Bereishit: Ready?

We see once again the glory of Eden,
sunrise and sunset in unclouded skies

we shiver once more at the chill of expulsion
and leave on a journey to find the way home.

Our innocence fades as the story unfolds,
brother slays brother and God Himself weeps.

Do we dare to show up and wrestle once more
and search for the light embedded within?

In her book Our Lives As Torah: Finding God in Our Own Stories, Dr Carol Ochs notes that psychologists have long understood the value of storytelling: therapy facilitates the reframing of the patient’s “story”. She says, “The power of story is evident in the political domain. People fight against repressive regimes by remembering better times, and by forming stories of liberation. Regardless of what Jews have undergone in the past two millennia, they recall that they were slaves and that, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, God liberated them. This memory shows them the possibility of God’s intervention on their behalf; it gives them a vision of possibilities and keeps their hopes alive.”
Dr Ochs notes that we live in a society that offers us a plethora of stories, but frequently we remain oblivious to their relevance to us. However, she suggests that the stories related in the Torah, which we read and re-read, uncover for us the presence of God. She says “In other words, the invisible gives rise to the visible.”
She discusses the story of Joseph and his brothers. We see how the narrative, initially focused on the dysfunctional relationship between the brothers, gradually “zooms out” to portray the brothers’ gradual transformation. She notes that after having escaped being murdered by his brothers, sold into slavery at their hand and undergoing years of exile and imprisonment, Joseph looks back on this painful history with the largest possible perspective and declares, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Dr Ochs acknowledges the difficulty inherent in reframing the story and entering a broader perspective. She continues, “We live in a complex time, no longer nomads or shepherds. Yet we find that the biblical stories resonate with our fundamental questions about family, our essential goodness, suffering, our quest for meaning and our relationship with God. The Bible stories are difficult because the characters are not simply heroes or villains. But the stories are instructive for the same reason. The characters are flawed, and their flaws help us examine, integrate and accept our own flaws.”

Within the Torah are hidden all our stories. This week we begin the cycle again, rolling the scroll back to the beginning. We know how the stories end, yet with each re-reading, maybe we can uncover something that will serve us in our own lives.

In a commentary on Parashat Bereishit from 2016, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes about returning to normalcy and beginning again, after the spiritual whirl of the Days of Awe followed by Sukkot. She concludes, “And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there’s still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It’s a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.”

On a personal note
I wrote the first poem that set me off on this journey on Sukkot 2012, and the following year, with the encouragement and indispensable technical assistance of two of our sons, I started posting subsequent poems and commentaries on this blog.
I am about to embark on a two-year program in Jewish Studies, to which I am looking forward immensely, but which I suspect will not leave me enough time to continue writing, at least not at the same frequency as previously. I hope to post sporadically and to re-post previous work. I have loved writing and especially researching the poems that have appeared here. I am filled with gratitude for having had the opportunity to share what I have discovered. Thank you so much for reading and commenting (on these pages and off) and learning with me.


Bereishit: Yuval

And the name of his brother was Yuval [Jubal]; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. (Bereishit 4:21).

Did you idly blow through hollow canes
and hear the soft sweet sounds?

Did you reconstruct the bubbling
of crystal springs from underground;
the dulcet calls of courting birds
that warbled back and forth?

Did you wander past primeval trees
your fingers flying, eyes aglow,
footsteps drumming steady beats
upon the forest floor?

Did the notes bespeak a passion
that stirred your listeners’ souls;
a wordless ode to beauty
that ferried them to hallowed heights,

and were they haunted by the silence
when the music died away?

Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015) the neurologist and author was widely known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients’ disorders. In 2007, he published a book entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain in which he expounded the view that responsiveness to music is intrinsic to the human makeup. He said “Music is part of being human.”
And indeed we read early on in Parashat Bereishit that by the eighth generation after Adam and Eve, music-making enters the lives of these people who are beginning to populate the world, and are tent-dwellers, herders and metal-workers. Among them is Yuval, the father of music.
Knowledge of music-making in the biblical period is mostly from literary references in the Bible and post-biblical sources. Religion and music historian Herbert Lockyer, Jr. writes that “music, both vocal and instrumental, was well cultivated among the Hebrews, the New Testament Christians, and the Christian church through the centuries.” He adds that “a look at the Old Testament reveals how God’s ancient people were devoted to the study and practice of music, which holds a unique place in the historical and prophetic books, as well as the Psalter.”
The music of religious ritual was first used by King David, and, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, he is credited with confirming the men of the Tribe of Levi as the “custodians of the music of the divine service.” Historian Irene Hesk notes that of the twenty-four books of the Old Testament, the 150 Psalms in the Book of Psalms ascribed to King David, have served as “the bedrock of Judeo-Christian hymnology,” concluding that “no other poetry has been set to music more often in Western civilization.”
The study of ancient musical instruments has been based on archaeological findings (including figurines and iconographic depictions found in the area dating back to the biblical era) and early writings, which have demonstrated clearly that music was an integral part of daily life then. It appears that both wind and string instruments, as well as drums were in use. The human voice also played a part as evidenced by love songs and laments for the deceased.
Theodore Burgh, historian of ancient music surmises that the biblical period encompassed a culture in which music permeated daily life. He says “Such music was capable of expressing a great variety of moods and feelings or the broadly marked antitheses of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, faith and doubt. In fact, every shade and quality of sentiment are found in the wealth of songs and psalms and in the diverse melodies of the people.”
(From Wikipedia

The history of religious Jewish music spans the evolution of cantorial, synagogal, and Temple melodies since Biblical times.
The earliest synagogal music of which we have any account was based on the system used in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishnah gives several accounts of Temple music. According to the Mishnah, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of twelve instruments, and a choir of twelve male singers. The instruments included the lyre (kinnor),  harp (nevel),  ram’s horn (shofar),  trumpet (chatsotsrah) and three varieties of pipe, (chalil, alamoth and the ugav). (Kinnor and ugav were the instruments attributed to the biblical Yuval.) The Temple orchestra also included a cymbal (tziltzal) made of copper. The Talmud also mentions use in the Temple of a pipe organ (magrepha), and states that the water organ was not used in the Temple as its sounds were too distracting. No provable examples of the music played at the Temple have survived.
(From Wikipedia

In more recent times, a different form of Jewish music emerged from the Chassidic movement that swept Eastern Europe in the 18th century, in addition to the distinctive chazzanuth (cantorial music) and folk songs already existing there. The Jews in Poland and Ukraine produced an original type of song which seems to have no parallel. It is described as Chassidic song, because it was created out of the spirit of Chassidism in which piety supercedes learning and the expression of joy is deemed a religious duty. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “The most direct route from our material world to devotion to God, is through playing music and singing.” (Rabbi Nachman’s Teachings 273). He advised “Accustom yourself to sing a melody. It will give you new life and fill you with joy.” (Rabbi Nachman’s Collection of Counsel: Patience).

Another form of Jewish music is Klezmer music (Klezmer means “vessels of song”) which is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Played by professional musicians called klezmorim, the genre originally consisted largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations. Klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping. This is not a coincidence; the style is meant to imitate cantorial and paraliturgical singing. The Romanian influence is, perhaps, the strongest and most enduring of the musical styles that influenced traditional klezmer musicians. Klezmer musicians heard and adapted traditional Romanian music, which is reflected in the dance forms found throughout surviving klezmer music repertoire. Although as mentioned above, music was an integral part of the Temple service, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, many Rabbis discouraged musical instruments. However, the importance of merrymaking at weddings was not diminished, and the musicians who emerged to fill that niche were the klezmorim. The earliest written record of the klezmorim is in the 15th century.
(From Wikipedia

Here is a recording of a klezmer melody played by Giora Feidman, an Israeli klezmer clarinetist, who was born in 1936 in Argentina, where his Bessarabian Jewish parents immigrated to escape persecution. Feidman comes from a family of klezmer musicians. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather made music for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and holiday celebrations in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Bereishit: Let us make Man

God said “Let us make man…” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. (Bereishit 1:26, 27).

God says
“Let us make Man –
be My partner,
embody My image.”

In the beginning
God clothes the naked,
at the end
He buries a man.

This is the heart of Torah
which ends with lamed
and begins with bet:
lamed and bet spell lev.

