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The Sweetness of “Bitter-Heshvan”

Bible
Education
Theology
Thought and Philosophy

The month of October, or Mar Heshvan (“bitter-Heshvan”as it is playfully called,) denotes the period of time immediately following the joy-filled month of holidays. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it, but as a synagogue rabbi I love this “sweet” month! The feeling that a community rabbi experiences upon Isru Chag, the 23rd of Tishrei, is intoxicating: to arise the “morning after” and to move into the blessed state of routine, the comforting weekday schedule, to resume the wearing of tefillin, to take the little one to pre-school, and to know that it will continue in this vein straight through to the 25th of Kislev – two months and two days!

Beyond the loveliness of routine, though, I enjoy the first Shabbat following Simchat Torah – Shabbat Bereishit. What is more, I enjoy the next eleven shabbatot during which we read the Book of Genesis. I am particularly fond of the Book of Genesis. My students and congregants mimic my weekly statement, “This week’s portion is undoubtedly the most amazing in the Torah.” It’s true, each and every Portion in Genesis is such. As the heart and mind delve into each Portion of the Week, the cobwebs that have accumulated during the year are brushed away, leaving a fresh aura of eternal truth. By the time we reach Shabbat afternoon, when the current Portion makes way for the next one, I am truly convinced that until this year I have never really understood the Portion, and now that I have finally gained that understanding, my life has completely changed. Again.  As it does each week, each year. Then the Portion of the Week returns to the aged archive of truths, and I am thrilled to encounter the next new, young, fresh Portion, which excites me and of course will change my entire outlook on life for the coming week.

The Book of Genesis is different from the other books of the Bible. All of the Bible is truth, but the Book of Genesis is the genuine truth. Here one must be careful: Truth? Genuine truth? Genesis? The last article I wrote for this forum (on Esther and Vashti) elicited the following response from a respected professor.  He presented a historical survey of the Persian period, and ended thus:

But why reflect on reality, when one can, as your good Rabbi does, create mythical interpretations based on nothing but creative speculation? Indeed, the Rabbi does what a good Jew should do on Purim: he puts on a mask.

I am indebted to a teacher, a noted historian, who early on in my academic career, greatly influenced my thinking. He said: “Don’t expect to find the truth here [in academia or in history lectures]. Because historical truth doesn’t exist.” We students, only just out of the army and back from the trek to India, had not yet become familiar with post-modernism. How shocked we were! He continued: “There are theories, speculations, and testimonies, some of which are most convincing. You will be reading documents that are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. You will analyze them using scholarly techniques. And when you are finally sure of the historical truth, a young doctoral student will come along and re-write the truth of which you were so convinced. I wish for each of you,” he concluded to his stunned audience, “to become that nosy doctoral student, and I also hope that once you have established your edifice of truth that another, younger student will come and upset it.” I will add that this historian, as a young student, unraveled the whole Zionist narrative, and I very much dislike his version of the historical truth.

Yet – the Book of Genesis, I repeat, is the truth. Adam and Eve, the serpent, the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, Joseph, Judah, Reuben, Simeon and Levi – all the genuine truth!

When I was sent to the U.S. in the 90s, I became familiar with the anthropologist Joseph Campbell and his books, “The Power of Myth” and “Myths to Live By.” I learned then for the first time to see truth in myth! Here in Israel, people have been, since the 70s, deconstructing all the myths on which we were educated, leaving only the cold expression, “that’s just a myth.” In Campbell’s books I heard a different voice saying: “that’s not ‘just’ a myth, that’s a myth!!!” If a narrative attains mythical status, then it tells us the truth. Campbell taught me to distinguish between reality and truth, and to read the myth, the midrash, and even the Torah differently.

As a TALI rabbi and educator, children always ask me if the stories we read are true. I have seen teachers squirm as they try to explain scientific theories of how the Red Sea actually split, how water can be drawn from a rock, etc., and I ask myself, why is this important? Why must we endeavor to anchor a story of truly mythic proportions to some climatic or geological explanation? To what purpose? For many, it seems, if a story lacks historical truth, it is useless. It is “just a myth.” But if we explore the depths of the story, its nuances, and the numerous midrashim that sprouted from it, we see that it holds truth within. Indeed, the reason the story survived and became classic is because it resonates in every generation with a profound and everlasting truth.

In the late 90s I became acquainted with the approach of Prof. Neal Gillman of JTS, who wrote a great amount about the truth within the myth. He gave a Jewish traditionalist “stamp of approval” to the idea that deep truths may be derived from our collective myths.

Sometime after the year 2000, David Wolpe, a well known Conservative rabbi, delivered a sermon that generated a stormy reaction, in which he raised the possibility that the story of the Exodus from Egypt was not historical fact but a myth. He argued that this did not detract from its eternal and profound significance. The backlash of criticism hurled at Rabbi Wolpe astounded me, and I found the resulting controversy to be surreal. Some rabbis drew upon creative midrashim to prove the historical truth of the Exodus; others presented theological proofs; yet others based their ‘proof’ on pseudo-scientific explanations.

I wrote my thesis at the Schechter Institute on the question God asks Adam in the Garden of Eden – “Where art thou?” – claiming that the entire Torah is an attempt to answer that question. Thirteen years later, I still return to that question, to the Tree of Good and Evil, to the serpent, to the fig leaves under which we all hide. The Flood still overwhelms me and I wonder how have I sinned or how to build an Ark, preferably one with a window. I still think about ‘getting myself forth,’ moving, leaving everything to follow an internal voice with no GPS, and to be a blessing.

If we read the Book of Genesis, and the entire Torah, as a big truth, our lives suddenly assume a depth that was unattainable as long as we focused on historical validity.

The holidays are over. We have returned to our pleasant routine, and to the basis of our lives, to the Book of Breishit, a book that wondrously tells us a truth that is larger than any historical theory.

A good book.


Rabbi Elisha Wolfin co-directs, together with Dr. Eitan Chikli, the Institute for Spiritual Education, established in 2012 by the TALI Education Fund. A graduate of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Wolfin heads the TALI School Rabbis program and conducts TALI teacher training. He is also the rabbi at Kehillat V’ahavta in Zichron Yaakov, which he founded with a number of families 12 years ago.

(English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.)

Image Credit: Beth Woodrum

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