William Hamilton

Shake things up or Quiet things down

Our needs tend to rotate. They depend upon our circumstances. Sometimes we need calm. Other times we need unrest. 

I’d never before realized something about how the Bible addresses this reality. Its first two Books open by attending to these two needs with uncommon originality. 

Genesis opens with order. It flows-forth from formlessness. With divine dexterity, we’re taught that even the violent sea monsters are created by an order-appreciating Creator (Gen 1:21). This means that the primordial condition of the universe is not conflict or combat. That is, war is not baked into the DNA of the cosmos. Instead, order is. Translation to today? As often as violence spasms in our world, it’s not an essential attribute of nature. Instead, it’s an occasion. Today, as we’re over-our-heads in chaos and violence, as hard as it is to believe, order does eventually get restored.

This week’s portion brings us to the beginning of the Book of Exodus. It’s a book that specializes in rising up to right wrongs. If the opening of Genesis specializes in quieting things down, the opening of Exodus specializes in shaking things up.

The Exodus from Egypt presents the original liberation from which so many liberation movements have drawn inspiration. Its message? Might does not make right. The purpose of power is to defend the powerless; to help those who are brought-low, to begin to rise. 

The key phrase that bridges the opening chapters of both books is “behold it is good”  ki-tov (1:4,10, 12, 18, 21, 25; Ex. 2:2). God says it in Genesis. Moses’ mother does in Exodus, by committing to bring a newborn into a world where newborns are being drowned by Pharaoh in the Nile. 

We are today beset with reversals and too much pain. History continues to outsmart theory. Yet the lessons with which God’s timeless and timely openings of the Torah’s first two books are also woven into the fabric of history. This is because their readers, that includes all of us, take to heart their responses to both human needs: to calm down and to rise up.

Our Talmudic sages understood something vital. Liel Liebovitz, in this year’s Library of Gratitude selection, makes it clear: our people’s survival depended on telling a better, more positive story than the grim one unfolding around them.

These calming and arousing stories belong to us. “Happy is the People for whom this is so” (Ashrei Ha-am she-kacha lo) (Ps. 144:15). Internalizing them can change the weather inside you. May their faith–warming ways soon help that weather go from overcast to clearing up. 

Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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