Compassion and Justice – Sermon for Parashat Bereshit

Our portion this morning is the most important foundational parasha of the entire Torah. It is the foundation for understanding a universal sense of the dignity of every human life, the sense of duty and obligation to behave in a right way, the basis for human responsibility to the universe as you have read this morning, the source of human relationships and the very essence of humanity.

Forget for a moment any sentiment that Parashat Yitro is the most important – with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the People of Israel. Forget the Holiness code of Parashat Kedoshim with its wonderful and utterly noble legal demands for ethics – not cursing the deaf, honest weights and measures, love your neighbour as yourself. There is a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai in the 2nd century over which is more important – love your neighbour or humankind made in the image of God. Ultimately, the sanctity of every human life as made in the image of God is the top trump of all top trumps.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest 20th century rabbis, on this idea says in an interview, “Frankly, if Moses had consulted me, I would have told him, don’t say it, it’s an impossible statement…it is a scandalous statement”.

He continues:

Upon thinking about it further, I realized that I have to understand its meaning. And this I believe is its meaning. You see, God is invisible, not only invisible, any thought of him is so inadequate He’s almost unthinkable. Any time, any moment, I know, I think, I assume that my thought of God is adequate, then I know I fail. He’s so mysterious, and so surpassing the power of the human mind, that I always have to live in the paradox around Him, pray of Him, and realize that I am cap­able of being, of experiencing being thought by Him, rather than think of Him, or think Him.

Now, God is invisible, but you can’t live without God. So God created a reminder, an image. What is the meaning of man? To be a reminder of God. God is invisible, and since he couldn’t be every­where, he created man. You look at man and you’re reminded of God….

What is the mission of man? According to the Jewish view, to be a reminder of God. As God is compassionate, let man be compassionate. As God strives for meaning and justice, let man strive for meaning and justice.

This is the point really. This story of creation has nothing to do with particle physics or the Big Bang. Not because those things are not valuable scientific theories that we should prefer over creationism. But rather because our sacred religious texts deal with a different form of truth to the scientific truth. It does a disservice to both scientists and liberal theologians to argue otherwise.

The great rabbis of early period of the common era were attuned to this reality – they did not read the creation story as fundamentalists read it today. They read it as a text with a message not about how the world came to be, but how we should see ourselves and why our world is important. They interpreted the account of creation in the midrashim (their commentaries).

Allow me to give you an example:

In the first verse (Genesis 2:4) of our reading this morning, of Louis your reading, we read the first occurrence in the Bible of the ineffable name of God – Adonai, sometimes written YHWH or YAHWEH. In this case the verse is Adonai Elohim. To understand the significance of this, you have to know that the name of God – Elohim – is often thought to refer to God’s attribute of strict justice. Whereas the name, Adonai, is often thought to be, according the sages, a reference to the attribute of compassion – rachmanut (though biblical criticism would suggest the names also indicate different authors of our text – though that is far away from midrashic interpretation).

In the midrash we read:

Adonai Elohim: This is like a king who has empty cups. The king says to himself, if I put in them a hot liquid they will crack. If I put cold they will warp or distort. What does the king do? He mixes the hot with the cold and puts the mixture in the cups and they are able to remain standing. Similarly, God said, “If I create the world with the attribute of compassion only there will be too much sin. But if with the attribute of justice the world will not be able to stand. Rather, God made the world with both the attribute of justice and compassion and it was able to exist. (Bereshit Rabbah 12)

The sages of old were sensitive to the variations in the text, to the choices of words and the potential meaning that could be derived from them. In this case we learn that it is unrealistic to expect the world to solely be built only on a compassionate system. Advantage would be taken by some and the world would consequently end up filled with sin or wrongdoers. On the other hand, the rabbis rightly identify that an existence based on strict justice is also not plausible – because without compassion none of us would survive.

The thing is about the creation story is the way in which it becomes foundational for our entire world view. There can be no nobler sense of life than regarding the world and its existence as manifestly something imbued with honour, grace and beauty. Something that calls to mind compassion and justice. This is not a call for creationism, but a recognition that in describing the origins of the world in the majestic way that the Bible does it is telling us something about the significance of the universe and life on it.

Human life is no exception. The Torah is not worried about who Cain married to populate the world. The Torah is worried about the origins of human life in the sense of the most profound universalism. Every people, every person, in this story of creation is equal because no-one has a more privileged origin. In the words of the rabbis, no-one can say that ‘my father was greater than your father’. And yet, out of the majestic comes the human reality that in spite of our equality, we strive with one another. Cain and Abel, also part of our parashah but slightly later, is caste into a tragic story that reflects the sad truth, which blights our news even today, that the human will to violence is often bubbling beneath the surface. We are all formed from such beautiful matter and yet just one generation away there is murder. The commanding voice of God, spoken to Adam, is over thrown by the base urge that denies life. Our hearts are ripped open and the compassion and justice of which we spoke moments ago is left dangling perilously on a knife-edge (quite literally with the news from Israel this week).

With news of murder and hate filling our news from Israel and across the world, our attention, the attention of everyone, should be forced to confront once again the potential for triumph of the noble over the savage. We are all equal. We are all created in the image of God. We are all commanded to choose life. We are all blessed with the significance of one primordial human being, that we – you and I – might bring redemption of human kind. If only we would pay attention.

And in a way, that is why we pray. As a drive towards over coming the uncontrolled and grasping once again the sanctity of life, the enormity of the universe, the potential for the redemption of humankind. And from our prayers we once more go out into the light of the world to make our words into actions.

So I would like to finish with the words of the celebrated artist and writer Judy Chicago which reminds us that we are able to reflect the Divine splendour, the image of God, and realise the hope for our children remains.

And then all that has divided us will merge.

And then compassion will be wedded to power

And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.

And then both men and women will be gentle.

And then both women and men will be strong.

And then no person will be subject to another’s will.

And then all will be rich and free and varied.

And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.

And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.

And then all will nourish the young.

And then all will cherish life’s creatures.

And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

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