Called to Moral Living by Parashat Bereishit

This week belongs to Parashat Bereishit, as we return to the beginning of the Torah and begin our cycle anew. New beginnings feel inherently exciting and hopeful... only this one is heavy too, which feels somehow appropriate in a heavy week like this one, when anxiety and fears about the upcoming election are looming large for many of us.

This week belongs to Parashat Bereishit, as we return to the beginning of the Torah and begin our cycle anew. New beginnings feel inherently exciting and hopeful... only this one is heavy too, which feels somehow appropriate in a heavy week like this one, when anxiety and fears about the upcoming election are looming large for many of us.

The first two human dramas in the Torah unfold in rapid succession in this parasha. First, Adam and Eve disobey God, eating from the fruit of a forbidden tree, and then their older son Cain kills their younger son Abel. Both of these stories focus the reader's attention, quickly, on human nature, and especially on our capacity -- or sometimes, incapacity -- to make moral decisions. Human beings, the Torah stresses, have free will; although sometimes it feels like a burden, it is up to us to choose right over wrong.

The Torah drives this point home explicitly and repeatedly throughout Parashat Bereishit. The tree that the serpent tempts Eve and Adam eat from is called "etz ha-da'at tov va-ra," "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" -- and their eating of it results in a new level of awareness regarding morality, as the serpent says, "... but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad" (Gen. 3:5). In the Cain and Abel story, even before the killing takes place, God speaks to a jealous Cain, saying, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right, Sin crouches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master" (Gen 4:6-7).

In rabbinic tradition, a new vocabulary is overlaid upon the one of Bereishit: the language of yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, and yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. These two impulses are seen as present at all times within each human being. And our goal isn't to chase the yetzer ha-ra into oblivion... on the contrary, the yetzer ha-ra is understood as a creative and productive force! In fact, the Talmud and many midrashim emphasize that the world could not continue to exist without the yetzer ha-ra, since it is these inclinations -- the ones that pull us towards satisfying the self -- that spur people on to create and procreate (click here to read this amazing passage from Bereishit Rabbah).

That said, we also know that too much yetzer ha-ra is not a good thing. If our "evil impulses" are left unchecked by our yetzer ha-tov, we are stunted as human beings. In Avot d'Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Joshua is quoted as saying that too much yetzer ha-ra can "take us out of the world." And this midrash goes on to explain that every human being is born with plenty of yetzer ha-ra, while the yetzer ha-tov is a capacity that grows in us over time, ripening by the time we reach the age of 13. This is a beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Jewish adult... that by age 13, one's capacity for good (and especially for generosity and altruism) is strong enough to keep one's capacity for bad (read: selfish inclinations) in check. (Click here if you're interested in reading the full Avot D'Rabbi Natan text.)

In some years, a conversation about human impulses, free-will, and morality might feel like merely an academic exercise or an interesting philosophical discourse. But in this moment, these teachings feel so very pragmatic. With these tools, we have the vocabulary we need to explain that although none of us have a great love of being poked by needles, our yetzer ha-tov would guide us to get flu shots in order to protect one another during this pandemic year. This set of tools also helps me think about how I will vote in the upcoming election. Voting only based on my own self-interests (for example, to keep my own taxes low) would be an expression of the yetzer ha-ra, while being able to transcend my own needs and think about the needs of our broader society as I consider candidates and ballot measures would be an expression of yetzer ha-tov.

The stories of Parashat Bereishit also emphasize the degree to which human life is -- and always has been -- fraught with the temptation and danger that too much yetzer ha-ra represents. For this week, then, some key questions to consider are: How are you putting your "knowledge of good and evil" to work in the world, in ways that are positive and helpful? What are you doing to "master" the sin that's crouching at the door? What are you doing to exercise the full range of your adult, yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) capacities??

As for me, I'm attending election workshops for faith leaders who are concerned about the upcoming election and the risk for violence, the attacks on democracy and the deep sense of division in our country... and hoping sincerely that doing this learning and preparation now will help our community and our broader American society more deftly navigate whatever comes in November. Lisa Colton and Robin Schachter have been organizing both get-out-the-vote letter-writing, and also support for people waiting in long lines at the polls (you can chip in for pizzas here!). Our Kavana teaching staff is fully "back in business" this week, spending time with kids and providing both intellectual stimulation and social support. Other Kavana folks have scheduled their flu shots, or are helping relatives around the country come up with plans to vote, or are continuing to provide groceries and a listening ear to fellow Kavana community members, and/or are gathering for singing, prayer and conversation. As always, there's no one right answer... but Parashat Bereishit calls on all of us -- the descendants of Eve and Adam, created in the image of the Divine -- to embrace our humanity fully and to express our highest selves, to the best of our ability.

Wishing us all much success and blessing, as we begin this new cycle of Torah together,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum