People often ask, what’s the most difficult part about writing a sermon? I think most rabbis will tell you, it’s the beginning. It’s the beginning of anything that grabs your attention. It’s the beginning that keeps you focused on the middle, and especially, the end.
But today, I have no cute stories or jokes, because this beginning is hard for me, hard for all of us. There is a famous adage in our tradition - Kol HatChalot Kashot - all beginnings are difficult. In Israel, last Shabbat, when our brothers and sisters were supposed to read the beginning of the book of Bereshit, the first book of the Torah, they were attacked with an evil that we haven’t seen since the Holocaust.
I believe that we are at a new beginning, not just in the Torah, but in our lives, in our relationship to our fellow Jews, and to Israel. Israel’s place in the Middle East is dependent on how her neighbors view her.
For the first time in 50 years, the myth of Israeli invincibility was shattered in one day. 50 years of deterrents, of peace deals, of state-of-the-art innovations, gone in just one day.
Unfortunately, unlike the Torah, none of us know what kind of story will be written.
But I would like to share a story of beginnings and endings from the Talmud.
There is a story that is often told at funerals and on sad occasions, the story of the two ships. In the Talmud, Rabbi Levi proposes a scenario: ”Imagine”, he said, "two ships laden with merchandise; one coming into port, and the other going out. However, the people standing on the dock cheered only the ship that was coming into port. A puzzled spectator asked, 'Tell me, why do you cheer the ship coming into port, but not the ship going out to sea?' And he replied: 'We are cheering the ship that is coming into the dock, for we know that it went out in peace and that it has returned to port in peace. However, the ship that is now beginning its voyage, who can tell what her fate will be?'"
And Rabbi Levi continued: "So it is with a person. When a person is born and begins her life's journey, we do not know what sort of life she will live and the nature of her deeds. However, when she has finished her life's journey, it is apparent to all what her life and deeds were like."
We should cheer for the ship returning in peace, not the one that is leaving because we do not know what they will encounter.
And I think about this as I think about the children who were taken from their parents as hostages, and those whose lives were taken, sometimes in front of their parents, by Hamas terrorists.
I think about this story, how their voyage ended before it really even began, and they came to God not in peace, but in torture and pain.
This, among many reasons, is why this beginning is difficult this year.
According to the Torah, the world began, and was created, by words. In Pirkei Avot (5:1), we read the following:
With ten utterances the world was created. And what does this teach, for surely it could have been created with one utterance? But this was so in order to punish the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances, And to give a good reward to the righteous who maintain the world that was created with ten utterances.
Rabbi Joshua Kulp explains this teaching in his commentary:
“In the first chapter of Genesis the phrase “and God said” appears nine times. If you add to this the first three words of the Torah, which are also considered an “utterance”, you get to the number ten, which is considered a number of completion. God could have created the world with one utterance, but He took more effort in His creation in order to teach human beings their awesome responsibility in being stewards over the world. The wicked who ruin the world are ruining something that took God ten utterances to create and therefore their crime is greater.
The opposite is true for the righteous, who preserve the “ten-utterance” world, and are therefore greatly rewarded for their actions. This could refer to religious or moral wickedness or righteousness. When the wicked corrupt the world, they bring ruin on our great world, and when the righteous act morally and with piety, they preserve our world, which took a full ten utterances to create.”
From this, we learn that beginnings, or creation, are always difficult because they take longer. Destruction though, can come quickly. The simple fact is, it is much easier to destroy than create. I think about the families that were wiped out in an instant - the couple's courtship, their wedding day, when they found out they were having a baby, then another, then another, first days of school, the fights and the make-ups - years and years - gone in an instant. This is the wickedness that we must fight against. Not only was the crime against the Jewish people, but Hamas’s crime was against humanity, and God.
As we learn in the Mishnah, to destroy one life, is to the destroy the entire world. That’s why God says to Cain that Abels ‘bloods’ (in plural) are calling out from the ground - not only did you kill your brother Abel, but you also killed all of his potential offspring. This is the responsibility we have - not just for the generation in front of us, but for future generations.
This is why all beginnings are difficult.
God created the world and handed it over to us. There is wickedness in the world, there is evil, and we all see it, but there is also good in the world, and good always takes more time.
This is our job, to preserve the world through goodness, and this is what I have seen from our people over this last week. This is our task as Jews and as humans.