Wednesday, November 14, 2012

With No Big Yellow School Buses to Take Us

It was an amazing moment, as I sat there on a Friday afternoon with a group of kindergarten students on the floor of their classroom. I was the school rabbi at a Jewish day school and would visit different classes and grades to help prepare for Shabbos. On that afternoon, the big yellow school buses had already arrived out front and their roofs were just visible above the bottom edge of the windows if you looked up from where we sat on the floor. The kids knew the buses were there and the excitement that comes with week’s end was palpable. Gathered in a circle, we were singing an old favorite of kids’ Shabbat songs, “Bim Bam.” I was happily singing the familiar words of refrain along with the kids, “Shabbat shalom, hey! Shabbat shalom, hey! Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat shalom, hey!” I thought I was singing with the kids, certainly assuming that I knew the words, but suddenly something sounded different in their voices so I stopped singing in order to listen. For the refrain, the kids were singing, “We’re going home, hey! We’re going home, hey! We’re going, going, going home, hey!” The teacher was mortified, but with a big smile I motioned to her not to worry, to let them keep singing. Though the kids had no idea, at least consciously, of the profound meaning in the words they were singing, I was absolutely giddy with what I was hearing. The kids were expressing the essence of Shabbos, going home, coming back to the place where all is renewed, the place to which we return depleted and from which we go out into the world refreshed, the place of our deepest, oldest memories that we carry with us, the best of which helps us shape the future to be as it was in the beginning.

It is a beautiful moment in the Jewish year when we come home to the Torah portion of B’reishit, the first Torah portion in a new year’s cycle of reading, the portion of Genesis. B’reishit/In the beginning of…, its literal meaning an invitation to question, to ask, “in the beginning of what…?” “In the beginning of…,” and all life flows from there, the beginning of all that will ever be, an invitation to enter into the house of learning, of seeking, to enter the world and to be within and of it. We are invited to enter, to wonder and to ask, to imagine, to be filled with the wonder of children at home, safe to grow and become. The first letter of the Torah is the Hebrew letter bet of B’reishit. The letters that form the word that spells the letter bet are the same letters in the same order as in the word for house, bayit. We journey through the year, through the Torah, and now we’re going home, it’s almost Shabbos.

The Shabbat of B’reishit, we return to the beginning of Torah and time and read from the portion of B’reishit, Genesis, language that evokes wonder and awe, as though watching a world in its birthing, the petals of a flower unfolding. I am always amazed to have arrived here, on the cresting wave of festivals and celebration, holiness in time overflowing, actually at the beginning, reading of creation. Before even crossing the threshold and entering the bayit, the house, the letter beyt that tells of returning home, I feel a touch of sadness. It will be such a short visit. The Sabbath of B’reishit is only one Shabbos, and then we go on and take up the journey again. I am soothed, though, set at ease by a rabbinic teaching. The rabbis come to refer to every Shabbat as Shabbat B’reishit! It is a beautiful thought, startling at first, but then we realize it makes complete sense. Every week we come home to Shabbos. Every Shabbos awakens within us a memory of the beginning, of when the world came to be. That is what we acknowledge when we raise the Kiddush cup to bless the wine every Friday evening at the start of Shabbos, raising our voices in a song of praise for all of creation.

Every Shabbos is a reflection of that very first Shabbos, Shabbat B’reishit, through which God stepped back into the Sabbath and saw the beauty of all that had come to be. That is the paradigm for us, a model for our own stepping back as the Holy One did, a time to see the beauty of all that is and might yet be. Joining us each week to that very first Shabbos are the opening lines of Kiddush, the blessing over wine, that are drawn from the verses that immediately follow the unfolding narrative of creation, the heavens and the earth were completed and all of their “array” (Fox translation). We are joined to the beginning, but also to the future. The rabbis make a remarkable play on the Hebrew word vay’chulu/and they were completed. With a very simple grammatical shift, we have vay’chalu/and they completed. The “they” is us! Rather than a passive reference to all that had been created, the verse now comes to boldly include us as God’s partners in creation. These verses are part of the Sabbath evening prayers as well as of the blessing over wine, and of their saying we find in the Talmud, Rav Hamnuna said, “everyone who prays on Shabbos evening and says vay’chulu is considered by Torah as though having become a partner with the Blessed Holy One in the work of creation, as it says, ‘vay’chulu.’ Do not read vay’chulu/and they were completed, rather vay’chalu/and they completed.”

The saying of these holy words affirms our role as God’s partners and reminds us that every Shabbos is Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath of Creation. To fulfill the sacred responsibility of that partnership, the saying of words is not enough. It requires deeds. And it requires dedication to live in accord with such a noble calling. As every week’s Sabbath is Shabbat B’reishit, we return home to the vision of wholeness that was at the beginning. Our task is to fulfill that vision, to bring the day that is all Shabbos, Yom She’kulo Shabbos, when Shabbat shalom, compete Sabbath peace, will fill the whole world. Engaging in strife and violence, people lost the way home so soon after leaving the house that was in the beginning, in B’reishit. As God’s partners in creation, it is for us to remember the way home and create the world as it was meant to be. With no big yellow school buses waiting to take us, it depends on all of us. Inspired by the wisdom of children, changing words, changing the world, we can joyfully sing out together, “We’re going home, hey!” 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

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