After the High Holidays, a new beginning

BY RABBI LYNN GOLDSTEIN

We all know that the Torah begins with the words: “In the beginning…” Really though, the Torah begins with the letters: bet, raish, aleph, shin, yod, tav. (Torah is written with letters and not vowels. So, when we read, we assume which vowels should be used.) Depending on which vowel you place underneath the first letter, the bet, the first word of Torah can be translated either as “in the beginning” as we’ve all been taught. However, it can also be read as “in a beginning.”

The difference is significant. If we choose the former, “in the beginning,” we focus our attention on the one, single beginning of the universe. Should we accept the latter, “in a beginning”, then we are left to question, as did Rashi, if there weren’t many beginnings.

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Rashi teaches that in the beginning God created and destroyed many worlds, one after the other, until God finally created this world. God saw that it was good, and said to Adam and Eve: This is the last world that I will create. I place it in your hands. Hold it in trust and take care of it, for if you do not, no one will come after you to do so.

In the beginning God created and destroyed many worlds until God finally created this one and saw that it was good. The implication of Rashi’s teaching is that creating the world was difficult, even for God. It took a willingness to try, to evaluate and come up with a better way, and to try again, and again. Until finally, God was satisfied with the results, and God saw that it was good.

We have just come through a very intensive High Holy Day season of introspection. We have spent a great deal of time examining our behavior, trying to figure out how we can do it better, finding people we’ve wronged and apologizing, looking to God for support in our efforts to change, searching for ways to make up for our mistakes.

Change is clearly difficult. We often make well-intentioned decisions to do something differently. Next time, we won’t lose our temper so quickly. Next time instead of yelling, we will talk quietly and rationally. Next time we won’t eat the extra serving, or the dessert. Next time we will be more careful. Next time we will do a better job. We make promises to ourselves and those we love with the full intention of keeping them. And we begin to try. But somewhere along the way, we oftentimes get lost. We forget our promises or simply stop trying to fulfill them. It’s too difficult. We revert to our previous behaviors. We give up.

When I was ordained, a congregant calligraphed the following combination of the teachings of Hillel and Steinsaltz for me: “All beginnings are difficult…but the continuation can be even more difficult. The capacity to persist is no less important than the power to begin.”

What would have happened if God had created the first world, seen that it was not very good, destroyed it, and given up? This world exists because God did not stop until the world created was truly a good one. And we are blessed to be able to enjoy it.

Bereisheit comes to remind us that God is our role model. Just after we finish the High Holy Days, with their emphasis on teshuvah, on repentance, we read “In a beginning…”

We are reminded that if this new year is going to truly become a new beginning for us, just as God expended tremendous energy, effort and persistence in creating our world, so too, in order to change and grow, it will take us a great deal of hard work, perseverance, trial and error, ongoing effort and willingness to try and try and try again. It will require our willingness to fall repeatedly, but to always get back up and try again. Beginnings are important. But without continuation, they fade away. It is only with persistence that entire universes can come to be.

The promise of Bereisheit is that just as God persisted in creating world after world until God saw that this world was good, when we persist and continue on with our efforts despite inevitable frustrations and set-backs, what we create as a result of that hard work will truly be good. We will emerge a better and stronger person. And those with whom we come in contact will be blessed by knowing the person we have become.

May this new year be one of new beginnings for each of us, with new energy and capacity to persist until we see that what we have created is indeed very good.

Rabbi Lynn Goldstein is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.