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) says that the Torah both begins and ends with God performing acts of loving kindness. The first (in Bereishit 3:21) is when God Himself clothes Adam and Eve, while the last (in Devarim 34:6) is when God Himself buries Moses. God is modeling very hands-on ways of caring for others. Maybe this reflects the essence of Torah, the blueprint of the image in which Man is created, teaching us how to partner God by cultivating compassion in His world.
In Pirkei Avot (2:13), it is told that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai once asked his students what is the essential quality for living a moral life. Of all the replies, (a good (kindly) eye; (to be) a good friend; (to be) a good neighbour; seeing the consequences of one’s actions; a good heart (lev) ), he approved the last, (proposed by R’ Elazar ben Arach), because he said that this contained all the other answers. A good heart, he surmised, would prompt good actions.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski in his book “Let Us Make Man” teaches that the enigmatic words which God utters “Let us make Man…” are spoken to us, telling us that we need to partner God in “creating” ourselves in His image. Unlike animals which are created complete, we are created incomplete but with the potential to work on ourselves.
The commentary in the Hertz Chumash points out that Man alone among living creatures, is gifted, like his Creator, with moral freedom and will. Man is thus capable of guiding his actions in the service of moral and religious ideals. The Rambam says that on this account Man is said to have been made in the form and image of God.

Bereishit – Out in the fields

Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. (Bereishit 4:8).

Out in the fields
Out in the fields
two brothers alone:
no appeasement,
no reminder
of the inseparable ties
that bind.

Abel panics and runs,
agile and sure-footed
as the goats he herds.
Cain, propelled by fury,
chasing over clods, kicking
freshly ploughed earth.

Finally they strive,
locked in fierce struggle,
face to face
breathing hard,
looking as into a mirror,
seeing the other reflected there.

The contest is already decided.
But suddenly through the haze
Abel prevails.
“Wait!” cries Cain,
“How will you go home now?

The image of their parents
broken, in mourning,
floats before Abel’s eyes.
He loosens his hold.
In a flash
Cain flings him down.

How will he go home now?

In the Torah, open fields imply a deserted place far from other people – in this case far from the parents of Cain and Abel (cf Devarim 22:25).
The Torah itself gives no clue as to the source of the rivalry between the brothers so Chazal propose several theories: which half of the world each brother will inherit; who will marry Eve when Adam dies or who will marry Abel’s twin sister; and in whose territory the future Temple will be built. The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that economic conflict, sexual rivalry and religious conflict have been the source of violence between human beings ever since.
In his book, Messengers of God – Biblical Portraits and Legends, Elie Wiesel graphically describes the fight which flares up between the brothers and ends with the murder of Abel.

Bereishit – Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel


It’s bitterly unjust.
I was firstborn
by just an hour
so I get to be the farmer.

But Abel,
he gets the easy job
and he loves it.
He wanders out
with the flocks
and returns to regale me, with
the glory of the landscape.
He wants to show me
the sunrises he’s seen.
I pretend not to listen.
He flushes and falls silent.
I could kill him!

Day after day
of unremitting toil.
My hands are calloused,
my eyes smart from the dust.
Sometimes I lie on my pallet at night,
my back contorted and aching.
In the beginning, I thought
I could re-create
Eden for my parents.
They always recall fragrant fruit
and lush vegetables
there for the picking.
But when He drove them out,
God said, “By toil
and the sweat of your brow
shall you get bread to eat!”
And He meant it.
Only now it’s the sweat
of my brow
that drops down
on the unforgiving earth.

My father said
we should offer something
to God for His bounty,
so I brought crops
which were spare.
It displeased God.

Abel brought his firstlings
and God accepted them.
Now I’m filled with rage.
I‘m bursting to tell someone
– perhaps Abel will listen,
but oh! he’s in his dream world.
I want him to go with me
for a walk outside.
Maybe I’ll feel better
away in the fields.


I’m really blessed.
To be second-born
isn’t such an honor,
but I get to be the shepherd.

But Cain,
he toils away
and he loathes it.
He tills the ground,
back bent, face red.
I try to describe for him
the glory of the landscape.
I’d like to show him
the sunrises I’ve seen.
He doesn’t want to listen.
He looks as though
he could kill me!

Day after day
I tend the flocks.
My hands caress their soft skin,
their gentle eyes gaze at me.
Sometimes I lie in the afternoon shade,
my back on warm ground.
I  listen to birdsong
and the rustling breeze:
Eden must be like this.
Sometimes I rise at night
to care for the sheep.
I see galaxies of stars
ranged across the dark sky.
God said to my father,
“See My works, how beautiful,
how praiseworthy they are!
All that I have created,
I created for your benefit…”
After dawn I go out with the flocks.
I see dewdrops on the leaves
dripping on soft brown earth.

My heart was so full, I felt
I should offer something
to God for His bounty,
so I brought the finest
of my firstlings.
It pleased God.

Cain brought his fruits
and God rejected them.
Now I see how
Cain’s face has fallen.
I think he just spoke
but I didn’t catch it.
He wants me to go with him
for a walk outside.
Maybe he’ll feel better
away in the fields.

