Parashat Hashavua 18/19 November 2011
Rabbi Richard Lampert
Rabbi Emeritus, North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW, Australia
Ah, B’reishit/Genesis! It’s so good to get back to you after all these months! Why? Because it, unlike any other book in the Torah, raises so many questions and challenges and problems for the forward thinker. Of course, the fundamentalist has no problems, no questions, no doubts, and finds no problems in the Biblical explanation of the Origin of Species.
But is the Book of Genesis the ‘Origin of Species’ according to the Torah? I think not. Charles Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species” purports to be a scientific explanation for the existence and development of all living beings. But the Torah is neither a scientific nor an historical textbook. It is, simply, the Family Tree of the Jewish People, telling us of the 10 generations of one family among many from Adam HaRishon (the first human mentioned in the Torah – I hate calling him Adam, because that implies a personality, that he is/was a real person) to the next dominant figure, Noah, and then continuing with the next 10 generations to that giant of our ancestors, Abram, later named Abraham.
Whether or not we accept Genesis literally, it raises many questions for us. To me, the stories in the book are vitally important. Not that I necessarily believe that they are true and accurate. There may be some of us who remember a place in the Northern Territory called Coronation Hill. It is a uranium-rich mountain and the government was keen to mine it and score some capital gain. But the local Aboriginal tribe said “You can’t mine this mountain – you will disturb Bulla1’. ‘Bulla’ was a sort of god believed to occupy the mountain. The Federal government certainly had no belief in the existence of Bulla, but the Prime Minister of the time respected the “Dream-Time” beliefs of the local Aboriginals because these beliefs were vitally important to them.
And the events recounted in Genesis are vitally important to us. They are our dream-time beliefs and must be retained by us, whether they actually happened as recorded in the Torah or not!
The Genesis story then continues with the history of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and then on to Jacob, called Israel, his children, the Israelites or the Children of Israel and on to you and me!
And the thing I love about the ancestors, yours and mine, is that they were not, and are not, portrayed as supermen or superwomen – they, according to the story, were ordinary people, subject to the same worries and concerns that you and I worry and are concerned about.
And, boy, did they make the same mistakes that so many in our society make now. Let’s have a look at some of these mistakes and peccadilloes. Abraham, who was never anything more than a minor nomadic leader of a group of Bedouin, was worried, when famine drove him to the rich delta-watered area of Egypt, that because of the beauty of his wife, Sarah, his life was in danger and he insisted that Sarah claim to be his sister. She never refused!
Then Abraham began to hear voices telling him to sacrifice his son. Quite docilely, he proceeded along that path, never arguing, never questioning. Isaac, their son, was what many have called a ‘nebbisch’. When threatened by his father with slaughter, what did he do? Nothing!
Then Isaac himself, when he grew up, provided no more to the Jewish people than being the link between Abraham and Jacob. All he ever did positive, according to the Torah, was to marry Rebecca and clear out the stones and dirt that some rogue Philistines had thrown into the life-giving wells in the desert area. And what is more, he followed in his father’s footsteps by claiming that his wife was his sister because he, too, feared for this safety.
But Isaac and Rebecca were guilty of worse than that. They, each of them, committed one of the cardinal sins of parenthood. They showed favouritism to their children, each favouring one over the other. And, of course, Jacob followed his parent’s example. Remember the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat that he gave to Joseph and caused such ructions in the family. And Rebecca, urging her son to deceive his father, her husband!
And so the list goes on. Samson was no more than a psychopathis killer, a mass murderer (albeit possibly after being riled by his enemies); Saul was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed that everyone was out to get him; David, who succeeded him as monarch, had a passionate side which he was unable to bring under control (remember Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah the Hittite?)
Yes, they, our forebears, were a fractious and very human lot. The question I have is “Would I change them if I could? Would I choose squeaky-clean ancestors with haloes, harps and purely innocent lives? My answer is a definite NO! They, our ancestral predecessors, have taught us that Judaism is to be lived in the real world, with all our (and its) foibles, pressures and temptations – and our responsibility is to learn to deal and cope with them.
It is not for nothing that the rabbis in the Pirkei Avot asks the searching questions that they do – think of the challenge in the words by Rabbi Ben Zoma “Who is a strong person? The one who can control their passions or impulses.”
Yes, I love Genesis – it is my dream-time, and I need a dream-time!