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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Bereishit

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5777)
MILTON VS. DARWIN
“The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed.” (Genesis 2:8)
This week we begin reading the Torah all over again. Once again we read the stories of creation, Adam and Eve, expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the generations leading to Noah. These stories were never meant to be literal accounts of early humanity. Rather they are powerful parables that focus on the meaning of being a human being in a world created by God.
For example, take the Garden of Eden story.. God creates a beautiful garden as a paradise for Adam and his wife Eve. The name Adam is not a particular name; but a generic name for man, or perhaps mankind. Eve, in Hebrew Chava, simply means life, again a generic name for women who are the mothers of all life. Adam and Eve live in paradise, naked but not ashamed, their food being provided. They are told that they can eat everything in the garden except the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Most of us know the story. The snake tempts Eve and she eats of the fruit. (Nowhere does it say that the fruit is an apple.) Eve then gives the fruit to her husband and he eats. Adam and Eve are ashamed, and hide from God. God asks them whether they ate from the forbidden fruit. God punishes the snake, making him crawl on his belly. God then punishes the woman, saying that in pain will she bring forth children. Finally, God punishes the man, saying that by the sweat of his brow will he bring forth bread to eat. Finally, God exiles Adam and Eve from the garden into the real world as we know it.
What does the story mean? We all have heard the classical understanding in Western culture that this is the story of the fall of mankind. The snake is really Satan in disguise. Tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit and bring sin unto the world. As the popular saying goes, “By Adam’s fall, sinners all.” The great Catholic thinker Augustine saw this as a story of original sin, and how the perfect world God made became corrupted by humanity’s act. John Milton wrote his classic epic poem Paradise Lost, describing Satan’s rebellion against God and the desire to bring down the world God had made.
Nonetheless, this Western view of the story as the fall of humanity is not the only explanation of this parable. Allow me to suggest an alternative interpretation. I have always seen the Garden of Eden story not as a fall but as a rise. Humanity rose from being animal like to a new level of existence. It is the story of humanity rising above the animal.
Let us explore this. In the Garden of Eden we were naked and not ashamed. Who lives naked and not ashamed but animals (and young children who have not yet learned right from wrong.) In Eden our food was taken care of. We did not need to plant wheat in order to eat bread. It is the story of us being mere animals. Of course, place something tempting in front of an animal, they will eat it. Putting a beautiful piece of fruit in front of humanity and saying “don’t eat” is like putting a dog biscuit in front of your pet and saying “don’t eat.” God knew that humanity would eat. In fact, the snake is not Satan but simply the human appetite, what Jews call the yetzer hara.
Humanity ate from the tree and reached a new level of being. For the first time they could differentiate between good and evil. They could make moral choices. Adam and Eve were embarrassed at being naked and covered themselves with fig leaves. But God covered them with animal skins, symbolic that they were no longer animals but something qualitatively different.
The story is about the evolution of man from mere animals to something more than animals. It is closer to Darwin than Milton. It is about the rise of human beings into creatures who could make moral choices, who could speak, who could worship God, and who would eventually become God’s partners in perfecting this world. It is the beginning of raising the world to a higher level. That is why I speak not of the fall of man but of the rise of man.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5776)
THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
“God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)
I want to expand on some remarks I made to my congregation on Shmini Atzeret before our Yizkor prayers. I recently finished reading one of the classic novels in the history of literature, Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide. To put it more accurately, I finished listening to an unabridged audio recording while driving my car. I was familiar with Candide, having seen the Broadway show based on the novel and listening to Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful musical score. But as a teacher of both philosophy and religion, I wanted to read the original novel.
Candide attacks a particular philosophical and religious view of the world. “All is for the best in this best of all possible world.” It deals with the question of theodicy – how can we understand the presence of evil in a world created by God? In the novel, Candide is a naïve young man who learns from his philosophy teacher Professor Pangloss. We still use the word Panglossian to describe someone who is hopelessly optimistic in the face of everything negative. In the novel, Candide has a series of misadventures and tragedies that take him from Europe to South America and back. Throughout it all, he keeps quoting his teacher that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire actually based Pangloss on one of the great philosophers of Western Europe, Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz taught that the world works according to a God given pre-established harmony. In this world everything is for the best for God would not have made the world otherwise. Therefore whatever happens, it is all for the best. Voltaire, one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, pokes fun at this naïve optimism. For example, in one scene in the novel, Candide and Pangloss arrive in Lisbon harbor with a truly good man who had saved them. The man is pulled overboard by a wicked sailor and drowns. Pangloss remarks that this harbor was created by God for the purpose of drowning this man, for everything is for the best. They arrive in Lisbon as the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake struck, an actual tragic event that undermined the faith of many Europeans. (The earthquake struck on All Saints Day, when many were in Church, causing a larger amount of deaths.) Yet Pangloss never loses his optimism.
Why am I sharing this during the week when we read about creation? One of the greatest challenges to Western religions including Judaism is the presence of evil in the world. If God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all good), then why is there suffering? Why does a good God not put a stop to war and poverty, tsunamis and hurricanes, cancer and birth defects? Many thinkers from the philosopher David Hume to modern atheists use the problem of evil as proof that God does not exist.
One answer I often hear among religious Jews is that of Leibniz and his fictional counterpart Pangloss, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Everything that happens in this world has a reason. What may look to us as bad, God sees as good. If we could only see the universe through God’s eyes, we would know that everything is good. There is no evil. Evil is simply the result of our extremely limited human perspective. Several years ago I read a book written by an Orthodox rabbi on the problem of evil. He claimed that evil is not a problem, because what we see as evil God sees as good. Everything happens for a God given reason.
With all due respect, I do not agree with that answer. I believe that evil exists in this world, both man-made evil such as the Holocaust and natural evil such as the Lisbon earthquake. The Midrash teaches that when God created the world, He actually created and destroyed a number of worlds before coming up with this one. (Genesis Rabbah 3:7) God finally said regarding this world that it was “very good.” Very good but not perfect. This is a world in need of perfection.
Why is there evil in the world? Because the world is in some way broken. It is in need of repair. Our job is not to passively accept suffering as God’s will. Rather our job is to work hard in this world to alleviate suffering. God gave us an imperfect world.. The job of humans is, as we say in the Alenu prayer, “to fix this world as a Kingdom of God.”

