Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Joseph Eskin, our Rosh Tikvah for the last three summers. A lifetime Ramahnik, Joseph, a 2013 graduate of the University of Michigan, teaches and is the Director of Student Activities at the Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, IL.
Reflections on Bereshit
by Jospeh Eskin
With Simchat Torah this past week, Jews completed a period of transitions which began on Rosh Hashanah. On that day, we concluded the previous calendar year, 5775, and joyously began 5776. On Yom Kippur, we closed the books on a year’s worth of sins and errors, and started over our personal lives with a clean slate. With Simchat Torah, we conclude and then immediately restart our communal story, the line of text that stretches back through our most ancient ancestors and to the beginning of the universe as we know it.
For me, though, and for many other Ramahniks like me, the period of transition really starts earlier, in the first hours of an August morning when hundreds of campers and staff make their way to the parking lot, get on buses, and head home. This is a jarring moment for many of us, as we realize that a summer filled with fun, learning, and memories has come to an end, and that it is time to re-enter the real world. As a result, the last image many campers have of Ramah before they head home is a sea of hugs and tears, a seemingly endless stream of heart-wrenching goodbyes. Even for wily veteran staff members who have witnessed this scene for many years, it is hard not to be struck by how painful the separation can be. The transition moment of Simchat Torah – from Devarim to Bereshit – is filled with raucous singing and wild dancing, far-removed from the mournful atmosphere of the last day of camp. Nonetheless, the words of Bereshit which we read on Simchat Torah morning, and which we read again this Shabbat, can teach us a lot about the meaning of separation.
The Torah begins with the words, “When God began to create heaven and earth…” The word “create,” though, is a little deceiving. God does not, for the most part, make God’s creations appear out of thin air. Really, the key to God’s process of shaping the universe is separating things from one another. At the beginning of creation, everything in the universe seems to be mixed up as one. The earth is tohu va-vohu, unformed and void, and even God’s spirit touches the face of the water (1:2). Land, water, God – all of it is enmeshed until God begins the process of separation. On the first day, it is light from darkness. On the second day, it is the water of the sea from the water of the sky. On the third day, it is water from dry land. Ultimately, on the seventh day, God separates the holiness of Shabbat from the mundaneness of the rest of the week. All of these acts of separation come with clear benefits. Light and darkness allow us to mark the passage of time over days and nights; the distinction between water and sky give shape to our world and allow us to understand our place in it; and the sanctity of Shabbat means that we are allowed to nap as much as we want on Saturday afternoons.
At the same time, these acts of separation do not come without negative consequences. In Bereshit Rabbah 5:3, the rabbis of the Midrash imagine the waters of the sea weeping as they are separated from their fellow waters of the sky. In her commentary on Bereshit, Aviva Zornberg notes that anytime separation occurs, it is accompanied by pain and sacrifice, as well as a sense of sadness and loss. She includes as examples of this phenomenon the pain experienced by mothers during childbirth, and the pain parents feel when their children, quite naturally, come to outgrow their dependence on them. She notices a feeling with which we are all familiar, the melancholic mood of Havdalah, when we say goodbye to the majesty of Shabbat and re-enter the week.
The most powerful example of separation comes in Chapter 3, when God observes the first man, Adam, and says, “It is not good for man to be alone…” (2:18). As we all know, God places Adam in a slumber, and fashions woman out of his rib. Upon awaking and seeing Eve, Adam exclaims “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). Though all of humanity was initially contained within Adam, he nonetheless felt a sense of loneliness. His companionship was born of separation. Until Adam saw Eve, there was a part of himself he could not recognize or understand. Only by being separated from Eve could he identify his desire to find wholeness and fulfillment. Separation, as painful as it is – never more so than in the parking lot at the end of each summer – is what allows us to recognize who we are, what we care about, and what keeps us coming back. In the moment we say goodbye, we realize how much we want to come back together again. Which is, in spite of the tears, a pretty happy thought. Shabbat Shalom, and Shanah Tovah!