What can I even say? It feels so hard to talk.
I’m sad, and scared. I am angry and grieving. I’m overwhelmed by “facts,” by news, by statements. I’m overwhelmed by the inadequacy of reaching out to my loved ones to say, “are you ok?” No one is OK.
I’m so grateful to be here with you, to be vulnerable together, to share our grief together, to risk opening our hearts together. I’m grateful to be entering Shabbos, to have a container for connection, to have a time dedicated to our hearts and souls. And yet even as I feel relief as Shabbos arrives, a pit opens in my stomach, as I think of those who will have no relief this Shabbos. I think of those who are mourning the dead, who will feel no relief from their grief. How can I sing a song of praise? I think of those who are held captive, experiencing unimaginable fear. I think of their families, waiting for news. How can I give thanks for rest? I think of 1 million people who were told to evacuate what is left of their homes, who are trapped in a place of rubble, a place of despair, a place of blood, a place without fuel, or power, or water. I think of so many children who have never known safety.
How can we have Shabbos at a time like this? Why do we get to have Shabbos, and they don’t? There is no answer to that. There is only the demand that through this rest, through this song, through this community, we fortify ourselves to work for a world where all can have menucha, rest, all can have oneg, delight.
This is Shabbat Beresheit, the Shabbat of beginning.
In this parsha, the world as we know it comes into being. In this parsha, humans come into being. In this parsha, a human kills another human for the first time. That human’s blood cries out from the ground.
In the story of Cain and Abel, one brother is a farmer; the other tends flocks. Both bring offerings to God. The text reads, “God paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering [God] paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.”
And then the text reads in a curious way:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו
Cain said to his brother Abel
וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּ֥קׇם קַ֛יִן אֶל־הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃
And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
The text doesn’t say what Cain said to his brother: it appears to be cut off. It appears as though words are missing. A gap instead of speech. Momentum of death instead of conversation.
When we read it, the gap itself, the lack of words, seems paramount. The commentators speculate: Rashi says Cain started an argument, seeking a pretext to kill Abel. The midrash suggests that they were quarreling over the world, over who would get to own the land and who the movable property, over whose domain would be home to the holy Temple. What an old story. But the gap, the lack of words, seems paramount in another way: if they had spoken, could the death have been avoided? If they could hear each other and be heard, could Abel have lived?
Throughout this week, I have been sitting in the reality that words and silence are both so powerful. So much of what I have heard from members of our community is about this. My workplace didn’t say anything, and that feels painful. The statement from this organization was so profoundly off base. People I care about are flag-waving and virtue-signaling in a way that is so alienating. To talk about Hamas’ terrorism without any acknowledgement of the context of occupation and dispossession is infuriating and dangerous. To name the context of occupation without condemning the unspeakable violence against civilians is hurtful and scary. I have heard all this from our community, and so much more. Being hurt by what family, friends, colleagues, communal leaders, rabbis, political leaders have said and not said.
Perhaps this week you have also felt fear that your own words might hurt someone. I felt that all week, and I feel it now. There is only one thing I know stronger than my desire to not cause anyone in this community pain with my words, and that is that silence is not an option. We are Jews. In this world, we know how dangerous silence is.
So to what speech does the Torah call us this Shabbat? What voices are called into being?
In the rabbinic tradition, there is a debate about the klal gadol of the Torah, the most basic principle of Torah, the teaching for the sake of which all of Judaism exists. Rabbi Akiva argues for “Love your neighbor as yourself. V’ahavta lreyeacha kamocha.” Love is the teaching for which all the rest of Judaism exists.
Shimon ben Azzai disagrees. Ben Azzai turns to our parsha, to Beresheit, to the very creation of humanity. Ben Azzai turns to this verse:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ
God created the human being in God’s image; in the image of Divinity God created the human.
For ben Azzai, the most basic principle of Torah is that God created the human being in God’s image. That every human life is God’s image. Love is actually too much to ask; we know we won’t be able to always love all of our neighbors. But to recognize the Divinity in every single person, to treat them as holy and sacred; that is our most fundamental obligation; that is what our tradition exists to prepare us to do.
This week, we are so deeply called into both principles—into loving our neighbor as ourselves and into recognizing the divinity in every single human life.
One of the risks of the principle “v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha” is that we can interpret it in a narrow way: reyacha can mean neighbor, fellow, friend. We can interpret it to mean “love your people,” not “love all people.” But this week, we are called to love our people. We are called to be specific about who our people are and what it means to be in relationship with them. We are called to remember the traumas our people have experienced and honor all that they shape about both the politics and the emotions of this particular moment. We are called to pray for our people and their safety, and we are called to demand that the world work for our people’s safety.
