I believe so many contradictory things, the game of tug-of-war can be exhausting. In Parashat B'reishit, we encounter a world of rights and wrongs, and we are empowered through the concept of "creation in the image of God" to see our lives as if they have purpose and significance. But the scientific worldviews that class with B'reishit promise us comfort and political progress while stripping our lives of higher purpose. What are we to do with these competing truths? Of course, I don't have an answer, but I do have foundational beliefs that help provide some contours and contexts for the discussion of faith and doubt.
The Story We Need
I need this story.
Over and over again, our parashah portrays the world as a place with both evil and good, chaos and order.
God begins the work of creation in the midst of tohu vavohu—vast, unrestrained instability. Into this maelstrom of roiling nothing, God creates light, the first and most powerful force of good the world has ever known. And the forces of chaos that pre-existed the light tremble to behold that power designed to oppose them.
רָאוּךָ מַּיִם אֱלֹהִים / רָאוּךָ מַּיִם יָחִילוּ / אַף יִרְגְּזוּ תְהֹמוֹת.
The waters saw You, O God, / the waters saw You and were convulsed;
the very deep quaked as well (Ps. 77:17)
Then, from the boundless, permeating light, God separates out the darkness. They both exist, side by side, in dynamic, disharmonic tension under the watchful eye of the One Who Seeks Goodness.
Then, in the Garden of Eden, God plants עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent—speaking truth but leading astray—draws Eve and Adam into a world of labor and shame, a world that, tragedy upon tragedies, ends in death for every descendent of this once-innocent primordial pair.
Then, in sight of the Garden, but never able to return, the earth’s first children make offerings to God. For reasons beyond our ken, וַיִּשַׁע יְהֹוָה אֶל־הֶבֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוֹ וְאֶל־קַיִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוֹ לֹא שָׁעָה, “The Eternal paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering, God paid no heed.” Cain’s face falls, and God warns: You can do right, you can be lifted up. But also, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ, “Sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, but you can be its master.”
And yet, he kills, his only brother ended by a flash of passion in the quiet emptiness of a field that receives under protest his wantonly spilled blood.
Then, וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, “The earth was filled with violence” and God’s heart was filled with sorrow.
And then, a flood pours forth, unleashing the power and the fury of chaos in a world-shattering surge that leaves in its wake a promise of redemption and hope, a rainbow of peace that reminds us—and God as well—of the incessant urgency to rebuild the world on foundations of love.
In reading our parashah we may ask: From where does violence come? From where Cain’s fury? From where the deceit of the serpent, and from where the everlasting chaos? The prophecy of Isaiah (45:7) will come to say:
יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְהֹוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל-אֵלֶּה.
I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil; I the Eternal do all these things
But this is not the message of our text. Our Torah begins with a founding myth, a morality tale at once stark in its simplicity yet endlessly deep in its pathos and creative tension. And at its heart is a struggle—between good and evil, right and wrong, Holy Creator and the unwieldy urges of the created world, animated but ever apart from the divine spirit that gives it life. In this epic, good is real; and against it is evil. Sin crouches at the door, but you can be its master.
I need this story.
I need to believe that good is real; and my mind and heart are in accord: there cannot be good without evil in contrast. And with this story comes a sense of purpose: our lives have meaning for the roles we play in a cosmic drama fashioned by God, who loves light and goodness and peace among all creatures.
I need this story.
We know, of course, that none of it happened. No creation in seven days; no “Garden, in Eden, in the east;” no flood resetting and restoring a world of violence run amok. The collective unconscious or national yearnings or literary genius that produced this masterpiece of text and tradition can no more say “Let there be light” than can any of us. No matter how much I need it to be, it simply isn’t real.
There are times, though, when reality is overcome by truth. By this I mean to say that a greater truth, a moral truth, a spiritual truth that ennobles humankind and gives meaning to our lives pierces the anomie and dread that stalk our haunted days. This truth asserts, nay, insists that there is a meaningful difference between right and wrong. And there can be no morality, not really, not deep, deep down—I truly believe this—without some concept of God that transcends the human mind. People can’t be the arbiters of what’s good in any ultimate sense. We need God for that.
And if there’s a God, then perhaps, as the text suggests, I am created in its image. Perhaps something that makes me me comes from God and returns to God and bears with it not only the signature of the divine but the everlasting stamp of my own unique and enduring persona. There are times when I can eke out a belief, so hopeful and pure, that the soul is real and that it has a place, and that our tradition’s insights passed with reverence down the generations are indeed windows into a deeper truth worth holding dear. Perhaps you have had such moments of faith, such flashes of insight, such resolutions of quandaries carefully considered; they come to me in study and prayer and the unmistakable beauty of human relationships.
Yet there are many, many more times when such a belief evades me. Doubt pulls the rug out, the scientific method asserts its hegemony, and historical perspective strips away from our sacred text all that makes it special. There are no bad people, just as there are no good people—analogously, there is no substance to truth and evil at all. Everything is relative, shaded, inflected by the culture designed by evolution to push us into families whose main reason for being is simply to propagate the species. We are natural beings, distinct from the animals only (and if so, only barely) by our imagination, our languages, and our magnificently useful thumbs.
In this world of positivities and proofs, meaning, purpose, and morality lose their force. Our communities band together because of longstanding habit, unbroken from the days when we chased the mastodons—no real import can be given to our particular brand of humanity; a Jew here is much the same as a Jain there or a Hindu across the globe. There is something reassuring about this worldview, of course, for it offers us the promise of progress, the possibility that we might someday transcend ourselves; and in the meantime, the marvels of science have given us great tools that make our lives infinitely more comfortable than those of any generation before. What’s a little moral relativism if it buys us penicillin and high speed internet?
Faith and doubt, tradition and reason. These are the worlds in which we live. I yearn for the Torah’s world, a world in which I have a guide to help me learn how to do what’s right. I know that there is truth to this world, for every thought and sense that cascades through my mind suggests that there is more to life than meets the eye. And then, just as fast: doubt. Even, I confess, despair. The stories are nice but Netflix is better, and no one can tell me what’s right and wrong because they’re just made up, anyway, in the end.
None of us can be certain, at least not for long. And there is, perhaps, some solace in that. The dynamics of faith and doubt are with us always; and whether we do it for spiritual solidarity on the one hand or evolutionary bias on the other, holding on to one another feels just as reassuring either way.
I so desperately want to tell you that Genesis is true. Indeed, I do, really, believe that it is. But there is a limit to the belief, as there is a limit to the truth – and the best we can do, I think, is to continue to work it out as best we can.
The nechemta, the message of consolation with which we conclude our sermons, sometimes emerges only with hardship. And so it has been for me tonight.
For this week, perhaps we can draw inspiration and hope from Eve’s brief words at the end of the first painful birth: קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָה, “I have made a person with God.” Holiness infuses the natural. And science empowers the spirit.
May we find ourselves, this Shabbat, embracing the truth that brings comfort and meaning to our lives.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”