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5775)
MURDER ENTERS THE WORLD
“Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8)
The cycle begins again. We are back in Genesis, at the very beginning. We read about the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the serpent, Cain and Abel. And then murder enters the world. With this first murder, questions arise about what it means to be a human being.
I love to ask my college Introduction to Ethics students, “Why is the murder of an innocent person wrong?” Most of them answer, “It is against the Ten Commandments.” So I ask, “Is it wrong because God said it is wrong?” They answer, “Yes.” Then I ask them, “What about when Cain murdered his brother Abel? We had not yet received the Ten Commandments.” God had not yet given the law he would give to Noah, “Whoever spills the blood of his fellow, by his fellow’s hand will his blood be spilled.” (Genesis 9:6) In the time of Cain, God had not given any laws about murder. And for that matter, no human being had yet died. So was Cain wrong when he killed his brother? Perhaps he did not know any better.
There is a deeper problem with the answer my students give me. If murder is wrong because God said so, God says a lot of other things in the Bible. God says that it is permissible to kill a witch. Would that be okay? But I think the deeper question is – whose God? We are fighting a group named ISIS who believe with a deep religious faith that God commanded them to murder infidels. Four innocent journalists and aid workers were publicly beheaded by these people in the name of God. Whose understanding of God are we to believe when we say murder is wrong?
Is the murder of innocents wrong because God said so? Or is it simply wrong – period? It seems from the Cain and Abel story that Cain understands he did something wrong. That is why, when God asks him about Abel, he answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That is why God punishes him, making him a wanderer. And that is why he responds to God with the words, “My sin is too much to bear.” Cain knows that murder was wrong, but he could not control his anger. He murders his brother anyway. And that is how murder entered the world.
The same question is raised by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro. In the dialogue, Euthyphro is a young man bringing his father up on murder charges for killing a slave. Socrates wants to know if this is a pious thing to do. Euthyphro arrogantly answers, piety is doing whatever the gods want. Socrates then asks a famous question, “Is an act pious because the gods want it? Or do the gods want it because it is pious?” Today when we believe in one God, we would ask the question this way. “Is murder wrong because it is God’s will? Or did God outlaw murder because it is wrong?”
Millennia later the great novelist Dostoyevsky would agree with Euthyphro. Murder is wrong because God says it is wrong. As he says it his novel The Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.” By the way, for those interested in philosophical questions, this entire approach is called “Divine Command Theory.” Good and bad is exactly what God commands. And we can see the problem. For us, murder is wrong because our God says it is wrong. But for ISIS, murder is right because their God says it is right.
I believe the Cain and Abel story proves that Divine Command Theory is not correct. Certain things are right and certain things are wrong. We know them irrespective of whether God ever commanded them. We know in our heads that the murder of innocents is wrong. Cain knew it. The Nazis knew it; that is why in the end, they tried to cover up their crimes. I believe that the terrorists of ISIS know it. Because we are rational creatures, we know in our mind that some things are wrong. We know these things whether or not God commands them, whether or not we even believe in God. The murder of innocent people is wrong.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5774)
ALL BEGINNINGS ARE HARD
“In the beginning …” (Genesis 1:1)
This week we begin once again. We begin the cycle of Torah readings. For those synagogues that follow a triennial cycle (reading over three years), we begin the first third of the cycle. The Torah reading is about the beginning of the universe. It is a time to think about beginnings.
The Rabbis famously said, “All beginnings are difficult.” (Mechilta Parshat HaHodesh 2 and numerous other sources.) It is always difficult to start something new, whether it is a new job, a new relationship, a new activity, or a new project. I think of the times in my past when I started writing a new book. I was scared that I would not succeed and finish the book. I was scared that I would succeed in writing but fail at getting the book published. I was scared that I would succeed at having the book published but fail at marketing. And I was scared that I would succeed at marketing but fail when the critical reviews came out. At times, it seemed easier not to begin at all.
All beginnings are difficult. God certainly knew that. In this week’s portion God begins creating a world. But actually this was not the first time God started this project. According to a famous Midrash, “R. Abbahu said, the Holy One, blessed be He, created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. He then declared, Those do not please me, this one does.” (Genesis Rabbah 3:7) What a wonderful image – God starting over and over again until God got it right. Even the beginning of the creation of the world was difficult.
Why are all beginnings difficult? Allow me to share a thought. So often we do not want to begin any project unless we know that it will be perfect. So often we do not want to commit to a relationship unless we have found the perfect partner. And so often we do not want to start the new job until we are convinced that it is the perfect job. I believe the quest for perfection is the greatest enemy to getting started with anything. Or to put it more bluntly, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If we wait for perfection we will never move forward to something that is merely good.
