בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the Beginning of Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
- Bereisheet (Genesis) 1:1
What is the nature of this earth we inhabit?
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
“Vanity of vanities,” said Kohelet, the Preacher, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
Kohelet (Ecclestiases) 1:1
King Solomon sums up his assessment of life in one word: havel. Often translated as “vanity” or “futility,” these translations are incomplete until we combine them with another word: “impermanence.”
עֵ֤ת לֶֽאֱהֹב֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂנֹ֔א עֵ֥ת מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְעֵ֥ת שָׁלֽוֹם׃
A time for love and a time for hate; A time for war and a time for peace…
That which has happened before, will happen again. This world oscillates between extremes; there is no permanent state. “Impermanence” in itself is not always a negative thing; it is just the way it is. But, when it comes to war, we can often be in denial about its reality. We think, perhaps unconsciously, that the devastations of the past will never happen again; and so our illusions are shattered again and again. That is why impermanence is also “vanity” or “futility.”
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation. I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me. Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him sink slowly to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment. He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!” And so goes the history of peoples and nations.
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy; thank God he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse. But still, I know that one day I will be “pushed into the pool,” as will we all.
How do we deal with this state of affairs, in which violence and death are constant possibilities? We can find it difficult to “breath” in the emotional sense, we can feel like we are “drowning” in this world of havel.
The answer is not complicated: the world is only havel to the degree that we are in denial. We must practice opening to and accepting the reality-quality preached by King Solomon, the Buddha, and countless other sages: that all states of being are impermanent. Life is painful, but we need not drown it, if we know how to come up for air.
How do we do that?
Not by pushing away or distracting ourselves from the pain that we fear we might drown in. Unlike physical water, within which we must hold our breath, the key to surviving our emotions is feeling them completely – because it is only through acceptance and surrender to the truth of our experience that we can come to know the Timeless, the Source from which all comes and to which all must return.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ – In the Beginning of Elohim creating the heavens and the earth…
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word רֵאשִׁ֖ית reisheet, which means “beginning”, with the word חָכְמָה hokhmah, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness,” by means of a verse that connects the two:
רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חׇכְמָ֨ה יִרְאַ֬ת יי –The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence… - Psalm 111:10
When your own awareness (hokhmah) meets this moment as it is, there is a quality of brightness, of newness (reisheet), that heals all wounds; this quality of consciousness can never be extinguished, if we know how to open to it. We’ve all known this quality at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth – the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment. But then the story begins: A time for war and a time for peace…
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם – And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths… No one escapes from the havel, and yet, there is a path out of this confusion:
וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃ – And Elohim hovered over the face of the waters… Rather than drown in the waters of our pain, we can “hover” simply by being present with our experience in this moment. And in this Presence, there is tremendous power:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר – And God said, “Let there be light!”
As we open to the grief, the devastation, the fullness and truth of this moment, our Presence commands “light” –
וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר – And there was light!
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone,” before we were hit with all the havel. It hasn’t changed – it is still who we are; it cannot be taken away, though we can easily miss it. This basic goodness of life is not about hope, though without it there is no hope. Rather, it is something for us to see directly:
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב – And God saw that the light was good…
This Inner Light is easy to miss because our minds and hearts are often divided between many activities, thoughts, responsibilities, not to mention times of trauma and devastation – it is tragically easy to drown in the havel. That is why meditation is so important. But once we grasp this simple truth that becomes visible in the silence, we can practice applying it in whatever we are doing; we can be present-in-action, and in doing so, be a beacon of light in these moments of chaos…
כֹּ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֧א יָֽדְךָ֛ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת בְּכֹחֲךָ֖ עֲשֵׂ֑ה
Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your strength…
- Kohelet (Ecclestiases) 9:10
King Solomon is not pessimistic; he acknowledges the tragedy of reality, but also provides a solution: Be Present. Or, as Reb Zushia said when asked to reveal his core teaching on what is most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
In these times of tremendous darkness, may we remember to access the Light that can never be extinguished, the Light that we are at the root of it all, the Light of Presence. We begin (again) by feeling deeply what needs to be felt. Let there be Light.
Read past teachings on Beiresheet HERE.
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