Parashat Bereishit 5778

Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein, 13 October 2017

A new year has just begun and this Shabbat we begin a new cycle of Torah readings. The first chapter of Genesis we have already read on Simchat Torah, but this week’s sedra contains so many fascinating stories, mostly about the family of Adam & Eve. You probably know the story of their children – Cain and Able, but how many of the names of the subsequent generations can you recall? You know that Cain killed Able and was banished from the family… but what about Eve’s third and fourth sons Enoch and Seth? Read Genesis 4:17 – 5:32 and you could have fun making out a family tree that ends with Noah’s three sons; listing the recorded ages of each descendent mentioned. Who lived the longest and how many years? Good for a Jewish pub quiz.

Fundamentalists take these names and dates seriously, but as Liberal Jews what can we make of the opening chapters of the Torah? We can see the scene for human history being set, with explanations for many aspects of human society. Why the snake lost its legs (3:14) and why people have a fear of snakes. Why women have a painful time giving birth is put down to Eve eating the apple (3:16ff). Why its no fun being a gardener is explained in 3:17 – weeds being the punishment for Adam having a bite of the forbidden fruit. We get Abel the first shepherd and Cain the first “tiller of the soil”; modern commentators saying this is a reflection of the ancient enmity between the settled framer and the itinerant shepherd whose sheep might invade his land.

Enoch was the first to found a city, Jabal the first herdsman and his brother Jubal “the ancestor of all who play the lyre and pipe; their half brother Tubal-cain the first worker in copper and iron” (4:17 ff). And so five chapters dealing with the creation of the world and its fauna and flora and humankind. But then chillingly, chapter six and it all starts to go wrong. Right at then end of the sedra: “The Eternal One saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted making humankind on earth and God’s heart was saddened.” Anthropomorphic yes, but how typical of Genesis to portray God with human emotions and what a sad ending to this first attempt to create civilization with its beauty, its music, its industry, its agriculture. The world God created with such optimism has already seen its first disobedience, and its first murder, no wonder God was sad.

This all points to the brilliance of Genesis as religious literature, because it depicts the real world and, at each stage urges humankind to learn from past actions.
Sad that it never seems to learn and in the very next sedra, God carries out the threat to destroy the world, but not completely and that sedra ends with the rainbow. We live at a time of Global Warming, threats of war, even nuclear war, countries tearing themselves apart. Maybe Bereishit teaches us that, from the very beginning it has been so, but God’s promise with the rainbow reminds us that in the nick of time God or we somehow save our world. Lets draw some comfort from this and know that despite God’s sadness, we always seem to get another chance, because what was created is so precious to God.

Count up the ages in Genesis 5 and you begin to see how the tradition arose that this new year is 5778. this year and next month records a number of anniversaries. For the Jewish people it marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th year since the United Nations voted to establish the State of Israel. And for Liberal Judaism itself we mark 115 years since our founding and the 70th anniversary of our first youth movement. As we start this new year, may the ancient stories in our Torah inspire us anew and may we celebrate the achievements of our Movement with pride and satisfaction… its a story of growth and achievement, may it always be so.

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