D’var Torah: Lessons from Bereishit: Setting Conditions for Success and Providing Role Models
I have been reflecting on the book of Bereishit (Genesis) and thinking about how stunningly God messed up the whole process of creation. It is amazing how much went wrong so quickly after God proclaims on the sixth day that creation was “very good.” What went wrong? I think one set of answers provides great insights to parents and leaders. It all centers around control and empowerment.
First, let’s review the series of debacles that ensue as soon as God lets Adam and Eve loose in the garden.
God creates this idyllic garden where everything is controlled and everything is provided. There is just one rule: Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge. It is rather astounding that God didn’t see what would happen next. Tell anyone they can’t do just one thing without any explanation or discussion and that thing becomes enticing beyond belief. In response, God expels them from the utopian life of the garden and makes them fend for themselves. It is interesting that God doesn’t even seem too upset – it is more a realization that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to give humans everything and that it is better to make them do things to take care of themselves. The mistake God made was to think that you could control the environment enough so that everything would go perfectly – or that anything could go perfectly for that matter.
Then, we have Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel because he is jealous that God likes Abel’s offering more. God is upset with him but merely banishes him from his community and only explains the most important rule in life – that we are our brother’s keeper – after Cain kills his only brother. When Cain complains that his punishment is too harsh, God relents a bit and makes sure to protect Cain. Although it may seem obvious to us that murder is wrong, it isn’t too farfetched to think that Cain didn’t know or even understand what murder was. Why? Because no one taught him. Additionally, why is God favoring one gift over another and pitting the brothers against each other? God is the central actor in this story. Where are Adam and Eve? Why didn’t they teach Cain? God interacts with humans but doesn’t truly build a relationship with them.
The Noah story is different. Here the Torah states that humanity is just plain evil and wicked. So much so, that God decides to destroy God’s creation and start over with the one good guy in the world and his family. This is a far cry from creation being “very good” and it is a harsh punishment that acknowledges that God created a world environment doomed to failure. After the flood, God realizes how horrific the punishment was and promises never to do that again. Additionally, in a nod to the notion that there is some sort of blood lust at work, humans are now allowed to eat meat. Even so, while more extreme, God’s approach is still essentially to “re-set” and try again. God thinks that a controlled environment will suffice and that God alone can be the sole moral educator.
At this point, we come to the very strange Tower of Babel story. The basic text says that people wanted to build a tower so they could stick together and not be scattered. God is worried that if they succeed in building the tower, they will fight with Him. Nowhere in the text itself does it say that people actually did something wrong – just that it had bad potential. God decides to create many languages to confound humans and scatter them throughout the world. The idea of one civilization living righteously together is forever lost. There is no ability, even by God, to control how people act.
This is the moment in which God decides to take a very different tack. In all of the earlier episodes, God tried to build a totally controlled environment in which God was the sole actor in providing lessons to humans. God responds to human shortcoming by changing the environment they lived in or starting over with the same basic approach. Each time God was disappointed and human nature seemed to come up short. Now God scatters human beings and instead of dealing with humanity as a whole, God decides to enter a relationship with a certain family who will exert influence and teach others.
God chooses Abraham based on merit and makes a covenant with him and his family throughout the generations. Why Abraham? Two reasons stand out. Abraham was searching for truth and right and was willing to go on a spiritual journey. Additionally, Abraham cared deeply about others and tried to exert a positive influence on everyone. God decided to go into partnership with Abraham and the Jewish people to work together to perfect the world. That is what it means to be the chosen people.
God also learned what good leaders and parents should know. You cannot control everything. There is a big difference between setting up the conditions for success and actually controlling things. Additionally, parents and leaders cannot do everything themselves. They must entrust and empower others to help them impart the key lessons and provide the role models to influence their children. Much of the Abraham stories are episodes about interactions, tests and teachings that God imparts to Abraham. God is far more engaged and Abraham interacts and even argues with God. There is a real relationship between the two and that makes all the difference.
Our counselors, parents and leaders must focus on following in Abraham’s footsteps. We must be willing to go on spiritual journeys ourselves and try to find what is right and true. The greatest teaching and leading happens by living as a dugmah (example) for our children. Equally important, we must take these lessons and act on them, especially by looking to help others and be influences for good. That is why God says that Abraham and his descendants should be a blessing.
Camp Ramah is a fine example, I believe, of fulfilling both of these lessons. Camp Ramah is a place where we can both set the conditions for success and provide excellent role models for our campers. We do that by training and working with our counselors to empower them to influence the campers in a way only eighteen to twenty year olds can. The key is for them to build relationships with their campers and to go on the journey with them.
As we think to the future at Camp Ramah, we realize that we have a big role to play in inspiring young Jews to join this journey, guiding them on the path and fostering a commitment to be a blessing to others. We are grateful to work in partnership with our Ramah families and hopefully succeed in helping make our world a better place. Shabbat Shalom.