Yom Shabbat, 27 Tishri 5776
Saturday, 10 October 2015
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Read an inspired commentary on this week’s Torah portion by one of our free-thinking Liberal Rabbis.

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Parashat B'reshit
Rabbi Danny Rich
9th October 2015


With the excess of Simchat Torah behind us we begin again the reading of the Torah, starting unsurprisingly at the beginning –the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, parashat Breishit.

Their contents are familiar to almost everybody: the two Creation narratives, the splendour of the Garden of Eden and the eating of the forbidden fruit which leads to the expulsion of Adam and Eve therefrom, and the first recorded Biblical murder of Abel by his brother, Cain.

It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that the message of Breishit is one of human responsibility, for the creation itself, the natural world and for its crown –the human being.

Readers will be familiar with the debate about the impacts of climate change, the eradication of natural species and the rate of environmental degradation which we, the human race, have perpetrated in the last decade, never mind the previous half century.  Whilst there are still some voices which deny the suggested results of climate change and other related matters –and ascribe it all to a conspiracy of leftie scientists or a ‘moral panic’ encouraged by advocates of alternative living- it does appear to me that in recent years we have not taken care of our planet as our Jewish tradition hoped.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) envisages the natural world as a banquet laid out in a palace and, of course, civilised guests enjoy the food and drink but desist from taking the last of everything and certainly would not smash up the cutlery and damage the palace itself!  Today scientists speak of ‘the delicate balance of nature’ and remarkably the medieval scholar Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) commenting on Breishit speculated that, had the sun been larger or placed closer to the earth, its heat would have destroyed our planet.  Alternatively had it been placed a fraction further away, Earth would have been locked forever in a frozen winter.  Perhaps future generations will need to be more thoughtful about their use and abuse of the natural world.

If the ‘climate pessimists’ are correct the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of her Majesty’s Opposition and the alleged activities of our Prime Minster at Oxford University and indeed all our earnest debates about whether our National health System can cope with ‘the explosion of obesity and diabetes’ or how can we provide affordable homes in our major cities will be an irrelevance –as will be the second part of this article!

It is, therefore, assumed that it is still possible to ameliorate the ‘Armageddon’ aspects of climate change, and, whilst, much is in the hands of international, powerful politicians and business leaders, we still need to do our bit in recycling, considering our means of travel, and in not supporting directly or indirectly trade in rare animal species.  Some may go further in adopting a vegetarian diet because meat production contributes to a less than ideal use of natural resources.  To do so is Jewish in two ways.  First, it fulfils the well-known aphorism f Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, ‘You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.’  Second, it is part of the acknowledgment of the Psalmist and others that the natural world belongs to God and humanity is its steward.

In addition to the Creation Story, Breishit records the tragic murder of Abel by Cain.  The story has many interesting aspects, not least God’s role in accepting Abel’s offering but paying ‘no heed’ to that of Cain.  The Torah records no conversation between Cain and Abel but, following the murder, God enquires of Cain and receives the famous rhetorical reply ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’  God’s answer is implied but clear.  Cain will be severely punished for the murder of his brother which, playing on the Hebrew plural (Verse 10) which reads ‘the bloods of your brother cries out…’, understands that not only has Abel been murdered but potential generations are now doomed never to have been born –perhaps a more relevant consideration in those days when the numbers of human beings was so small!

Judaism has a very clear response to Abel’s question, reflected in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

…whosoever takes a single life destroys thereby an entire world, and whosoever saves a single life thereby preserves an entire world.

Is there a more compelling text to prompt our thinking about our responsibly both for each human being and the natural world which we inhabit?



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