By Nick Gendler
This has been a year of upheaval in our society. Uncertainty, division and fear have all featured strongly in recent months. I began thinking about this piece just a few days after the EU referendum. At the time I felt confused, angry and worried. In the immediate aftermath of the vote there was an outpouring of hatred, with racist sentiment openly expressed in public. It felt as if the vote had given people permission to unleash their vile views. I have little idea of how the country or my feelings will have changed by the time you read this in late October, but change they almost certainly will.
In Bereshit we read that the universe is created in six days, God rests, and human life in the Garden of Eden begins. Man and woman live innocently until their eyes are opened after Eve, and then Adam, are coaxed into eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
Whether they should have taken the fruit or not is irrelevant. This was a necessary step in our tradition’s story of human development. That we might still be living an idyllic existence in the Garden of Eden is preposterous. The story serves to remind us that from the moment we leave the womb life is a struggle, and it requires us to be resourceful and responsible. Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for refusing to take responsibility for their actions, instead pointing the finger elsewhere to excuse them for disobeying God. The point is emphasised when we read about Cain and Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” snaps the murderer guiltily when God enquires as to Abel’s whereabouts. God’s question is rhetorical, intended to remind Cain that he is responsible for his actions.
That we will make bad, perhaps even fatal decisions, that we may not know the consequences of our actions, that sometimes we must make decisions with only partial information are all set out here at the very beginning of our collective narrative. Bereshit sets up our world for us with these universal truths of unpredictability. As the well-known aphorism has it, the only constant in life is change.
The beauty in all this is that this challenging notion of perpetual, unpredictable change is delivered to us within a context of something that is utterly predictable. The annual cycle of the Torah offers us an anchor, something we can rely upon and hold fast to.
And it is because life is so unpredictable, so ever-changing, that the Torah cycle is so powerfully valuable. If we can rely on anything it is that for the duration of our lives, for as long as our people can remember, and no doubt, for as far into the future as we can imagine, we will be returning to Bereshit each year, as soon as we finish the last portion of Devarim.
In the Torah we have something solid upon which we can rely, something that forms a secure foundation for our lives that are otherwise destined to contend with flux.
Nick Gendler is Co-Chair of Masorti Judaism and a member of New North London Synagogue.