Parshat Bereshit

Torah Reading for Week of October 16-22, 2011

“Establishing a Relationship with G-d”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, ‘07


As we enter the New Year, we encounter the tension that just played out in the High Holy Day liturgy. How do we deal with sin, conceptually and pragmatically?  In parshat Bereshit/Genesis, we encounter the concept of sin as an element of human nature, an aspect of free will that is to be resisted. If we do sin, G-d asks us to take responsibility for our actions and suffer the consequences in order to remain in relationship with each other.

G-d tells Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad and Adam does so anyway. The snake cunningly entices Eve to take the first bite from the fruit. Eve sees that the tree is good and decides to ignore G-d’s commandment. When called to account on all of this sinning, each of the protagonists passes the buck of blame. G-d punishes Adam, Eve and the snake and exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

As soon as they leave the Garden, Adam and Eve have two sons, presumably twins, Cain and Abel. They both bring offerings to G-d. G-d accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Cain kills Abel. Cain also denies responsibility and is exiled by G-d, forced to wander the earth, East of Eden.

What are the lessons that these stories come to teach us? During the High Holy Days, we petition G-d to forgive our sins, using words in Deuteronomy that describe G-d’s attributes of mercy.

Hashem, Hashem, G-d of mercy and grace, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth, preserving mercy for thousands of generations, forgiving (carrying) iniquity, transgression and sin, and the One Who Cleanses.

What does G-d forgive? The snake commits an avon, an iniquity, a deliberate sin. With pre-meditation, cunning, and with the intention of evil, he encourages Eve to eat the fruit. Eve commits a feshah, a transgression. She looks at the fruit, sees that it is beautiful, desires the knowledge that will result from eating it and decides to disobey G-d’s edict and eat. Adam haplessly follows her bidding to eat also, in another act of transgression. Later, Cain murders his brother Abel in a rage. While G-d had not yet commanded us not to kill, G-d admonishes Cain, “If you do not do right, sin couches at the door. “ (Genesis 4:7). Cain has sinned, missed the mark, through manslaughter. Yet in each of these cases, while G-d punishes the protagonists, G-d forgives their iniquities, transgressions, and sins.

Why does G-d forgive? Inherent in the sacred covenant or brit with G-d is the idea that human nature contains the yetzer ha-ra, evil inclination and the yetzer ha-tov,good inclination. Throughout rabbinic literature, the ultimate moral virtue is to overcome the evil inclination — to name it for what it is and to overcome it. Who is mighty? He who overcomes his evil inclination (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

G-d becomes angry when Adam, Eve, the snake, and Cain deny their culpability in disobeying G-d’s laws or the pathway of moral good. G-d’s punishment is exile, creating a separation that needs to be overcome. With sin and then separation, the ultimate reward comes from a desire to return to the covenantal relationship. Taking responsibility for our actions and recognizing their consequences is part of the spiritual practice that G-d demands. When G-d asks Adam ayechah, Where are you? And asks both Eve and Cain, mah asitah, What have you done? G-d is not being rhetorical! G-d is demanding that we become accountable for our actions. Ultimately, G-d forgives our iniquities, transgressions, and sins, only when we acknowledge them and ask for mercy. Through wrestling with G-d’s gift of free will, we must choose the yetzer ha-tov, the inclination towards good, in order to return to our relationship with G-d and to re-enter the Garden of Eden, to return from exile.

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