There is a clear hint to this in this week’s creation story. God creates a universe, bit by bit and step by step. Each step of the way God stops, looks at the creation, and declares “God saw that it was good.” Finally God finishes the entire project. The universe is done and God rests on the seventh day. God looks at the universe and declares that it is “very good.” Notice that it says “very good” but not perfect. We live in an imperfect world.
Scientists would agree. The world is partially broken. Scientists speak of the breaking of symmetry allowing the world to evolve. Mystics speak of the breaking of vessels holding the divine light. They both use the same phrase – “brokenness”. The world that God made is not perfect. Certainly the worlds we make are not going to be perfect. Yes they might be very good, but not perfect.
All beginnings are difficult because all beginnings involve some kind of risk. We move forward, not knowing if we will succeed or not. If we look for perfection we will certainly fall short. But if we accept the fact that a certain amount of brokenness, of imperfection, permeates everything, then we can move forward. We can create a new world. Sometimes like God we can even create and destroy many worlds, until we finally create a world that says, “This one pleases me.”
This week we are at the beginning. In all of our lives we are at the beginning. It is time to plunge forward, knowing that our work may fall short of perfection. We must accept that there will be some brokenness in everything we do. But as Leonard Cohen beautifully wrote in his song Anthem, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets.
PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5773)
TROPHY WIVES, TROPHY HUSBANDS
“And Lamech took for himself two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.” (Genesis 4:19)
Once again we begin the book of Genesis. The stories in Genesis have more dysfunctional families than any other book in the Bible (perhaps with the exception of King David’s family in the book of Samuel.) Genesis is always a wonderful opportunity to speak about the realities and the ideals of family life.
I have lectured around the world on family life, particularly after my book God, Love, Sex, and Family was published. I always begin these lectures with a story I first heard from the late Rabbi Irving Lehrman of Miami Beach. He spoke of a little boy who walks into a room with his father, and sees a clock very high on the wall. One must climb a high scaffolding to set the time on the clock. The boy asks his father why the clock is so high. The father answers, “The clock used to be lower, and people would walk by, look at their watch, and adjust the clock. Now that it is high up, people look at the clock and adjust their watch.” The meaning of the parable is clear. The clock stands for certain ideals. There must be some ideal held high so we can try to adjust our lives accordingly.
This is particularly true of family life. None of us lives in a perfect family. But if we have some vision, some clock on the wall, we at least will have something to strive for. Let us look at one family that is less well known in this week’s portion. Lamech was a direct descendent of Cain. He was a violent man who bragged to his wives about killing two men for wounding him. The Torah teaches that he had two wives named Adah and Zillah. This is at a time when polygamy (multiple wives) was permitted and quite common.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 32:2, quoted by Rashi) takes off about Lamech and his two wives. “The men of the generation of the Flood [in Noah’s time] used to act thus: each took two wives, one for procreation and the other for sexual gratification. The former would stay like a widow throughout her life, while the latter was given to drink a potion of roots, so that she should not bear children.” The Midrash goes on how the name Adah comes from a Hebrew root meaning “kept her away,” while Zillah comes from a Hebrew root meaning “in his shadow.” The Midrash is attacking this ancient practice of a man having one wife to mother his children, and a second as a sexual object. Neither wife was treated with the dignity of a human being.
Obviously this does not happen in the same way today. Polygamy is no longer allowed. But what is allowed today is a kind of serial monogamy. A man will marry one woman to mother his children. Then he will divorce her and marry a second woman, often much younger and more attractive. From this comes the pejorative phrase “trophy wife.” It happens regularly, particularly in the world of celebrity marriages. The older wealthy man marries the younger attractive woman. To avoid sexism, we must admit that it sometimes happens the other way around. The older woman marries the younger good looking man. It is a theme of many television shows and movies.
Is there anything wrong with this? People are permitted to divorce their spouse when there is a bad marriage. People are permitted to marry someone who they find attractive, even if that person is younger. So what is the problem? Or to go back to the midrash, what did the generation of the flood do wrong?
The answer is the ideal mentioned by the parable of the clock. Ideally the mother of one’s children should also be one’s trophy wife. Ideally the father of one’s children should be one’s trophy husband. The ideal is, from the wedding day onwards, to see one’s spouse in both roles, as a sexually desirable parent of one’s children. The generation of Noah’s flood lost this ideal. Have we also lost it in our culture?

