Miriam Chava Berman Stidd dvar on Bereshit

Shabbat Shalom!

My parsha is Bereshit, which as most of you know, tells the story of the creation of the world. We read today the first chapter of Genesis, verses 1 through 23, which takes us from Day 1 through Day 5, from the creation of light and darkness all the way through the creation of birds and fish.

I wanted to read this last Aliyah because it reminded me of the Marc Chagall stained glass windows in Nice, France, at the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum, which feature birds and fish. These stained-glass windows mean so much to me because they are by one of my favorite artists. His art pieces about creation almost make me think they are not just about the creation of the world, but about Marc Chagall creating himself through his art, because his visual interpretation of the creation story tells you so much about who he was as a person. It wasn’t just that Chagall was expressing himself, he was creating who he was right then and there, in that moment.

So, who was Chagall? Born into a very religious Jewish household on July 6, 1887, there weren’t any pictures of anything, because according to his family and tradition, any representations were idolatry. Despite his parents not wanting him to, he still left his home in Belarus and went to art school in France and eventually became a great artist. (This clearly shows the importance of listening to your parents). He is well known for his paintings and stained-glass windows that depict biblical stories and other things. This was a way he displayed his spirituality.

Out of respect for his parents, he didn’t want to display them in his art, so the fish represented his father (he sold fish at a local market). His mother’s name in Yiddish sounded like the Yiddish word for chicken or rooster, and if you look closely, there is a rooster in almost every one of his paintings. Chagall is creating himself through including these elements by letting you see a piece of his parents’ and his childhood, which are still a part of him at the time he creates the art.

So, if artists create themselves through art, what does that mean about God’s creation of the world? Could we see it as an expression of God in that moment, the world as a piece of art? I imagine God sitting back after each day, saying to God’self, the way an artist would upon looking at a complete section of their masterpiece, this is good. In fact, that’s what it said in the portion I read today: “God saw how good it was” (vayar elohim ki tov). I also imagine Chagall looking at his stained-glass windows, in the same respect, maybe sitting on a bench and saying to himself “this is good.” But why did it only take seven days in God’s life to create the world, if most artists work for years trying to create themselves through art? Was it like a big bang in God’s mind?

In science we can never be absolutely sure of anything, but to the best of our knowledge, there was a big bang and evolution, not animals created on separate days. In science, most people accept the Big Bang, and then a bunch of darkness and galaxies and explosions. Then, over a very long long time, earth forms, and lava cools. On some levels, Torah and evolution are very different. Birds and fish appear on Earth about 350 million years apart, and everything else evolved over hundreds of millions, even billions of years, not on a single day. So why study the Torah? It doesn’t seem to be real or literal.

According to Avivah Zornberg, Rashi said “‘you should be ashamed of yourself’ if you try to argue that the first verses of Genesis are a chronological description of the order of creation.” Rashi thought this because of two things. The first explanation is linguistic. The first three words, Bereshit bara Elohim, translate to “in the beginning of God’s creation,” with the form of Bereshit modifying the creation as a whole and so not meaning that heaven and earth came first. While I don’t know anything about Hebrew grammar, I’m going to take his word for it. Second, there is already water there at the beginning with no account of its creation. I agree with Rashi that reading the first part of Genesis as a chronology is incorrect.

So, if the creation story isn’t a factual chronology, maybe there is a different kind of truth that is not a factual truth? Not like the alternative facts we hear about on the news, but something else. The stories could mean something without needing to be taken literally, like fables when you’re little. There’s a message in it that’s important to pay attention to, like in Goldilocks and the three bears, the message of not touching other people’s personal property.

What might be the message here? I thought about this a lot. Could it be things created on separate days are different from each other? Is it simply making some logical distinctions, like a logical order for things to happen in? Maybe birds and fish are together because they live in the sea and the sky, not on the land like everything else. Here is one other possible message: Essentially, we are all from the same source. In the creation story, the single source is God. In evolution, all matter and energy comes from the Big Bang and we all share an ancestor with everything on Earth. Is it really all that different? If we are all from a single source, all living things are related. Think about that. How does that affect our responsibilities to the world?

In the Chagall stained glass pieces about creation, which you probably noticed is on the front cover of the program, it always looks like it is exploding with fragments of stained glass light. It is almost like a big bang happened and then, as the shards of glass or gigantic pieces of flying galaxy cool, then finally the earth and everything on it fills with a sort of divine light. When Chagall made these pieces, the Big Bang theory was barely in its infancy and was a faint theory by a scientist named Georges Lemaitre who Chagall, in his non-scientific community, in the days before Google, most definitely did not know. But it’s as if he did know that there was a big bang.

Even if this isn’t correct that Chagall was envisioning the Big Bang when he envisioned God’s creation of the world, we can still think about it. The great thing about art is it can mean many different things to different people. The great thing about Torah is we are allowed to interpret it as well. And the great thing about Reconstructionism is we get to take what’s there and think creatively about that.

Since part of our tradition at our congregation is to have a short discussion, to at least get some other voices besides mine and Rabbi Alana’s into the room, I’d like to ask you a few questions: Do you think the Big Bang theory and the creation story align? Why or why not? How or how not? What kinds of truths are there in these creation stories?

Thank you so much for that great discussion!

If today’s Torah portion is about that we are created, my Haftarah is about why we are created. In Isaiah Chapter 42, verse 6 and 7 it says, “I made a covenant with you, so you would open eyes that are blind, bring the captive out of confinement, those who sit in darkness out of the dungeon.”

My mitzvah project was a food drive for SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti. It’s an organization that provides food, housing, and social services to homeless families. Students in my school and the related elementary school built towers out of the food that they collected as a means to learn about architecture, engineering, and art. We collected a lot of groceries and built many very tall towers, with the tallest being over seven feet. While my project was really about charity, there are also other ways to think about it. For example, hunger could be like a prison, so helping hungry families can be like bringing people out of a kind of confinement, like it says in my Haftarah. Also an important part of my project was giving the students a chance to use their own creativity.

In another place in the Haftarah, later in the chapter (line 21) it says God wants to demonstrate a commitment to justice. The Haftarah then tells us a little about what a commitment to justice could look like, but how is that connected to the creation of the world?

I found a story that Rabbi Isaac Luria or the Ari tells that might tie the two together. It says that at the time God said, “let there be light,” ten holy vessels full of primordial light were created, but the vessels, unable to stand the power of the light, broke, spilling sparks everywhere. The story says people were created to gather up those sparks. That gathering the sparks is tikkun olam or the healing of the world. Tikkun olam is also a word used to talk about public service and political activism. I think this gathering of sparks is a way we participate in creation, both of the world and of ourselves.

The gathering of the sparks brings me back to Chagall’s stained-glass piece we talked about earlier. To me, the Chagall piece looks like explosions of shards which could be like the sparks of light from the story. And while Chagall probably didn’t know about the Big Bang theory, he almost certainly knew about the Ari and the theory of the broken shards. By the way, did you find the birds and fish in the window? However you understand the creation story, I’m glad you could all come gather here with me today and I hope my thoughts mean something to you.

Thank you for coming and listening.

Miriam in 2010 viewing Chagall’s Noah at the Chagall Museum in Nice

Some additional thank yous are in order. I could not have possibly done any of this without Deb Kraus as a teacher and mentor. She helped me from the very beginning of my learning and taught me how to chant in Hebrew and English, and I will never be able to get the Haftarah melody out of my head. I would also like to thank Rabbi Alana for helping put together the service and showing me how to study commentaries, and also lending me books full of them. I would also like to thank Rabbi Ora and Deb for reading Torah today so beautifully and Jacob Ehrlich for playing the guitar. I’m so happy that Rabbi Ora has joined us as our congregational leader. I want to thank the congregation–it’s so great to be a part of such a supportive group of people and thanks to everyone for being here to support me today, especially those of you who traveled a long way. I would like to thank my parents for helping and supporting me my whole life in everything, including my Hebrew learning. I would also like to specially mention Bubba, Bubba Jenny, and Zeyde, for teaching me about art and art history my whole life, and for taking me on many visits to the Chagall museum while I was in Nice. And thank you to my Grandpa Ed and my Bubba for helping to make this celebration possible.