Bereshit 5772 — We hold these truths to be self-evident

October 22, 2011

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Everyone knows the famous words that open America’s Declaration of Independence.

But are these truths self-evident?  There have been civilizations, such as ancient Egypt, that believed certain people, such as their rulers, were gods.

This week we start again the annual cycle of reading the Torah.  This week we again turn back to the beginning of the Torah and read about the creation of the world, the creation of Man, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first murder.

And in these six chapters of the book of Genesis we find the basis for Judaism’s universal values, values that have transformed the world, values that will help us create a world of peace, love, and harmony.  Values that daily inform the work of all human rights activists.

The key values are:

     

     

  • We are all created in God’s image — there is a divine spark, a piece of God, within each and every one of us. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26).” We are all God’s children; we all have a “special” relationship with God.  Each one of my five children is special to me, “chosen” in some way.
  • We are all descended from Adam and Eve — a metaphorical tale that comes to teach us that we are all equal, no one can claim superior ancestry to anyone else. All the more so are we cousins with the “Ishmaelites,” the Muslims, with whom we Israelis are having such a struggle.
  • Murder is a heinous crime, that destroys worlds. “What have you done? the voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground (Genesis 4:1).”  The midrash points out that the word “blood” in the Hebrew is written in a plural form, as if it said “bloods.”  The rabbis interpret this as meaning when you kill someone you destroy a world, not just the victim but the descendants that the person would have had if you had not killed him.
  • We are responsible for each other; God asks Cain “where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9).  Clearly in God’s eyes the answer would be “as a matter of fact, yes, you ARE your brother’s keeper.”
  • God is compassionate, and we should be compassionate.  Adam and Eve may get expelled from the Garden, but God also clothes them.  Cain is punished for his sin in murdering his brother, but God also protects him from vigilante justice.

 

 

And all of these stories and the messages are with people who are NOT Jewish; therefore these are clearly messages applicable to all mankind, not just to our fellow Jews.
 
Clearly there is a tension in Judaism between the universal and the particular.  Between the universal values such as these that we learn from the book of Genesis, and the particular values, rules, and customs we learn in Exodus which are the things that make us “Jewish.”  But someone who focuses ONLY on the “particularist” aspects, who only cares about his/her fellow Jews, is missing the messages in the Torah that make us worthy of being a “light to the nations.” Having gone through the High Holiday season with its message of repentance and turning to God, we start the new annual cycle of the reading of the Torah with these powerful universal values.  To be “religious” means being as concerned with these values as with the ritual requirements like observing the
Sabbath and keeping kosher.
 
Shabbat shalom,
 
Rav Barry

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