Bereishit

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two sins, two exiles

In the space of the first few chapters of the Bible, we read of two sins and two exiles. First, Adam and Eve eat from the tree that God has forbidden and as a result are banished from the Garden of Eden. Then Cain kills his brother Abel and is sentenced to spend his life homeless and wandering.

Why two stories of exile? And why should these be the first stories that we read in the Bible?

The two stories with which the Bible opens have many similarities: In both of them Man sins. In both, when given a chance to defend himself, Man tries to escape responsibility. And in both cases the punishment is the same: exile and wandering for the sinner, and a curse on the land to make it unfruitful or barren.

But for all the similarities between the two stories, it is clear that they relate to two different dimensions. The story of Adam and Eve focuses on the relationship between Man and God; the story of Cain and Abel on the relationship between Man and Man.  While Adam and Eve transgress a divine command – not to eat from the forbidden tree, Cain’s sin is on the human level – he kills a fellow human being. (Indeed the rabbis comment that the fact that the first murder in the Bible is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel teaches us that every murder of another human being is really the murder of a brother.)

The excuses given by Adam and Cain to defend themselves correspond to these two dimensions: Adam, accused of violating a divine command, tries to blame God: “The woman You gave me, she gave me the fruit”, he says, implying that it is God who is really to blame. Cain, on the other hand, is accused of a crime between man and man, and tries to deny responsibility on that level: Am I my brother’s keeper? he asks.

And yet both sins lead to the same result: exile and wandering, and a disconnection with the land which becomes harsh and unproductive.

In a remarkable parallel to the two stories of exile with which the Bible opens, Jewish history has witnessed two exiles of the Jewish people from their land. The Talmud teaches that each of these exiles was a result of a specific failure of the Jewish people: the first exile was a punishment for idolatry and failings between Man and God, while the second was a result of sinat chinam , causeless hatred between man and man. Strikingly, these two failings correspond to the two exiles of Bereishit, the first exile for failures of faith, and the second for failures of social responsibility.

Today, back in Israel after these two exiles, what can the people of Israel learn from the two stories that the Bible opens with? In fact they set out the dual challenge that faces us as a society: to be true both to our tradition and to our social obligations. To be a society that is both Jewish and democratic. The opening stories of the Bible not only set this challenge; they also assure us that we will survive and flourish if we rise to meet it, and if we fulfill the commitment in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, to build a society based “freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel”.

In others’ words

“Zionism is our attempt to build a society, imperfect though it may be, in which the visions of the prophets of Israel will be realized.”

Chaim Herzog, Ambassador to the United Nations, responding to General Assembly “Zionism is Racism” resolution, November 10, 1975

On a lighter note

Chaim the tailor was behind again with the alterations his customer had requested. “How can it be” shouted the exasperated customer, “that it takes you three weeks to make a pair of trousers. God created the whole world in six days!”

“Ah” answered Chaim. But look at the beautiful job I did on your trousers – and look what a mess God made of the world!”

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