Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

“It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times…”

October 2017

Aside from the well known “Once upon a time…,” what would you consider to be the most famous lines, at least in the English language, to open a book or story? Though my daughter, Jenny, suggests Herman Melville’s opening line from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael,” I am guessing that one verse which many would choose is Charles Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Actually, the entire opening sentence states:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

I point this out not to display my erudition, nor to assert that even great English authors sometimes resort to run on sentences, but rather to point out the striking similarity of this passage to the Biblical text of Ecclesiastes. Either Mr. Dickens was being paid by the word, a distinct possibility, or he had gotten high on reading those famous verses from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season…” which, thanks to the well known composition by folk singer Pete Seeger, is probably just as well known, at least in folk music circles, as our line by Dickens. And, reading Ecclesiastes during our recent Sukkoth festival, as our traditions bid us to do, I happened to be reminded of Dickens.

Sukkoth is a happy festival; it is called z’man simhatenu, the time of our joy. It is but one of many festivals we celebrate in the month of Tishri, the month whose ending frees up some time for rabbis to catch up on monthly columns. Tishri contains a lot of holy days. Have you ever wondered just how many days we are required to observe something in this month? Here is the low down: 2 days of Rosh Hashanah, the 1 day Fast of Gadaliah, 1 more day of fasting on Yom Kippur, 7 days of Sukkoth, & here in the Diaspora, 2 more days of Shemini Atzeret, the 2nd day of which is called Simhat Torah. So, in a 30 day month, 13 of the days, almost ½, are observances. Remembering that the 30th day of Tishri is Rosh Hodesh increases the total to 14. Now, for each week in Tishri there is a Shabbat, which is also an observance, so, if things were able to line up exactly the right way, with no overlaps, there is the possibility of adding up to 4 more days for a grand total 18 days out of 30. That, friends, is 60% of the entire month, nearly 1 in every 3 days! No wonder our ancient sages of blessed memory made sure there were no observances in the month preceding or succeeding the month of Tishri.

It is, perhaps, also not coincidental that our very 1st weekly Torah reading after the conclusion of all these holy days also may contain what many might consider the most famous opening line in several languages: בראשית ברא אלוקים את השמים ואת הארץ which, though it contains grammatical problems which are well known to any good yeshiva bokher, is usually translated as: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens & the Earth.” Compared to the overly verbose statement by Dickens, the Bible’s opening verse is refreshingly terse. But, don’t let the brevity fool you, the statement is packed with meaning.

Meaning can only be got by engagement with the text & Jewish Biblical scholarship always starts with Rashi. Rashi’s commentaries almost always provide a solid foundation on which to pursue further meanings in the text. Oftentimes, Rashi’s starting points are miraculous presentations that seem to open up a level of meaning that you or I would not have thought or discovered ourselves. A case in point is precisely Rashi’s commentary on the compact opening verse of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens & the Earth.”

The very 1st point that Rashi addresses is a simple one, why does the Torah begin here, why the story of Creation. Rashi points out that if the Torah was merely a book of law & instruction, it would have started in Exodus with the 1st commandment given to the people of Israel. Rashi suggests that this verse opens the Torah in order to teach that God owns the world because God created it. Therefore, if the other nations accuse Israel of stealing the land of Canaan, the land of the 7 nations, Israel’s defense is that they stole nothing. All of the earth belongs to God because God created it. Since God owns it, God can apportion it in whatever way seems best to God. It was God’s pleasure to give the land to the 7 nations & it was God’s pleasure to remove them & give it to Israel. In short, Rashi understands the opening verse of the Torah as a political statement. To me, at any rate, this is an astonishing notion. Though Rashi wrote it at the time of the 1st Crusade, it is strangely relevant to Middle Eastern Politics today.

But, Rashi does not stop with this statement; there are deeper levels of understanding as well. Rashi goes on to explain that the story of Creation does not intend to to teach the sequence of creation - which things were created 1st & so on. One might object to this statement on the basis that the order of creation appears to be the plain meaning of the text. It seems obvious that Rashi is in error. Only here does Rashi address the grammatical problems of the text & utilizes these problems to show that the main purpose of this story is not to specify the exact order of creation. Rashi reminds us that some things already existed at the time of creation: God, of course, but also, earth, darkness, an abyss, & interestingly enough, language. God creates by using words. Rashi’s conclusion is that if you choose to read this story so literally as to assume that it marks out the exact order in which our world comes into being, you should be amazed at yourself, a polite way of saying you are an idiot.

Rashi’s preference for an interpretive reading over a literal reading is not surprising. Rashi is the product of the rabbinic tradition which, by Rashi’s time, was 1,100 years of interpretive reading. What the rabbinic tradition in general, & Rashi in particular, bequeaths to us is permission to ignore what may be the obvious meaning of text in pursuit of more nuanced understandings. If Rashi can explain God’s most amazing miracle, creation of everything, as a political statement that teaches something other than what it says in fact, am I not free to consider deeper layers of meaning for other problematical texts? Can I reject the notion that eye for an eye means the literal poking out of eyes? Our ancient sages say most assuredly, yes. Am I free to interpret the verse about not sleeping with a man as with a woman as something other than homophobia? Again, perhaps I am.

Rashi, if not the entire rabbinic tradition, stands in stark opposition to those dubious theologians who would insist on 1 & only 1 possible understanding of scriptural text & damn to Hell any & all who would oppose such a reading. I think that, though he never knew of such things as dinosaurs, continental drift, or nuclear fusion in the sun, Rashi could accept those things & find no inconstancies with Torah whatsoever. And, in that regard, he is truly, or at least should be, an academic inspiration to each & every Jew.

Now that Tishri, our month of holy days, is nearly over, it is a good time to renew our commitments to learning & understanding our traditions. Perhaps Rashi's commentaries is a good place to start. But, it is equally propitious a time to remember that what we learn about our holy Torah is really what we learn about life. Those lessons, Rashi’s lessons, are not merely academic curios; they are prescriptions for how to think & how to act in the real world. For example: In this story of creation, we also read the verse: “וירא אלוקים את־כל־אשר עשה והנה־טוב מאוד - And God saw all that He created & behold, it was very good.” Scripture says very good - not perfect but very good. Not perfect but very good applies to Democrats & Republicans, & Syrians, & Mexicans, & Dreamers, & “even” women because each of us is part of God’s creation. May it be God’s will that this time, after the holy days, as the days become shorter & a chill begins to creep into what used to be warm sunny days, usher in a new era of acceptance of what God has already deemed to be very good - not perfect but very good.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman