Archive by category "Torah Thoughts"

B’reishit 5779: Embracing the Creation of the World (Genesis 1:1 -6:8)

B’reishit 5779: Embracing the Creation of the World

(Genesis 1:1 -6:8)

 

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: http://www.mars-one.com

 

In Bere’shit, the first chapter of the Torah, creation seems so awesomely simple, so beautiful. An all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient, Divine force, whom we Jews call Adonai or HaShem, simply “speaks” our world into being from the vast nothingness of the tohu va bohu, the watery void. In a timeframe of only six “days”(on the seventh day, God sees that the creation is good – tov—and thus rests), the first thing God does is to create light, separating it from darkness, so that Day and Night became new concepts. Then God separates the waters so that we have both dry land (“Earth”) and “Sky.” The next step is to create vegetation on the earth, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. And then comes the creation of the sun and moon, which brings set times of light and darkness (as well as years) into what is to become our world. “God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light to dominate the night and the stars” (Genesis 1:16).[1]

Told biblically in prose, this cosmic story of the world’s creation is echoed so movingly in poetry in Psalm 136. 

Who made the heavens with wisdom

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who spread the earth over the water,

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who made the great lights,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The sun to dominate the day,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The moon and the stars to dominate the night,

His steadfast love is eternal.” [2]

Now this beautiful world needs living creatures, so fish (even including great sea monsters) are brought forth to swim in the waters and birds to fly in the sky. Next come all kinds of animals ranging from creeping things to wild beasts to roam in the land — and finally Man. Adam, made in God’s image. “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”(Genesis 1:26).

Modern science has supplemented the Torah in showing that we all descend from one progenitorall living creatures start from the same basic cell. But what about Eve, the first woman? Was she really created at the same time as Adam, as Chapter 1 tells us, or, in Chapter 2’s differing account, was she made instead from Adam’s rib, which would make her the world’s first clone? Some biblical scholars think that the two accounts were written by different authors in different time periods and pieced together by skillful editors. Others believe that both accounts are true and simply augment one another, the first concentrating on the cosmos and the second on humanity. I prefer to think that man and woman were created equal from the get-go. In any case, whether we choose Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 as our preferred account (or a combo of both), once males and females were created, the divine goal of populating the world proceeded. [3]

There is also the question of how long a period a day actually was before the set times were created. So, if we consider the biblical account as occurring in indeterminate stages of time (rather than 24-hour days), it actually coincides with the much later developed scientific time frame of our world’s evolution. While our modern society craves scientific proof for something so mystical, so infinite, so powerful as creation itself, surely that process goes beyond being “proven” to the satisfaction of our limited human intellects. Certainly, our earthly mathematicians know that numbers are infinite; why not the limitless energy of the Divine? What we call God. To wax kabbalistic, underneath every letter of the Hebrew Torah is a number. Ironically, we speak in numbers.

Like the once ubiquitous slates in the schoolroom, our ideas about creation have moved light years from from the world we earthlings know into infinite territories. We no longer think about earth as unique among the planets and stars, although it is unique to us. We explore the concept of many universes. We search for other planets where life may be possible. Surely, as humans, we are not alone in a universe so large our human minds strain to encompass it.  

Traveling to the moon has already been accomplished. Now we talk about terraforming Mars so that human beings can live there, and already, as I write this D’var Torah, we are sending a probe to the Sun to better understand its energy. Unlike the mythical Icarus, who flew so dangerously close to the sun that his wings melted, today’s astro-scientists are unafraid, even as they speculate about multiple universes. For civilians, space tourism is becoming a possibility, provided they have the large pockets to afford it. For those who dare, will space settling become a reality? I am awed by what might be.

Awe, of course, is not a monopoly of religion nor of creative artists. Scientists experience awe too, as “a motivation to push them further,” explains Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) in a recent interview with Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman on the website “Sinai and Synapses”:

Awe is traditionally seen as our reaction to things that cannot be reduced or explained…

[T]he  process of accommodation, in which we adjust our beliefs in light of surprising

new information, is felt just as often by scientists as by people who experience awe

in other situations. [4]

Of course. Scientists are human beings with wide-ranging human reactions. It is religion’s job to interpret.  In the awe-inspiring Torah account of creation, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, “the divine bond with Israel is ultimately tied to the divine relationship with all of humankind.”[5]. On a more mundane, current earthly level, we have do more than worry about over-population and feeding the planet in an era of climate change, we have to do, we have to work to make things better, all the while we continue to strive for an elusive peace between nations. I believe that, with God’s help and our own efforts, we will make progress, although it may take at least a couple of generations or more to see the results.

 

[1] Stein, David E. (ed.).  JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed.,  (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1-3.

[2] Psalm 136. Quoted in Gunther Plaut, Ed. “Essays,”The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 2100.

[3] “The Torah begins with two pictures of the creation. The first (Gen1:1 – 2:3) is a universal conception. The second (2:4-25) is more down-to earth. The first has a cosmic feeling about it. Few other passages in the Hebrew Bible generate this feeling. The concern of the Hebrew Bible generally is history, not the cosmos, but Genesis I is an exception. There is a power about this portrait of a transcendent God constructing the skies and earth in an ordered seven-day series. In it, the stages of the fashioning of the heavenly bodies above are mixed with the fashioning of the land and seas below.”

– Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text. (New York: HarperOne, 2001) 5.

[4] Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) and Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, Interview. “Awe As A Scientific Emotion,” www.sinaiandsynapses.org.

[5] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Va-Yelekh: Passing the Torch (Deut. 31:1-30)

Va-Yelekh: Passing the Torch (Deut. 31:1-30)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Listening provides a space for thinking new thoughts.

As the Torah – originally taught orally and only written down much later — instructs us, “Shema!” Listen. Listen and do good things.

This week’s parsha is called Va-yelekh (coinciding in 5779 with Yom Kippur), the shortest portion in the Torah. Usually it is combined with the prior week’s portion, Nitsavim (coinciding with Rosh Hashanah), which includes the famous passage reflected in the liturgical Un’ Taneh Tokef prayer: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” We are advised is to choose the former — life and prosperity —by following God’s commandments. This year, however, “Va-yelekh stands alone. It refers to the fact that Moses “went and spoke” what was on his mind to all of Israel. And what was on his mind? He was announcing his retirement and had put a lot of thought into who would succeed him so that the Israelites would, indeed, listen and do good things when they entered the Promised land.

Moses retiring? Impossible. He had guided the Hebrews out of Egypt and through 40 years in the desert. But he was now 120 years old, a long time to be actively in the work force, let alone its leader. (That’s why when we bless someone, we Jews still say, “You should live to be 120!” We don’t think about 55 + or even 65 + as being the gateway to senior status. If you’re a Jew — or at any rate, a biblical Jew, you keep going.) And Moses understood — because God firmly told him so— that he could not be the one to cross the Jordan and enter Israel as the Jewish leader. It was time for a new generation, “strong and resolute,” to take over. “in the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them.” Time to step down.

So, with God’s instruction in mind, and undoubtedly with a sigh of relief, Moses passed on the leadership torch to his chosen leader, Joshua, whom he considered strong and resolute, a star pupil well equipped to carry on. “It is you {Joshua], who will apportion [the land]to them,” to the people (31:7), Moses instructed.

However, with a skillful continuity in mind, Moses had prepared the way for Joshua with written instructions. The Torah portrays God as appearing to Moses in a pillar of cloud and enjoining him to write down this instruction, this Teaching in the form of a poem, so that the Teaching would never be lost. If the people went astray and worshipped other gods – and indeed idol worship abounded in Canaan, the land they were about to enter, this poem would serve as a witness to the way they were supposed to behave.

Moses therefore instructed Joshua, to first give the Teaching to the priests and the elders of Israel (thus developing consensus, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and then to read it himself aloud (thus letting the people know who was in charge) every seven years in the presence of all the gathered people of Israel, including the strangers in their communities, and in the holy place that God would determine. In turn, the people were instructed to listen, “to hear and learn to revere the Lord your God and, along with their children, to observe faithfully every word of this teaching.

And then Moses, the retiring leader, eloquently “recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel” (31:30). What he had to say, this Teaching, is told poetically in next week’s parsha, “Ha’azinu.” They were his last words as the leader of the Israelite people.

Listen in to next week’s portion, Ha’azinu, for biblical poetry that has survived almost 6,000 years. Essentially, it is a love poem to God.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part 2

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part 2

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: http://www.roguesportal.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/semiosis-featured-rp-800×388.jpg

Do you enjoy science fiction? I find that it often provides a thought-provoking commentary on the society in which we live at present. And yes, on our own participation in creating the society we’d like to have. It requires a lot of patience and perseverance.

