Current events in our country and abroad have us feeling waves of apprehension and frustration, and even a little motion sickness. It is too much, and there is simply too much at stake. And it is in that mindset that we open our Torah scroll, once again, as we do every year – to the opening lines of Beresheit, “In the beginning…”
Genesis is a collection of stories designed to help us explore who we are, who we were and where we are going. It does not explain the foundations of the universe, nor those of a human being. But it does ask the most important questions we know. Questions just as relevant in the age of #MeToo and #IBelieveYou, as they were when our ancestors first wondered them aloud.
Question #1 – Who Are We?
The Ancient sages teach: Everyone should have two pockets, with a note in each, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending upon the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”
In recent days, and each in their own way, my mother, my wife and my daughter have helped me understand this story. Each human being lives with the tension of feeling the center of their universe, the image of God in the world, and also merely a collection of atoms and molecules, floating around at random in a universe too vast to pay much attention to us at all. “For my sake the entire world was created,” says Adam in the Garden. “I am the Master of all I see. My narrative is the only one that matters, my life of privilege was earned by me, given to me by God. I have been chosen while others have not.”
On the other hand, or perhaps, in the other pocket. My daughter teaches me every day what it means to care about, and to care for, others. Her heart is as big as her intellect, both of which humble me. My mother teaches me that there are some gifts we cannot repay, no matter how hard we try. The gift of life, the nurturing care of infancy – we do not deserve these things, and we cannot demand them from a parent. Instead, love and gentleness and understanding are miracles and blessings parents deliver to their children, and each of us are only the grateful recipients, if we are lucky enough to have had those gifts at all.
My wife teaches me every day the power of human connection. Our sages teach that we were each born into this world alone, and we will take the final journey into death ultimately alone. And those who bless us with their patience and partnership to share the time we have in between should remind us of how lucky we are.
Who are we? We learn who we are by studying the reflection of self we see in their eyes – our parents, our partners, our children. Who are we? We are a speck of dust on the outer ring of the expanding Universe of billions of stars; we are Divine, those who see the profound beauty of the place where the green leaves touch the blue sky, and the grace that fills the human heart.
Who are we? We are less than human when we forget our dual nature, dust and ashes, and little lower than the angels. When we forget our nature, we see others, and especially women in our society, as objects, as victims, as hysterics, as martyrs. Each of us is a unique shofar, filled with the breath of God, placed on Earth to fulfill a purpose only we can accomplish.
Question #2 – Where Do We Come From?
Finally, a question I can answer. In the book of Genesis we see not one, but two Creation narratives – two very different ways in which humanity is placed in the garden. Chapter one suggests that we were created as the crowning achievement of six days of physical activity in the Universe. Tradition follows science in understanding that we were placed in the Garden of Eden, in the Fertile Crescent East of the Mediterranean Sea, and from there we spread to all corners of the planet. In the sixties the famous Orthodox thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that chapter one and two of Beresheit present us, respectively, with two Adams, not exactly two different individuals, but two aspects of human nature. Adam the First is created with the mandate to fill the earth and dominate it. This Adam story tries to convince us that the earth and all its resources are ours for the taking: to use and misuse as we see fit. Adam the First pushes us toward progress, at the expense of an understanding of history. This is the Adam who tastes of the fruit of the forbidden tree, who names everything in the Garden in order to control it, as he attempts to control his wife and family. By the way, he fails.
In Chapter two we read of Adam Two, who Rabbi Soloveitchik tells us represents our more humble nature, created from the dust of the earth. In order to allow for the creation of Eve, Adam must sacrifice something vital; he gives of his own body to create another. Far from interpreting this sacrifice as patriarchal, Soloveitchik argues that Adam is split in two during the Creation story – in order to show us how we might reunite the broken halves. Only when we see others as full human beings and come together willingly and lovingly, do we fully become the representation of God in the world. Adam the Second is also from the Garden, but he approaches the rest of the world asking “why.” Why is the world full of pain? What is my responsibility to repair? Which brings us to our final question.
Question #3 – Where Are We Going?
David Brooks, the political and cultural commentator for The New York Times, who we brought to Indy not long ago as part of our Faith and Action initiative with CTS, learned Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teaching, and wrote about it in his book, The Road To Character. He writes that Adam the First is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. He yearns for high status and professional victories. Adam the second is more internally driven. He attempts to embody moral qualities. He strives for a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong – not only to do good but to be good. Adam the First seeks to conquer the world, Adam the Second to serve it.
The answer to the question where are we going flows directly from our approach to these two stories. Do we desire to dominate and control our world – dominating and controlling others, too? Or might we attempt the harder task, to make ourselves into people of character, rather than accomplishment? Brooks writes that Adam the First is the resume Adam, and Adam the second is the eulogy Adam. Are we interested in building resumes, filled with the facts of our accomplishments, hours worked, projects brought in on budget, ambitions pursued? Or are we interested in writing Eulogies we are proud of – filled with relationships and meaningful moments, laughter and kindness, bravery and honesty, and the ability to love and be loved? Few of us would say that resume virtues are more important. And yet our society encourages us to move toward goals without developing character.
The lesson I take away from this particular moment in history – watching the Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford processes unfold, watching the world wake up to women’s stories and the role gender has always played in our society – is that we must find ways to embrace humility and acknowledge our interdependence. Men and Women must be enabled to strive for success. Men and Women must be taught to love and sacrifice and honor and commit. Let us learn to strive for balance between our id and our egos, between our desire for dominance, power and control, and our desire for understanding, connection and meaning.
As we explore familiar stories in the book of Genesis this Shabbat and for the next many weeks, may we continue to feel the movement from simple thought to rich understanding of both God and ourselves. As the characters themselves evolve in their experience of the Divine, from Adam and Eve’s God who walks through the Garden of Eden seeking out His creations, to Sarah and Abraham’s God who blesses them through dreams and visions, who remembers them and heals them. This is our story and this is our God, the one who remembers and heals, the one who finds us hiding in the Garden of Eden and encourages us to hold hands with one another and step out into the world.