Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7)

There is evil in the world. We saw it this past Simchat Torah, one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish year. Hamas terrorists crossed the border into Israel, killing, raping, or capturing every Israeli Jew they could find. Over one thousand were murdered and several hundred kidnapped.
The national news calls Hamas “militants.” But that is the wrong word. It implies people fighting some kind of military battle. These were not militants but terrorists out to destroy as many human lives as they could. They did not care if their victims were men, women, children, the elderly, or babies. Among the victims were hundreds of young people attending a music festival. I listen to the news with a mixture of deep sadness and great fury. How could human lives have so little value? We must mourn the dead, seek the return of the hostages, and protect Israel from this barbarism.
This week we start reading the story of how murder entered the world. Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel. God warns him that sin couches at the door, but he can overcome it. Our tendency towards hatred and murder can be controlled. But too often humans have chosen not to control hatred. Over and over we see this human barbarism, whether in the Holocaust or in too many parts of the world to this day. Last week we saw it in Israel.
I believe God gave the Torah to humanity to send a clear message. Every human being is infinitely precious in the sight of the Almighty. Humans are created in the image of God. Multiple times the Torah teaches, “Love the stranger.” A deep respect for human life is at the heart of the Torah. Why do human beings ignore this teaching and create such carnage?
I give the same answer to the events this past week as I have given to the Holocaust and other atrocities of history. The terrorists who crossed the border from Gaza did not see Israelis as human beings. They were vermin. This is how the Nazis viewed Jews and so many other victims. They were less than human; they were like rats that must be eliminated. Evil begins when humans no longer see the humanity of other humans. It began when Cain did not see his brother as human, and it continues to this day.
In the face of this evil, the message of the Torah needs to be heard more than ever. Every human being, no matter their race, religion, nationality, or belief system, is created in the image of God. Every human being deserves our respect. My hope is that after the Holocaust, the world would have learned that lesson. Sadly, as we learned last week, the world has not learned this.
What should Israel do? It must do whatever is necessary to rescue the hostages. It must do whatever is necessary to protect its own citizens. And it must do this in a way that minimizes the loss of life in Gaza, the most densely populated territory in the world. How can Israel do this? The task is difficult with no clear answers. Meanwhile, outside of Israel, we can pray, we can send money, and we can publicly participate in vigils and other community events on behalf of Israel. Perhaps most important, we can fight overwhelming evil with overwhelming goodness.
As we begin a new cycle of Torah reading, it is our duty to proclaim the Torah’s message to the world. Human life is precious. Evil must be fought. Perhaps, to quote a song we will sing at Hanukkah, “light will come and push away the darkness.”
“May the Lord grant strength to His people, may the Lord bless His people with peace” (Psalms 29:11).


“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
Once again we start reading the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. And once again the question comes up, is Genesis true? Can we believe a book that speaks of six days of creation? A Garden of Eden? A talking snake? People who lived over 900 years? Or a great flood that wiped out almost all life on earth?
So often I hear that the stories of Genesis are nonsense. Therefore, religion is nonsense. It is time to accept science and reject religion. I hear this argument from countless people who tell me why they will never set foot in a synagogue (or church or mosque). I hear it from people who ask me, how can I be religious when I have a PhD and teach college philosophy. One teenager told me, in life you must make a choice, science or religion, and he chooses science.
My answer too these challenges is quite simple. Scientific truth is different from religious truth. This was best explained by the wonderful scholar of religion Karen Armstrong in her book, The Case for God. In the book, Armstrong speaks of two kinds of truth, logos and mythos. Logos is scientific truth, logical truth, that corresponds to reality. Logos would teach us that snakes cannot talk. But mythos is a different kind of truth. It is stories, myths, traditions, and rituals that help humans understand their place in the world. A talking snake may represent an inner voice that encourages us to do what we know to be wrong. We all have this kind of inner voice or talking snake within us. In my mind, as mythos Genesis is true.
Let me take off my rabbi hat and put on my philosopher hat for a moment. Philosophers struggle with meaning of the word “truth.” They give three different definitions which all may be useful in different contexts. Philosophers speak of a correspondence theory of truth, a coherence theory of truth, and a pragmatic theory of truth. For scientists the correspondence theory of truth is the most useful. For religion, the coherence theory and particularly the pragmatic theory are most useful.
The correspondence theory of truth is the logos mentioned above. Truth is whatever corresponds to reality. This is the truth of scientists. The trouble is that we often cannot know what reality is. We can know how gravity works. But we cannot know if God created the world, if we have an immortal soul, or if God works in history. These questions elude science. For religion we need a different kind of truth.
A coherence theory of truth requires that our beliefs cohere together and do not contradict one another. If one believes that the earth is billions of years old and was created 5783 years ago, one is not living according to a coherence theory of truth. One of those beliefs must give way to the other. The great rabbi philosopher Maimonides says this explicitly. If a truth we learn from the Torah does not cohere with our best scientific knowledge, the Torah must be reinterpreted.
A pragmatic theory of truth says we cannot know absolute reality. Truth is what works, whatever explains life in a way that is useful. The founder of this pragmatic theory was William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience. He also wrote an essay called “The Will to Believe.” In that essay, he advocates a belief in God for pragmatic reasons. Such a belief adds to the quality of our lives. This is probably closest to mythos. The stories in Genesis help us to explain the world in a way that adds a quality to our lives.
Genesis is not a scientific textbook. It is a book of pragmatic truths, telling stories about how we ought to live our lives. God did not create the world in six literal days. But the belief that we live in a world created by God adds meaning and purpose to our lives. It is pragmatic truth, or as Armstrong would say, mythos. Based on this definition, I believe that Genesis is true.