I have been reading a science fiction novel called Semiosis by Sue Burke, in which it takes seven generations of space settlers with an idealistic, pacifistic philosophy to develop a truly mutual relationship with the sentient but aggressive plant-life on their new planet.[1] In fact, just about everything on planet Pax (Latin for peace) seems to have a thinking, feeling capacity. Unfortunately, things go awry from the start. First of all, their spaceship’s super-intelligent computers decide to think for themselves and land the settlers on a planet very different from the one they were prepared to inhabit. As they learn to survive in an environment radically different from life on earth, the space settlers sense the presence of something beyond human knowledge and experience, perhaps beyond our imagination as a species.

“Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support. We will face hardship, danger, and potential failure, but we aspire to the use of practical wisdom to seek joy, love, beauty, community, and life. (From the Constitution of the Commonweath of Pax, written on Earth in 2065.”) [2]

The new settlers slowly learn that, as a human species – as invasive aliens on an inhabited planet – they will continually encounter diverse animal forms outside their earthly experience, as well as a dominant, intelligent plant life. Some of the hybrid animals (the lions, for example, have sharp digging blades for claws, helpful in planting crops) become domesticated aides to the humans. By contrast, their relationship with the infinitely superior plants slowly becomes antagonistic. Plants like the fast-growing rainbow bamboo and the enticing, flowering vines subtly and sometimes aggressively manipulate the humans to do their bidding. Eventually both humans and plants achieve a desirable “Duality” of co-existence. Simply stated, that means they agree to get along! Meanwhile the mysterious glassmakers who create and then then desert magnificent architecture turn out to be nomads fiercely protective of their land. Their breath-taking work in tune with the planet’s environment complements the awesome beauty of creation – and its essential importance to humanity. By the end of the novel, the human settlers no longer think of themselves as Earthlings; they are proudly from the planet they named “Pax,” and, as they enter their seventh generation on this planet, their moral ideology and way of life seems to be in synch at last. Seven generations (7 x 25) is not that long – it’s only 175 years, considerably less than the history of the United States and many other countries that certainly have moral room to grow!

“The name of this Planet and Commonwealth shall be Pax as a reminder to ourselves for all time of our aspirations. (From the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax.)”[3]

Finally, the knife symbolizing the murderous intent of one person toward another, one species toward another, is placed in a museum for all time.

Good reading for contemplation of what is important to our own societies as we approach the High Holidays! And time to consider what values are most important to ourselves and our loved ones in our own life span.

[1] Sue Burke, Semiosis. (New York: Tor Books), 2018.

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] Ibid., p. 223.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Image credit: https://www.draper.com/news/next-trip-inside-sun-s-atmosphere

As we approach Rosh HaShana 5779, endeavoring to wipe our slates clean before the mandated behavioral change deadline, Yom Kippur, I find myself turning to the first pages of the Torah, Bere’shit, the beginning, the creation of the world we know.

In Bere’shit, the first chapter of the Torah, creation seems so awesomely simple, so beautiful. An all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient, Divine force, whom we Jews call Adonai or HaShem, simply “speaks” our world into being from the vast nothingness of the tohu va bohu, the watery void. In a timeframe of only six “days”(on the seventh day, God sees that the creation is good – tov—and thus rests), the first thing God does is to create light, separating it from darkness, so that Day and Night became new concepts. Then God separates the waters so that we have both dry land (“Earth”) and “Sky.” The next step is to create vegetation on the earth, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. And then comes the creation of the sun and moon, which brings set times of light and darkness (as well as years) into what is to become our world.

“God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light to dominate the night and the stars” (Genesis 1:16).[1]

Told biblically in prose, this cosmic story of the world’s creation is echoed so movingly in poetry in Psalm 136. 

Who made the heavens with wisdom

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who spread the earth over the water,

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who made the great lights,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The sun to dominate the day,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The moon and the stars to dominate the night,

His steadfast love is eternal.” [2]

 

Now this beautiful world needs living creatures, so fish (even including great sea monsters) are brought forth to swim in the waters and birds to fly in the sky. Next come all kinds of animals ranging from creeping things to wild beasts to roam in the land — and finally Man. Adam, made in God’s image.

“And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”(Genesis 1:26).

