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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Shabbat B'reishit 5781 - 17th October 2020

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam’s sermon or read it below.

This week I’ve felt rather sad and helpless. My grandma who has been so stoic since losing her husband of 75 years to Covid at the beginning of lock down has been under the weather, confused and had a fall which led her to a night in Northwick Park hospital. Nothing unusual for a 95-year-old but so much harder for families when hospitals and care homes are completely closed off to visitors.  I’m not suggesting they should be doing anything differently, it’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact. One of the single greatest aims of both hospitals and care homes is to, with dignity, preserve life.  Never before has the preservation of life come at the expense of so much else.

It’s a lesson we are taught in this week’s parasha. A lesson perhaps I’ve never noticed before because I’ve never needed to but one that Rabbi Steve Greenberg teaches so brilliantly in his book “Wrestling with God and Men”.

“Creation has finished its grand symphony on the final notes of our earthling. Creation pleases God.  Every phase of the creation process is judged to be good, and on the last day of creation, when the earthling is finished, the whole cosmos is deemed “very good”. And now, with everything seemingly in place, God informs the ‘Adam’ of one rule that must be obeyed on pain of death.

‘Of every tree in the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.’ 

At the moment the threat of death is uttered, even as a possibility, everything changes. Following God’s announcement, “You shall die,” the adam says nothing. God responds, but to what? Did God see something in the adam’s face, posture or spirit?

The Lord God said, “it is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make a fitting helpmate for him.”  (Gen 2:17-18)

After every successful creative effort in the first chapter of the story, “God saw, and behold it was good (tov).”  At the very moment of fulfilment, as the tree of knowledge of good and evil is planted and protected and Eden is complete, God discovers a flaw in plan. Something is unexpectedly “not good” “lo tov”. The first fly in the ointment of creation is human loneliness. Again the unpredictable consequences of creation are a surprise. The human created in the image of God is catapulted from playing in the garden to contemplating mortality. A single rule about a forbidden fruit has given birth at once to freedom, sin and death. Suddenly Eden is a very lonely place.

Until now creation was to satisfy God. Until now only God could judge the outcome of things as good or not good. Now, the adam must be satisfied. It is assumed that the adam will know the fulfilment of desire, the end of aloneness when it comes, and will be able to judge what is good when it is discovered.

We treated the world as if it were Eden, our playground where we were as the stewards of the earth.  We, like the earliest adam, were entitled to anything and everything.  Covid19 seems to have been our moment where the threat of death is uttered and has changed everything and yet what seems to be the first, debilitating response?  Just like Adam: one of loneliness and isolation. 

It is the philosophical, ethical dilemma, unpacked here by Greenberg that interests me and makes me recognise the greatest challenge of this time.  As he calls it, “The unpredictable consequence of creation.”  When our eyes were first opened to this awful pandemic, we reacted with anxiety around practicalities, we understood it as a physical limitation.  How can I ensure I have enough toilet paper, pasta, food?  Our physical needs were what we thought would be our greatest test.  Could we stay well and stay satiated because we thought that was what we needed to assess a situation as “tov”.  Yet as over this week we watched our local area be taken into Tier 2, with stricter lockdown criteria and a long winter ahead I am hearing everyone’s sadness.  Not worrying about needs like last time but a sadness associated with what does it mean to again be deprived of the social contact, the interactions, the friendships which we had just started to once again take for granted.  Just as Adam did, we stare our own mortality in the face and we hear the echo of God’s words to him, “it is not good for these humans to be alone.” And thus the philosophical argument cycles around us, how can we cheat death when just as our hospitals and care homes are able to attest to relationships, be they partners, family colleagues or friends give our lives shape, texture, meaning.    For months we had thought the biggest quandary was the terrible balancing act between the economy and health but perhaps we add to those impossible scales those of life and loneliness. 

For me the greatest wisdom comes in the lack of Adam’s response.  He faces his mortality alone and says nothing.  It is only God who recognises in his silence his loneliness. Greenberg asks, “Did God see something in the adam’s face, posture or spirit?” It seems we have two options.  We, like God can really look at each other, in those chance interactions in the street, look into people’s eyes on zoom, really listen to each other during phone calls so that we, like God did for Adam, can fill the silence for other people. What do we need to do to help each other through these coming months?  However, we also need not to assume, or just hope that others can be that person for us, we can’t assume that people will hear our silent calls.  Unlike Adam, when faced with our mortality alone and fearful, we have to find our voices, acknowledge what we need.

Perhaps we need to see Greenberg’s commentary in conjunction with *Sivan Rahav-Meir’s observation on Adam. (Translation by Yehoshua Siskin).  She asks,

“Why were Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Every kindergartener will answer: because they ate from the Tree of Knowledge! But it could be that this answer is not really correct. They were not expelled because they made a mistake and ate, but because of their reaction after the mistake. They could have admitted, apologized, and changed, but instead Adam told God: "The woman whom you gave to be with me - she gave me from the tree and I ate." Adam did not take responsibility, but rather implicated Eve and, by extension, the God who created her. Instead of being thankful for the creation, the Garden of Eden, and his wife, Adam complained. Rashi summarizes Adam's response with "here he showed his ingratitude." This is the reason that we were expelled from the Garden of Eden: lack of gratitude.”

I take issue with Rahav-Meir and in turn with Rashi.  To me it’s not ingratitude but a lack of taking responsibility.  Perhaps the lessons we learn from Adam are both that when we are faced with our loneliness we also need to take responsibility to find our voice.  We cannot rely on others being as intuitive as God, we need not to try to find blame, but rather to find our voice and reach out to others. 

We maybe entering Tier 2 restrictions in parashat Bereishit, when we learn of our mortality and bereavement but in a matter of weeks we will be reading parashat Lech L’cha, the words that teach us about community and journeying together, collecting individual souls along the way to help us survive together the wilderness years that follow and watch the desert bloom. Let’s plot our journey week by week and let’s walk this long winter together.    

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782