Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hope is in our DNA: Parashat Bershit and Camp Newman

October 13, 2017 ~ 24 Tishrei 5778
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

As the fires raged in Northern California
And it became clear that their path of destruction
Would be quite vast,
The Reform Movement’s Camp Newman
Situated in beautiful Santa Rosa, California
Shared with the community
that they had evacuated from the campsite
their staff and their Torahs
but that the fate of the camp’s grounds
Was unknown.
But hope that it would survive

But not long after,
As is the tragic and shocking outcome
for thousands of homes and residents throughout
The rolling hills of Santa Rosa and beyond,
Camp Newman -
A home away from home for so many
Was scorched beyond belief.
The chaos of the fires continue to rage,
As do the ravages of so much destruction
In all corners of our world -
And yet, somehow, hope abounds.  

In ancient days,
amid the raging fires of evacuation,
of exile and despair,  
the Psalmist,
often a voice in pursuit of hope,
called out:
Esah Einai El he’harim -
“I lift my eyes unto the hills -
Where does my help come from?”
The Psalmist lifts up his eyes
Searching for help and hope
To the hills of Jerusalem,
Determining that its source
Ezri M’im Adonai
Oseh Shamayim v’aretz -
“comes from God
Maker of heaven and earth.”

Amid destruction and despair,
Evacuation and exile,
But pursuing hope,
the psalmist sends us back
to the beginning of all creation -
Bereshit -
This week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning,
Torah tells us,  
When God began to create heaven and earth,
Tohu va-vohu -
The earth was unformed and void -
In a state of not-yet-ness -
Such that Rashi teaches
“A person would have been astonished
And amazed at its emptiness.”
As the days of creation ensue,
God begins to transform the ‘not-yet-ness’
By filling the vastness
with the potential and possibility
Of people, plants, expanses and animals.
The only other time this phrase
Tohu va’vohu
occurs in Torah
is in the Book of Jeremiah (4:23)
regarding the chaos of destruction
of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jeremiah says in his prophetic grief -  
“I have seen the earth,
Hinei - tovu va’vohu
behold, it is chaos and void.”
Tohu va’vohu -
what is described as an unformed void in Genesis
Yet filled with potent possibility,
Is transformed into Jeremiah’s chaotic emptiness.

Truly - the potential that is creation
And the chaos of destruction are linked.
So much so that the Ba’al HaTurim -
Jacob Ben Asher -
A 13th century medieval scholar -
taught that God foresaw the destruction of
the Temple in Jerusalem while creating the world,
Such that destruction was intrinsic
in the blueprint of creation.
While troubling to acknowledge
that each moment of creation -
mythic, global, or human -
Is paired with the potential for loss,
the Ba’al haTurim is not renegade
in his suggestion.
Pirkei Avot - the teachings of our ancestors
Offers us a list of many other things created
Upon the first twilight of creation.
Among them -
“the mouth of the well
[that accompanied the Israelites through the parched desert wilderness]’
the mouth of the earth
[that swallowed Korach’s rebellion against Moses]
the mouth of the talking donkey [that led Bilaam praise and not curse the Israelites;
the manna [that God provided the hungering Israelites in the wilderness…
And the rainbow [that served as a covenant with Noah after the flood…
Each was created to counter the possibility of curse or destruction.

What Pirkei Avot doesn’t say -
but is implicit, too, in each of these examples
Is that amid all these things
that also came into being
With the creation of the world -
Was the creation of hope.

If the possibility of destruction and struggle
was implicit in our DNA -
Such that the journey of humanity
would pass through parched deserts,
enemies and rebellion;
hunger; curses;
floods and fires;
If the unformed void of Tohu va’vohu -
may in fact be filled with chaos;
indeed the journey of humanity
is also filled with hope
tucked away in the dark void.  

Sometimes we have to search high and low for it -
When the light of hope is concealed by the dark
And we cannot even see a pathway,
Much less imagine it exists.

But this is one of the greatest missions
And heaviest of responsibilities
of being connected to the Jewish people.
We are not explicitly
but may as well be
commanded to pursue the light of hope.

My friend Rabbi Marc Katz reminded me
Of a “mystical idea that teaches
that at creation,
God created a special kind of light.
This was the light that God spoke into being
When God said, “let there be light”
But it’s not the same light we see today.
It is not the sun, the moon, or the stars.
Those primordial beams
were too powerful and dangerous
and after Adam and Eve
left the garden of Eden,
God hid it away from us.
We lost the light.”

When we face the chaos of destructive weather,
When we face the chaos of destructive humans,
It is easy to conclude
that the light is not only concealed
but does not exist at all.
When we stop believing it exists at all,
That’s when the light disappears.

But it is upon us to hold out hope
that we can again bask in Divine Light,
And revel in the bright lights that
Is the great goodness of humanity.

At Camp Newman -
despite the destruction and the chaos,
The damage done to this home-away-from-home for so many,
The light of hope still abounds.
Photos from one reporter who was able to enter the camp’s grounds
have emerged to show
Two beacons of light.
Standing upright, intact,
Tall among the ruins -
Is a beautifully fashioned copper ark -  
That was designed to hold a torah scroll
Saved from the burning ruins of Holocaust -
Awaiting use once more.

And as the Psalmist recited
“I lift my eyes unto the hills…”
This time the hills of Santa Rosa -
overlooking the ravaged structures,
The burnt memories,
And the parched ground -
High up on a hill,
overlooking the camp,
And made astonishingly from wood
A survivor as well,
Is a massive Jewish star
It is a place at Camp Newman
Where folks climb the hill,
Visit the star, and yell
“I love being Jewish!”

When we must face destruction
and it feels like the light is lost,
And we need help
finding our way out of darkness,
Whether it is chaos or an astonishing void,
The message rings true - that
Amid the blueprint of creation
And at the core of our DNA

there is Torah, there is light, and there is hope.