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 Parshat Berayshit 5782        October 2,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom… We made it through another holiday season!

The Torah begins as we all know, with the creation of the world. God uses ten sentences over seven days to create the heavens and the earth and the first holiday, Shabbat. It is a remarkable story as told in the first chapter of Genesis and even more remarkable because in Chapter two, there is another story told from a different point of view.

And yet, these different versions of the creation story are not what the Sages of the Talmud focus on when they comment on our Parsha. The great commentator, Rashi, Rabbi Shelomo Yitzchaki, says it in the most succinct way. “Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation?”

It is an interesting question. It begins with the assumption that the Torah is a book of Laws. If so, then it is an important question. It is this verse in Exodus 12 that really begins the legal text of the Torah. Until then, there are only three mitzvot that are mentioned. After that, the laws come on fast and furious. Without even going into the creation story, the Sages are already wondering what kind of a book the Torah is supposed to be about.

In the Mishna, the Rabbis try and explain what is happening at the beginning of the Torah. They give three answers to the question of why start with creation? The first answer they give is that only one human being was created. This teaches that every human life has infinite value. Since out of every life can come an entire world. This means that we must protect each other from harm no matter what the cost.

Second, say the Rabbis, the creation of the first human being teaches us that we are all family; we all descend from a common ancestor. Family does not always agree with each other and while family feuds are common, we still need to have each other’s backs when things go wrong. When we say, “we are all in this together” it is not just a saying, but a statement of a biological fact.

Finally, the Sages teach that we are all in the image of that first human being, so we should all be able to say that “it was for my sake that the world was created.” Each of us has a role to play in the world, and that role is determined by God, and of divine importance. It notes that each of us is special in our own way and without our contribution to the world, creation would be a darker place.

Simply put, the Sages of the Talmud believe that before we can get down to the laws that humanity must follow, we first have to understand why there are human beings in the world at all. That is one of the fundamental questions that the creation story addresses. And in doing so, it teaches us the importance of life, family, and purpose. It is not some random event that human beings were created. It is part of a divine plan for the universe, and we have a responsibility to fulfill our part of that plan. The outline of the divine plan starts to become plain beginning with Exodus chapter 12. But the purpose of that plan is a big part of what the creation story is all about.

I read this week a D’var Torah by Rabbi Adam Greenwald, the Vice President of Jewish Engagement for the America Jewish University in Los Angeles. He writes, “All of the world's great spiritual traditions teach a common message that we are individually bit players in a drama far beyond our imagination. That our responsibility is not first and foremost to ourselves, but to shared dreams and collective visions. For all the ways that religion can be perverted to drive us apart, at its best, it can open our hearts to see each other, as the Torah … describes, as all equally made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

When we look at the creation story, many times, like so many other people, we only see the parts that are problematic. How could the world be created in only seven days? We know that the universe was created over billions of years. There is so much in the parsha that is factually incorrect that we wonder why anyone still believes the story that it has to tell. Then, as Rabbi Greenwald notices, we take this perversion of history and apply it to all of religion. We see all the different ways that religion has been used to create war and strife that we wonder why anyone still believes in what religion has to teach.

These wide generalizations cover over the real story. The text of our parsha was never intended to be historically correct; its intention is to be morally correct. It is not trying to tell us how the world was created; it is trying to teach us why there was creation and what is the meaning behind it all. It teaches us that there is an order to the universe, that nothing is just random. That we have responsibilities to our planet, to the creatures that live here and to the other people with whom we share this space.

Parshat Berayshit teaches us that we humans have the ability to know good from evil and to know the consequences of what we do. We are not born evil. Evil is something we acquire, and we have to struggle to contain our most evil impulses. The world was created, and God declared it all “very good.” We need to find the good in the world and use our power to increase the goodness and limit, as best we can, the influence of evil.

So how does Judaism help us in this task to bring more good to the world? That is the reason for the Torah and all that it contains. The laws of the Torah, the mitzvot of the Torah, help us to recognize the good when we encounter it and to know how we can enhance all that the good requires. The power to do wrong is strong. The temptation to do evil is great. Torah reenforces our good inclination so that it can overcome whatever selfish, irresponsible, and ignoble impulses we may have to face.

Just like anything else in the world, there are those who would pervert religion to profit their own ends. There are those who might use religious language to drive people apart, to create war and havoc. They could misuse biblical texts to confuse others into lives of bigotry and oppression. When we get back to the creation story at this time of year, as we examine the world as it was meant to be at the beginning, we strip away all the perversions that have been applied to it over the ages and we get back to its original meaning. That human beings are created in the image of God and so we have a divine call to look to our actions and bring fairness, justice, and kindness back as it was at the beginning. We can look to the story of the Garden and wonder at the paradise lost, but we can also commit ourselves to doing what we can to bring back that feeling of the first human beings when they first began to live in the garden in harmony with all of nature.

Humanity is now as fractured and self-centered as it has ever been. How can it be possible to change the nature of humanity as it careens out of control? The Torah begins with creation to teach us that we are important, we are family and what we do matters to the universe. If we can bring this moral teaching into our lives, then we will be better able to see the significance of the mitzvot, the responsibility we have to each other and how even our smallest efforts can make a big difference over time.

Rabbi Greenwald goes on to write; “At the beginning of a fresh, new year, let's recommit to the Torah's vision. We are in this together. We are each other's business. Your safety, your thriving, your joy is my responsibility – and mine, yours. There's no more necessary and urgent teaching for our shared moment than that.”

Our creation story reminds us that indeed, we are in this world together and to keep this world in balance, we need to stand together. We all have to be responsible for each other. We need to care about people living under oppressive regimes and care about poor and struggling societies. We have to care about those countries that don’t have enough vaccine to combat COVID and we have to care about those who, out of ignorance or misinformation, still are unvaccinated here. We have to care about climate change around the world and about those whose voting rights are being attacked around the world. It is a great responsibility. But that is the lesson we must take away from our Parsha. What we do matters. We are all family, and every life is precious.

We will learn in the Torah, in the coming weeks, about how God and Humanity eventually learned to work together. About how Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each made a difference to the world by the mistakes that they made as well as by the lessons they came to teach us. Berayshit, the Torah, and Judaism are not about being perfect. Our faith is about trying each and every day to build a better world. To complete the Creation that God started and to improve our relations to our fellow human beings.

There will be time to teach Mitzvot when we get to the 12th chapter of Exodus. For now, we need to learn how to live together with others in this world, so we can work together as one big happy human family.

May God help us reach out to others and to see the shared humanity that can make all the difference to this world as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783