There’s a famous question that animates a lot of midrash—fanciful Jewish legends, Torah fanfiction written by the Rabbis, something in that general vicinity.
In Hebrew, the first word of the Torah is Bereshit, beginning with the letter bet, the second letter of the alphabet. It’s often translated, “In the beginning,” and that’s a good enough translation for now; the bet is the preposition that signifies “in.” But it is one of the amazing facets of my tradition that it occurs to the Rabbis to ask—well, how come the Torah didn’t begin with the letter aleph, the first letter in the alphabet?
This gives rise to amazing midrashim (the plural of midrash) like this:
Said Rabbi Eleazar Bar Chanina in the name of Rabbi Acha: for 26 generations the Aleph screamed 'injustice!' in front of the throne of the Holy One of Blessing, saying to God: 'Master of the Universe! I am the first of the letters and You did not create the world with me!' The Holy One of Blessing said to her [the Aleph]: ..... Tomorrow I come to give Torah at Sinai and I am going to open at first instance only with you, as it says Anochi (aka “I”, which in Hebrew starts with an aleph) ...'I am God your God' (Exodus 20:2)." (Midrash Genesis Rabba 1:10)
I love so much about this—the indignant, screaming aleph, God finally saying, “Fine, fine, I’ll start the Ten Commandments with you, OK? Happy?? Satisfied???” tone, all of it. This is how to midrash, people.
But—and—this line of inquiry also gives rise to midrashim like this (also Genesis Rabba 1:10), jamming on the shape of the letter bet (pictured here—and remember that Hebrew reads from right to left).
Rabbi Yonah said in the name of Rabbi Levi: Why was the world created with a "bet"? Just as a bet is closed on all sides and open in the front, so you are not permitted to say, "What is beneath? What is above? What came before? What will come after?" Rather from the day the world was created and after. …
So on the one hand, I find this to be a beautiful musing, and a powerful statement about boundaries. Not everything is fair game. Maybe we start with now, with what can be known, and go from there, move forward starting from today, from this moment. Cool.
But the word “permitted” sticks out to me. “You do not have permission to say.” Oof.
Do you feel like your relationship to this text—Torah, Bible, whatever—has a lot of heavy “permission” baggage in it?
Fear that you’re not allowed to say certain things, ask certain questions?
Concern that your observations about toxic dynamics, interest in engaging around historical or archeological evidence, worries that your gender or your sexuality or your atheism or whatever else makes it so that you can’t engage with whatever parts of this feel interesting to you?
Well. I would like this to be a place where there is permission.
Permission to speak, permission to ask, permission to engage, permission to disagree (respectfully, of course! And we will of course assume that everyone here knows that we will not deny the humanity of other people or speak disparagingly simply because we might have a different perspective in this space! There’s room for us all!)
Permission to let this be personal.
Permission for this not to be personal—for it to just be, like, kind of interesting.
Permission to show up however you need.
Permission to remember how to show up.
Permission to comment.
Permission to just read, and not engage in the discussion.
Permission to ask, “What is beneath? What is above? What came before? What will come after?" if you want to. (Not that I have answers to any of these questions, of course, but let’s let no question be off-limits.)
So what about you?
What do you need permission for, as we dig in to these stories?
In what ways have you felt constricted on three sides (at least) and didn’t even notice?
When do you think having boundaries about what not to ask has given you the space to see what’s really in front of you, and move forward? And when have the boundaries limited your ability to consider what might be possible?
When have you felt ready to move? And when have you been like that indignant aleph, stuck, waiting for your due? (Was that really the right move for that aleph? What else might it have done? What did you think of God’s solution to the problem, there?)
How might we be able to go on this journey together?
So, this is some of how we’ll do Thursday—discussion space, jamming perhaps in the style of collective hevruta, as we call it in my tradition—iron sharpens iron, no fire ignites by itself. Usually it’s paired study and discussion. We’ll see what happens here—something more organic, I imagine. But you can reply here, let me know what you think about all, or any of this.
And in a few weeks, this more open, fluid, discussion-focused space (there’ll also be Ask The Rabbi (and each other) threads and guest posts and extra texts and stuff) will be subscriber-only. Please know that nobody will ever be kept out due to lack of funds, just email firstname.lastname@example.org for a hookup. If you’d like to underwrite one of these donated subscriptions, you can do so here.
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