Parashat B’reishit

Friday, October 16, 2020 /28 Tishrei, 5781
Parashat B’reishit Genesis 1:1-6:8

Dear Friends,

The first time I held my son, I had two thoughts. The first was one of sheer gratitude that I had the privilege of being the mother of this incredible little boy. The second was fear. Was I up to this enormous task? As I began my journey as a parent, I knew I was bound to make mistakes. I prayed that my best would be enough to foster his greatest strengths, to support him through life’s challenges, and help him to become a compassionate, confident, and conscientious human being.

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives birth to the universe. We read about the six days of creation, the day of rest that followed, and the development of the first family – Adam, Eve, and their children Cain and Abel. As the first people strived to understand what it meant to be a human being, God was figuring out what it meant to be their God.

Midrash explains that the two boys had once watched their father offer sacrifices to God out of gratitude and appreciation. Cain, farmer that he was, chose to offer the fruit of his labor to God. Abel, the shepherd, followed in his big brother’s footsteps. He sacrificed a choice firstling from his flock. Up until this point, the Torah story seems gentle and kind, but soon it takes a horrifying turn. God accepts Abel’s offering, but reject’s Cain’s sacrifice. Cain becomes incredibly distraught, and God doesn’t seem to understand why. “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?” asks God. “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.” Something about Cain’s offering was not pleasing to God. Perhaps the offering was too modest or was not given with the right intentions. God believed that Cain could do better and would not accept his offering until he did. Cain, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, chose to deflect, and take his anger out on his brother, Abel. In the very Torah portion in which human beings are granted life, one brother takes the life of the other. We wonder if this incident could have been avoided if only God had approached Cain with more compassion.

At the beginning of Genesis, people are just starting to figure out the nature of life and of humanity. Throughout its intricate stories, we have the privilege to witness an evolution of morality, compassion, and community-mindedness. Over the course of fifty chapters we move from being individuals who are self-serving to human beings capable of love, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness. I suggest that God, too, grows. God comes to understand the importance of weighing mercy over judgement, and love over anger.

The Torah’s power lays in its humanity and imperfection. Neither God nor human beings are perfect, and yet we are capable of learning and growing from past mistakes. As we begin our study of Genesis this week, I look forward to another year of moral and spiritual evolution.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail