Parshat Bereshit 2014 (or, “From the Peanut Gallery”)
October 18, 2014 1 Comment
Because of the events which unfolded this past week related to Kesher Israel, I was asked on Tuesday to give the sermon this shabbat. Below is what I said.
This week’s parsha, Bereshit, opens with God creating the world ex nihilo – from nothingness – and describes that primordial nothingness as tohu va’vohu – void and confused. We move through the days of creation, observing the complexity of the created world increase from inanimate objects to plants, animals, and finally the zenith of His created work – the human being. One might think this would be a story of how the perfectly created people would live in perfection.
However, it is not.
Those first human beings, in relatively quick order, manage to be disobedient, deceitful, and murderous. Hava listens to the voice of the snake, eats the forbidden fruit, and then gets Adam to do the same. For this, they are cast out of the garden with a curse. Their oldest children, Kayin and Hevel, follow suit when Kayin commits the first murder, and then lies to God upon being challenged. For this, Kayin is also cast out to wander the earth.
Our sages tell us that the reason for the sixth day being described as “very” good was that God placed in us conflicting desires: the good inclination – the yetzer ha-tov, which wants to constructively obey God’s commands, and an evil inclination – the yetzer ha-ra, which includes the impulsive, the acquisitive, the angry, and the carnal. Our task as people, and a fortiori as Jews, is to yoke the yetzer ha-ra so that our actions – regardless of their initial genesis – can serve God.
In the cases of Adam, Hava, and Kayin, it’s clear that whatever else happened in their lives, they were overcome by their yetzer ha-ra, and while God had conciliatory things to say about it – they were all punished severely for their transgressions. Their actions tore at the fabric of their (small) society, and the nature of their punishment reflected the sense in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that that which is crooked cannot be made straight (Ecc 1:15). It was a permanent punishment – Adam and Hava never made it back to the garden in their lives, because innocence lost cannot be regained. Kayin’s wanderings likewise did not cease – no earthly repentance could repay the loss of Hevel’s life, which we judge to have infinite value.
This could be viewed as the earliest example of “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
These two examples have another thing in common: the transgressions and punishment completely take over the characters, so that their good qualities are all but forgotten in the stories themselves and in how they are remembered. If one were to describe Kayin, “that guy who murdered his brother” pretty much sums up the totality of how he is remembered – no attention is paid to how dutiful he was as a son, or any of the good he did his life – that one act became the defining aspect of his persona through history.
Or to put it in the words of Kohelet again, “zevuvay mavet yavish ya- biah shemen rokeah yakar mahokhmah mikavod sikhlut m’at” – “dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s oil; wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little stupidity.” (Ecc: 10:1)
Kohelet isn’t saying that the wisdom and honor go away, or that they do not matter, rather that the damage which can be done by a little stupidity will be what is remembered.
The last thing that these two examples have in common is that the people involved in them act in a similar way when confronted by God – they first attempt to escape blame, and then try to deny responsibility. Adam blames Hava, Hava blames the serpent, and God is angry with all of them. Kayin impudently challenges God with “am I my brother’s keeper?” when given the opportunity to admit what he has done. This, too, is an all-too-human trope – David famously asked “Shegi’ot mi yavin?” – “who can discern his own errors?” (Ps. 19:12)
We are charged with learning both positive and negative examples from the Bible, most famously expressed as “ma’aseh avot simanim l’banim” – the deeds of the ancestors are signs to their descendants.
What does that give us here?
We learn from their examples that the yetzer ha-ra is powerful enough to overcome the reluctance to sin even when one is right in front of God. And more – the three things I find in common here are that the individuals were drawn to follow their yetzer ha-ra, sinned, denied their own role in the sin, and were punished with exile, and the remembrances of their transgressions vastly outweighs the memory of the good they did in their lives.
Judaism teaches us that a corrective to the yetzer ha-ra is engaging the yetzer ha-tov – and we have an opportunity to do that here, now. We can increase our commitment to community service, to study of Torah, and to acts of loving-kindness. We can financially support our community efforts to repair our building, in addition to our other charitable acts. And we can call out to God for His assistance – as David wrote, “the LORD is close to all those who call upon Him in truth.” (ps 145:18)
May we merit to yoke our yetzer ha-ra to the service of God and His commandments.