Dvar Torah by Michael Starr, Past President

5777 - A Place For Humans To Thrive

October 4, 2016


Today we read about how, according to Torah, the world we live in came to be.  I do not believe it was ever intended to be understood as literally true. It was not, even when written, understood as an objective description of a sequence of events that led to the world’s being the way it is.

It was, rather, a narrative framework of imbedded values that helped to shape and guide people’s lives.  It is that for us today.

From this perspective, what is most striking to me about B’reishit is not what it says, but what it does not say – not what is in it, but what is not.

For one thing, there is no sea monster.  In other ancient, Near Eastern creation stories, the god who created the world did so by struggling with and subduing a preexisting sea monster.  That “primordial cosmic power,” as Nahum Sarna describes it, was called Tiamat in the Babylonia religious myth and was, in Canaanite religion, called Mot, which also means death.

As Professor Sarna explained it: “a female dragonesque personification of the primordial salt-water ocean represented the aggressive forces of primitive chaos that contend against the god of creation.”

In pagan religions of the time, the world was, at bottom – literally, at bottom – a hostile and dangerous place.

But in the Biblical account of creation, there is no primordial force other than God.  There is chaos, to be sure – the world before the creation of the world was tohoo v’vohoo or, as Robert Alter puts it, “welter and waste.”  But it is not angry and hostile.  God shapes what was and forms it in a way that is hospitable for the man and the woman to whom God would soon give life.

In the Biblical account of creation, the world is at bottom good and intended to be a place in which humans can thrive and prosper.  There is no powerful primordial agency other than God.

According to the prophet Isaiah (Is. 45: 6-7), God wants all people to know that:

There is none but Me.

I am the Eternal, and there is none else,

The one who forms light and creates darkness,

makes peace and creates bad.

It is I the Eternal who does all these things.

The other thing not in the Biblical creation story are demons.   In the ancient world, demons preexisted the creation of the world.  They are powers that are hostile  to humans or, at best, indifferent.  They interfere with all forms of human activity.  For things to go well for people, for our hopes and dreams to be fulfilled, we must contend with these demons.  They need to be placated or appeased, but are never actually overcome.  In fact, on some days in the Babylonian calendar, no new things were to be tried because the demons on those days were too strong and simply would not let human plans succeed.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that all of us have our demons.  For some, the demon is an addiction – to alcohol, drugs, gambling or all manner of things.  For some, it is some painful childhood experience that colors how we live our lives today; or an overbearing and controlling parent – or one who was distant and uncaring – that we continue to try to please, so much so that it interferes with our own happiness, even though that person is no longer active in our lives.  The demon might be a bully at school, or an overly demanding boss at work, who seems intent on having us fail.  To some, the demon is Fate:  no matter how hard I try, Fate snatches success away from me every time I am just about to grasp it.

But Torah teaches that there are no demons.  All that appear to be so cannot actually control us because they are not real.  We know this because God created heaven and earth – only God, there is none else.

As we approach the New Year, let us all confront our own private demons.  Let us find the courage and strength not just to contain them, like Tiamat the sea monster, but to rout them out of our lives.  And, let us do so comforted and strengthened with the knowledge, that, yes, we can – we can ultimately prevail.

We know this because, as Torah teaches, God created heaven and earth – only God.  There is none else.  And, God created the world to be a place for humans to prosper and thrive.

L’shana tovah u’meitukah