The rabbinic commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105), writes that the first word of TaNaCH, “B’reishit,” can be an acronym for “Bet Reishit” – two beginnings. Indeed, since the Torah seemingly gives us two different stories of creation (In Genesis chapters 1 and 2), this doesn’t seem too hard to fathom. Some branches of Jewish tradition tell us that the first story of creation is that of all time and space, and that Adam is “Adam Kadmon,” the primordial prototype for all of humankind, male and female. The story of Genesis chapter 2 concerns itself with specific people in a specific place with a specific, personal story to be related.
So many personal and professional beginnings are this way. We are presented first with the abstract – the model, the vision, the philosophy, the potential. The stage is set. It is up to us to expand/concretize/customize the ideal model to our specific life circumstances. As happens in the ensuing chapters of this week’s parasha, mistakes will be made, and challenges will be set before us; great discovery (the fruit), confusion and risk (Hmmm … to touch or not to touch? To eat or not to eat?), stress (eviction from our comfort zones), and self-doubt (Cain’s jealousy of Abel), just to name a few. But none of these erase the blessings of the first creation, the larger context in which we operate, or the knowledge that these challenges were, and are, necessary for our growth and continued success. We learn from our mistakes, we grow from the stories of those who came before us, we continue to be inspired by the big picture, and we rely on the support of those around us.
Now that the flurry, celebration, and serious reflection of the chagim is (almost) behind us, we return to our individual and continual process of creating and learning. In our morning prayer Yotzer Or, we express gratitude for “m’chadeish b’chol yom tamid ma-asei v’reishit” – the never-ending, ever-changing, daily opportunities for us to be challenged, renewed, and refreshed by our role in the constant re-creation of the world at hand. Here’s to a sweet year ahead.
At the end of the first chapter of our morning communal prayers is a chatimah/seal/closing statement that describes God as the One who chooses “shirei zimrah.” The Art Scroll Siddur translates the phrase as “musical songs of praise.” Both Hebrew words (shir and zemer) have to do with song. And both Hebrew roots have other interpretations as well.
Rabbis Nehemia Polen and Larry Kushner, in their book, “Filling Words with Light,” share the teaching of Zev Wolf of Zhitomir, who interprets the Hebrew root shin/yud/resh not as shirim/songs, but as sh’yarim/leftovers. In certain Chassidic circles, being able to gather and share in the crumbs from the Rebbe’s table was considered an honor and a gift. In this context, shirei zimra become the remnants of melody. There is a certain type of beauty in a song, but what is of equal importance is what happens when we are done singing. Rabbis Polen and Kushner remind us of the ways in which the silence on the way home from the symphony is different than the silence on the way to the symphony. Experiencing the music has the ability to change everything that comes after.
I learned somewhere along the way that our name, Yisra-El/God-wrestler, could also be interpreted as “Yashir-El,” or “God will sing.” (I acknowledge that the two roots only sound the same, hence the use of “could be interpreted….”) I do love the idea that each of our lives is a melody that is somehow sung in this universe and, to a great degree, I am the composer of that song. I get to choose what gets sung through me. It also makes a difference to remember that I leave a trail of sh’yarim/crumbs behind me as I go.
We leave behind bits of ourselves in conversation and interaction, through teaching and parenting, with friends and strangers, consciously or unconsciously, whether we like it or not. We are making a difference of some sort, every day. It’s impossible not to. Each of us has a lifetime of after-effects/crumbs/remnants of our song.
In the book of Exodus, at the end of Chapter 33, Moses wants to see God, and is placed in the cleft of the cliff while God passes by. He then realizes that one cannot really see God as God is happening. We can, however, know God’s “after;” that is where the real difference is felt. I am reminded that, perhaps having been created in God’s image, each of us has our own “after.” What does it feel like after we have left a room? A relationship? A world? What crumbs have we left behind for others to digest?
For me, this is the significance of “HaBocheir b’shirei zimra,” the One who places the emphasis on the echoes of our songs. As precious as our words are, talk is cheap. Are we walking the talk on a day-to-day basis? Are we leaving little disasters in our wake, or the foundations upon which others can build? Are we increasing kindness, or unnecessary drama? Are we holding doors open for others, or slamming them behind us as we leave?
We do not get to choose whether or not we leave crumbs. But whether our shirei zimrah, the leftovers of our melodies, are nourishing for those who follow, that’s another story.