“It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)
Last week on Sukkot we read the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon in his old age. Several verses jumped out at me in the midst of the ongoing Covid epidemic. “Two are better than one, because they have good reward for their effort. For if they fall, the one will lift his fellow, but woe to him who is alone when he falls” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). The passage goes on with several verses on the virtue of other people in our lives.
This brief passage from Ecclesiastes reminds me of the key song in the musical Dear Evan Hanson (I have seen the show twice; I have not yet seen the movie.) Evan sings the question, “When you’re falling in the forest and nobody’s around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound?” Then at a key moment, he sings the song “You will be found.” It is an affirmation that other people will come forward and be there for us. The Torah teaches in this week’s portion, shortly after the creation of Adam, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Of course, God makes what the Torah calls a helpmeet for him, his wife Eve. But the two of them are still alone in the Garden. And one can speculate that they are lonely.
A wonderful passage from the Talmud drives this point home. Ben Zoma explains the joy of living in a world filled with other people who share the burden of work. “How much effort did Adam the first man exerted before he found bread to eat. He plowed, sowed, reaped, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the flour, sifted, and baked, and only afterward had bread to eat. But I wake up and find all of this prepared for me. How much effort did Adam exert before he found a garment to wear? He sheared, laundered, combed, spun, and wove, and only afterward found a garment to wear. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me” (Berachot 58a). (If this passage sounds like the list of forbidden activities on Shabbat, that is deliberate.)
The lesson is clear. People need people. We are not meant to live alone. As I have often written, God appears between people when they encounter one another face to face. God is there when we see one another. But what if those faces are covered with masks? And what if they are socially distanced? Or perhaps worse, what if people are stuck at home and unable or unwilling to be with other people at all. What if they see one another only in little boxes on a computer screen? This is the sad part of the current pandemic. It has separated us from one another.
People need people. But what happens when we see every other person as a threat. What if we worry whether other people are unmasked, unvaccinated, perhaps carrying a virus that has killed so many of us. Small wonder that so many of us prefer to stay home, putting off travelling and going out, attending synagogue virtually, even having our groceries delivered to our door. It is certainly safer. Much is gained by these. But much is also lost. Social separation has lowered the incidents of Covid, but raised the amount of depression, alcoholism, abuse, and sad to say, suicide. Separation is clearly a mixed blessing.
The Torah recognized long ago that social separation is a vital part of fighting disease. When Moses’ sister Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at (often mistranslated as leprosy), she is separated from the community for seven days. In the Middle Ages authorities realized that the black plague was spread by human contact and urged people to stay home. Social separation was a necessity during Covid. But as we are realizing, it is also a burden. As this week’s portion clearly teaches, people need people.
As a rabbi, I feel like I am walking a tightrope. How much do we open the synagogue to in person services and programs? And how much do we keep things virtual? It is a tightrope we each must walk. We need to keep ourselves safe, which means social separation. But we also need to be with other people. Each of us must find that balance. The Torah teaches us to guard our health. But the Torah also teaches us that it is not good to be alone.