Modern science has supplemented the Torah in showing that we all descend from one progenitorall living creatures start from the same basic cell. But what about Eve, the first woman? Was she really created at the same time as Adam, as Chapter 1 tells us, or, in Chapter 2’s differing account, was she made instead from Adam’s rib, which would make her the world’s first clone? Some biblical scholars think that the two accounts were written by different authors in different time periods and pieced together by skillful editors. Others believe that both accounts are true and simply augment one another, the first concentrating on the cosmos and the second on humanity. I prefer to think that man and woman were created equal from the get-go. In any case, whether we choose Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 as our preferred account (or a combo of both), once males and females were created, the divine goal of populating the world proceeded. [3]

There is also the question of how long a period a day actually was before the set times were created. So, if we consider the biblical account as occurring in indeterminate stages of time (rather than 24-hour days), it actually coincides with the much later developed scientific time frame of our world’s evolution. While our modern society craves scientific proof for something so mystical, so infinite, so powerful as creation itself, surely that process goes beyond being “proven” to the satisfaction of our limited human intellects. Certainly, our earthly mathematicians know that numbers are infinite; why not the limitless energy of the Divine? What we call God. To wax kabbalistic, underneath every letter of the Hebrew Torah is a number. Ironically, we speak in numbers.

Like the once ubiquitous slates in the schoolroom, our ideas about creation have moved light years from from the world we earthlings know into infinite territories. We no longer think about earth as unique among the planets and stars, although it is unique to us. We explore the concept of many universes. We search for other planets where life may be possible. Surely, as humans, we are not alone in a universe so large our human minds strain to encompass it.  

Traveling to the moon has already been accomplished. Now we talk about terraforming Mars so that human beings can live there, and already, as I write this D’var Torah, we are sending a probe to the Sun to better understand its energy. Unlike the mythical Icarus, who flew so dangerously close to the sun that his wings melted, today’s astro-scientists are unafraid, even as they speculate about multiple universes. For civilians, space tourism is becoming a possibility, provided they have the large pockets to afford it. For those who dare, will space settling become a reality? I am awed by what might be.

Awe, of course, is not a monopoly of religion nor of creative artists. Scientists experience awe too, as “a motivation to push them further,” explains Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) in a recent interview with Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman on the website “Sinai and Synapses”:

Awe is traditionally seen as our reaction to things that cannot be reduced or explained…

[T]he  process of accommodation, in which we adjust our beliefs in light of surprising new information, is felt just as often by scientists as by people who experience awe in other situations. [4]

Of course. Scientists are human beings with wide-ranging human reactions. It is religion’s job to interpret.  In the awe-inspiring Torah account of creation, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, “the divine bond with Israel is ultimately tied to the divine relationship with all of humankind.”[5]. On a more mundane, current earthly level, we have do more than worry about over-population and feeding the planet in an era of climate change, we have to do, we have to work to make things better, all the while we continue to strive for an elusive peace between nations. I believe that, with God’s help and our own efforts, we will make progress, although it may take at least a couple of generations or more to see the results.

[1] Stein, David E. (ed.).  JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed.,  (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1-3.

[2] Psalm 136. Quoted in Gunther Plaut, Ed. “Essays,”The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 2100.

[3] “The Torah begins with two pictures of the creation. The first (Gen1:1 – 2:3) is a universal conception. The second (2:4-25) is more down-to earth. The first has a cosmic feeling about it. Few other passages in the Hebrew Bible generate this feeling. The concern of the Hebrew Bible generally is history, not the cosmos, but Genesis I is an exception. There is a power about this portrait of a transcendent God constructing the skies and earth in an ordered seven-day series. In it, the stages of the fashioning of the heavenly bodies above are mixed with the fashioning of the land and seas below.”– Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text. (New York: HarperOne, 2001) 5.

[4] Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) and Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, Interview. “Awe As A Scientific Emotion,” www.sinaiandsynapses.org.

[5] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

PARSHAT BALAK:  Numbers 22:2 – 25:9 Insights into a Talking Donkey

PARSHAT BALAK:  Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Insights into a Talking Donkey

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://sixdegreesofkosherbacon.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/bilaam.png?w=470

Although most of the residents of this upscale retirement home were Christian, a few Jewish residents had asked the Pastor if a Rabbi could give a sermon there. And that’s how I happened to be addressing about 50 or so Seniors at their Vespers service on a Sunday afternoon. “You can talk about the Pentateuch or the Psalms or the rest of the Old Testament,” the Pastor had advised me, “but please don’t talk about God.” He really meant that I should not talk about theological differences, so I agreed. “Of course. I’ll discuss what we have in common.”