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5771)

IN THE BEGINNING
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
or
“When God began to create the heaven and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1)
On Simchat Torah morning and then again on Shabbat, we start reading the Torah all over again. Once again we read about the creation of the universe – Bereishit Bara Elohim et HaShamyim v’et HaAretz. This is traditionally translated as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” But as we shall see, there are numerous problems with that translation.
The words assume the classic theistic understanding of God. In one act God created the entire universe. God was present before the universe came into being and God dwells in a realm beyond the universe. A better way to put that is God is beyond space and time. God is entirely separate from the universe God created. The classical understandings of the great Western faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – include a radical separation between the Creator and the creation.
Of course this understanding causes many of our deepest religious issues. If God is totally other, did God simply set the universe in motion and since then has not interfered (deism). If so, can we know everything there is to know about the universe by studying scientific laws. Or does God now and again interfere with the laws of nature (miracles)? Is the universe like clay in the hands of a potter, who manipulates it at will, as we say on Yom Kippur? Or is the universe like a car that runs on its own but needs constant maintenance from the outside (intelligent design)? If God does not interfere with the laws of nature, why bother praying?
Perhaps the biggest problem for this classic theistic view of creation is the problem of evil. If God created everything, why not make it work better? If I created a universe, I would try to make one without earthquakes, birth defects, or mosquitoes. How do we explain natural evil which is so prevalent in our lives? Why make a universe where we are born to die?
These problems can all be solved by a different and more authentic translation of the first word of the Torah. Bereishit does not mean “in the beginning.” The great commentator Rashi has already mentioned that it is a grammatical form that requires another noun. It actually means “In the beginning of…” A more authentic translation might be “in the beginning of creation.” The Jewish Publication Society translates it “When God began to create…”
We get an image of disorder and chaos, with God’s presence hovering over the water. The first act of creation is when God says “let there be light.” The chaos was there before. Perhaps a more authentic image of the creation story is a picture of God who permeates creation and who brings order out of chaos. Perhaps when we see primitive forms of life evolve from one celled to multi-celled creatures, to plants and then animals, to mammals and finally humans, we are watching God’s work. God is within a chaotic world bringing order.
There is already a hint of this idea in the repeated phrase “there was evening and there was morning.” The Hebrew word for evening is erev from a root meaning mixed-up, confused, chaotic. The Hebrew word for morning is boker meaning separated, made distinct. Perhaps the Torah is not talking about evenings and mornings at all, doing away with the whole controversial question of how God made a world in six days. Perhaps it means, “There was chaos and then there was order – one day.”
Many scholars believe that this understanding of God bringing chaos into order is a more authentic way to interpret the original creation story. For many ancient myths saw a god as fighting a war against the chaos of the sea, or against ancient sea monsters. The Bible adapted this ancient myth to a universal God of creation, a God who takes the primordial chaos and brings order into the world. As we begin a new cycle of Torah readings, perhaps our job is to imitate God and bring order to our universe.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5770)

ORGANIC GROWTH VS INTELLIGENT DESIGN
“When God began to create the heaven and the earth. . .” (Genesis 1:1)
Today I went to visit a patient in a large local hospital (which shall remain unnamed.) The hospital is a sprawling complex that is almost impossible to navigate. It feels like it was designed over a number of years by a number of committees. I inevitably get lost whenever I visit this hospital. I call something that grows in this way organic.
In many ways my synagogue building is similar. It was built in stages over many years, overseen by various committees with different budgets and different needs. The pieces do not fit together well. If a visitor comes to the main office and wants to find my office, they need a GPS. We would say that our synagogue grew organically.
Not so our new building which begins construction shortly. Everything is carefully planned and logical. My office will be right next to the main office. If our current building is the result of organic growth, our new building is the result of intelligent design. It will be beautiful, but I hope it has the charm of our confusing disorienting current building.
Some things grow organically. They change over many years in ways that are not always logical. And some things grow by intelligent design. There is a clear master plan and everything has been thought out in advance. Imagine a planned community versus a town that has grown on its own for years. Intelligent design can be beautiful, but things that grow organically have a certain charm.
I realized this week that the Jewish religion is like a building that has grown organically. Judaism has evolved and changed over the generations in reactions to historical events and forces. The evolution of Judaism is neither always logical nor consistent. Let me give a quick example. Jews outside Israel keep two days of the opening festival of Sukkot; without a fixed calendar they were not sure which was the proper day. But five days earlier they keep only one day of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur could have fallen on two possible days. But fasting for two days in a row was not realistic. So Yom Kippur fortunately is only one day long.
People sometimes say that Judaism is not logical. They are right; things that grow organically are rarely logical or consistent. No one person planned out all of Judaism like some kind of planned community. For example, in ancient Palestine people read the Torah over three years; in ancient Babylonia they read it over one year. In our attempt to grow and keep Judaism relevant to our members, starting this week we are giving them a choice of either practice. We will see how it works.
In a sense the universe itself has grown organically. That is one reason that many Jews have difficulty with the notion of intelligent design. If God had made the human body all at once by intelligent design, we humans would probably not have our windpipe right next to our esophagus so we can easily choke on food. We would have better designed knees that bend in more than one direction, so that we would not all need knee surgery in our middle years. And an intelligent designer would have found a way for baby’s head to better fit through the birth canal.
I believe God in a mysterious way created the world. However, I believe that God allowed that world to be created organically. God allowed a world to evolve. The fancy word philosophers use for such a world is contingent; we live in a world where everything is contingent. It did not have to evolve this way. The universe is an organism. At like all things that grow organically, it may not be perfect and it may not always be logical. But it is the only world we have.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5769)

THE CYCLE BEGINS AGAIN

“When God began to create heaven and earth … “
(Genesis 1:1)

