All Beginnings Are Difficult©

All Beginnings are Difficult©

Shabbat Bereshit 5780/2019 

Show Up For Shabbat - First Anniversary after the tragedy at Tree of Life 


There is a famous adage in our tradition - Kol HatChalot Kashot - all beginnings are difficult.

It was that first step that I spoke about in my Rosh Hashanah sermon this year - the first steps back into synagogues that Shabbat after the tragedy at Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year on October 27th.

On Rosh Hashanah, I talked about the fear I had - that our regular shul goers would take a break, that they would not take those first steps back into their synagogue, their holy space, because they were afraid, and honestly, it’s a natural feeling to have.

This week, I was moved by the words of Beth Kissileff who wrote a moving article about the year anniversary at Tree of Life.

For her, the beginning that was difficult was the first Rosh Hashanah at New Light, along with Dor Hadash, was one of the three synagogues housed in Tree of Life-Or L’Simchah Synagogue.

She spoke about the man who blew the shofar last year at her Pittsburgh synagogue, Jerry Rabinowitz, who was not there to blow it this year. He was murdered on Oct. 27  at his shul.

The shofar is like the starting whistle in a race - the year officially begins, it wakes us up from our slumber.  But, in my estimation, the year truly begins today, Acharei HaChagim, after the holidays, all of them, on Shabbat Bereshit.

All beginnings are difficult…

Every year, we expend our spiritual energies on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then our physical energy on Sukkoth and Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

As we begin the Torah again, we realize something, all beginnings are difficult, and so is this parashah.

I will never forget a conversation I had with one of my kid's pre-school teachers.  She showed me all the things the kids created, and the masterpieces were the paper mache dinosaurs.  Knowing that I am a rabbi she said, “I’m sorry, I know you don’t believe in dinosaurs.”  I looked at her strangely, “I assure you, I believe in dinosaurs, and no, their bones were not placed there by God 5,780 years ago as a test of faith.”

The concepts of the creation story fly in the face of modern science, a lesson for a different day, because yes, we can reconcile evolution and the lessons we learn from the creation story.  But the point is, right away, many people who remember 7th-grade science might be turned off.  But I want to offer another interpretation to what the creation story is about, and it is our unique contribution to the world - if I were to give it a name, I would call it, This Is Us, the story of humanity, our role in the world, our nature, our tragedies and triumphs, nature.

What is our nature?  What are we?

After Pittsburgh, many of our suppositions were shattered, but perhaps the great assumption is the following - that people are generally good.  If people are good, how could this have happened?  If people are good, why does everyone seem so bad?  What about the world in general?  The answers to these essential questions come from one letter - Bet.  We can learn profound lessons from this letter, and how it can help us take the necessary first steps into the future.

In my humble opinion, the Torah does not begin with the letter alef, because that would have been just too easy.

Bereshit Barah Elohim - It seems like God wants to begin with Bet, when he could have begun with another letter, maybe even the alef.  But God does so for a reason.

Our Rabbis of blessed memory (Bereshit Rabbah 1:10) taught the following:  When we think of the letter Bet, the first word we often think of in Hebrew is Berachot - blessings.  And why not begin with alef?  Because the first word we think of is arirah, cursing.  We don’t begin with alef because we don’t want to give justification to heretics who say, “How can the world endure, seeing that it was created with the language of cursing?”  So God said, “I will create it with the language of blessing, and would that it may stand!”

And after God creates light, the first of the creations, God states the following:

וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב
God saw that the light was good

It is a message of cautious optimism.

Milton Steinberg, a famous 20th-century Conservative rabbi, and author, wrote the following:  “So with almost its first words Scripture states a thesis that echoes and re-echoes down the centuries and the Tradition:

Life is good.

Wherefore a man should treasure it, not despise it; affirm and not deny it; have faith in it and never despair of its possibilities.  For behind it is God.  Life is good and man can find it such, provided - and this is the great condition to everything else - that it is properly lived.”

So if life good?  That is up to us.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם׃
And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Betzelem Elohim - in the image of God.  There may be no more important words in the Torah than these words.  As much as the term good is a message of cautious optimism, Bet of Betzelem Elohim is a sacred challenge to all of humanity.  It is one of the greatest innovations that the Torah offered the world - every human being is created in the image of God, no one greater than the other, or to put it another way, we are all great, all deserving of respect and dignity.  As the midrash points out, we come from the same couple, Adam and Eve, in order to teach us that each human being bears the stamp of royalty.  To think of us in any other way is sacrilegious.  The white supremacist terrorist last words posted online were the following:  “HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The synagogue was holding a special refugee Shabbat service, just like we were that day because we believe that refugees, no matter their skin color or ethnicity, are deserving of basic human rights, because all of us are created in the image of God.

Despite this disgusting, and many before, the Torah believes that we, humans, are good.  We are the only creation that called very good in the creation story.  And when I see this word, very, I think of Anne Frank, who wrote the following in her diary as she hid for years from the Nazis, arguably the worst human beings ever created:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

And finally, what else can we learn from the letter Bet?

When Rabbi David Ingber, rabbi of Romemu in New York City, visited our shul a number of years ago, he asked the Cantor and me, what is the first item needed to create a holy space.  As a rabbi, my answer was obvious - a Sefer Torah.  The Cantor said, a guitar, to play music.  He said, no, a tissue box, to soak up the tears; tears of sadness, and tears of joy.

Bet is also the first letter of perhaps the holiest word; Bechiyah, crying.

The shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the starter whistle to the beginning of the year, is mimic the sound of a cry.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) says it is the cry of a bereaved mother of an enemy general - Sisera’s mother who appears in the book of Judges (5:28).  She wails because her son has not yet returned from battle, realizing that he likely died.

Beth Kissilef wrote about this cry in her article:  “The guttural scream of someone trying to comprehend that life will be lived without a loved one is sheer terror. I hope never to hear it again. I have been with families at the moment they received official notification from the FBI of their loved one’s deaths. Though they knew in their hearts that their loved one was gone when they did not hear from them hours before, the moment of irrevocable understanding that they will never see their loved one again is a dreadful one.  But sometimes the deepest pain can also bring healing. The concept of post-traumatic growth is a psychological theory about transformation after trauma. It shows that people who undergo significant trauma can emerge from the experience with an improved appreciation for life, relationships with others, personal strength and spiritual growth. This does not remove the many challenges and anxieties connected to coping with trauma, but adds that growth is possible, too. When we hear the shofar, if we hear it as a wail and scream, perhaps we can change our lives and make what comes after Rosh Hashanah irrevocably different from what comes before.

I have seen it happen in my own community. People have changed over the course of the year. Some have made and kept commitments to attend synagogue more regularly. Some of our new haftarah chanters have not used the skill since bar mitzvah, if ever, but are committed to reading every few weeks in honor of our three devoted haftarah readers at New Light — Dan Stein, Rich Gottfried and Mel Wax — who are no longer able to chant the prophetic words. There are those who did not have much interest in the spiritual side of Judaism who now attend any classes we hold. People who have always wanted to learn Hebrew have been studying it for the first time.

As the Psalmist says:

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ׃ 
They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.

If we take these three lessons to heart, Bereshit Barah Elohim - that God created the world and it is good; Betzelem Elohim - that we are created in the image of God and that we are very good, despite what we saw on that day horrible day last year; and if we embrace Bechiyah, tears of the oys and tears of the joys; then we can take those necessary first steps into the future.

And I am hopeful - I’m hopeful because Tree of Life is reopening a year later as a community collaborative and cooperative, a space that will hold worship services for various congregations, that will be a center for education on anti-Semitism,

I am hopeful because in the last year, other faith groups have reached out to us in support, that thousands of non-Jews went to vigils following the attack, that the Muslim community in Pittsburgh raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help; that we were surrounded by love, and not left alone.

I am cautiously optimistic because life is good, and so are we, and now we must take those difficult first steps to ensure that life is properly lived.


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