The renewal of the Torah reading cycle is the most exciting time of the year for me. Not only because I think that Sefer Breishit, the Book of Genesis, is one of the greatest offerings of literature in the history of the world, but also because beginning the Torah immediately following the High Holy Day season of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah teaches us that the idea of teshuvah, of moral and spiritual evolution, is perhaps the most significant element of the Jewish tradition.
How do we learn about teshuvah from the Sefer Breishit? Simply put, the whole concept of the ability to grow morally and spiritually, to learn from our mistakes and become better people through those mistakes, is codified even into the first letter of the Torah! The Midrash asks:
Why did God commence creation with the letter bet and not aleph, despite aleph being the first of all letters? Because the aleph is the first letter of arur, cursed, but the bet is the first letter of barukh, blessed; the Holy Blessed One said, ‘I will create the world with an expression of blessing!’
The Torah ends with the dramatic scene of Moshe’s death, with God burying the beloved shepherd. Yes, Moshe’s burial outside the Land of Israel was a result of Moshe being punished, but even after that punishment Moshe still merited to be in relationship with God and to have his ultimate face-to-face encounter, with the text implying that it was finally getting to see God’s presence which was the final moment of Moshe’s life. And then with barely a pause we begin the Torah with an expression of blessing. The final reading on Simhat Torah includes God blessing humanity. And then, the following Shabbat, we read the entirety of Parashat Breishit – which is a story of second chances.
The first humans break the rules and are punished for their actions, but just as is the case with Moshe, they are not cut off from God. They are given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The following generation commits the most heinous crime a human can perform – murder. But when Kayin kills Hevel, his punishment is not death, his punishment is to wander and, implicitly, learn from his mistake.
Perhaps this is the deeper message of the Midrash quoted above, that the bet alludes to the blessing of second chances. Another Midrash teaches that the Torah begins with the letter bet because it is only open to the left (the direction in which we read Hebrew) signifying that we cannot know what is above, what is below, or what is before Creation. One way to understand this, in our context, is that we can never go back in time, nor can we avoid the ramifications of our actions, but we always have the opportunity to move forward and learn from our past.
We are the People of the Book, and this is the Book of Second Chances!