Today's Open Orthodoxy - Bereishit 5781

There are good things that resulted from our praying outside, things we should try to retain and that contrast Abraham with Adam and Noah.

Rabbi Berel Wein ,

Outdoor prayer during the coronavirus
Outdoor prayer during the coronavirus
Gershon Elinson/Flash90

Since transparency is a favorite buzzword in today's enlightened society, I feel compelled to warn my beloved readers of my articles and essays, that this article is not about what you may think, given its title. I am not referring to the radical ideas and behavior that masquerade as remaining within the boundaries of Jewish tradition and halakhic norms and the group espousing them who called themselves Open Orthodox (and who now claim they are the real Modern Orthodox, ed.).

Instead, this article is about our synagogue here in Jerusalem that, because of governmental health regulations, has been forced to conduct its regular daily prayer services outside, rather than in the building of the synagogue itself.

The neighbors in the adjoining apartment building have been kind enough to allow the synagogue to erect a tent in its parking lot, and we conducted the Sukkoth holiday in its entirety in that parking lot. We did so, naturally, with proper social distancing and all who attended wore masks.

In spite of the obvious difficulties that this engendered – we had very hot weather here in Jerusalem over the holiday – and the fact that quite a number of cats joined in the festivities, we experienced a wonderful holiday, and I felt the prayer services were very meaningful.

Human beings are the most adaptable of all creatures, and, perhaps, the Jewish people are the most adaptable of all human beings. As such, I was impressed but not surprised that the services were orderly, meaningful, heartfelt, and proper. I think that everyone benefited and enjoyed the experience of true Orthodox prayer in the open environment of our neighboring parking lot.

One of the interesting, if not beneficial, results of our being in the open was that many people who usually do not regularly attend synagogue seemed to join our group. Perhaps even more importantly, of the many Jews, who, unfortunately, abound here in Israel who have never set foot into a synagogue out of fear of tarnishing their secularism, were witnesses to what synagogue prayers actually look and feel like.

I am certain that they gained a changed perspective from one that they previously held. One of the attributes of our father Abraham was that wherever he went he conducted services to the Lord, and called onto God's name so that even passersby gained an understanding that there is a Creator, and that God has entrusted humans with missions of goodness and holiness.

It is this attribute of Abraham that marked him for special greatness and earned him the title of father of the Jewish people and much of human civilization as well. Conducting our prayers in the open afforded us the opportunity to emulate, in our own small way, the activities and mission of our father Abraham.

There is a freedom that somehow one feels outside of the confines of the building that one does not feel even within the air-conditioned comfort and splendor of the four walls of a synagogue building.

This feeling is difficult to describe, but, somehow, I felt it to be present within me. This, of course, is only the rumination of an elderly rabbi, but I do not feel that these comments are really off the mark.

I join with all of Israel and the world in hoping and praying that this corona scourge will soon pass. We will then be able to restore ourselves to what we will then call normalcy, though I doubt that it will exactly resemble the old normalcy that we were accustomed to before the Corona pandemic struck.

In any event, we certainly intend to return to the confines of the building of our beloved synagogue and conduct teaching classes, lectures, and prayer services within that building on a very regular basis. With the winter approaching, we will undoubtedly need the protection of the walls of the building, a heating system that functions well and an environment that keeps us healthy and comfortable.

Nevertheless, I am certain that we will all have a taint of nostalgia regarding the times that we were able to pray and conduct our services in the open, for all to witness. Thus, in every difficult situation some measure of goodness and understanding can be extracted, treasured, and incorporated into our new being. So, when we return to our hoped-for normalcy, I think we should attempt to retain some of the gifts of praying in the open and conducting our prayer services under the canopy of heaven directly.

And now for my thoughts on this week's parasha, Bereishit.

This week's opening parsha of the Torah can be viewed as having bookends. There are two main characters in the story of humanity that are introduced to us. At the beginning of the parsha, the Torah tells us of the creation of Adam, the original human being, and the progenitor of all of us. Thus, the Torah records the tragedy of his life and he becomes, so to speak, the story of all human beings who are prone and susceptible to sin and temptation, who live on in regret and recrimination.

Even though Adam will live an exceptionally long life, almost a millennium, we are not told much about the rest of his life. According to midrashic tradition, Adam spent most of his life in loneliness, isolation, sadness, and depression over his transgression, and this affected not only him, but all humanity as well.

Jewish tradition teaches us that there were 10 generations, over 1500 years, between Adam and the generation of Noah and the great flood. These generations sank further and further into the abyss of idolatry, paganism, immorality, robbery, tyranny, and brutality. Adam, who certainly was aware of what was happening, apparently was of no influence on these generations.

Instead of being an exemplary influence and a leader, he seemingly withdrew into his own isolation and sadness. We can certainly sympathize and even empathize with his behavior, but his non-actions do not, in any way, aid the cause of humanity, nor its spiritual and emotional development and growth.

At the conclusion of the parsha, we are introduced to Noah, who will be the central character in the drama of the Flood that we will read about in next week's Torah reading. We see a somewhat similar story with Noah as we saw with Adam. After surviving the flood and having the opportunity to build the world in a more positive fashion, he also fails the test, and loses influence on his children and succeeding generations.

He also lives an exceptionally long life, almost a millennium, but extraordinarily little is revealed to us about the rest of his days, or what other accomplishments, if any, he achieved. Noah, like Adam, remains an enigmatic figure, a reservoir of failed potential and human decline. We are taught there were, once again, 10 generations from Noah to Abraham and that these 10 generations – and Noah was alive for a great deal of them – simply sank back into the idolatry, paganism and immorality of the time of Adam. And, once again, Noah apparently was of little of any influence in being able to stem this tide of evil and brutality.

It is only once we reached the story of Abraham and Sarah that we find people who not only were pious in their own right, as Noah certainly was, but who also had an enormous influence upon their times and all later times, as well. And Abraham and Sarah are the example that is set before us.

We all are people of influence, on our families, communities, and societies. We must see ourselves in that light, and behave accordingly, and reveal ourselves as examples and influence. That has been our mission from time immemorial and remains so until today.

Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history. After many years serving as a community rabbi in Monsey, NY, he made aliya and is rabbi of Beit Knesset Hanassi in Jerusalem.