Isaiah 42:5–43:10 (Ashkenazi)
Isaiah 42:5-21 (Sephardi)
Two weeks ago, Jews all over the world stood in synagogue, clothed in the color of shrouds, our bodies aching with hunger, our spirits yearning to live with more wisdom and righteousness. We contemplated what needs repair in our lives, confessed our many wrongdoings over the year gone by, and sought to orient our lives toward that which is right, good and even divine.
This Shabbat we read the very beginning of the Torah, in which the Earth comes into being. The story of the creation of the human race, if we read it with fresh eyes, can stir in us the same questions we contemplated during the Days of Awe: Why are we here? What are our tasks to accomplish? What are our responsibilities toward one another and toward the Earth? It is an opportunity to check in and see how true we have been to the intentions we expressed in prayer two weeks ago.
How did creation happen? According to the ancient midrash, “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Genesis Rabbah 1:1). Yes, according to this rabbinic tradition, the Torah existed before creation. Hasidic master Me’or Eynayim (Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, 1730-1787) builds on this understanding, writing, “All things were created by means of Torah, and the power of the Creator remains within the created. Thus Torah’s power is present in each thing, in all the worlds, and within the human being. … the life of God is present in each thing” (“Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table,” page 77)
Torah was the blueprint for the creation of the world — what a remarkable image. Looking into Torah, God saw how each creature was to be formed and was to relate to the rest of creation. And just as the human artist is present in every word or image that he or she created, so too each manifestation of creation contains the essence of its Author.
This is a more radical statement than the assertion of Genesis itself, that humanity is created “in the image of God.” It is not just that we “resemble” God (conceptually and aspirationally). It is that the Holy lives within us, moving through our breath and our veins and our every thought and feeling. We are made of the One, which animates and defines us, and without whose life-force we would cease to be.
Our work as human beings, then, is to bring the Ultimate into the world, bearing witness to the divine power located within us, doing the work of God on Earth. That is our reason for being.
What would it be like to live in regular awareness of our divine origin, of our infinite potential, and of our tremendous responsibility to care for the world we have been given?
This is a high aspiration, to be sure. But Jewish teachings exhort us to bring mindfulness and moral awareness to as many moments of our lives as we can, seeking to make our words and deeds match the power that animates us, the spirit of the Holy that lies within us. It would also require the courage and boldness (as Rebbe Nachman put it, “holy chutzpah”), to use our powers for the good, to do the work of the Holy every day of our lives. If we lived in this way, we would have little to confess next Yom Kippur.
The Me’or Eynayim makes it sound easy: “A person who pays attention to the life that flows within all things is fulfilling, ‘I place Y-H-W-H ever before me’ (Ps. 16:8). In each thing you place before you the Being that causes all things to be” (“Speaking Torah,” page 78).
It is easy, he says. Just pay attention to where you have come from, to the source of all of your gifts. Everywhere you turn, see the Source of Life. If you do this, you will know what to do and how to be in this life.
May we remember in the year to come to be true to our divine origin, serving to make the world a wiser, kinder and more just place.