I recently heard a famous sports broadcaster lament when people use the phrase, “this team controls their own destiny.” We hear this in football all the time. [Imagine a color commentator speaking] “Heading into this last week of the season, Team X controls their own destiny.” According to this broadcaster, this logic makes no sense. If it is destiny, then we don’t control it. And if we control the future, it is not destiny. Initially, my reaction was, “OK, that makes sense. There is at least one more cliche I can throw out of my lexicon.” But then I started to think more about it, and I have been thinking about it for the past couple of weeks.
This week we begin reading again from Parshat Breishit. Rashi brings a midrash on the first words of the Torah. “IN THE BEGINNING/בראשית — Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have commenced with the verse in Exodus, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”, which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text from Psalms, “He declared to His people the strength of His deeds...” Essentially, this is a challenge to us to consider why the Torah starts where it does. The midrash states that the answer is that God’s actions are supremely powerful. The world belongs to God and God can give and take at God’s discretion since everything is divine property.
However, the Sfas Emes, picks up on the verse from Psalms and believes that there is something else going on here. He teaches us why we have all these Parshiyot from Breishit until we get the first mitzvah in Parshat Bo. Since, traditionally, the Torah’s essence is in its mitzvot. This is the Written Torah/תורה שבכתב. But, Hashem wants to make it clear that everything in this world comes from the Torah, as the midrash says, ‘In the beginning, God looked into the Torah and thus created the world’--Torah becomes the blueprint for the world. And this is the concept of Oral Torah/תורה שבעל פה, which is dependent on the deeds of humanity. And these are all of the parshiyot with the deeds of our ancestors--to show us that Torah was made out of their actions. And this is what “the power of His deeds” really means. What amazing power Hashem gave to “action”! That is why it is called The Act of Creation/מעשה בראשית. When a person acts through the prism and power of Torah, we reveal and renew the hidden holy light in the things that surround us. On this it is said in Isaiah, “I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand, stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” The Zohar teaches, don’t read ‘my people (עמי-Ami)’, rather, read ‘with me (עמי-Imi)’. We are partners in the acts of creation. When we act through Torah, when we act in a way that shows that we recognize that every person and thing has that Divine spark in them, then we are co-creators of the world as it should be. That is how we become partners with God in laying the foundation of the Earth. That is why we start the Torah where we do, with the deeds of our ancestors. It proves that our good and pious action becomes the Torah, which we are then meant to follow.
Coming down from the holiday season can be difficult after a month of spiritual highs. But this teaching is here to push us to see that the New Year did not begin with Rosh Hashana. It begins right now. This upcoming week, I want to challenge us to think about our actions. In what ways are we partners with God in building a world that reflects the Divine Image? Are there ways in which our actions are actively damaging that blueprint? Take one or two things this week that you are going to do. Focus on them. Do them with the intention that they are going to stabilize the foundation of the world. If we can do that, than this will truly be a wonderful beginning to a sweet New Year. As it turns out, we actually do control our own destiny.
There is a classic scene in the 1995 crime/drama Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. De Niro plays a big time thief and Pacino is the cop that is assigned to catch him. After circling each other and trying to out maneuver each other, the two finally appear in a scene together about two hours into the movie. The two end up meeting in a coffee shop so that they can size each other up before De Niro attempts his big score. Pacino tries to convince De Niro that he should walk away from this life of crime and that he should try living a normal life. De Niro then answers by saying, “A guy told me one time, ‘Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’” Pacino asks De Niro if he would be able to walk away from his girlfriend. De Niro replies, “That’s the discipline.” While I am not suggesting to anyone to adopt a vagabond lifestyle or encouraging anyone to become an off-the-grid crime figure, I do think this is a time of year to think about what we cherish, what we are attached to, and what we can do without.
In our Rabbinic and Halakhic tradition, there is an unresolved debate. Is the Sukkah that we dwell in during Sukkot supposed to be a temporary dwelling/דירת עראי or a permanent one/דירת קבע? How thick should the walls be? How high should the walls be? Should rain be able to get in through the roof/סכך? How much of my body and table should be in the Sukkah while I eat? These are all questions that circle around this question about the essence of our Sukkah.
The Sfas Emes comes to teach us that in fact, the Sukkah was meant not to be either temporary or permanent, but rather, the Sukkah was intended to be both. He teaches that one needs to understand that this temporary dwelling is what expresses that which is fixed-the divinity which is in all places. This temporary dwelling is more fixed that any of the fixed places in the world, because it orients us to the fact that God is what is truly fixed in all places. The Torah tells us that “you shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt/בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.” The Sfas Emes reminds us that the reason that we were brought out of Egypt was to be a free people/בני חורין. And being free means realizing that our souls are not bound to anything material. What is permanent is our relationship and connection with God, and we are reminded of that when we step into the seemingly impermanent Sukkah.
It is good to want and own nice things. But Sukkot reminds us not to become too attached to any one thing. That attachment to the material becomes shackling. And the Sukkah offers us the potential to go out into another realm. If we are to be a free people, this week, I challenge us to go out from our places of material comfort, with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all our might. And there, I hope we can find our true and permanent comfort in the shade of God’s House, the Sukkah.
Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’Simha,
As a young child, even though I grew up in a traditional household--my father is a Rabbi--I was allowed to watch television and play video games. One day, when I was about ten years old, I was playing Nintendo when my dad barged into the living room and told me that I needed to turn off the game console. I was furious. “Why?!?!” I protested, “I have always played!” My dad responded, “Can you honestly tell me that you are not creating when you play these games?” Traditionally we refrain from creative work/malacha on Shabbat. In my heart, I knew he was right. But I was a kid, so I said, “No, it’s not creating.” Well, I have never been a very good liar, and my dad could see right through me. From that day on, I accepted a new standard in my Shabbos life.
There is a midrash from Breishit Rabbah, that says that after Kayin kills Hevel, he was punished to wander the land forever--na v’nad tihiye ba’artez/נָע וָנָד, תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ. However, he then asked forgiveness from God. He made a compromise with God and half of the punishment was taken away--he ended up only living in eretz nod/וַיֵּצֵא קַיִן, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה; וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֶרֶץ-נוֹד (the “nod” stuck, but the “na” was taken away). He left his backroom meeting with God with a big smile on his face. Adam sees Kayin leaving this meeting and asks him, what are you so happy about? Kayin replies, I did teshuva and made a deal--a plea bargain of sorts. Immediately, Adam hits himself in the face. He says, “such is the power of teshuva?!? I had no idea!!” He then stood up and recited the Psalm for Shabbat, mizmor shir l’yom hashabbat. The questions are, why does this teshuva work? Why does Adam say this Psalm as his form of teshuva? How is this his teshuva?
In this week’s Haftarah, in the book of Isaiah, we read “Happy is...the one who keeps Sabbath from profaning it/אשרי האיש...השומר שבת מחללו.” The Talmud teaches us that we should not read “from profaning it/me’halelo/מחללו,” rather it should be read “he is forgiven/mahul lo/מחול לו.” When we guard Shabbat as a staple of our lives, when we take Shabbat seriously, then we become whole and return to our best selves.
Shabbos is more than coming to shul and praying and seeing friends and family--though those are all great and important things. That is what I learned on that day many years ago. In our mystical tradition, Shabbos is called Testimony. The Sfas Emes teaches that our testimony is not necessarily only with our words, that we ourselves are the testimony. We testify with our actions and our lives. And maybe that is what Adam realized. He was not merely saying the Psalm for Shabbat, he was getting into Shabbat mode, which is a mode where we act as our best selves, and through our actions, we testify to all those that see us that we love Torah and our Creator.
On this Shabbat Teshuva, I want to challenge us all to take it up a notch and find a way in our own lives to take Shabbat seriously on another level. Even if it is not sustainable forever, these ten days of teshuva/aseret yemei teshuva are a time to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. If we can do that, then we would have successfully returned to our best selves, ready for Yom Kippur.
May this Shabbos be one of love and sweetness, returning us to the lives we want to live with our God and with our loved ones.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.