This week we will begin a new cycle of Torah reading; this Shabbat is referred to as “Shabbat Bereishit,” from the first word of the opening verse—“In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and earth…” It is always read at the end of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, known as the “saturated month,” packed with holiday events.
A common perception going into this weekend is that the most auspicious days of the year are over — the Days of Awe, followed by the Days of rejoicing (Sukkot) followed by a day filled with dancing (Simchat Torah). Now it’s time to settle down and dive back into a normal routine of work. Not so fast.
There is an old Yiddish adage that says: “how a person acts during Shabbat Bereishit determines the way the entire year will go.” At first glance, the concept of setting the tone seems misapplied. Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year, a time where everything is decided, and this Day of Judgement has already passed. We have also gone through the cleansing process of the Day of Atonement and celebrated in the sukkah. What then is the unique character of this Shabbat that provokes such a statement?
One answer has to do with the content of this first parsha, which serves to encapsulate all biblical themes and messages that will unfold throughout the Torah: from the notion of a First Cause who sustains and guides the details of the universe — “in the beginning God created” — to the formation of a complex creature of unique intelligence, “a speaking being” possessing a moral sense yet with an inner pull toward both good and evil.
The commentaries point out how its specifically this portion, more than any other, is loaded with wisdom and secrets. It is not simply the first in the order of chapters but the foundation of our general outlook: the essentials that one must internalize and keep at the forefront of the mind to succeed in life.
But there is another idea that pertains to the specific calendar placement. The holidays have just ended. An analogy is given of a merchant who travels from city to city accumulating items, filling his bag, without paying specific attention to the value of those acquisitions. Upon returning home, he sits down exhausted from the long trip. Just then, he is filled with tremendous excitement. He reaches for his bag and begins to unpack it, to see what he has gained. This Shabbat we begin to unpack our holiday bags; we discover all that was accomplished and begin to tap into the awaiting blessings.
Exploring this idea from a different angle, this week serves as a bridge between the end of one stage and the beginning of another. At some point during the High Holidays there is deep reflection. During prayer or maybe while listening to a good sermon or stirring melody a moment of truth and personal discovery occurred. Insight led to resolutions. We reconnected to our Judaism with increased vigor. Feelings of gratitude welled up from the pleasure of sitting together with the family. And this Shabbat plays a vital role in determining what becomes of that experience — whether it will vanish from the mind or make an impact.
Extra focus this week — to sit in shul, listen to the Torah portion and learn, sanctify the day and reflect — stamps the month. It also ensures that all the accomplishments of the past few weeks do not remain in potential but flow into the coming new year. In order to build this abstract bridge, one must be able to reflect, extract the good, and look to the future to transfer that good.
The process of making a bridge, from a more mystical perspective, is transporting holiness into the ordinary. On Yom Kippur we elevate by detaching from the physical. On Sukkot we reveal that even within our eating, drinking and most physical pleasures we can remain fully connected — even more so, when we infuse our ordinary activities with purpose and holiness. We now take that power into the year.
A similar bridge — a transfer of holiness — occurs every week. Shabbat bathes us in bright light. We are spiritually satiated. Then Saturday night arrives, which provokes a distinct mood. On the one hand, we are fresh from the holy restfulness of Shabbat. On the other hand, we are eager for a new start, anticipating all the events of the coming week. So, this night contains contrast, a mix of emotions, a blend of light and darkness.
This dichotomy gives rise to a melancholy feeling; the typical “Saturday night blues” run wild. But it is always within such a void that the opportunity to build a bridge occurs. In Jewish tradition, this is done through a special meal to “escort the Queen.” We burn a braided candle, sing songs, tell stories, and mentally extend the flavor of the Shabbat that has passed to carry some of its sanctity and serenity with us into the ordinary.
Similarly, this coming portion in the calendar is a link between the saturated month of Tishrei and an empty month of Cheshvan. It is a most sacred time to absorb and transfer the powerful concepts and all the personal resolutions of the recent holidays, so that they penetrate our everyday lives.