Parashat Bereshit

Where Are You?

This week's portion calls for dialogue and accountability.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

When I was five years old, I developed a bad habit. My Jewish family was involved with a Tibetan Buddhist Temple, and while the adults were inside in silent meditation, I would occasionally sneak out to the lawn and ring the large ceremonial gong that was used to rouse the entire Temple into action. This problem came to the attention of the Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Temple, and he asked to speak to the small, chubby gong-ringer. I was braced to be humiliated by this religious authority figure. But the Rinpoche gently told me that the key to growing up is figuring out when to ring the gong and when to respect the silence.   

Years later, even after rabbinical school, this simple teaching remains one of the most influential religious lessons that I have ever received. Parashat Bereshit teaches that within the very fabric of creation there are moments for silence, space, and rejuvenation. We imitate God when we rest on Shabbat because "God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, because on it God ceased all the work of creation."

At the same time, the parashah teaches that failing to sound a gong when the situation calls for it is a grave error. There are moments when we must call attention to the state of our world, when we must rouse people into action to change the world.

Causes for Concern

In the 20th century, child mortality rates dropped significantly in almost every country. This decline has been attributed to advances in immunizations, nutrition, and rehydration therapy. These advances did not happen naturally; they grew out of prolonged gong-ringing, tireless action, and advocacy by people all over the world--doctors and philanthropists, politicians and scientists. But our work is not done.

Over the past year, nearly three million people world-wide have died of AIDS. Over 850 million people around the world deal with food scarcity. And the U.S. has once again failed to meet the recommendations of debt forgiveness for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative set by the World Bank in 1996.

As we begin the Torah again this week, these are some of the challenges we confront.

Bereshit and Beyond

In Parashat Bereshit, the adam, the first human creature, eats a fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Afterwards, he is ashamed and he hides behind a tree in the Garden of Eden. God calls out to him, "Ayekah?--Where are you?"

The medieval commentator Rashi notes that an omniscient God would have known where the adam was physically located, so God's question must not be a query for information. Instead, it represents a call for dialogue and accountability.

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Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.