Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5771.
Well folks, here we are once again reading the richest, juiciest, meatiest, stormiest portion in the Torah, the very first portion and the one to beat all portions. There is so much for us to talk about, so many sermons for me to give you, such pathos in the text as it teases out God’s stormy and difficult path from lone Creator of a perfect Garden of Eden world to regretful, angry, first time parent of the children who disappoint him. Think of the possibilities: we could talk about the majesty of the creation story with its emphasis on goodness and people being created in God’s image. We could talk about the tumultuous tale of Adam and Eve, the fratricidal tragedy of Cain and Abel, God’s deep disappointment with God’s creative experiment gone wild that leads God to wipe it all out and start again.
So what did I choose to talk about this morning in what will be an admittedly brief dvar Torah? A brief and often overlooked detail in the portion that I think says so much about the ancient and indelible nature of love, hope, and human perseverance. Let’s look together in Genesis, 4:25 (HEH, p. 29): “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, ‘God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,’ for Cain had killed him.” This verse is part of an early genealogical list that identifies the founders of cities, musical instrumentation, tool and weapon making. We would expect it to follow directly after the end of the story about Cain murdering Abel, his brother. However, it is more directly connected to the strange story fragment about Lamech and his two wives. Lamech is described as a man who loves to crow about his violent tendencies, so perhaps or verse about Adam and Eve’s new child Seth is well placed here: it’s theme of new life, especially after fratricidal tragedy seems to be a response to Lamech’s arrogant emphasis on violent death. Commentators on the Torah going back as far as the early rabbinic midrash, Genesis Rabbah, have a somewhat different take on this verse. Based upon later genealogical hints in the Torah, our rabbis assert that, after their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve refrained from relations for 130 years. Lamech and his wives were, in the rabbis’ imagination, also celibate. When Adam criticized Lamech for threatening the survival of humanity through not procreating with his wives, Lamech countered Adam’s complaint by accusing him of hypocrisy. With a “new and improved” sex drive and a new sense of existential urgency, Adam made love to Eve and they bore Seth, as a literal replacement for Abel, so that humanity could survive those early traumas of expulsion from paradise and of fratricide.
Taken together with these comments, Genesis 4:25 can be understood as more than a mere fragment in the book’s early genealogy of the human race. In the midst of many painful stories about the corruptions of human desire, our lust for power, and the murderous origins and results of familial jealousy, this verse returns Adam and Eve –and us- to sexual intimacy and reproduction as one of the most potent, hope filled responses to all of this human heartache. Somehow, despite –or perhaps because of- the tragic disruption of their family by their son’s murderous outburst against his brother, Adam and Eve managed to find each other once again in the mystery of sex, thus rebuilding their family and humanity. Is this because the human capacity to love is one of our greatest weapons against engulfing despair? Yes, I think so. This verse and its midrashim seem to be telling us that Adam and Eve used their physical and emotional desires for each other to fight despair at a personal and a universal level. They refused to allow their horrible grief to destroy them personally and globally.
Rochelle Krich, the renowned mystery author who is a child of Holocaust survivors, once spoke at our community Yom Hashoah program a number of years ago. She told the story of how her father’s entire family, including his first wife and children, were murdered by the Nazis. He survived the Shoah, came to this country, and began a new family, the one from which Rochelle is descended. When she asked him why he did this after so much personal trauma, he responded with deceptive simplicity: “Because I met your mother.”
Krich’es story is part of that even longer narrative, really the Torah’s counter narrative, to its first dark tale about our human impulses and their destructive capacities. Hiding just behind, but not too far behind, that dark tale is another equally powerful lesson: our impulses to love, to create, to heal, to hope and to build are the angels of our better natures, whether expressed sexually or otherwise. We would do well to cultivate those impulses, that have been given to us as God’s greatest gifts.