altri al punto di rimuoverli da questo mondo, non abbiamo il diritto di sguazzare nella nostra stessa impotenza quando affrontiamo la politica, né di sentire che questo non è il nostro campo di battaglia quando ci sentiamo bene.

C’è un peccato che confessiamo nella preghiera di Al Chet che abbiamo appena recitato in ogni servizio di Yom Kippur: “per il peccato che abbiamo commesso cedendo alla disperazione”.

Ognuno di noi dispera. Ci disperiamo del dolore dei rifugiati, ci disperiamo dei problemi del cambiamento climatico e del disastro ambientale. Ci disperiamo per il terrorismo e il razzismo che crescono nel nostro mondo. Ci disperiamo per il futuro dei nostri figli e per il presente che sembra caotico.

Le due citazioni del rabbino Simcha Bunem sono avvertimenti. Siamo avvertiti di ricordare sia il nostro valore che la nostra mortalità, e dobbiamo usarli insieme per spronarci all’opera di Dio: alla creazione. Alcuni esseri umani possono farci arrabbiare a causa del loro comportamento, altri possono farci sentire impotenti per la situazione in cui si trovano, mentre altri possono inorridirci con la loro retorica. Tuttavia ci viene ricordato che ognuno di loro è stato creato da Dio, ognuno di loro ha un posto nel mondo. Non spetta a noi prendere decisioni su di loro, il nostro lavoro deve essere incoraggiato a collaborare con Dio nella creazione, a usare, e a superare, il nostro ego, la nostra paura e il nostro orgoglio e a costruire un mondo che sarà migliore per il nostro esserci dentro.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

Racism- the continuing struggle against ‘othering’: a talk at Stand up to Racism 1.3.16

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish born Rabbi who became one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, marched arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr at Selma in 1965. Afterwards he wrote to him – “When I marched in Selma, I felt that my feet were praying”

heschel at selma

 

The three Selma to Montgomery marches were a non-violent way of highlighting racial injustice in the South of the USA, and contributed to the Voting Rights Act being passed the same year.

Rabbi Heschel wrote deeply and frequently about religion and race, which he felt were antithetical positions. He wrote that “to act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is the beloved child of God. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.” Such physical and visceral language about racism was reflected in his actions. Already nearing 60 years of age, he marched proudly, putting his body in the firing line for a principle he believed in deeply.

In a lecture given two years earlier he told his audience of Jews and Christians bluntly (National Conference of Christians and Jews on Religion and Race, 14 January 1963.) that

“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

He was speaking from a deep understanding of Jewish texts. And he was speaking from a position of recognising the commonality of all human beings. When we categorise people by race we stop seeing the uniqueness of each human person. And the greatest and most redemptive human quality is to have kinship, to build relationship with others with empathy and with respect. Heschel brought a wonderful insight to the biblical story of creation. He pointed out that the text speaks of the many kinds of plants and of animals created by God, that each one was different from the others, each one was to become the progenitor of its own species. And then he pointed out that in this text the creation of the human being was very different. There were no parallel species of different colours or characteristics, genders or races. There was one human being – the ‘Adam’, made from the ground itself, fashioned in the image of God. And that human being became the progenitor of all the diverse expressions of humankind. The ur-ancestor from whom we all descend – our humanity is bound up with each other, it has to be, and if we choose to divide ourselves and to hate “the other” then truly we are causing the maximum amount of cruelty for the minimum of thinking.

Bible did not notice race per se. In the ancient world right up to the time of the Greeks and the Romans, race was not the issue that society organised around – but all of the ancient world did notice whether someone was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Whether they were citizens or aliens, whether they came from ‘other places’ or they came from ‘here’. There was always a tendency to try to create a hierarchy, where “we” are the best and “they” are inferior. Hence the power of the biblical text which is consciously addressing these attempts to order humanity by inherent superiority, and which is working to refute it. Later (rabbinic) texts take on the debate. Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) includes the phrase “[Only a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. And.. [Only a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”

While the ancient Roman and Greek worlds were defining people according to geography (from here good/ not from here bad) or status (in the community good/ out of the community bad) the Rabbis of the Midrash were specifically choosing to see all human beings from wherever they came as of equal value. And especially they took on the argument from geography, making explicit that from where someone originated was of no importance in ascribing their value.   Rabbi Meir (2nd century) taught that God made Adam from the dust gathered from the whole world; and Rav (3rd century says): “His head was made of earth from the Eretz Israel; his main body formed from the dust of Babylon; and the various limbs were each fashioned with earth from different lands” .

When we look historically we can see again and again that as the host community sought to belittle and even humiliate people it saw as outsiders or foreigners, be they marked by accent or, skin colour or culture, the force of religion was pitching in the other direction. So the actions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Warsaw born scion of an orthodox Hasidic family, in the southern states of America in 1965, were a natural progression of Jewish tradition that begins in bible and speaks out against the human habit of ‘othering’ and of creating a hierarchy whereby some are dominant and others are subordinate, where some have more value than others.

This week in synagogues all over the world there is an extra Torah reading – Shabbat Shekalim tells of the census in the wilderness and reminds the present community of the obligation to share the costs of communal resources. The title – the Sabbath of the Shekel – comes about because the census is taken by everyone giving a half-shekel coin, and these, not the people, are what is counted. There are many reasons offered for this way of counting, but one of my favourites is that it shows that while different individuals may have a different nett worth financially, every person is of the same value before God. And why a half shekel coin rather than a full shekel? Because no one person is complete on their own, each of us relies on others to complete us.

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr both men understood importance of these teachings. Every human being is of infinite and equal value, every human being needs others to help them reach their full potential. Racism causes us to forget both of these lessons, but they remain as true as ever they did, and it is up to us to keep teaching them in the way we live our lives.

 

From a talk given at Stand up to Racism event, Goldsmith College 1/3/16