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Shabbat Bereishit: Disobedience

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A Torah scroll is seen on display at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, April 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen.

After the first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the physical universe, the rest of the book goes on to deal with the often-ambivalent relationships between God and other human beings.

There are so many different ways of reading (and translating) the text, that it is instructive to notice the different ways that mainstream Christianity and mainstream Judaism looked at the first chapters of Genesis. Whereas Christianity focused on what it called Original Sin, Judaism emphasized that human beings had choices — even if they often made the wrong ones. Judaism also emphasized that one had to atone and interact with God directly to make matters right, rather than through an intermediary.

The first example of disobedience in the Torah is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were specifically commanded not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and warned that there would be consequences if they did. Adam and Eve disobeyed God. In doing so, they realized the power of negative energy and the capacity to disobey. They were embarrassed. And they suffered the consequences.

The next example of a terrible decision was Cain’s murderous attack on Abel. The background was that both tried to reach out to God with a sacrifice. Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, which offended both his spiritual identity and his status as the firstborn. He reacted negatively — to which God told him to try to do better next time and not to give in to his disappointment. God warned him that if he did, he would be dragged down into a state of negativity. Cain did not have the resilience to overcome his disappointment, and eventually reacted by killing Abel.

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The philosopher Martin Buber defended Cain by saying that no one had told him about murder. There was no prior command in the Bible not to do it, and he might not have known that striking another human being could result in death. Cain had never seen it. Perhaps Abel was just sleeping — which might explain why he responded to God, “I don’t know where he is, am I my brother’s keeper?” He did not know what he had done.

I do not agree. After all, Cain had seen Abel killing sheep for his sacrifice. Did he not connect the two? But to support Buber’s interesting thesis, one could argue that unlike Adam and Eve, Cain was not specifically warned. Indeed, there is no record that Cain was warned, either of the crime or the punishment. One might argue that in Adam and Eve’s case, they were warned, knew the consequences, and thus their decision was a rational one. You might argue that Cain did not. He reacted spontaneously out of uncontrollable passion. Motive and state of mind can be all-important. Thus, we have two very different lessons of disobedience.

This distinction came to be recognized in the Talmud. The person who disobeys because he or she is overcome by an uncontrollable urge (who for example eats non-kosher food because he likes it) is not regarded as negatively, as the person who disobeys or rejects the law out of a cold, calculated decision to reject something regarded as ridiculous or pointless — eating non-kosher food provocatively, for example. We all make mistakes and suffer the consequences, but we do so for different motives and reasons. This is why the Talmud also says, “Think of God in all your actions, even when you are transgressing.”

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently living in New York.

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