Bereisheet: Beginninga quest for the divine

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Bereisheet

Genesis 1:1-6:8

I Samuel 20:18-42

Have you ever noticed how much nicer people are around the holidays? This kindness expresses itself in so many ways, large and small.

Loved ones call from long distance, just to be sure to check in and say "Shanah tovah." A friend walks over in the midst of services and leans over to say, "Forgive me." Conversations focus on repentance, sorting through the accumulated pain of the past year, reaching for a better start for the new year. And there is a flood of "shanah tovah" greetings, so often accompanied with a pause. It is as if we really stop and see the other person for a moment, trying to imagine what this person may need for the new year and hoping they get it. Generosity of spirit flows in abundance.

But what happens to that openness of heart, that focused desire to do better, when the holidays pass?

A day or two after Yom Kippur, I dropped off my daughter at a friend's house to play and saw, prominently displayed on my friend's door, a sign bearing a symbol that at first looked like a no-smoking sign. In fact, the sign said, "Thank you for not speaking lashon hara (gossip) in this house."

We immediately found ourselves talking about how quickly our conversations had reverted to their normal patterns after Yom Kippur. We laughed about how frequently the break-the-fast meal itself, when all of us have just left behind a day of fervent prayer, is entirely consumed with idle chatter — and sometimes hurtful gossip about the people among whom we sat in shul.

What would it take to let the vows last longer? What would it take to get us to savor the richness of the holidays, with their spirit of gratitude and celebration, spiritual focus, clear moral resolution and generosity of spirit?

This Shabbat, we have yet another chance to make a new beginning. Having danced through Simchat Torah, overflowing with joy for having read through the Torah yet again, we begin once more with Bereisheet (Genesis). Reading this parashah, of course, is about cosmic beginnings, but also about beginning a cycle of communal living and learning again. It can also remind us that we don't need to wait till next Yom Kippur to reorient ourselves if we have already slipped away from our resolve at the close of the fast.

Among its many rich treasures, this reading includes what some consider the central teaching of Torah: the creation of the human person in the image of God. "And God created humanity in the divine image; in the image of God did God create them" (Genesis 1:27).

But what does this mean, and how are we supposed to integrate this teaching into our lives?

Being created in the image of God is something like the spiritual equivalent of family resemblance. Think about how resemblance works in your family. My husband's nephew so strongly resembles his father, who died tragically at a young age, that old friends and relatives are regularly taken aback. My daughter, on the other hand, only subtly resembles her father and me, so that one sees the resemblance in glimmers, those brief magical moments, when in a certain gesture or expression she reflects what she received from her parents.

So, too, some people seem to radiate their divine essence so clearly that it is unmistakable that they come from God. For most of us, the resemblance is less apparent, more subtle, visible to the eye only in those passing moments when, in a certain moment of grace, those around us can see that we, too, are God's.

One might say that this is the basis of Torah: that it is our primary task in life to bear witness to the reality of God in the world. The ultimate goal of life is to reach the level at which the image of God is unmistakably recognizable to all who see us. And, says the Torah, all of us — not just particularly gifted people — can reach that level, because in each of us is a spark of the divine (Rabbi Y. Y. Weinberg, in Itturei Torah, Vol. 1, P. 22).

The teaching of creation in the image of God is the key to being true to what we prayed for on Yom Kippur. May this Shabbat Bereisheet allow us to begin again, to be who we were created to be.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.