That afternoon, at the elegant Senior Residence, I knew was mainly addressing believing Christians. So I taught them all the simple words of the song, “Hine Ma Tov,” in Hebrew (the words are taken from the first verse of Psalm 133, a short prayer of gratitude, which reads “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”), and then I proceeded to discuss the scriptural portion for the day with a few introductory remarks.

“The scriptural portion of our service (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9) for today,” I said, “comes from the Pentateuch, which is Greek for “Five,” and refers to the Five Books of Moses, which in Hebrew is called “the Torah,” which in English means “Instruction.” You probably know that the entire Old Testament was first written in Hebrew, and then it was translated into Greek, which was called The Septuagint, and then it was translated into Latin, known as The Vulgate. And from the Latin, it was translated into English and, eventually, into many other languages.

“That’s why it is useful to study Hebrew, because, with all those translations, the meaning of the words may not be exactly the same in English.  Added to that, the original Hebrew words did not have any vowels. The letters were all consonants, like text messaging. The reader has to figure out the rest. So the meaning also depends on the vowels you give to the words. There are many Christian scholars studying Hebrew today exactly for that reason: to check out what the words are really saying by reading the Bible in its original language — and to understand that there are various meanings possible for many words.”

“So I’d like you to think of studying the Bible,” I explained, “as if you were playing the piano. If you’ll notice, there are both black and white keys on the piano. We could play some nice music on the white keys alone, but we wouldn’t have the nuances that the black keys, the sharps and flats, would give the music. If we just played on the white keys, it would be like reading the Bible literally, in C Major all the time. So as a soon-to-be rabbi – the word “rabbi” means “my teacher” — my job is to add the interpretation, the sharps and flats.

“A rabbi’s sermon is called a “derash,” an interpretation,” I continued. “What is written down in the Pentateuch is called the ‘Written Torah.’ And the interpretation is called the ‘Oral Torah,’ much of which has been transmitted from generation to generation, although new commentary is continually added.  So ‘[r]abbinic language contains numerous layers of meaning. The Talmud [a compilation of centuries of rabbinic commentary on the Torah] frequently attempts to uncover the hidden meaning of a word… thereby revealing new understandings of the … teaching.’ That is why we need both – the white keys and the black keys too – to fully understand the intent, the background, and the underlying story.

“Our scriptural portion, which this week is from Numbers 22:2-25:9, is the story of Balak (the warlike Moabite king who is fearful that the Jews will become too numerous and overrun his kingdom, and thus he wishes the Jews harm), and it’s also the story of Bilaam (the prophet whom the Moabite king hires to curse Israel), and the third character is Bilaam’s talking donkey, who turns out to have more sense than either Balak or Bilaam.  The prophet, Bilaam, is supposed to be a visionary, but it turns out that his Donkey is the visionary. It’s the Donkey – and the Bible specifies that it’s a she-Donkey, presumably even more sensitive than a male donkey would be — whose acute animal senses enable her to see Angels along the road, warning that Bilam should not curse the Israelites. What’s wrong with human beings? the Donkey complains, in effect. “You ride on me all day, and then you beat me? Angels keep telling you to stop, three times – don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it — and you don’t hear, Bilaam!”  Finally listening to the Donkey, Bilaam promises that the only words he will speak are the ones that the Eternal One puts in his mouth. And when Bilaam glimpses the Israelites camping out in the desert, the words that do emerge from his mouth are those of admiration and blessing. “Ma Tovu.” “ How Good!….

These words flow out of Balaam’s mouth from the top of the mountain that overlooks where the Hebrews are encamped. It is the third time that King Balak has tried to get Balaam to curse the Israelites, and yet, miraculously, out of Balaam’s mouth comes a blessing. What was supposed to be a curse is turned into a blessing.  The Bible story teaches us that, with God’s help, human beings do have the power to transform a curse into a blessing. And that words of peace are better than acts of war.

“And there is more. Remarkably, generations later, the biblical Ruth, a Moabite woman who became a Jew-by-choice, was actually the great-granddaughter of King Balak – and, by her marriage to Boaz, she was also the great-grandmother of King David (from whom it is foretold that the Messiah will come).  And that is how a curse became a blessing, and an enemy became part of the Jewish family.

“Today, Jews still sing the words of Balak’s emissary, Bilaam, as part of the liturgical morning blessings: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).

“This dramatic scene from Numbers 24:5, is traditionally coupled with one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, the few lines from the prophet Micah (6:8) that sum up what we are each commanded to do to be a blessing every day:

“He has told you, O man, what is good,

And what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justice

And to love goodness,

And to walk modestly with your God;

Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.