By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman, President
Shalom! I’m thrilled to begin as your next President and CEO of AJRCA. I sincerely look forward to meeting and engaging with each of you over the coming months. I cherish this opportunity for us to learn some Torah together too.
I dedicate this teaching to my father, Neil Hoffman z”l.
Thousands of years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud designated four unique times in the calendar year to mark beginnings. We’re most familiar with the 1st of Tishrei, or Rosh Hashanah. The apples, honey, taiglach, and round challahs are unforgettable while we practice cheshbon hanefesh, a soul accounting for all that was and what we hope will be.
But, there is also the new year for the trees, which we know as Tu b’Shevat, the time we celebrate the beginnings of Spring. The Torah counts the 1st of Nissan, the month in which we celebrate Pesach, as the beginning of history and the cultural and moral foundations of our people. The fourth new year, the 1st of Elul, is a new year to count the birth of cattle, a fiscal beginning to the commercial practices of our society.
We have certainly come to celebrate different beginnings throughout the centuries, with all our promises for healthier diets, more committed exercise routines, even visions for a better world. Some of this time counting may seem arbitrary. We must admit, though, we are a bit obsessed with beginnings.
Having completed the Yamim Noraim and reveling in the renewal of our Torah study, it seems odd that returning our study of the Torah to the beginning is not one of these moments in time we hold as a new year. Maybe it is because the study of Torah is timeless. Or, that the maxim, “There are seventy faces of the Torah,” refers to the depth of interpretation and not the quest to discover those complexities over time.
Perhaps it is, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, the beginning of the Torah is not with the letter bet, the first letter in the word Bereishit, or “In the Beginning,” as we might have thought. Rather, the first letter in all creation is the letter Tzadee – to signify the act of God that ignites Creation is through TzimTzum, Divine withdrawal. It is a challenge for us to make space for creativity to emerge. We learn this is something that originates from a Divine Source. Our task is to emulate the Divine and practice sacred space-making for the elegance and beauty of Creation to manifest.
We’re living in a time when the tyranny of now and the constant quest for “new beginnings” seems to happen multiple times a day. Holding on to the past seems to be an act of will, and not a privilege to cherish. “Make yourself small so that another can grow” says Rabbi Kushner (from The Book of Letters). Something really new and really creative only emerges from the place of internal discipline. We need lots of new beginnings to remember this.
Beginning the Torah anew reminds us that the challenge of moving forward is not about making promises or commitments for what has not yet occurred. It is not something that requires a date on the calendar to commemorate annually either. Our sights on the wonders of Creation by a little TzimTzum of our own making can happen each and every day. The first portion of the Torah really asks us, “What will you create today?”
Rabbi Joshua Hoffman