Bereshit is full of big bangs. First there is the startling sequence of light, sky and water, the Earth and the seas, the sun, moon and all the stars, the fish in the seas, the birds in the sky and the myriad animals on the land. What if it had stayed like that? But it didn’t, for man is formed, and woman, both born into innocence. Cursed – or blessed – with curiosity, we moved the story on with another bang by doing the one thing we were instructed not to. We ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Not a good start, or perhaps it was the best we could have made in this brave new world. We became experienced, but this may have been a necessary prelude to a higher form of innocence. If there were no experience, there would be no tikunn olam (world repair). In the case of most objects, a repaired version is not as good as the original new one, but in the case of the world, repair may make it, and us, more wonderful than we could ever have been.
There is, however, an awful lot to repair. We made sure of that, by the next several bangs. How sad and telling that the first human being to die was the child and not the parent. How sadder and more telling that his death was not through natural causes but as a result of murder. And how even sadder and more telling that the murderer was the victim’s own brother. This terrible beginning is mitigated somewhat by God’s mercy. While punishing Adam and Eve, he clothes them. While punishing Cain, he grants him a period of life.
The bangs continue, nonetheless. “The world was corrupt before God, and the land filled with crime.” God, therefore, resolved to destroy it. We would be blind if we pretended that the story of Noah was the only flood story to exist. There are several, possibly many, others. The Sumerian and Babylonian epic narratives of Gilgamesh have the hero survive a great flood. Andean stories also tell of a flood that covered the mountains. What is special about Noah? It is this. The story of Gilgamesh is not dissimilar to that of the Greek hero Odysseus, who also survives a number of life threatening tests. In both cases, the hero pits his wits against partially or completely divine or demonic forces. The qualities needed are ingenuity and great daring. In the case of Noah, the defining quality is righteousness. Right from the beginning, the Torah is to do with making choices between good and evil. It is the good spark within humanity which draws God’s mercy, not his cleverness.
Not that we are always that clever. Our hubris can be monumental, quite literally when we build a tower in order to reach the heavens. Another bang, another fall. How wonderful that eventually a new kind of man should come along, namely Abram, a modest, gentle, yet courageous soul within whom the good spark shines brightly. To appreciate quite how brightly, come along this Saturday at 10.30. Pat Lipert will be leading us.