Parashat B’reishit 5781

Rabbi Sandra Kviat, October 14 2020

B’reishit – And the seasons go round and round

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
(Joni Mitchell, The Circle Game)

Joni Mitchell wrote this song about the bittersweet ending of childhood but it also speaks to the feelings of the beginning of Bereishit. The carousel of time is turning, the seasons are turning round and round, and we are entering a new year. We roll the scrolls back, we begin again, we read and reread the stories, with new/old eyes. It is a new beginning, the scroll is rolled to the first verse of the first portion, again.

And in this circle game of Simchat Torah, we find an important Jewish principle; as soon as we get to the end, we begin again. There is no real ending to the Torah, we never get the ‘happily ever after’, instead we roll back and begin again, and again. Moses is shown the Promised Land, he stands on the top and surveys it from one end to the other. He is allowed to glimpse his life’s work, but no more than that. We as readers, join in the mourning, the lament and the eulogy; we say “there was no one like Moses and never will be, who stood panim al panim, face to face with God”.
And then the parasha finishes before the Israelites can themselves enter the Promised Land. This sense of an unfinished ending permeates the whole biblical narrative. And yet, this is not considered a problem in Jewish tradition, rather it is seen as a strength. There are no true endings, but always an ending-with-a-beginning.

But sometimes this carousel of time and stories feels exhausting. It feels less like a gift and more as Joni Mitchel says ‘[as if] We’re captive[s] on the carousel of time’. This past year has been relentless, and we’re not out of the woods yet. So it is no wonder that many of us are feeling depleted, looking at the autumn with tiredness, and worrying about the relentless merry-go-round. We might not be ready yet to return to a new beginning. To jump from the end, to roll back, and start again. We need a pause.

And then, looking closely at the rituals of Simchat Torah again, we don’t actually read the last word and then immediately begin to roll. There’s a brief but important pause, after the death and before the creation, after the last lamed has rolled off our tongues and before the first bet is recited from Genesis. And in this brief pause, we stop, and together we say ‘chazak chazak v’nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened/let’s summon our strength.

The first part of the saying is addressed to the individual, may you be strong, whereas the second part ‘v’nitchazeik’ is in the plural – may we all be strengthened, may we all be able to summon our strength. It suggests that our individual strength is linked with those around us, and just as our strength supports the community, so too can we draw strength from the community.

But there’s another wisdom hiding in these words – and it begins with the question – why do we say chazak (strength) twice, when once should be enough? The repetition of the word is not only there for emphasis. The root of chazak has multiple meanings; be or grow strong, firm, stout, mighty, but it also means to prevail or take courage, to hold or contain, to sustain, support, or even repair.

In these words that we say at the end of a book from the Torah we are reminded to look for different forms of strength. There’s the physical strength we need to hold on to, to get us through the dark days of autumn and winter. There’s the emotional strength of sustaining our families and our neighbourhoods. And then there’s the strength of hope, of daring to hope in a new story, a new dream, as Joni Mitchell sings ‘There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty’.

The Torah, and especially Genesis, is a lesson in hope, not optimism, for optimism is the passive sense that everything will be ok, whereas in hope there’s faith that our actions can make a difference. Hope is an embrace of the unknown, and an opening amongst all the complexities and uncertainties, as the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit writes. Hope is not a denial of how difficult or bleak the situation is, or how exhausted we are, but rather an opening for us to act. Hope is a form of strength. And so as we begin another cycle of reading we read with hope, looking for the openings in all the complexities and uncertainties.

Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik, be strong, be hopeful and let us all be strengthened.

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