Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to share in services and Torah discussion on Zoom with a group from my synagogue. Our Torah discussion crystallized some thoughts I have about a set of themes that seem to compete in the Torah. The first set of themes is set forth in the Garden story and recurs periodically in the text. The second set is captured in the story of Cain and Abel and presented most completely in Vayikra, from which we read yesterday.
The Garden story in the Torah describes a world in which an “Equality of Being” reigns. All living creatures share the Garden. All are vegan, and each is assigned food from the earth according to its nature. There is no death. A serpent is remarkably similar to the human beings in its hairlessness and ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them (which Prof. Yuval Noah Harari describes as the distinctive characteristic of Sapiens). Every part of creation has its purpose in relation to the rest, and all live together in harmony.
This equality of being and harmony in the Garden story and the more “cosmic” creation story that precedes it in Gen. 1 points to a contemporary scientific view: all of creation has the same point of origin as the stars, we all come from the same material as the stars . . . and we will return in some distant time to that. Between those two points, creation is an ongoing process of diversifying structures. The beauty and grandeur of this idea has moved me since I was a young child looking out of my bedroom window in Massachusetts to a night sky filled with stars. I sometimes imagine Abraham must have experienced something similar in Gen. 15:5 when God “took him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’”
But there is another story in the Torah, one that we first encounter in the story of Cain and Abel. This story reaches its apogee in Leviticus. It is a story of a “Hierarchy of Being,” one that requires value judgments and involves transactional relationships. In this story, God favors Abel’s meat sacrifice over Cain’s sacrifice of agricultural products. God chooses Abraham to follow a path God directs and chooses the Israelites to receive the Torah. When human beings in general, then Israelites in particular, sin, and their lives are due in payment, an animal substitutes for them. This indicates a judgment on the value of a human life against a non-human life. In this story, there is an “economy of creation,” and animal sacrifice is the currency.
Although I’m more comfortable with and moved by one story than the other, although I aspire to act “as if” the first story, the story of an equality of being, were fully operational in our world, I understand the necessity of the other. I also know that either story unrestrained by the other doesn’t have a good ending. In the first case, when equality of being dominates, creation commits suicide, apoptosis, as it deprives itself of what it requires to live. In the second case, individual greed murders creation.
The literary artistry of the Torah story, which the rabbis elaborated in how they chose what to canonize and how to organize it, always amazes me. In a chiastic structure, a basic biblical structuring element, the key elements, those that tell the story, are the beginning and end (which usually represent a reversal or restoration or fulfillment) — and the center, the turning point. Consider that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) begins with the powerful story of the creation of a universe in Gen. 1-3 and ends with a return to a potential recreation of that universe with II Chronicles. In the center is Leviticus, and in the center of Leviticus the Yom Kippur sacrifice.
So it seems the teaching is that we need both stories, we need to remain in a tension between them, and that is the space from which we are to make life decisions every moment of every day. That is, the Torah offers us the paradox of both stories, and we are to choose not one of them but both, and live and act in the world between them. That is the meaning of being human, that we create stories and live by them, most vitally in the paradoxes between them.
Guidance? Yes, there is plenty of instruction. In fact, that is the meaning of the word “Torah.” But the conscious choice is ours to make as we weave our way between aspiration and reality, universalism and particularism, transaction and gifting, hierarchy and equality of being, justice and compassion, death for one and life for another.