“The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” (Genesis 2:8)
I am often asked whether I believe the Garden of Eden story is true. Were Adam and Eve really planted in a garden where, tempted by a servant, they ate fruit from a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? (Nowhere does it say that it was an apple.) When asked whether the story is true, I must reply, “What do you mean by true?”
Do I believe that Adam and Eve and the Garden really existed in some literal, scientific sense, my answer is no. I do not believe it is literally true, nor do I believe that this is important. Do I believe that the narrative of Adam and Eve and the Garden contains profound truths about what it means to be a human being, my answer is yes. In that sense the story is true. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Karen Armstrong’s idea of truth as logos and mythos. Logos is literal, scientific truth. Mythos is narratives that teach us how to live in God’s universe. Religion is not about logos but mythos. If I want to learn science, I turn to scientific textbooks. But if I want to learn about life’s meaning, I turn to the Bible.
The Garden of Eden story is true because it teaches me truths about what it means to be a human being. What are those truths? Let us take a moment to analyze part of the story. In the beginning the man and the woman are “naked and not ashamed.” Who lives life naked and not ashamed? Young children and animals. Neither young children nor animals are responsible for their moral choices. Or as I sometimes like to put it, “your dog does not need to fast on Yom Kippur.” When our dog (may he rest in peace) jumped on the table and ate half a chocolate cake, we rushed him to the vet. But we would not say our dog “sinned.” He was following his instincts, and we were the sinners for leaving the cake out.
When Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, something profound changed. They were embarrassed by their nakedness and covered themselves with fig leaves. Shortly afterwards God created a new covering – animal skins. The man and the woman were no longer simply animals, but something qualitatively different. They could now make moral choices. Evolutionary theory teaches that because we humans share most of our genetic material with other members of the animal kingdom, we are simply another animal species. The Bible says that perhaps we were once merely animals, but we humans are qualitatively different. At some point in history our status changed. We can make moral choices. We have language and with our language skills, we have culture.
The way I like to put it is that “animals live in a world of nature and humans live in a world of culture.” Culture is everything we teach our children using our language skills. Culture certainly includes ethics, but it also includes religion, nationality, economics, technology, family life, art, music, literature, and every other institution that makes us human. Possessing culture, we humans are different from our animal cousins. Even the atheist biologist Richard Dawkins recognized this difference. All living things including humans pass on their genes to their descendants. But Dawkins invented a new word – memes. Memes are to culture what genes are to nature. Memes are bits of cultural information which can be passed from one human to another.
The story of the Garden of Eden is true because it teaches profound insights into being human. Perhaps humans evolved from animals, but humans are qualitatively different from other animals. Human beings pass cultural memes to one another, and from generation to generation. Human beings can make moral choices. As the Bible puts in also in this week’s portion, human beings are “created in the image of God.” I study the Torah (the Five Books of Moses with their commentaries) not to learn about science. I study the Torah to learn what it means to be a human being. And some of the most profound lessons about humanity are found in the first several chapters of Genesis.



“And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it; because that in it He had rested from all his work which God created and made.”  (Genesis 2:3)

We begin the Torah once again with the story of creation.  How does one say “creation” in Hebrew?  The Torah uses three different verbs, which point towards three aspects of creation.  Later the mystics would add a fourth verb.  For example, in describing the Sabbath, the Torah teaches that God rested from the work which God “created and made” (bara Elohim laasot).  It uses the verb bara “created” and also the verb asa “made.”  The book of Isaiah teaches, “For everyone that is called by my name for my glory, I created, I formed, I made” (Isaiah 43:7).  Here we add another verb, yatzar “formed.”  God made the world, formed the world, and created the world.

Each morning when Jews begin their prayers, they include a verse which also reflects another verse from Isaiah.  “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who forms (yotzer) light and creates (boreh) darkness, makes (oseh) peace and creates (boreh) everything.”  Why three different verbs to say the same thing?  And as we will show, why did the mystics introduce a fourth verb?  Let us look at each of these verbs.  We will learn some profound insights about how God created a universe.

