Every time we come to this week's parashah / Torah portion, I wonder again at the phenomenon of miracles . . . . Theologically speaking, a miracle is an act initiated by God that is impossible according to the laws of nature (established by God). That's what makes a miracle miraculous. That's also why the insurance companies term for terrible natural acts like tornadoes and hurricanes is so off-target . . . because these are not deliberate "acts of God", these are not miracles imposed on the world by a vengeful or angry deity . . . but they are phenomenon ruled by the laws of nature established by God.
In the setting of biblical Egypt, though, the "wonders" performed by God . . . and by the Egyptian gods . . . seem to be the stuff of divine "throwdowns." God instructs Aaron to throw down his staff (in last week's Torah reading) and the staff turns to a snake. Not to be outdone, the Pharaoh's wizards also throw down their staffs, which also turn to snakes . . . but in this moment of divine one upmanship, the God of the Israelites prevails by having Aaron's snake devour those of the Egyptian wizards. It's an omen Pharoah will ignore at his peril and the peril of his people until the end of this week's parashah.
No one, though, blinks an eye at the phenomenon of the Israelite God or the Egyptian gods manipulating events and nature at will.
I don't think we'd be so sanguine today.
We do speak of miracles . . . but in general we are expressing appreciation for moments when the laws of nature work particularly beautifully and well: when a healthy baby is born, when someone recovers from a life-threatening illness or injury. It's good that we are appreciative of such blessings. But a personal blessing is not the same as a public miracle. God no longer moves through this world countering the laws of nature.
Although it would be exciting to witness a real contradicting-the-laws-of-nature miracle, I think it would also be terrifying . . . look at the panic that spreads when something happens that is within nature's set repertoire! So now, we need to look more carefully, on the micro-level, for signs of God's hand in the world . . . not the grand stage of miracles, but the quiet phenomenon of blessing: the constant renewal of life and love. It is God, after all, who bestows these blessings on us if we only take the time to see them.
This week, as we read the opening verses of the Torah, the biblical account of creation, we hope to find insight into the most fundamental questions of existence: what are we doing here? Why did God create at all? Why is there illness and natural disaster and evil if God is all good?
For a long time, now, I've found some sense, if not complete reassurance and comfort, in a specific reading of these opening passages of Breishit/Genesis which I thought I'd share with you as we embark on Shabbat Breishit of our new year 5773:
Most rabbis and biblical scholars will acknowledge that translation is, in large part, commentary. For all that we understand biblical Hebrew quite well, there is often ambiguity in the language canonized as sacred text . . . ambiguity that challenges us and encourages us to bring our own questions and our own insights to the text. That kind of inquiry leads to inspiring and engaging commentary. The tools of etymology and cultural and social history help us get closer and closer to what may have been the original intent of the text as preserved and transmitted to us.
So let us look at the first two verses of the Torah:
א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם:
If you were asked to recite this passage in English, you would probably begin: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . " This is a reasonable translation that was well-established in English translations for decades.
I invite you to read this version of these verses from the highly regarded Jewish Publication Society revised translation from 2000:
"When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light."
More evocative still is Everett Fox's brilliant translation (1995) which reflects Professor Fox's commitment to the sources of biblical translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, developments in biblical scholarship since then, and great sensitivity to the literary profundity of biblical Hebrew. The Fox translation reads:
"At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--God said: Let there be light!"
Both the JPS translation and the Fox translation reflect a reading of the Hebrew which denies a popular, if perhaps mistaken, belief, that nothing existed before God's first act of creation except for God. Here we read that an "unformed and void" earth or an earth of "wild and waste" existed at the time God began to create. There was "a deep" or Ocean, there was darkness . . . . I am left with the impression of a state of seething chaos.
The nature of the passages which follow embody God's purpose, in my reading of God's creating acts: What follows is an orderly and patterned progression:
God speaks, creates through speaking, names, evaluates, seals each day with setting sun and dawning day and continues the pattern.
Inexorably, painstakingly, a grid of order is imposed on the wild waste and seething chaos that preceded the first act of creation. God created to impose order on the "tohu vavohu" on the unformed void, the wild waste.
When I am confronted with the destructive and frightening effects of randomness: severe illness, hurricanes and sunamis and earthquakes . . . I sense that somehow that premordial chaotic wildness and void seething under the order of God's creation has somehow found a gap in the interstices of the grid and has spurted its venomous chaos into our lives.
We depend on the orderliness of God's creation to move through the world with any confidence. We orient ourselves through the predictable progressions of morning, noon and night, of recurring seasons. Indeed, we end our day with a blessing, praising God the creator for the comforting reassurance of this order: "You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Eternal God, Your rule shall embrace us forever . . ."
For all the uncertainty in our lives, this week's Torah reading comes to reassure us of the eternal presence of God, our Rock in the face of the randomness of life.
Parashat Va'eira Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2-9:35
There is a rather uncomfortable juxtaposition between the horrific events in Haiti and our Torah portion. From the comfort of our safe homes, full refrigerators, safe running water and functioning hospitals, we shake our heads in dismay and bewilderment as the people of Port-au-Prince, Haiti continue to live in an atmosphere of chaos, death, starvation and dehydration.
Everything we understand about God as Creator compels us to reject at Robertson's repressive theology of God punishing Haitians for "making a pact with the devil" in the early 19th century as a way of winning independence from the French.
I will not accept that God punishes humans en masse through natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Sunami or the Haitian earthquake.
On the other hand, this week's Torah reading includes the first half of the story of the 10 plagues that God brings down upon the Egyptian people. Unnatural disaster after unnatural disaster makes life miserable for every generation and social class of Egyptians, threatening or taking the lives of many. How do we reject God's hand in the natural disasters of sunami, earthquake and hurricane, but acknowledge God's hand in the unnatural disasters of blood, frogs, locusts and the death of the first born? Is there a theological position of integrity that encompasses these positions?
In my faith, the unnatural disasters of the plagues visited upon Egypt are the larger than life interpretations of events that surround definitive redeeming moments: God redeems Israel from the physical and spiritual bondage of Egypt. The event is profound, the triumph of the God of Israel over the gods of Egypt is stunning and challenging to the assumptions of that time and that place. It is only through the interweaving of events and impressions that is the 10 plagues story, a divine "throwdown" between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt, that the events become comprehensible.
The ongoing tragedy of Haiti is not an event of theological import, it is the unfolding of natural disaster meeting human frailty. We have many resources that we need to bring to bear at this moment: the financial resources to send food and water and the implements to provide shelter; the human resources to impose order on chaos; the spiritual resources to infuse the people of Haiti with strength. The people of Haiti have been singing songs of faith in the streets. Their faith humbles me and inspires me. Respond, with me, by donating to relief organizations and coming together in prayer, as do the people of Haiti themselves.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.