The Midrash relates that Eve had a dream which augured the death of Abel at the hand of Cain. She relayed it to Adam who separated the two lads, assigning them different occupations in the hope of averting such a tragedy – but to no avail.

The Etz Hayim (commentary of the JPS) suggests that Cain as the first-born, inherited his father’s occupation as the farmer, and possibly tried to duplicate Eden for his parents, as children often take on and try to realize their parents’ unfulfilled dreams. Abel thus became the shepherd. The Etz Hayim also points out that in Bible narrative, younger siblings are frequently more virtuous and furthermore there appears to be a special affinity for shepherds (Abraham, Moses and David.)

In Kohelet Rabba (7:28) the Midrash tells how after the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He creates the first Man, he takes him on a tour of the garden of Eden, showing him all the beautiful trees and telling him how they have been created for the benefit and enjoyment of humanity.

As to the offerings, the text gives no reason why Abel’s offering was accepted while Cain’s was rejected. The commentators search for clues. The text says that Cain brought an offering while Abel brought a choice offering. The Sefat Emet suggests that where the text says “Abel brought, for his part, the choicest of his firstlings”, “for his part (gam hu)” is literally translated “also he” and implies he brought also himself or, he brought wholeheartedly.

With regard to the lack of dialogue between the brothers, the text says “Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Bereishit 4:8). The text says nothing of what was said or what was the response. In his book Messengers of God – Biblical Portraits and Legends, Elie Wiesel criticizes Abel for being aloof. He imagines that Cain was grief-stricken and hurt and wanted to unburden himself and Abel did nothing to console him. He imagines Abel as dreaming and not hearing, or hearing and not listening. Wiesel says’ “In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see. In the face of injustice, one may not look the other way. When someone suffers, and it is not you, he comes first.” But Wiesel goes on to say that this does not mean if Abel was guilty, that Cain was innocent. He was envious of Abel and repudiated him because Abel seemed to have been favoured by God.

Bereishit: Eve

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all humankind. (Bereishit 3:20).

How could you know
that your swollen belly
harbored a child?
No mother prepared you
with loving advice.
Did you fear
when you labored,
that you might die of pain?
No mother attended you:
murmured encouragement;
wiped sweat from your face.
How did you know
to put him to suckle,
tend his fevers,
sing him to sleep?
No mother rocked you,
caressed you,
gentled your cries.
How did you know
to disregard tantrums,
to summon up patience
for your rage and his?
No mother chided you,
tickled you,
played with you,
laughed with you,
nurtured you,
looked at you, as though
you were the only child on earth.

I have speculated how the earliest mother might have experienced her first pregnancy, without the accumulated wisdom and support of other women – her own mother, grandmother, sister or aunt. The symptoms must have seemed inexplicable: perhaps nausea and overwhelming exhaustion; swelling belly; kicking from within; and then the contractions; breaking of the amniotic waters and finally the miraculous emergence of the first human baby. Although she may have seen pregnant and birthing animals, it could hardly have prepared her for what was ahead. She would have found herself responsible for a crying baby to nurse and nurture, with no-one to consult or care for both her and her child. She had to summon up her own intuitive wisdom to care for her child as he progressed through the unpredictable stages from infancy through adolescence to adulthood, with all the physical and emotional changes involved.

Furthermore, one tradition holds that Cain and Abel were twins (based on Bereishit 4:1-2 where the text says, “she conceived and bore Cain…she then bore his brother Abel…”) while another Midrash tells of each brother having a twin sister!

Bereishit – Let there be light

God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Bereishit 1:3).

Let there be light
An incandescent beam flowed
from world’s beginning
to world’s end:
illuminating, blinding.

Radiance concealed
in an opaque concavity:
cosmic energy
of creation, contained.

Seismic shudders
agitated from within,
the force was too great:
the vessel shattered.

The light splintered:
a luminous shower
of glittering atoms
plummeted earthwards.

Now we gather the sparks
and redeem the light.

In the Sefer HaBahir, the first light was depicted as being so bright it illuminated the world from one end to the other. However, it was so blinding for the creatures that God concealed it.

Lurianic Kabbalah describes the light of creation being contained in a vessel. The vessel shattered and the light was dispersed. Some sparks returned straight away to the Source while the rest, entangled with the shards of the vessel, fell to earth and became scattered all over. Seeking out the sparks and restoring them to their Source is the task of humanity – this is the concept of tikkun olam.