These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Culmination of Bereshit

Posted on January 7, 2015 by Sarah Pollack

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Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 4.22.09 PMSarah Pollack 1As we culminate the book of Genesis, I looked back to see what we had learned. How the stories fit together. What the commonality between the past 50 chapters held. In the women’s commentary to the Torah, Tamara Cohn Eshkanezi writes that Genesis is accounting for the human condition with it’s possibilities and perils.

The Torah starts, as we know, with the story of creation. The story of a creator causing ideas and ideals to come into fruition. And then once the masterpiece is complete, stepping back, and judging it. Analyzing, examining, interpreting and judging. Anyone can tell you the initial conclusion that Gd came to. “Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!” Good – a word which, at it’s core, connotes subjectivity.

And then Gd took this subjectivity, this innate understanding of what He believed to be good, and created humans in His image. It’s a moral standard to be made in the image of Gd. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote “No religion has held a higher view of humanity than the book that tells us we are each made in the image of Gd” A moral compass that exists in each of us. And then from there, it’s almost a downward spiral, a series of events that prove that maybe the initially created compasses needed a little more calibration than they received. Adam and Chava fail their first moral test. The first child? Proves to be a murderer. The generation of Noah? A word of violence causing Hashem to question why He created human beings in the first place. Gd creates order, man creates chaos.

What is it that causes Gd to reconsider? Why not just wipe out the entire Earth? As Sarah and Midrash tell us, Gd created the world 102 times. Why not just start over from scratch again? Noah’s story is rooted in morality. The flood is the antithesis of morality, the epitome of acting unethically. But Noah, in stark contrast, is righteous. Eish Tzadik. And that’s why Hashem can start over with him. That’s why Hashem thinks a second chance is possible. But did things really get better?

Avraham lies, putting Sarah in the position to possibly commit adultery. Sarah, left childless and desperate, asks her husband to sleep with another woman. And what follows that? Sarah’s actions all point to regret. A hatred of “the other woman,” exile, and despair. Confronted with moral forks in the road, how do the avot and emahot respond? How do we judge the foundation of our history when their actions are never endingly problematic? How can we calibrate our own moral compasses on these role models?

Genesis is a book of moral maturation as a people. A Genesis of Ethics, if you will. Genesis, an origin or formation, of an ethical roadway through life. Does it mean that we emerge on the other end squeaky clean? Cleansed of our moral impurities? No. And I think our tradition is honest about that.

As kids, our stories have 1 character that represents total good and 1 character that represents total good. The evil character is bad to his core. The evil witch, the stepmother, the villain. No option for teshuva, refinement or renewal. Juxtaposed against a character of purity, physical beauty, goodness and righteousness. Black and white. Good and bad. Love and Hate. How easy would that be?

As we grow, the lines become blurred and we realize the disparity that exists between capital G good and capital e evil. There’s a gap there filled with a lot of gray. And life is filled with this intermediary – a constant struggle to do our best.

After Rabbi Sacks praised the Torah for it’s commendable view of humanity saying that “No religion has held a higher view of humanity than the book that tells us we are each made in the image of Gd.” His next sentence was “Yet none has been more honest about the failings of even the greatest”

Even Noach, eish tzadik, ends drunk and disheveled. Yet, not all is lost in the moments of despair. Even the least favorable characters in our tradition have moments when they prevail. Esav reconciles with his brother, embraces him and kissed him. Bat Pharaoh, the product of, arguably, one of the worst characters in our history, prevails as a heroine of ethics and morality.

Mike Feuer recently spoke about the great tragedy that is being human. Realizing that we will never do all that we set out to do. The tension between having minds brimming with ideals, morals, vast expanses of ideas and projects and never being able to execute and articulate each and every one of them as perfectly as they seem in our minds. The ever present tension between ideals and reality.

One of my favorite parshiot in the Torah is Vayera. It contains in it the crux of the ethical issue of Humanity. Hashem sends Avraham to destroy two cities. Here, we see a change from the last time that Gd proposed a plan to destroy something. The morality the Abraham exhibits here is greater than that of his predecessor, Noah, who built an ark without asking any questions. Standing before a scale, Avraham pushes the limits of morality – weighing the world to determine if there is enough good making it worthy of saving. Are 50 tzadikim enough? 40? 30? What’s the tipping point? How much good has to exist in order for the bad to be cancelled out? There has to be some sort of balance established and Abraham was pushing G-d’s limits to see what the balance was. When is the good good enough?

In the end, I think that Genesis is the struggle of a people to do what’s good. What’s right. To make sure the scales are always tipped in favor of good so that Gd looks down and sees a world that He is proud of. It is through our own advocacy — when we raise our voices and use our own political power to demand righteousness and justice — that we demonstrate that we are indeed the children of Abraham, keeping the ways of G-d.

And then Bnai Israel enter Sefer Shmot, the book of becoming a people. Taking these values and ethics with them as they go on the journey through slavery and beyond.