The first verb is oseh “to make.”  God takes a physical world of things and manipulates them, creating new things.  The world already exists and God manipulates that existent world, constantly renewing creation.  This is God in the world of evolution, taking simpler cells and manipulating them into more complex cells.  Our prayerbook teaches that “everyday God renews the works of creation.”  Later mystics would call God’s work in this material world olam haasiya, “the world of action.”  It is the lowest of the mystical four worlds.

The second verb is yotzer “to form.”  This goes beyond simply manipulating a world that already exists.  God literally formed the world out of primordial stuff.  According to the great Biblical commentator Ramban (Nachmanides), God made a primordial stuff call hyle (Greek for primordial matter) and then manipulated it to create a world.  This idea is beautifully reflected in the piyyut Jews chant on Yom Kippur on Kol Nidre night, “like clay we are in the hands of the potter.”  The Torah seems to say that there was a kind of primitive water, void and without form, and out of this primordial stuff, God formed a universe.  The mystics would call this olam hayitzera “the world of formation.”  It is the second from the lowest of the mystical four worlds.

The third is bara “to create.”  This implies creating something from nothing, what the philosophers would call creatio ex nihilo, “creation from nothing.”  There is no primordial stuff that God manipulates to create a world.  There is nothing, an absolute void.  Out of that void God caused an entire universe to come into being.   Jews say each morning in their preliminary prayers, “Blessed be He Who spoke and a world came into being.”  This is far more miraculous than creation from some kind of primordial stuff.  First there was nothing, and then something.  In a sense, the big bang seems to reflect this view of creation.  There was a void, and then with a big bang an entire universe came forth.  The mystics call this olam haberiya “the world of creation.”  It is the second from the highest of the mystical four worlds.

So we have three verbs, and three types of creation.  But this was not enough for the mystics.  It is one thing to say that God created a world from nothing.  It is quite another matter to say that rather than creating a world, God literally flowed into the world.  This is a world made by emanation rather than creation.  It implies that God is in everything.  The Hebrew word is atzel “to emanate” literally means to flow from one’s spirit. The world flowed out of God, and so God is in everything.  The mystics call this olam haatzilut “the world of emanation.  It is the highest of the mystical four worlds.

Jewish mysticism teaches that we live in four worlds, nested in one another like four Russian dolls.  It grows out of four verbs Jewish tradition uses for creation.  I find this one of the most powerful ideas in Judaism.

“It came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose.” (Genesis 6:1 – 2)

Genesis begins once again. We read all the great stories – the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge, the story of Cain and Abel, and the ten generations of technological advance and moral degradation. At the end, immediately before we meet Noah, a mythical story appears. Sons of God, divine beings of some kind, see the daughters of men and take them as wives. Giants are born of these questionable unions. Scholars ask how such a myth could make it into the Torah, and imagine it was part of an older, longer story.
When we think about myths, we imagine all the classical stories of the Greek gods and the ancient heroes. They are fascinating stories, but we know they are works of imagination. Myths are not true. Or are they? A good definition of a myth is a narrative that attempts to answer ultimate questions about the universe. A myth is a story that tries to explain where the universe came from, where humanity came from, how our nation was born, and what we are to do to live successfully in this world. They do not need to be literally true to be true.
The British scholar of religion Karen Armstrong, whose books I love, speaks of two kinds of truth. There is logos, literal truth, the kind of truth we speak about in science. Then there is mythos, narratives that may not be literally true but tell us profound truths about the world. Humans love stories. And myths teach us stories that teach us truths about who we are and what is our role in the universe. In a sense, a good myth is like a good work of fiction. No one thinks that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is literally true. Yet the great trilogy teaches us deep truths about good and evil, and how to live in this world.
The great stories of Genesis are myths. They are not meant to teach literal or scientific truths. We do not turn to Genesis to learn how the world was created. These stories are not logos but mythos. They have had such a profound impact because they are told in the form of narratives. They are stories we tell each other from generation to generation. And as a rabbi, I can say that each year I learn new insights from these ancient stories.
So, what is the meaning of a myth about sons of God marrying daughters of man? Later Rabbis interpreted this to mean that the sons of God were simply noblemen, the descendants of Adam and Eve’s third son Seth. They married those of a lesser birth, the daughters who descended from Cain. It is a nice explanation but falls short of what the passage really means.
I believe that at the time the Torah was written there was an entire hierarchy of beings. There was God, or at least the one God of Israel. But there was an entire pantheon of lesser gods and spiritual beings, some would call them angels. Then there were giants, humans of great power. Perhaps our great love of Marvel comics and superhero movies shows the power of these myths, even in our own day. Finally, there was the rest of us, ordinary humans. When the spiritual beings mated with humans, God decided to place a limit on human life. Human mortality was set at 120 years.
Eventually Jewish tradition rejected this hierarchy of beings. There was God and there were humans, often separated by a great gap. But the myth of many layers of being was too powerful. Kabbalah, the great tradition of Jewish mysticism reintroduced this hierarchy of beings. God was Ein Sof, unknowable, but God flowed into the world through a series of emanations called sefirot. Below that are a series of angels and spiritual beings, which have become so important in Jewish tradition and liturgy. Each night before traditional Jews go to bed, they speak of the four angels Michael to the right, Gabriel to the left, Uriel in front, and Rafael behind. Perhaps we humans need the myth that we are part of some great hierarchy of beings that flows from above. The myth of the sons of God and the daughters of men teaches a powerful human truth.
I believe myths are true. They are true in that they tell us stories about our place in the universe. A myth does not need to be literally true to be true.

“Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, did God really say you shall not eat of any tree of the garden.” (Genesis 3:1)
This week we once again start reading the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. Again we hear the stories of the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the talking serpent, Cain killing Abel, and finally the generations from Adam to Noah. These narratives are a fundamental part of our Western culture. But are they true?
I remember a comment Bill Maher, the wonderful comedian from HBO, made about Dr. Francis Collins, the scientist who headed the human genome project. Maher is a very funny man, but a passionate atheist. Collins is a brilliant man, but a deeply religious Christian. Maher said about Collins, “He is a man who actually believes in talking snakes.” Young people often ask me, do I actually believe all those stories in the Bible. Or as the drug dealer Sportin’ Life sings in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”
Let me for the record say that I believe these stories are true. But it depends how you define the word “true.” I learned a profound lesson from the religious scholar and author of many books Karen Armstrong. She speaks of two kinds of truth. There is what she calls logos, literal scientific truth. But there is a second kind of truth, what she calls mythos. Mythos are narratives that are not necessarily literally true, but they tell us stories that help explain our place in the world. To quote Armstrong, “Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations; it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or `myth.’” (The Case for God)
The story of the talking snake was never meant to be a literal account of real historical events. It is mythos. The snake is not a real physical snake, nor is it Satan or Lucifer. The snake is some drive within the woman herself, causing her to desire what she knows is forbidden. That inner desire was later named by the Rabbis the yetzer hara – “evil inclination.” It was not simply in Eve and then in Adam. This snake, this evil inclination that tempts us, is in each of us. In our own lives we relive this ancient story. Or to quote Armstrong again, “A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.” (her italics)
I believe these stories of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the talking serpent, not because I think they tell me the literal history of humanity. They do not. I believe these stories because, in a mythic way, they teach me profound truths about the universe and the role of humanity within it. For example, when Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (it was not an apple), they went from being animal like to being human. It is the story of evolution, of reaching a higher level of being. Before they ate of the fruit they were naked and not ashamed, just like animals. After they ate from the fruit they were embarrassed by their nakedness and covered themselves with fig leaves. That is the nature of human beings. God changed the cover to animal skins, symbolic that we are no longer animals but something different.
Each year I read these stories and ask, what truths can I learn from these ancient myths. For example, on Yom Kippur I spoke about the need for adults to provide for themselves. In the Garden of Eden we were animal like, and all our physical needs were taken care of. Once we left the Garden, we became obligated to care for ourselves. God says to Adam, “By the sweat of your brow will you bring forth bread” (Genesis 3:19). What is fascinating is that each year I reread these stories, and each year I find new insights from them about the human condition.
We live in an age where the only truth is logos – scientific truth. But equally important, perhaps even more important, is mythos – truths about the human place in the cosmos. So yes, I believe in talking serpents. Such stories teach me what it means to be a human being.

“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.

“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.”

“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.

“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.
“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?


“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
“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.


“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.”



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.