Baruch Hashem! We’re ready for a new year, better than the last. But when exactly is a new beginning? One could take the position of the famous writer Graham Greene (loved The Third Man) that ‘arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead’, so no real beginnings. Or the position of Mary Shelley (also loved Frankenstein) that ‘the beginning is always today.’ But I reject both. For me the beginning has two necessary components: 1. the end of a previous process, 2. the start of a new undertaking. I think Shabbat Breishit fits both criteria.
I know that we greeted everyone we encountered a few weeks back with SHANA TOVA, but the High Holidays are definitely more about looking back than forward. Over time our Sages have extended this period of retrospection until Hoshana Raba. The magic moment of renaissance doesn’t come until Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, when we pull out the Torah scroll with the fat bulge on the left, and declaim: BREISHIT BARA ELOKIM ET HaSHAMAYIM V’ET HaARETZ. As a lefty, I always loved this moment, because for me HAGBA’A is much easier in Breishit than in Devarim.
The S’fat Emet wisely explained that the great SIMCHA of Simchat Torah isn’t when we end the old cycle, but when we begin the new. It always exhilarates me to be at the beginning again. It’s a chance to look at everything with a fresh eye, and produce great creations on the proffered tabula rasa.
So, where is the Wow! moment in this brand-new rendition of the Creation narrative, Breishit? There are so many candidates, but for me, this year, it’s, ‘And God saw all that had been made, and, behold, it was very good! (Breishit 1:31).
The famous question on that phrase is ‘What is the ‘very’, MEOD?’ We’ve had God saying that things were ‘good’ almost every day, so what is this MEOD? Famous answer: ADAM, humanity. The two words are anagrams of each other, ALEPH, DALET, MEM. With mankind in the world, the creative process is somehow greater than without us. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I love birds singing, but no beast can weave sounds into audio tapestries like a talented human. It’s very good! Freude, joyous!
The Ramban, throughout this whole first chapter of Torah has been explaining that TOV, ‘good’, has been referring to permanence. The good things in our narrative are the things which last. So, here he adds that our term MEOD means ‘everything’. ‘Everything’ is good and has permanence, even some stuff which we view negatively. It’s the whole picture, the MEOD of wholeness, which is good. Somehow all the myriad creations make a wonderful whole which is TOV. I still have trouble fitting mosquitoes into this picture.
Then along comes Reb Ya’akov Zvi Mecklenberg (1785-1865), in his magnum opus, HaKitav V’HaKabbala, and says that we got the question wrong. We should really be asking, ‘How does the word HINEH, ‘behold’, fit into this verse?’ The great Rabbi pondered, ‘I wonder that the great commentaries didn’t inquire about the word HINEH in this statement.’ Okay, let’s assume that TOV means permanent and MEOD means abundant, so what does HINEH denote? Rav Ya’akov explained that the word HINEH always means ‘the revelation of something which was previously unknown’. As when Ya’akov woke up and found that Leah was in his bed, or Pharaoh woke up ‘and it was a dream’, previously, while asleep, he thought the vision was really happening. This doesn’t happen to God; there’s no surprising the Omniscient. BTW, Rav Ya’akov also mentions that there’s a problem with MEOD, because it always functions to contrast different items; there aren’t other universes to compare the newly created one to.
At this point, our most clever elucidator presents his remarkable idea. The MEOD greatness of our universe is based on the HINEH aspect of it. Our world isn’t meant to be static and unchanging. There are supposed to be discoveries and surprises. The cosmos grows, expands, and improves, and so must humanity. We’re not allowed to stand still; we must always remake ourselves. Those improvements to ourselves must also make the world better.
The HINEH, of course, wasn’t a surprise to God. It was more of an instruction to the Creation: Grow, develop, improve. You may not surprise Me, but you can surprise yourselves. In Rav Ya’akov’s words, ’Always eliminate the realities which are of a lesser status, and raise all existence to a higher and more worthy level. Even though a plant may seem to lose by being harvested into food, this is really an improvement as it feeds a human.’ EXCELSIOR, ever higher.
So, we begin, again. Our assignment must be to make 5782 an improvement over 5781, not just the year but ourselves. Our wish and prayer must be, ‘Help me be a better me.’ KEN YEHI RATZON!