5775 — Bereshit — “Antidiluvian”

28/10/2014 at 17:35 Leave a comment



Parashat Bereshit

Neil F. Blumofe

18 October 2014


It is striking that in this most majestic of Torah portions, when the human being is said to be created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, things so quickly go wrong. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for listening to the machinations of a snake – Cain commits the first homicide, murdering his brother – and as the generations pass to the birth of Noah, the world is filled with violence, and God calls upon the flood to destroy the world and start again.

Our tradition wonders about this concept of betzelem Elohim. How can we be created in the image of God, if we are so flawed and if we tend to choose unwisely as we navigate our existence? We would much prefer to contrast our imperfect lives with a concept of God that is perfect, whole, and infallible. When we say baruch hagever asher yivtach baShem, we mean it – and we in kind, return that trust by saying baruch hashem, as a practice of gratitude, as we live our life. We would like to think that God is not as reckless as we, and does not make mistakes – that when we commit transgressions and have moral failures that it is not a reflection on our concept of how the universe works – that God, the ghost in the machine, is somehow awry, and primed to fail.

In our civic life, it gives us great discomfort to think that big agencies fumble the ball. As we think about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2005 reacting to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, or as we think of the malfeasance or greed of those institutions making risky or bad loans in the real estate or banking markets leading to the Great Recession beginning in 2008, or as we have great consternation about how the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is handling this latest outbreak of Ebola in Dallas, and anticipating its spread, we quickly realize that no organization is too big to fail, and all of our assurances and reliance on a greater protector should be in doubt.

The Garden of Eden came with a fatal flaw. The snake was not an aberration – rather, it was part of paradise, and literally, part of God’s creation. As Jews, we do not think of the world Gnostically – we do not believe in separate entities of Good and Evil. Creation itself, all of creation has within it a moralizing force – a proclamation that each Day of Creation and all that was created in it, between Evening and Morning, was Good, and even on the sixth day, Very Good.

There is no lurking dark power that is ready to do battle with the forces of light. Although there are vestiges of it in our tradition, we do not think God is in a battle with Satan for this world. All difficulty, all tragedy is built into the one overpowering concept of a singular force creating this world – separating out chaos from order, and keeping destruction at bay, by barring the primordial waters from returning to ruin the rare ecosystem of our life.

When we lose the Garden of Eden, when we pollute our world and commit acts of savagery, or more commonly, when we are careless, indolent, and disregarding – all of this is a reflection on God. When we feel desperate or fearless – vindicated or attacked, and we act destructively, we weaken our claim to be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over all the animals, the whole earth, and over every creeping creature upon the earth. We exchange our birthright for a quickly cooled red lentil stew of instant gratification or satisfaction – and we become another nameless part of creation – no more unjust and selfish, as apes are mischievous, wolves savage, or vultures ravenous.

Another way to consider the concept of betzelem Elohim, is to submit that in our human, all too human actions, God is not so dissimilar from us. Like us, God is vengeful and catty – filled with gossip and sinat chinam – baseless hatred. God is overly protective, sometimes cruel, and even abusive – and sometimes altruistic, doing random acts of kindness, with no set goal – paying it forward, so to speak. God then can be moody, and impulsive flirting with strangers before returning home for the evening– constantly needing attention – and of course, always vowing to lose some weight, and thinking that tomorrow will be a better day. Like us, God is wounded, in relationship, and always digging to locate that cornerstone of love that keeps things from toppling over, day-by-day.

How can we be separate from God? Rather than denying God, what is the mystery of Free Will — a concept that gives us some space, an alibi to strive after wholeness while having anxiety, and shattering the unbroken vessels as we walk? Why do we oftentimes act against our best interests, choosing exile over homecoming, attempting to hide our baser nature in the soothing light of status and comfort? Is God truly on the sidelines, watching us bruise each other – watching us destroy the earth in front of us, before pulling us back from the edge, before the point of no return? How much suffering is too much suffering, in the estimation of God? Is our current residence with Cain, somewhere East of Eden, somewhere on the sitra achra side of what we consider to be predictable and safe? Because of our brutishness, have we never been redeemed – do we live in a parallel world of impurity, corruption and degeneracy, masquerading as a place of virtue and decency?

We are commanded to repair this world and thus, to repair God. The choice of what land we inhabit is up to us. This is more than just the facile understanding of tikkun olam – our own blood is already crying out to us from the ground – we are asked to feel obligated – not just for what we choose to do or not do as we pass by – rather, we are asked to witness, to take on the great task of staking out this world for holiness. Every step we take, every word we say challenges us to make things better.

All of the mitzvot are not stars, points, or good deeds that we collect for a reward – rather they are a key to our universe and to our survival, as we ask questions – as we drill down into the details of our life and practice caring before compassion. We are meant to show up first and then to assess how best we can practice betzelem Elohim inspiring us to rise about our baser inclinations perhaps, and to offer a blessing to God, with a gentle push, reordering the world in a way that brings healing, strength, and hope – before waiting for God, we are asked to take the Divine Position, and to trust that what we do, is for the best – baruch hagever asher yivtach baShem – may our determination to improve things, to walk a bit more softly, and to trust that our actions and our voices do matter bring blessings to this world.

We are not asking to return to Paradise – all in due time. For now we are asking to plant seeds in our desolate land, and by our efforts and our prayers, Baruch haShem, to have flowers and sustainable crops, bloom.

Shabbat Shalom.


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5775 — Shemini Atzeret (Yizkor) — “The Sukkah That Wasn’t There” 5775 – Noah — “Between the Ark and the Tower”

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