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April 1, 2006

On Endings, Beginnings and Tikkun ha-Olam:
A-HA Experience at AJR

By Peg Kershenbaum

Vayar Elohim et-kol-asher asah v’hinei-tov m’od; vay’hi-erev vay’hi-voqer yom hashishi
And God saw all that He had made. And behold: it was very good!
And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Gen. 1:31)

We begin anew the hora
of Torah, linking the end of the holy season with the start of the
term’s sacred studies. That it will be a year of challenges and yet of
great promise I hope to demonstrate in this, the first of our
community’s renewed series of divrei torah.

Each week as we recite Kiddush, we
join the ending of the verse above to the beginning of the next verse: vay’chulu hashamayim v’ha aretz vchol-tz’ va am.1
Yet each day we affirm that ‘God renews daily the work of creation.’
Are the works of creation actually complete or not? Rashi was puzzled
by this, too. In his close reading of our verse, Rashi unearthed a
clue: the letter he prefixed to shishi. None of the previous days are adorned by the definite article. The he, he reasons, comes to teach that the works of creation will be firmly established on the sixth day, that is, a particular sixth day: the sixth of Sivan, Shavuot, on which the Torah2 will be presented for acceptance by the Children of Israel.

However, centuries of Shavuot celebrations find us still uttering daily the words of Yotzer, ‘uv’tuvo m’chadeish b’chol yom tamid ma’asei v’reishit.’ 3
What must be done to establish the world on ‘solid ground’? I believe
that the answer is suggested by Rashi, by Moses and by God’s charge to
the first humans. And I believe it all hinges on that little breath,
the ot we call he.

Nehama Leibowitz4 points out that God blesses animals and humans in very similar words:

to animals: And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful and multiply . . . (Gen. 1:22)
to humans: Then God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply . . . (Gen 1:28)
Leibowitz makes the point that because God speaks
to humans, we have an understanding of our responsibility, whereas
animals fulfill their blessing mindlessly and without awareness of any
special responsibility.5 What we are told when God speaks to us on that day is that we are to fill the earth and subdue it: v’chiv’shuha.
This is a very harsh word, a word that implies taking something by
force and making it serve one’s purpose. Indeed, what Ramban6 grants humankind is ‘to harness the forces of nature for his own good and exploit the mineral wealth around him.’

Yet if we apply what Leibowitz has said about the implication of vayomer lahem Elohim,7
we understand that we have a responsibility to use but not to abuse, to
domesticate but not to dominate. We are the stewards, not the tyrants
of the world, the partners of God, not godlings ourselves.

I believe that some have already
accepted the terms of the partnership. Whether they were among those
who responded Naaseh v’nish’ma8 at Sinai; or whether
they humbly wondered with the Psalmist about the place of humans in the
scheme of things, they are already partners with the Divine. They work
against the forces of chaos on earth even as God works in the heavens.
For, as we read in Psalm 115:16, ‘The heavens are the heavens of
Adonai, but the earth He entrusted to mortals.’ 9 Others
were not ready to accept the Torah at Sinai. Perhaps they were among
those to whom Moses referred when he spoke of those who einenu po imanu hayom.10

I believe that the day on which we respond to our primordial blessing
and responsibility will be the day’the true day’of not only the giving
of Torah but of its acceptance. Then we will all, clergy and laity,
teachers and students, join in Tikkun haOlam.

Transition and change are great challenges. The Midrash teaches,11 kol hat’khalot qashot. But this year, do not read qashot,12 ‘difficult’; read qeshet: All beginnings hold the promise of God’s rainbow.

  1. Gen. 2:1:The heavens and the earth and all their host were completed.
  2. Whose five books are alluded to by the numerical value of he !
  3. And in His goodness He renews daily the work of creation.
  4. Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, translated by Aryeh Newman, Haomanim Press, Jerusalem, p. 3.
  5. Along this line, Rabbi Zlotowitz recalls that his great teacher Samuel
    Atlas would paraphrase Kant: Animals have duties but no rights; Man has
    duties and rights; God has rights but no duties.

  6. Cited in Leibowitz, op. cit. p. 5.
  7. ‘And God said to them.’
  8. ‘We will do and we will hear,’ Ex. 24:7.
  9. Translation by M. Rozenberg and B. Zlotowitz, The Book of Psalms: A New Translation and Commentary.
  10. ‘Are not here with us this day,’ Deut. 29:14.
  11. Mekhilta Yitro Bachodesh, 2.
  12. ‘All beginnings are difficult.’ Thanks to Rabbi Zlotowitz for pointing out the source of this adage and for reading this d’var torah. The improvements he suggested were sensitive and sensible, and offered with generosity and patience.