In the ancient world, the gods were part of nature and therefore subject to nature. But in B’reishit, God acts outside the universe and is free. He makes humanity in his image, giving us the gift of freedom.
The essential meaning of creation is the idea that the universe did not come about by necessity but as a result of freedom…Man is free to act in freedom and free to forfeit freedom…We are free to choose between good and evil; we are not free in having to choose. We are in fact compelled to choose.
So, what can today’s stories teach us about this freedom?
From the start, God had blessed the first couple. ‘Be fruitful and increase!’ But they don’t know about love and intimacy, so they can’t. ‘Fill the earth!’ he says, but puts them in a garden. ‘Have dominion over all living things!’ But they have no knowledge of lies or truth, so cannot rule a crafty creature like the snake. They are like babies with instinct still developing under God’s watchful eye, in the womb of Eden.
We know the story – the first couple eat the forbidden fruit.
They feel the unfamiliar rush of fear hormones – shall they fight, flee or hide? But when they hear God’s voice calling them, they respond to Him. They overcome their conflicting instincts and return to face their Creator, to confess the truth - as they understand it. They do teshuvah and God responds immediately. He covers their shame with the skin of an animal – or was this with garments of light? In Hebrew, the word or spelled with an ayin means ‘skin’ but or spelled with an aleph means ‘light.’ Either way, in God’s economy, teshuvah and forgiveness are bound together as the same redemptive, transformative act.
In fact, rabbis argue that teshuvah proves that we have freewill and that we are not pre-determined by instinct, our genetic information or social background. We find ourselves in a position where, for some reason only known to us, we choose to do something wrong. At Yom Kippur, if not before, we do teshuvah, we are sorry, we ask God to forgive us. Then later, we are faced with the same situation, and this time we choose not to make the same mistake. We demonstrate our freedom.
So, God tells the first couple next time, they must act quickly. Recognise deception. Crush its head, as if it’s a snake, before it speaks, or bites. If not, deception will take hold of their point of weakness, their Achilles heel, and make them lame. Later, all through Tanakh, walking with God becomes a metaphor for a righteous life.
But then, why does God increase their pain? Is this a sentence or a service?
We have a modern dislike of pain and habitually ignore its more subtle messages. We might choose a quick fix, taking a pill instead of resolving its cause. But pain is the essential early warning system that announces a threat, telling us that something is wrong in our bodies – or our souls.
Dr. Brand, a pain expert, says,
The very unpleasantness of pain is what makes it so effective at protecting us….The pain sensitive person will stop for pain, because deep in his psyche he knows that preserving his own self is more significant than anything he may want to do.
Beyond Eden, pain guides the couple to use their new knowledge constructively, so that they will prosper. Pain puts healthy limits on their endeavours and ambitions. It warns them when they need to rest. So, they choose to take time as family, time enjoying the fruit of their labour. Overcoming difficulties together, gives them the joy of achievement, and provides them with purpose. Now they know each other - with personal names – Adam and his life-giver, Eve. Now, Sabbath rest makes sense. Now, they can obey God’s command to have children, fill the earth and have dominion.
Adam and Eve’s choice to return to God - and stay close to Him – transforms their mistake and demonstrates their freedom.
Their first son, Cain, chooses a different path. A lie has bitten into his heel. He is angry and ruminates upon a perceived injustice, until he’s depressed.
Psychiatrists say that anger is, ‘…a physiological arousal, an inner response to hurt, frustration or fear.’ Anger prepares us to act, to affect change - but how we act is a matter of our choice. ‘Anger can move us… to a place of resolution and peace or to the point of destruction.’
God reasons with Cain and tells him to do the right thing. Correct action will rectify the problem that is causing his distress. And – he must master his internal struggle, before he sins. The idea of sin is introduced here for the first time and is likened to an animal, or demon, which is crouching, waiting to devour the meal it has started with its first bite.
We know the story – Cain ignores God’s advice and kills his brother.
When Cain hears God calling him, he is frightened too, but avoids his chance for redemption. The Talmud says, ‘A person who is in wrath, if he is wise, he loses his wisdom; if he is a prophet, he loses his prophecy.’ And so, Cain loses everything and wanders from God’s presence, the mark of God’s grace visibly imprinted on him.
B’reishit records the dramatic consequences of acting in freedom, or forfeiting freedom. It traces the choice for good through Adam and Eves’ third son, Seth, to the seventh generation, to Enoch who ‘walked with God, and then was no more, for God had taken him.’ He didn’t die. The path leads to Noah who saves mankind. B’reishit maps Cain’s choice for evil through Lamech who declared, ‘A man I kill for wounding me, a lad for only bruising me! If seven-fold vengeance be for Cain, then for Lamech, seventy-fold!’ The end destiny is the flood.
Freewill is a powerful gift.
With it we create ourselves, our communities and our world, one small choice at a time - all the time.
In Auschwitz, Victor Frankel observed that,
everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to chose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to chose one’s own way.
…there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether or not you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
In the beginning God made man with an extraordinary gift of freedom. In the end, if every other human dignity is stripped from us, this gift will endure.
So, this week, as we go into our week, may we be sensitive to the subtle whispers of pain that warn us when we wander. May we take every opportunity offered to us to demonstrate our freedom. And as we do, may we create a world that is clothed with the light of God’s redemption.