And. We are equally called to a principle that allows for no exceptions. We are called to unequivocally recognize the preciousness of every single life. We are called to say that no death is justified. We are called to say that no death is inevitable.
I have heard from so many this week that what happened or what is happening feels inevitable. Or that a return to things as they were feels inevitable. I heard someone say that violence is the only possible response. But, as Arielle Engel, the editor of Jewish Currents, wrote, recognizing inevitability does not mean embracing it. She wrote, and my experience echoes hers, “it was from Palestinians…that I learned to think of Palestine as a site of possibility—a place where the very idea of the nation-state, which has so harmed both peoples, could be remade or destroyed entirely. And it was Palestinians who opened my thinking to multiple visions of sharing the land. On the left, I hope we do not mistake the inevitability of the violence for an inescapable limit on our work or the quality of our thought.”
And so that is the other thing that our parsha calls us into this week. It calls us into possibility and creativity. It calls us to refuse to accept even that which seems inevitable. As my friend Annie Kaufman said yesterday, Beresheit is the foundation and most extreme model of creativity in our tradition. From a swirling chaos, Divine creativity brought forth difference. Brought forth the protective, restful darkness and the nourishing, illuminating light. Brought forth cycles of seasons and time, brought forth—brings forth—sparks that become bacteria that become cells that become complex organisms that become creatures, become us. We are called to create in the image of that creative force.
If you feel despair, I honor that in you. Midrash teaches that God created the world many times, and destroyed the world many times before settling on this one. It’s such a troubling idea, that God destroyed worlds before this one. It’s also hard to believe, for me at least, that this is the best God could do. But this is the only world we have; destroying it and starting from scratch is not an option. If you feel despair, I honor that. But if we find ourselves nodding when someone says, “violence is the only possible response,” how can we, together, restore our humanity, which is so understandably drained, and get so much more creative than that? When we find ourselves saying, “things will just go back to the way they were,” let us find new sources of hope.
Despair lies in the gap, in the silence. It lies in the space between “Cain said to his brother” and “Cain killed his brother.” What if we could rewind the tape? What if we could fill in that silence and, in that space, stop the first death, and in that pause, stop all the deaths that follow?
When we talk about words, it can feel like we are getting lost in semantic arguments; like we are consumed with what is said as cover for what has been and is being done. But the gap in our text, the reverberating silence before Cain kills Abel, reminds us that words and silence are both so powerful.
Arielle Engel also reminded us of this reality: “As Israelis count their dead, politicians in Israel and the US call for Palestinian blood in direct, genocidal language. “We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.” She goes on, “This language deploys the bombs that fall on Gazans from the sky, leveling whole neighborhoods, wiping out families without warning, huddled in their homes because they have nowhere to flee.”
Can we love our people, mourn our dead, and pray like hell for the safe return, for the healing, for the protection of our people who are trying to survive, and refuse to be complicit in the dehumanization of another people? I know that we can. I know that there are so many reasons it feels impossible. I know that a desire for revenge is real and powerful; I know that a desire for humility in a situation we don’t live through is powerful and important. And I know that we have to find the words, because fighting for one divinely-imaged human is fighting for us all. I so deeply believe that the most important response we can have right now is not only to refuse to surrender our own humanity or anyone else's, but to fight, as courageously and boldly as possible, in actively affirming the preciousness of every single divinely-loved and divinely-reflecting human life.
I began by asking how we can have Shabbos this week. One way we can is by doing things a little differently. There is a prayer that is not included in the Shabbos liturgy because it is a bakasha, a plea, and customarily we don’t say bakashot, prayers of request, on Shabbat, instead choosing to experience the world as entirely perfect. The world is so abundantly not perfect this Shabbat, and so I invite you to offer this prayer, this plea, with me. It is a prayer that all who are held in captivity be released into safety. And it is a prayer that all whose vision and imagination are held in narrowness be led towards spaciousness and creativity, and to create a different way.
אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַנְּתוּנִים בְּצָרָה
וּבַשִּׁבְיָה, הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה,
הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה
לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד
לִגְאֻלָּה, הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב.
Acheinu kol beit yisrael, Acheinu kol beit yisrael, han'tunim
b'tzara, b'tzara uvashivyah,
haomdim bein bayam uvein
bayabasha. Hamakom Y'racheim,
Y'racheim Aleihem v'yotziem
mitzara lirvacha um'afaila l'orah
umishiabud lig'ulah, hashta
ba'agala uvizman kariv.
Translation: As for our siblings, the whole house of Israel, who are given over to trouble or captivity, whether they abide on the sea or on the dry land: May the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to spaciousness, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption, now speedily and at a near time.