Like all of us, we wish to know where we came from. Our portion begins in relationship, a sacred relationship between God and humanity. It is the complexity of relationships that, in many ways, is the motif that finds its way through the portion, and, as many of you know, in the Torah as a whole. Consider, if you will, the fact that the entire Torah can be viewed as examples of evolving types of relationships.
There is drama in this portion as well. We begin in creation and the portion ends in God’s regret. The chapters of the portion, in many ways, set the stage for family dysfunction and great moral challenges. We never reconcile the fact that Cain does get away with murdering his brother and the Garden is a metaphor for loss of innocence.
There is, however, an important spiritual messaging also within this portion. Let me suggest, as you prepare to engage the portion this Shabbat, that you consider the fact that this portion also presents, in short and simple words, a spiritual foundation for us all. If part of our journey is to establish a sort of personal “spiritual ecosystem”, then key building blocks of that system can be found in Beresheet. I refer you to two small words that are powerful in intent and interpretation. In Genesis 2:18 we read the word l’vado and in Genesis 3:9 ayekah: alone and where are you?
L’vado is one of the most powerful words we come across in Torah. It is often translated as alone. Let me suggest that this “alone” is not the desire to be by oneself after a long day of work, or arduous journey. Rather this is existential aloneness that so many feel, a sense of being ca’reit or cut off from the world and even, in extreme circumstances, oneself. This is a key aspect in the development of our spiritual growth. The word comes as the second creation story unfolds and is a not-so-subtle reminder that we exist in relationship not only with God but with other people. It is in relationships that we find texture and meaning in our life; and as we age, the loss of those relationships become more challenging. If we are, as Heschel says, “creatures in search of meaning”, then we derive much of that meaning in how we enter in to and function with others. This is also why Judaism is a communal civilization, a religious community in which the idea of “us” takes precedence over the self-oriented focus on the “I”.
Think of those moments in your life, moments of meaning that were enhanced by the fact that they were shared with those close to you. The pandemic has brought this need for relationships into greater focus as the effects of loneliness and isolation have produced major challenges for many individuals and families and communities. We have learned exactly what Genesis 2:18 is saying that it is not good for us to be alone. As we build our spiritual ecosystem we realize the necessity of these sacred relationships, relationships that begin, as this portion reminds us, with the Sacred, and we spend much of our adult life searching for the types of relationships that reflect that sacred aspect of life.
Which may be why that second word is so important, for God’s first question to humanity is ayekah, where are you? We have just spent days from Elul through the High Holidays and Sukkot. A message embedded in the liturgy of these holy days is part of the challenge of this question from Genesis 3. We are called, every day, to seek an answer to that basic question of “where are you”? Again, this is an existential question related to our own spiritual growth and in our relationships with people, God, and our own self. This is also a lifelong challenge. All of us are in constant transition, change is part of being human; at every moment the cells and fabric our bodies are changing and evolving. So is our soul. How we answer the question of Genesis 3:9 will vary as we traverse life’s stages. But, as the chapter raises the Biblical author’s understanding of our own mortality, the ayekah question also opens us to the major existential questions of each of our lives.
Let me suggest that the words l’vado and ayekah, be considered as cornerstones of our own spiritual ecosystem, because they point us to three powerful questions that really form the basis of religion. These are the questions that confront us in the privacy of our souls when the protective shields of daily life are down and we contemplate our own life and legacy. These question flow from our two words as they ask: Why was I born? Why must I die? Why am I here? Our portion is powerful and filled with spiritual challenges. In trying to create a life of meaning, we are reminded that we cannot do this alone, that life is richer and more meaningful within the relationships we create and nurture. Likewise, these relationships help us to define who we are throughout he stages of life, even until the end of life. We seek meaning and, each in our own way, try to answer those “why” questions; even as we breathe our last.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.