The cycle begins again. This is the tenth year in a row that I am sending out a weekly spiritual message, usually tied to the Torah portion of the week. This is the thirtieth year in a row that I am an ordained rabbi, speaking to a congregation about the portion of the week. What could I possibly have new to say? Sometimes it worries me. And sometimes it worries my congregation. I know rabbis who recycle sermons year after year. I have never done that and hope I never will.
What can I say that is new? The Torah does not change. But I change. When I began as a rabbi I was young and not yet married (fortunately I married soon afterwards.) When I began writing these messages I was dealing with the issues of teenage children. Now I have young adult children, and I turn to the Torah for guidance on a whole different list of issues. The Torah stays the same but I change. If there is anything that is constant in the world, it is change.
Not only have I changed, but our congregation has changed. For that matter, the Jewish community has changed. We are not the same people that we were thirty years ago. I was recently speaking with a member of our board about a program I did in the synagogue that did not work out. I said, “This is a program I have been doing every year since I came to this congregation.” He wisely responded, “You may have been doing the same program every year. But your congregation is no longer the same. You need to change your program.”
My favorite story about change is the apocryphal one regarding Professor Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism and one of the most brilliant Jewish minds of the twentieth century. He used to teach homiletics and he was a forceful, and I imagine a scary presence for students. One student nervously gave a model sermon for the class, and Professor Kaplan simply responded, “Very nice.” The student was extremely relieved. A week later the class met again. Professor Kaplan proceeded to rip the sermon apart. The student finally said, “Professor, last week you liked it.” He responded, “I changed since last week.”
We all change. The Jewish community has changed. The Torah does not change, but the Rabbis taught that there are seventy faces to the Torah. One generation can read the Torah seeing one face and another generation can read another face. For my grandparents, the Torah was a guiding document of people who spoke Yiddish, who had a strong sense of community and belonging, and who even if not particularly observant, identified as Jewish. My generation still has memories of Seders at grandparents or very traditional High Holiday services. The young people growing up today are far less connected to a community. They have friends who are intermarried, converted, gay and lesbian, practice syncretistic religions (Buddhist-Jews, Hebrew-Christians), or are only marginally connected to the community. The world has changed.
And yet the Torah does represent something timeless. I believe that even if in the distant future when we colonize other planets or travel far into space, there will still be Jews fasting on Yom Kippur or eating matza at a Passover seder. Even as science uncovers more and more secrets of the universe, there will still be Jews reading and attempting to make sense of the powerful six-day creation story. And even as the world evolves and globablization takes over, humanity needs to hear the very ancient message that every human being is created in the image of God.
What is timeless and what changes? Those are the questions I ask myself as I begin a new cycle of spiritual messages based on the Torah.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5768)

EVOLUTION

“The two of them were naked, the man and the woman, yet they felt no shame.”
(Genesis 2:25)

Ask the average person in our congregation, and they will tell you that each of us must make a choice. Either we choose to believe, as most scientists do, in evolution. Or else we believe, as religion teaches, in creation. Either we follow Darwin and accept random mutations, natural selection, and species evolving into other species as an explanation of life. Or else we follow our religious faith, read the book of Genesis, and believe that God created separate species, each “according to its own kind.” Most people believe you cannot have both.
I humbly disagree. I absolutely hold that one can accept the best scientific explanation for the origin of species and still believe that God is the Creator of life. I believe that one can belief in both evolution and creation. After all, Charles Darwin himself was not anti-religious; he had studied for the ministry before becoming a naturalist. Asa Gray, an American botanist and the strongest advocate for Darwin in America, was a deeply religious Christian. For a more contemporary view of a scientist who is also a religious believer, I recommend Francis Collins book The Language of God.
For our purpose this week, let us suppose that evolution is true. (It is important to remember that no scientific theory can ever be proven totally true. What makes something a science is the ability to falsify it, as Karl Popper has taught. Evolution may someday be falsified and a new theory put in its place. But for the moment evolution is the accepted explanation for the explosion of life on earth.) Evolution teaches that life is ever changing, with one species transforming into another over long periods of time. The driving force is genetic mutations and natural selection, what some would later call “the survival of the fittest.”
Suppose this is true. Can it be reconciled with the Bible? To answer that question, I love reading the story of the Garden of Eden. A man is planted in the Garden and a woman is made from his rib. They are permitted to eat from any tree in the Garden except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They live in the Garden “naked and unashamed.” Who goes through life naked and unashamed? Animals. This is a story of an earlier phase of evolution, when we humans were still animal-like.
The woman and the man are tempted and eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. (By the way, nowhere does it say that the fruit was an apple. It could have been any fruit; the Talmud says it was an etrog.) Their eyes open up; they realize they are naked and find fig leaves to cover themselves. Suddenly the man and woman are no longer animal-like. They have reached the next stage of evolution, and become fully human. They now have the ability to make moral choices.
Many religious people see this story as a fall from grace. I do not like the word “fall”; I have always read it as a rising up, reaching a new level on the evolutionary pathway. It is a mythological telling of the link from animals to human beings. Humans have new skills that animals lack – a larger brain, the ability to make tools, and most crucial, the ability to use language to communicate. Humans also have new obligations – to rise above instincts and make moral choices. Evolution led to new possibilities and new responsibilities.
I believe the Biblical account fits perfectly with evolution. It tells the story of the rise of humanity to a different level of being. Perhaps we are descendents from lower animals. But the key issue is not, from where did we descend but rather, to where are we going. Perhaps it took billions of years for us humans to appear on the earth. But we are the first animals with the ability and the power to be God’s partners in the future process of evolution. The evolutionary past was in God’s hands; the evolutionary future is in ours.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5766)

AFTER HURRICANE WILMA

“It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)

