Famous firsts

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Most of us remember the song by Leona Lewis, “The first time ever I saw your face, I thought the sun rose in your eyes, and the moon and stars were gifts you gave to the dark and endless skies...”

It had a haunting melody, and the lyrics took us back to a first love or a special first time in our lives. It makes us wonder why firsts are important and notable.

Last month’s holiday of Shavuot marked the offering of new grain, the first of the season. In the Bible, firsts are designated and sanctified. Firstborn sons, firstborn cattle, first crops—all of these have a special status in Jewish law although the children, animals and vegetables that follow may be equally as special or even more refined and perfect as a result of appearing later. It makes us wonder why firsts are important and notable.

And then there are firsts in the milestones of life—ordinary and extraordinary lives—when we also stop to take note: the first word, the first step or the first birthday. Ivan the Terrible was the first czar of Russia, and Anne Bradstreet was the first published American writer. James Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, and Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in literature. It makes us wonder why firsts are important and notable.

Israeli author Meir Shalev recently had one of his books on Bible translated into English. Appropriately, it’s called Beginnings, and it is a wonderful spiritual beach read about firsts that begin in the book of Genesis and continue as important themes throughout all of the Hebrew Bible: the first dream, the first kiss, the first laugh, the first hate, the first weeping. He opens the book with the claim that Genesis is true to its name because it describes the beginning of things, thus continuing the story of creation well beyond the first chapter.

He also observes that many of these firsts come as a surprise to us. The first death in the Bible is not of natural causes, and the first dream was not dreamt by an important figure, and the first kiss is not between a man and a woman but between a father and son. It is precisely the element of surprise that gives each first extra pleasure and meaning for the reader.

Shalev, whose most famous book in translation is probably The Pigeon and the Boy, was born as the State of Israel was born: in 1948. His family pioneered the north, moving to Israel in the 20s, more than a decade before his family’s small village was on the electric grid. You can read all about his family’s start in his charming memoir, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner. It helped me understand how Shalev noted his own beginnings while also exploring the much vaster beginnings recorded in the Bible.

An alternate translation for the opening of Genesis might be “At first...” Perhaps we start there not only to make order out of chaos or to chart our history in some chronological fashion, but to help us understand that if God’s firsts are notable so are ours. Firsts help us measure where we started, and how far we have come or have yet to go. They represent tiny pauses that spark recognition of human accomplishment, of grandeur and possibility. We sanctify firsts because it is through them that we experience the newness of our universe.

So when is the last time you did something for the first time?

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on May 31, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.