Begin again

Rabbi James M. Bennett is president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and Senior Rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Rabbi James Bennett

“I wish I could begin again.” The man sitting across the table from me in my study years ago held my attention with an intensity that I recall as if it was today. He was wracked with guilt and regret, and came to my office less for “confession” than for a non-judgmental conversation. Frankly, I don’t even remember what, exactly, he came to share with me, nor what I said to him. But I do vividly remember his passionate desire to wipe the slate clean and begin again. As if nothing had ever happened. As if it was the first day of creation. 

This week the Torah takes us precisely to such a moment. Parashah Bereshit invites us into the chaos of the universe, messy and shapeless, before the beginning of order and sense. The myth of creation with which we begin the unrolling of Torah for yet another year reminds us that there was a time before, and gives us hope that there will be a time after as well.

“At the very beginning,” we read, God began to exercise creative will upon the chaos of matter. A purpose for being emerged – a reason to exist. Light, Dark, Day, Night, Heaven, Earth all became distinct.  Life began and eventually, we humans became a part of the evolving order of the universe.  The stories of creation remind us both of our ultimate potential and our utter inability to be anything more than human.

Yet our tradition cannot leave this alone. We are inextricably partners with the Creative Force in the Universe. Our teachers suggested that God needs us as much as we need God. We exist to complete the work of creation – not to perfect it. No one is perfect, not us, not God. The midrash tells us that God created world after world after world before finally accepting that this world, with us a part of it, would do. More than acceptable, in fact. We are the pinnacle of creation, and we here to finish what God started, creating, shaping, loving, nurturing, caring, fixing, healing, doing. Together with God, we will finish the job. Or at least take the next steps, and almost always, when we err, we can begin again. 

The most remarkable thing of all is that creation is not all that remarkable; it happens every day. In every birth and death, every planting and growing, every teaching and learning. Creation happens endlessly. 

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Rabbi Ben Bag Bag teaches that we should “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it” (Pirke Avot 5:22). Torah, that is. And life. And Creation. It is no accident that our new year starts by insisting that we go back to the very beginning and reading again from the start. It is never too late to begin again. Never too late to make it right. Never too late to put our messy past behind us and turn to a fresh new page and begin. Again.