Bereshit Sermon 2021 – Is humankind really very good?

The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.  began as a radio show on Radio 4, then became a series of Books, a Television Series and a film – all set in imaginary worlds where strange but ultimately logical things happened.   For example the restaurant at the end of the universe – whose astronomical prices anyone could pay as long as they deposited a single penny in an interest bearing bank account in their own time – the effect of compound interest on which would be that when a method of time travel became available to enable them to reach the very end of the time they would be so wealthy that they could afford to eat at the restaurant.


Behind the series was the search for the ultimate meaning of life the universe and everything..  In the first book of the Hitchhikers’ Guide series they come up with the answer for the ultimate question of life the universe and everything – which I shall not reveal here.  But then the protagonists realise that they were never sure what the question itself was.  That according to the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy is why the earth exists.


It exists as a scientific experiment running for a number of billions of years in order to find the question of life the universe and everything.  This experiment is being carried out and monitored by the mice – that we think we are observing in our experimentation, but who are actually observing us on behalf of the other citizens of the universe.  Far fetched?  Of course, that is the luxury of science fiction.


Science fiction it might be yet this particular idea of the world as an experiment is one which exists in our Midrash.  When we heard the first chapter of Genesis read on Simchat Torah two days ago the word Tov – Good appeared many times in the portion.  It occurred as part of each day of creation according to the Torah account – except that on the sixth and last day of active creation in which the land animals and Adam – the man and woman are created, we heard that that “God saw everything that he had created and found it tov me’od – very good.”


Very good in comparison to what?  In comparison to the birds, sea creatures, land, seas, Earth, moon and sun?  Surely not!  Who is to say that a parrot fish is good – but a ring tailed lemur is very good – just because it figures in the Torah’s account of the sixth day!  Who is to say that a condor is good, but a vole is very good – because the condor was created on day five and the vole on day six?


So Rabbi Abbahu, in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (3:7), said no – the comparison made was that this world which we inhabit and which the Torah seeks to instruct us about was very good compared to all of the others which God had previously created and destroyed in an attempt to create the perfect Earth. This would be of little consequence to we who are searching for a lesson from our legend of creation except that we have to note that the world was just very good – at the end of creation.  For those who currently receive school reports, or reports from your employer or who remember these you will sympathise that very good isn’t great – its not excellent, its not superb, it is certainly not perfect.  The Midrash suggests that this world too – our world is also an experiment – it is not the perfect one.  But that then establishes the mission of Judaism and of all human effort – to make it so.


When Man is created in the Torah account he is not called good nor very good – rather he is covered by the very good that sums up the whole of the world on the sixth day of creation. – Light was good, land and sea were good, the flora were good, the sun and moon were good, the sea creatures and birds and reptiles were good – but not man.  This inconsistency was picked up in the Talmud (Ber 61a) to add further understanding to the concept of free will – which is crucial to Judaism.  In Judaism man is not good by nature – or he would been called such by the Torah account of his creation. But neither is he bad by nature – or he would have been called such by the Torah account of his creation.


Rather in Judaism man and woman can go any way – reacting to their yetzer ha tov – inclination to do good and their yetzer ha ra – inclination to do evil.  It is the free choice of each of us which way we go – there is no such thing as personal destiny in Judaism.  Cain showed this when he made the choice to allow jealousy to get the better of him and he murders his brother.  God in the story as it is presented in the Torah is no less surprised and disgusted by his actions than we the readers are meant to be – there is no suggestion that this evil was Cain’s destiny.


Whilst there is no such thing as personal destiny in Judaism – there is such a thing as a communal destiny.  It will be illustrated throughout the year ahead as every year in the Haftarah portion.  We will charged by Isaiah communicating what were to him the words of the Almighty – “ I created you to be a light to the nations.” Our destiny as the Jewish people was and remains to be among those who bring the world closer to perfection.  This message – repeated again and again in the haftarot that we will hear every Shabbat this year – is not only to do with relationships between people, nor our own relationship with God but also harks back to the sixth day of creation.


On that sixth day you may remember all the land animals and man were created.  Also on the sixth day man was given dominion over creation and he was given the produce of the earth to be his food.   It is at that point that God saw all that he had made and found it to be very good.  Meaning that with all working in harmony with each other the world achieved the status of very good.


When man’s ability to alter the course of nature is held in check with responsibility then it is very good. When man’s needs for food, clothing, material prosperity preserves and develops the good of the earth rather than simply consuming with a voracious appetite what is there until it is all gone – then it is very good.  Whilst these statistics are oft repeated and seem hackneyed and cliché they are indicative of how far from very good we are at the moment – with an area of rainforest the size of Great Britain destroyed from the world every year – with just to give one more example the 60 million bison of pre revolutionary America reduced to just a few thousand in one hundred years – we are not managing our part of very good.


Every generation leaves the world knowing that it has not yet managed to bring the world to being very good.  It means that it is our responsibility to pass on the principles and ethical mechanisms which will enable future generations to take it even further towards perfection.  We have to teach each succeeding generation the correct answer to Cain’s question – “am I my brother’s keeper.”  The answer no is not the right answer – lack of responsibility for others means degradation for all.


Saying that the world is God’s responsibility is also wrong because we are not handed a perfect world – but one which is perfectable or degradable by our actions.  The right answer is yes.  We are responsible for guarding the world and each other.  We enter this year accompanied by Torah.  We know that somehow humankind is going to have to prevent and reverse the spread of Coronvirus.  We know that we will have to work to counter the violence in Afganistan and Eritrea.  We know that the year begins with a greater distance than for many years in some way of finding peace between Israelis and Palestinians. May we be able to look back at the end of it – next Rosh Hashanah – with satisfaction that we have contributed to making it better.   That’s our human task – to make the world in our lifetime very good because, despite the legends it is the only one that we and our descendants are ever going to live on.