I thought for the first time in over six years I would not send out a message this week. For almost three days we had no power, no telephone service, and no internet. Did people actually survive before all these conveniences? We were lucky after Hurricane Wilma hit early Monday morning. Our house sustained little damage, and our power came on fairly quickly. Most important, no one was injured. Many who are reading this had more serious damage and are still waiting for power; I pray everybody is alright.
Again the question arises – why? Someone told me shortly before the hurricane that I do not have to worry where I live in Coral Springs, FL. After all, Coral Springs has no strip clubs, porn shops, or gambling casinos. God will send His fury on other cities with more vices. (I think he was referring to New Orleans.) If only theology were so simple – if God zaps the bad places and saves the good places. Since the book of Job, we humans have realized that God does not work that way. Good people and bad people, and most of us somewhere-in-the-middle people, feel the wrath of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the more personal tragedies such as cancer cells and birth defects. A hurricane is not making moral decisions when it chooses where to land.
So I go back to the question – where was God? I shared an answer last year when the tsunami hit. Actually, the Bible already provides an answer. (see 1 Kings, chapter 19) The prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life from the king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, ran to the mountain of the Lord. (Sinai?) There the Lord appeared to him. There was a great and mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally there was a kol d’mama daka , “a still small voice.” And the Lord was in the still small voice.
God created nature. But God is not within nature. Nature works according to its own laws. Long ago a wise rabbi asked the question, if a farmer steals wheat from another farmer and plants it, should it not grow? Shouldn’t the farmer be punished for stealing the wheat. The rabbi answered, olam keminhago nahag, “the world behaves according to its nature.” The laws of nature happen, irrespective of our moral qualms.
So the world acts according to its own laws. Nature takes its course. Earthquakes and tornadoes, genetic mutations and cancer cells, tsunamis and of course, hurricanes do not make moral judgments about their victims. They happen, because we live in a world of natural laws. That is the way of the world of matter and energy, space and time, it is a world of natural laws.
But why these particular laws? Why did God not make different laws, laws that would be more fair? When God began to create the world, God fine tuned the laws so that human beings would emerge. If God had made the laws a little bit different, there would be no life. If gravity was a little weaker, matter would have diffused through the universe and there would be nothing except random hydrogen molecules. If gravity were a little stronger the sun would have burnt itself out long before life could evolve. In this world of matter, everything is made just right so that humans would emerge.
The world goes according to nature’s laws. Human beings are made of carbon because that is the best chemical to build life. However, the same forces that released carbon from rocks in the earth’s crust cause hurricanes and earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. The same forces that allow genetic mutations so that life could evolve also cause birth defects and cancer cells. The same gravitational force that allowed the stars to be formed causes disaster when an airplane falls from the sky.
When God made the world, God looked at it and saw that it was Tov Meod, “very good.” It was very good, but not perfect. So God created us humans to perfect God’s world. We call it tikkun olam, the perfection of the world. Jewish tradition tells the story of a king with two sons. He could not decide which son was worthy to inherit his kingdom. So he gave both sons wheat, and told them to take care of it properly and come back in thirty days to show what they have done. The first son came and handed back the wheat, “I guarded your precious wheat carefully, no water touched it, no one stole it. Here it is just as you handed it to me.” The second son came and handed his dad a loaf of bread. “I have perfected your wheat.” Guess which one inherited the kingdom.
So here we have the beginning of an answer to the question, where was God? According to kabbala, God contracted Him/Herself so that a world could emerge. God fine tuned the laws of nature to allow human beings to emerge. God has a role, a mission for us human beings. We are to be God’s partners in creation. We are to join God in perfecting this world.
I had a wonderful insight in the aftermath of Wilma. I spent time talking to neighbors whom I barely knew before the hurricane hit. We helped each other, with everything from hurricane shutters to food, from letting people use the few working cell phones to giving each other moral support. When the Torah taught long ago, “it is not good for man to be alone,” it was speaking of far more than marriage. It was speaking of the most important religious truth – human beings need human beings to help them through difficult times. Or as Barbra Streisand once sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5764)

WHO WILL PROVIDE?

“By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”
(Genesis 3:19)

My children are becoming young adults. Two are in college, one is in high school. I am trying very hard to teach them that my wife and I will not provide for them forever. It is our responsibility to provide for them as they are growing up, we are happy to provide for them while they are in college (assuming they take their studies seriously), we may even help with some graduate school. But eventually they must learn to sustain themselves economically.
This week’s portion speaks of the human exile from the Garden of Eden. The story is not meant to be a literal history, but rather a poetic vision of deep human truths. The Garden represents humans in an animal-like or child-like state. (After all, while in the Garden we were “naked and not ashamed,” like animals or young children.) All of our needs were taken care of; all we had to do was eat of the lush vegetation. Then we ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we grew up, and were forced out of the Garden. No longer could we eat like mere animals. We would have to till the soil, grow wheat, and work hard to produce bread. Or we would have to work hard in the world for the money to buy bread.
So today; humans have a responsibility to go out into the world and earn a living. The world does not owe us a living. Parents have an obligation to teach their children to provide for themselves. According to the Talmud, speaking in male language, “A father who does not teach his son a craft teaches him thievery.’ (Kiddushin 30b) In the old days it was often assumed that the laws about being a provider only applied to men; women would depend on their husbands for provision. Those days have longed past. Even without the issues raised by modern feminism, the high divorce rates and the number of single moms have made it urgent that women also become providers.
I raise these issues because today more than ever, in my Rabbinic counseling, I try to help people who are struggling to provide. Some are still dependent on their parents, often well into their thirties and beyond. Some are dependent on government welfare. Some cannot hold a job. And perhaps most difficult of all, some were successful providers for many years before being downsized out of a job, leaving their families to face painful financial realities.
Many people would say that this is a government problem. The government owes everybody minimum provision. Certainly the government ought to provide a safety net for those unable to work. But one could argue that the kind of welfare state found in Europe, where the government uses taxation to provide for everyone from cradle to grave, can be economically stifling. The key issue is one of personal responsibility. According to the Torah, by the sweat of our brow are we to bring forth bread. We must go out into the world and work for a living. That is a lesson my wife and I must teach our children.
How do we succeed? Again, the world does not owe us a living. We all must buy or sell in the marketplace. Some of us have products to sell. But for many of us, we have nothing to sell but our own labor, our hard work, our integrity and honesty, and our knowledge. When people speak about their struggle to earn a living, I always ask, “What can you do to make yourself more valuable to a potential employer? What degrees do you have or can you realistically earn? What skills can you learn? What responsibilities can you take on? How can you make yourself more valuable to a potential employer?”
Too many people still want to live in the Garden of Eden. They believe that their parents will provide, the government will provide, their spouse or their kids will provide, God will provide. Perhaps some day we will reenter the Garden of Eden, living in a place where we are cared for without a struggle by a loving, paternal God. Until that day, each of us must learn to be a provider. As a parent, my job is to teach this difficult fact of life to my children as they prepare to go out into the adult world.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5763)

NAKED AND NOT ASHAMED

“The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and not ashamed.”
(Genesis 2:35)

I find the image of the first man and woman, naked and not ashamed, to be one of the most powerful in the Bible. It is rich with many different meanings, not all of them sexual. Let me share one interpretation I use frequently in my counseling, not simply for married couples but for all relationships.
We human beings are born with a certain amount of human dignity. Consider it like a bank account, with everybody given a set amount from the moment of birth. Other human beings have the ability to go into our bank account and add to the human dignity. But those same human beings have the ability to go into our bank account and take from our human dignity.
To protect our dignity, we place walls that prevent others from touching our account. We cover ourselves up. The more we cover up, the more we prevent people from taking dignity from our personal account. However, those same human barriers also prevent others from adding to our account and enhancing our dignity. If we want to cover up entirely, we can totally protect ourselves. But we become closed off from others. To quote the popular Simon and Garfinkle song from a generation ago, “I am a rock, I am an island. I touch no one and no one touches me.”
To keep the protective walls up is the safest way to live our lives. But it is also the saddest way to live our lives. Our bank account, our well of human dignity is never diminished. Nor is it ever enhanced. We remain untouched, other humans cannot effect us for the bad nor for the good. Human beings were not created to be closed off from other human beings, “it is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)
Relationships begin when we start to lower our protective barriers. This is true for any kind of relationship, whether at work, among neighbors, with friends, or with our family. When we lower the walls that protect us, we become vulnerable. We give others the ability to cause us pain. But we also give them the ability to raise us up. It is intriguing that when the Bible speaks about relationships, particularly in the sexual sphere, it uses the phrase “uncover his/her nakedness.” The phrase could also have a non-sexual connotation, to lower one’s vulnerability, let the walls down.
The more we are willing to lower the barriers, the more we allow others to lift us up, enhance our dignity, add to our account. It is obviously scary because we can be hurt. The key is trust. The greatest relationships in our lives are those where there is the most trust. We open ourselves up to another human being, with the full trust that they will not act in a way which lowers our dignity.
Nowhere is this kind of trust more important than in a marriage. I tell every bride and groom who meet with me that they should be “naked and not ashamed.” I do not mean that they become physically naked, but rather spiritually naked. They need to lower the wall which separates them from one another. They need to trust. They need to find ways to enhance each other’s dignity. They need to constantly add to their partner’s bank account.
On the other hand, in a marriage each partner knows the other’s vulnerability. Each knows precisely how to zing it to the other. That is why trust is so important. In fact, when I speak to our teens about marriage, I tell them the number one ingredient for a successful marriage is not love, but rather trust.
This is true for all the important relationships in our lives. We need to stand “naked and not ashamed,” vulnerable, with the walls lowered. Only then can those closest to us deposit more in our account and enhance our dignity.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5762)

IMAGE OF GOD

“God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.”
(Genesis 1:27)

The cycle begins again. Once again we read the opening chapters of Genesis – creation, Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, technological advance and moral decline, the ten generations from Adam to Noah.
There is so much in this portion worthy of comment. What is the essence of this portion, the key point on which to focus? I believe it is the teaching that human beings are created in the image of God.
Human beings are qualitatively different from anything else in God’s creation, different from the plant and animal kingdom. We contain a spark of God, or more precisely, the breath of God within us. We are intrinsically different from anything else God made in the universe.
What does this mean? Although the Torah uses the phrase image of God, we know that God has no body. We do not look like God. It means that like God, we are able to make moral choices, we are able to create, we are able to be God’s partners in the perfection of this world. We humans play a special role in God’s plan; some have used the phrase created co-creators. There is a holiness in each and every human being.
The Torah makes it clear that every human contains this divine spark. It teaches explicitly that females as well as males were created in God’s image. This is more remarkable when we consider that the Torah was given to a pagan world where women had second class status.
The Talmud also makes it clear that all humans of every race and every ethnicity are created in the image of God. “Why did all humanity descend from one man (Adam). So that no person shall say my father was greater than your father.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Jew, Christian, Moslem, Hindu, atheist, straight, gay, male, and female, we all have an intrinsic holiness, we all contain the breath of God.
This is the most fundamental teaching of all the world’s great religious faiths. It is unfortunate that it took the great tragedy of September 11 to remind us of this teaching. On that day we saw humans put their lives on the line for other humans, people they did not even know. We saw people working to help each other, rescue survivors, give comfort to mourners, donate blood and money and supplies, do whatever they could to help one another. It took terrorists who denied the humanity of others for us to recognize the humanity of one another.
Now time is passing, and I see the same human pettiness creeping back into our lives. Can we recognize the holiness of the person who cuts us off on the highway? What about the person who stands in the express line at the supermarket with eleven items in their cart? What about the person whose cell phone rings while we are at the movies? Or the person who received the synagogue honor on the High Holidays that we felt was coming to us?
I recently received a wonderful example by email. A group of high school seniors were given a final exam for a course on human ethics. The test contained only one question: “What is the name of the custodian who cleans up after you here in our school?” Do we recognize the holiness or even the humanity of the fellow humans who make our lives function? Every time we encounter another human, particularly one we might take for granted, we ought to say, “This person was created in the image of God.”
This week I want to end with a question for your thought and consideration. Were the terrorists who committed the September 11 atrocities also created in the image of God? Tell me what you think.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5761)

THE TWO TREES

“God caused to grow … the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.”
(Genesis 2:9)

God planted a garden in Eden. And God planted two trees in the midst of the garden, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. This is a very ancient myth. Like most myths, it contains profound truths which are applicable today.
What was the purpose of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil? The Torah teaches that before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they were naked and not ashamed. Who runs around naked and not ashamed? Animals do. And young children do. Of course, young children eventually learn right from wrong, and grow out of this animal like state. As for animals, someone recently commented about the new dog we brought into our household, “Congratulations, you now have another child. Except this one will never grow up.”
Animals and children are innocents. They do not know good and evil, and they are incapable of making moral choices. Children need to be taught right from wrong. Animals never make moral choices. The coyote that kills the sheep is not committing an evil act, it is simply following the inner drives hardwired into its brain.
Before Adam and Eve ate of the fruit (it was not necessarily an apple) they were animal-like. By eating of the fruit, they raised themselves up to a higher level of existence, with the ability to make moral choices.
Why would God plant such a tree, and then forbid Adam and Eve from eating its fruit? Did God not want us humans to rise above animal instincts? I suppose it is similar to a mother baking delicious cookies, leaving them on the kitchen table, and telling her children not to touch them while she is gone. The temptation is too great. I believe deep down, God really wanted us to eat.
After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God exiled them from the Garden of Eden. The Torah gives a reason. “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil, and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22) If we ate from the Tree of Life, we would become godlike and live forever. That was not part of God’s plan. We humans were to be partners with God, not co-equals to God.
Thus we can understand the psychological meaning of this very ancient tale. There are three levels of cognitive existence. The lowest level is the animal world, able to perceive the world and think, but not make moral choices. The next level is humanity, higher than the animals through our knowledge of good and evil. The highest level is the spiritual world, God-like because they are able to live forever.
We humans are suspended somewhere between the world of the animals and the world of God. Like animals, we have appetites that must be satisfied. We eat, sleep, reproduce our own kind, and eventually we die. We cannot live forever. Like the spiritual world, however, we are able to make moral choices and act as God’s partner in creation. We may not be gods, but we can be Godlike in our actions.
The rest of the Torah deals with a fundamental question – How can we humans raise ourselves above the animal kingdom and become as God-like as possible? We never ate of the Tree of Life, we cannot live forever, but through our actions we can be God’s partners and change the universe forever.

PARSHAT BEREISHIT
(5760)

FROM CHAOS TO LIGHT

“And the world was void and without form … and God said, Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:2-3)

What is the creation story all about? What is it trying to teach us?
The traditional translation of the first verse of the Torah is In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, And the earth was void and without form. The words seem to indicate that in the beginning God created chaos. The first thing God made is a turbulent universe, wild and without form.
However, this is a mistranslation. For those who know Hebrew or who have studied Rashi’s comments, the words indicate the precise opposite. A better translation is When God began to create the heavens and the earth, when the earth was void and without form … God said, Let there be light. Before God began His creation, the world was chaos. God’s first act was to bring order to this chaos.
There is a word in modern scientific terminology for chaos – entropy. What is entropy? All systems eventually wear down. Or as the poet W.B. Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” All things, rocks and mountains, humans beings, planets and suns, the universe itself, eventually wears down and dies. Entropy is an absolute scientific law of the universe. Chaos is the natural order of existence. Every system falls apart, unless something outside the system infuses it with energy. Without some outside force, the world would be void and without form.
So what was the light God created? It was not electromagnetic radiation, there was no source for such light. The sun was not created until the fourth day. Perhaps the light was actually the fundamental life force of the universe, anti-entropy, the source of energy which brings order out of chaos.
Let us now retranslate the first lines of Genesis. At the dawn of time the universe was chaotic, at maximum entropy. And God infused this universe with a creative lifeforce strong enough to overcome entropy. This life force brought order out of chaos, creating more and more complex lifeforms, and eventually humanity itself.
In Kansas, officials are arguing whether to teach creationism or evolution in the schools. They believe the teaching of evolution is somehow anti-religious. In my mind, they have it all wrong. Evolution is the movement from less complex to more complex, from simple proteins to complex organism, from lesser to greater forms of life, from animals to humans. Evolution is the precise opposite of entropy, it is the movement from chaos to order. Evolution is proof of a fundamental life force in the universe. The evolution of life, and particularly human life out of a chaotic universe is the strongest indication for the existence of a living God.