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Parashat Bereshit with Eitan Cooper: Truth, Good and Evil in 2020

As we begin another annual cycle of Torah reading, Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the Schechter Institutes, revisits Parashat Bereshit. He unpacks the first four chapters of the Book of Genesis, which paints a portrait of humanity that is refreshingly applicable to our current political and social dilemmas, and then offers a way forward as well if we choose to take it.

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In its first four chapters, the Book of Genesis paints a portrait of humanity that is refreshingly applicable to our current political and social dilemmas, and then offers a way forward as well, if we choose to take it.

Chapter 1 of Parashat Bereshit presents human beings as the apex of creation, in the likeness and image of God, with men and women as equals, and the component parts of our world unequivocally “good.”  Humans, God’s creative creation, are granted unlimited dominion over this world.

Long ago, as a teenager, I saw a video of an interview with Abraham Joshua Heschel that has stayed with me.  In it, he explained that the reason why the Torah forbade graven images is that WE are the image of God. Thus, when we fashion and elevate an image of any kind, we are actually demeaning ourselves. In Chapter 1, the world is our oyster, and it seems there is no limit to what we may achieve in it.

This takes us to Chapter 2, in which Torah paints a miserable, bleak picture of human existence. God forms a man out of the still-parched earth, and a woman from the rib of the man. We are lonely creatures, whose longings are inherent, and insatiable. Any chance for equality or progress is very limited. God attempts to protect us from ourselves, planting a garden for us, and when placing us in it, this time we are given the menial tasks of cultivating and guarding over it. God forbids us access to the fruit called “knowing good and evil”, and upon eating it in Chapter 3, our lives are redefined as a journey of pain and suffering, during which the impulses that drive us, our “yetzer” are at the steering wheel, leading our creative genius from one crash to the next.

This contradictory view of humanity described poignantly by Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik in his sublime essay “The Lonely Man of Faith”, forms a paradox at the heart of human existence. So how do we apply it to understand our current situation?

Here, I turn to Maimonides, who at the beginning of the Guide of the Perplexed, provides a metaphorical analysis of the language in Genesis, explaining how the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil is our downfall. The fruit is our passions and impulses, our yetzer, and given control over our intellect, it leads us to harm others, and ourselves. Cain and Abel, those notorious first children of Adam and Eve in Chapter 4, are according to Maimonides object lessons, lawless “demons”, easily driven to jealousy, conflict and fratricide. Their creativity is employed wholly for conspiracy and violence. They are the worst of God’s creations, the culmination of the limited human being, described in Chapter 2.

In socio-political terms, when societies divide along familial, social and cultural lines, leaders often take advantage of our loyalties and prejudices to promote their own interests, sowing suspicion about other groups or demeaning them, labeling them “deplorable”, or their truths “fake”. We come to believe that our sector or party possesses the whole truth.

Yet, where truths are not shared, truth ceases to have value, and there is no standard by which these so-called leaders can be called into account. Our creative genius of Chapter 1 brought us into the information age, but its incredible tools are being driven primarily by the yetzer for profit and popularity, with the result that these days we act more like the humanity of Chapter 4.

Yet, continues Maimonides, there is still hope for us. After the tragedy of their first children, at the start of Chapter 5 Adam and Eve begin again – this time having another child, Seth, whom they create “in their image and likeness”, suggesting a return to the promise of Chapter 1. 

The Torah informs us here, after the sobering picture it painted in Chapters 2-4, of Parashat Bereshit, that in spite of ourselves, we are capable of starting anew in the image of God. The same destructive yetzer that propels us ever forward, when regulated by fair laws and a commitment to truth, can be harnessed to the vision of a world that is “good”.

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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