this the text of my shabbat sermon from from 10/11/15
It might seem perfectly logical to us that the Torah begins where it does, with a description of God’s creation of the world – the literal beginning of everything. After all, why not, as we often say, ‘begin at the beginning?’ But there is an interesting argument presented by the sage Rashi in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis, that it might have made more sense to begin the Torah in the book of Exodus. His reasoning is this: if the Torah is a book for the Jewish people, then why not begin it with the history of the Jewish people, which is the Exodus from Egypt?
And the question that Rashi raises stems from a long standing tension in Judaism between what I would call ‘universalism’ and ‘particularism.’ Big words, but fairly straight forward in terms of their meaning. Universalism is the idea that God is God of the entire universe, and that God cares about all people and all nations. Particularism is the idea that God is particularly interested in and concerned about the Jews and the land of Israel. These ideas can work together, but often they are perceived as being in conflict with one another. To get back to our original question about the beginning of the Torah you might think of it like this – if the Torah wanted to emphasize particularism – God’s relationship with the Jews – then it would begin with Exodus and the story of the Jewish people.
But it doesn’t. And by intentionally choosing to begin Judaism’s most sacred text with the story of the creation narrative, the Torah from the very beginning reminds us that the God we are in relationship with as Jews, is also the God that created the entire universe and all people. Think for a moment of the way the Torah describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. It is clear in the text that Adam and Eve are not Jewish, and not just the ‘parents’ of the Jewish people. Instead they are the parents of all people, and that would included any faith tradition, any race, any color, any ethnicity. The one thing the Torah is very clear about is that Adam and Eve were crated in God’s image – בצלמינו כדמותינו says the Torah – in our image, in our likeness. And since Adam and Eve are the parents of all people, it means by extension that all people – again, regardless of race, color, religion – are created in the image of God. This idea is central to Judaism, a core tenet of the faith, and is arguably the most important idea that Judaism has ever introduced to the world.
I had a professor in Rabbinical school who once said ‘the Torah doesn’t tell you something you don’t need to know.’ What he meant by that is the reason it says in the Torah לא תגנוב- ‘don’t steal’ – is because, as we all know, people will steal. They have to be told not to. And I think the same idea is operative with the creation story and Adam and Eve. We need to be told that all people are equal, we need to be reminded that all people come from the same place, precisely because it is something we too often forget. Intellectually most people understand the idea, but emotionally they get caught up in all kinds of things. They are afraid of what they don’t know and understand. They will take the radical actions of a small minority and ascribe it to a larger group. They will stereotype, so that certain groups will become in their minds innately lazy, or violent, or stupid, or money hungry. Sometimes these kinds of comments come from a place of hatred or small mindedness, but I believe most of the time they come from a place of ignorance, of simply not knowing enough about the other to fully understand who that person is and how they live in the world.
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen two public examples of that kind of ignorance from presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. As you are probably all aware, the first comment was in response to a question as to whether Dr. Carson believed it was OK for a Muslim to be president of the United States. And he said he did not think a Muslim should be president. He was pretty roundly condemned for that statement, as he should have been. But the fact that he made a statement like that and has nevertheless stayed so high in the polls should make those of us in the Jewish community very uncomfortable. Because there is no difference between saying a Muslim should not be president and saying a Jew should not be president. It is exactly the same thing. It is singling out one religious group, and saying that group does not deserve to have the rights that are extended to all other groups. That statement directly conflicts with the values that this nation was founded on, and it is also clearly against the core value in this morning’s Torah portion, that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God.
Dr. Carson’s second statement, just a couple of days ago, was more directly connected to the Jewish community. In a bizarre conversation that conflated questions about gun control with the events of the Holocaust, Carson seemed to suggest that if Jews had had guns during the Second World War, Hitler would not have been able to kill the six million. I would imagine from that statement that Dr. Carson has no knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or of the armed Jewish resistance that fought against the Nazis throughout the war.
Now perhaps Dr. Carson is just a fish out of water, and he hasn’t yet learned the political game of talking and saying nothing, or at least of talking and saying nothing that will get you in trouble. He is obviously an intelligent man, I don’t think there is a question about that, but in some ways that makes his comments even more disturbing. When taken together, what he said about Muslims and Jews shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the way the rights of minorities must be vigilantly protected. I would hope that anyone running for president would remember that the United States is a country made up of many races, many ethnic groups, and many faith traditions, and that one of the greatest strengths of this country is the way those various races, ethnicities, and faith traditions have learned to live together and respect one another.
There is a classic statement in the Talmud attributed to the sage Hillel: אם אין אני לי מי לי – if I am not for myself, who will be for me? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני – but if I am only for myself, what am I? The Jewish community here in America has done very well with the first part of Hillel’s phrase. We strongly defend ourselves and our rights, and we are intensely vigilant for even the slightest hint of anti-semitism, as we should be. But the second half of the phrase – if I am only for myself, what am I – is also crucial to the integrity of the Jewish community. First of all because Torah teaches us that we have a duty as Jews to care about others, especially those who are marginalized. But the second reason is because if the rights of one minority group are challenged or threatened, then the rights of another minority group won’t be far behind. So when misguided statements are made about Jews, we must speak out, and we do. But when misguided statements are made about other religious or ethnic groups – our responsibility to speak out is just as important. This morning’s Torah reading reminds us of the power and importance of that idea. Let us remember it throughout the year and beyond –