As I was making coffee yesterday morning, my almost ten year old son came into the kitchen and sat with me a bit. We started talking about the Sh’ma, the Jewish affirmation of Divine oneness. I asked him if he knew what the first of the two blessings are that that come before the Sh’ma.
“Yotzer orr uvorei hoshekh- the Former of light and Creator of darkness- oseh shalom uvorei et hakol- Maker of peace, Creator of All.”
I told him that these words actually come from the Bible, from the Book of Isaiah. There, Isaiah describes God with the same words- except for one difference.
At the end of the verse in Isaiah, it doesn’t say-
“… uvorei et hakol- Creator of All”.
Rather, it says- “… uvorei et haRa- Creator of evil”!
Of course, “Creator of all” must include “evil” as well, since evil is part of the “all”, but the rabbis who composed this blessing must have thought Isaiah’s words were just a little too provocative, a little too dangerous.
After all, how could a “good God” create evil?
It’s the age-old theological dilemma… for those who go for theological dilemmas!
Still, they included this verse right before the Sh’ma to emphasize that God is not one side of a polarity. God is Oneness, and that includes everything.
I asked my son, “What do you think about Hashem creating evil?”
He said, “There might be evil, but we are not evil, Abba.”
And, I would add, sometimes it takes the experience of evil to realize your own inherent goodness. Sometimes it takes the experience of the “bad” to come to a true and simple humility, and deep gratitude for the blessings that can otherwise go unnoticed.
This week’s reading, Ki Tavo, begins by describing a ritual of gratitude and joy for the Israelites to perform when they come to dwell in the Promised Land:
“Ki tavo el ha’aretz-
when you enter the land…
V’lakakhta mereishit kol p’ri ha’adamah-
you shall take from the first fruits of the earth…”
It goes on to describe how the celebrant should put the fruit in a basket and bring it to the place where the Divine “chooses” to “make the Holy Name rest”.
The celebrant then makes a declaration of having come from slavery to freedom, of having now received the gift of the land, and of now coming to offer its first fruits. The celebrant then “rejoices” with "family" and “stranger” together.
There is a fruit that you are reaping right now-
That fruit is the fullness of this moment. This, now, is the “fruit” of all that has come before.
But what is your “first fruit”?
It is your immediate relationship with this moment. The content of this moment is complex; it often contains both goodness and suffering. You may have many stories and judgments about it.
But before the stories, before the judgments, there is something more immediate. There is simply this life, this consciousness, meeting this moment as it is.
When you descend deeply into yourself, when you return from the journeys of the mind into the reality of the present, it can dawn on you: you have the choice to hold this moment in the “basket” of gratitude.
This is not a denial of suffering. In fact, it is often thanks to our suffering that we are awakened to those things that truly matter, to the blessings we are constantly receiving but often take for granted.
And when you have the choice to relate to this moment with gratitude, is that not grace? It is your choice, but the fact you have become aware of that choice is a gift. It is as if God has chosen "rest Its Presence" in the place of your own awareness.
Is there any greater gift than that? Is that not the movement from slavery to freedom?
Two disciples of the Hassidic Master known as the “Maggid of Mezritch” came to the Maggid with a question:
“We are troubled by the teaching of our sages, that one must bless for the evil one experiences as well as the good (Mishna, Berachot, 9:5). How are we to understand this?”
The Maggid replied, “Go to the beit midrash (house of study). There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
So, they went and found Reb Zusha and put the question to him.
Zusha just laughed and said, “I think you’ve come to the wrong man. I have never experienced suffering in my life.”
But the two knew that Zusha’s life had been a web of poverty, loss and illness… and they understood.
On this Shabbos of Entering, and in this month Elul, the month of return- may we fully enter the place we are already in. May we re-turn evermore to gratitude for the blessing of this “fruit”, and for the suffering that has brought us to this gratitude. May we too rejoice with those we considered to be “strangers” and heal all wounds of separation.