Shabbat Sermon - Parshat Bereshit Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum October 25, 2003
A couple that had just married received a very special gift. This gift was a donkey. This well-known story, which I am about to relate to you, took place in Yemen about 60 years ago.
The story goes that the new husband looked at his wife and said to her, "Oh, you are a new bride and wife, so you should ride the donkey while I walk." The wife said, "No, you should ride the donkey and I will walk. It’s more modest." The husband listened to her and he was riding the donkey while his wife was walking behind them. Then, someone approached them and said, "What’s going on here? You have a new wife and you are riding the donkey? That’s not right." She should ride the donkey." So the husband allowed the wife to ride the donkey. They were walked about a 100 yards and they met another fellow. He said, "I can’t believe what I see. You’re not respecting your husband. He shouldn’t walk." So they both rode the donkey and continued on. Another mile later, they met another fellow. He said, "I’m looking at you and I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This is such a small donkey, a weak animal. You are both overloading him and he is weak. It is not right. " So, they listened to the third person and they both got off the donkey. As they were walking together, they met a fourth person, who said, "Why did you get this donkey if you are not riding him?!" Then both husband and wife ended up carrying the donkey.
Today we began reading the first portion of the Torah, Parshat Bereshit. After Adam sinned, G-d approached him and said, "Why did you eat from the tree of knowledge?" Adam said, "It wasn’t my decision. I listened to the woman you gave me (Eve)." Eve said, "The serpent made me eat from the tree of knowledge." None of them was willing to admit to G-d that they had made a mistake.
Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig both were renowned Jewish scholars and philosophers who lived in the early 1900s. They interpreted this story as follows. Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge. This, according to the traditional interpretation, is considered to be the first sin in the Bible. However, there is another school of thought from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his books Man is Not Alone and G-d In Search of Man he contradicts Buber. Heschel believed that the first sin of man was not the eating from the tree of knowledge. Rather, the first sin was that of not engaging in dialogue with G-d. Heschel said that Adam did not take responsibility for his decision to sin. When G-d asked Adam, "Where are you?" Adam was hiding and blaming his wife, saying to G-d, "The woman you gave me caused me to sin." Adam should have been communicating with G-d all along and not have waited until he broke G-d’s rules. This carried on into the next generation with his sons Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel. When G-d said, "Where is your brother Abel?" Cain again did not own up to his mistake. He said, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"
As in the case of the bride, groom and donkey, you should take responsibility for whatever decision you make. You should have the strong conviction to stand firm with your decision and not be influenced by everything that people say. On Yom Kippur we stand up for ourselves and we say, "We made mistakes, and now we want to change." We should have the courage to stand firmly and say, "We have made mistakes. Let’s continue making the effort to do better."
We learn from this story the ideas of responsibility and accountability. We understand that our deeds will affect future generations. We need to have the determination to make ourselves clear that this is our way and it should be a positive way. Sometimes other people will not necessarily like our decisions. We should feel comfortable with our decisions and be willing to deal with the outcomes.
According to Heschel, another important message we learn is the famous pasuk stating that G-d sent Adam away from the Garden of Eden, considering that it would be a problem if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life and lived forever. The minute that Adam ate from the tree of knowledge he lost his spirituality. He became a different person. He became more materialistic than spiritual. This ultimately led to one of his children killing the other. Adam was not the way he had started out. He was like someone who lost part of his body. He came into conflict with the forces of materialism and spirituality. He cannot live forever. He lives only in his own time, because he does not pass on spiritual values to his children. There is no continuation of strong spirituality in the future. Cain kills Abel. Crime and murder are often the case when there is no spirituality. It is much better for people to be working and struggling in order to achieve higher spirituality so that they don’t destroy the world.
May we be blessed with a year where we will rise to the challenges we face and make the effort to improve our relationship with G-d and with our fellow human beings. AMEN