Here we go again...
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the beginning, when the Holy One began to create the sky and the earth.
Every year our tradition invites us to assume a posture of beginner's mind, a state of curiosity and uncertainty, as we re-encounter these dog-eared stories and see what arises this time around.
Most years I am drawn to the very first days of creation. The light and the luminaries, the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. Or I find myself jumping ahead to the final days, the creation of human beings each holy, in the image of the divine and the invitation to rest in the glory of it all on Shabbat.
But this year I am lingering on the often under-appreciated fifth day of creation.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יִשְׁרְצ֣וּ הַמַּ֔יִם שֶׁ֖רֶץ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה וְעוֹף֙ יְעוֹפֵ֣ף עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
And the Holy One said, "Let the waters swarm with sheretz nefesh chayah/living creatures and let the birds fill the horizon of the skies" (Gen. 1:20). Not to mention on the fifth day the Holy One creates sea monsters and all kinds of creepy crawly critters (See v. 21)!
What is a sheretz? From Genesis we know that it is a living creature that swarms the earth. Then in Leviticus we get a list of eight kinds of shratzim -- the mole, the mouse, and lizards of every variety, the gecko, the crocodile, more lizards, and the chameleon (11:29-30). But what's more, the Torah asserts that each of these creatures is fundamentally and categorically impure (tameh). Which means that anyone who comes into contact with one of their corpses, a dead sheretz, needs to immerse in a mikveh to become ritually available again.
The sheretz reappears in rabbinic discourse in the most unexpected of places, as the rabbis are discussing the requirements for who should be able to sit on the highest rabbinic court, the Sanhedrin. And as it so happens, we too are in the midst of a national conversation about who is worthy of such power and responsibility. A matter the rabbis take very seriously!
As Bennett Decker explains:
"Rabbi Yochanan suggests a number of requirements. They must be tall, wise, good looking, and old. They also must have mastered sorcery and all 70 languages. In short, these requirements are specifically designed to exclude all but a select class of men. It sets the Jewish 'ideal' as a nigh unattainable goal."
But Rav Yehudah, in the name of Rav, presents another idea. Rav argues that one is only placed upon the Sanhedrin if they are able to metaher et ha sheretz min hatorah, to declare a sheretz pure by Torah law. Which is to say, the judges on the Sanhedrin must be so skilled at logical reasoning that they could even produce a convincing argument that creeping animals, which the Torah states explicitly are ritually impure, are actually pure.
In the words of Laynie Soloman, "A requirement for rabbinic leadership, power, and authority, then, is to use the Torah to declare pure something that the Torah itself defines as fundamentally and unchangeably impure. To be a judge on the Sanhedrin is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itself—even, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least able to be overturned."
We learn in Pirkei Avot that the purpose of Torah is to increase freedom in the world (6:2). By extension we can understand that the purpose of any system of law should be to increase freedom and uphold justice. This is fundamentally the role of everyone in power, most especially the rabbis of the Sanhedrin and the justices of the Supreme Court; to be bold and brave and willing to transform the law when it does not align with freedom.
As we begin this new Torah cycle, may we draw strength and courage from the rabbis to be willing to overturn and transform Torah when it misses the mark. And may we merit to live in a world where we can hold those in power to this standard.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.