I’ve never understood this; I’ve always been troubled. The Torah opens with a magnificent poem, a paean to the glory of creation. That first chapter of Genesis is utterly beautiful; the dawn light shining through the division of the waters, the first green stalks above the soil, the fruit-bearing trees, the fish in the rivers, the birds of the air, and on land the animals and humankind, in harmony all together.
Yet within scarcely three columns Cain has murdered his brother and his great- great- grandson Lemech is busily boasting to his wives that he’s killed a child. By the end of column five even God acknowledges, shockingly, that it’s all been a terrible mistake and it would have been better if humans had never existed in the first place: ‘I’m sorry I made them.’
How can something so wonderful descend so quickly into disaster?
Then I realised: this is the world we live in every day.
It’s full of beauty. The magic may be greatest when one’s young, the first fallen leaves to stomp through, the first excitement of snow. But one doesn’t get over it. On the contrary, the older one gets the more precious it often all becomes: that view crossed by the sun’s low rays of the autumn woodlands, yellow and orange, down to the fields with the ponies above the lake:
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise. (Dylan Thomas: Fern Hill)
It’s true, at least it seems so in our moments of wonder: God renews the work of creation every day.
But the cruelty, misery and injustice are no less real.
Late last night I casually picked up The Guardian’s Long Read but paid careful attention when I saw that it was written by Zarlasht Halaimzai, whom I know. Her family were refugees from Afghanistan; now she devotes her life to helping others forced by violence and war to flee their homes:
Don’t leave the people in darkness, I pleaded. (The Long Read)
Most of her letters to officials across the globe received no reply at all.
Jewish leaders, she wrote, responded with heartfelt solidarity:
Many recognised their own family’s experiences in the images of parents handing their children over…
Several members of our community are desperately trying to get people out of the reaches of the Taliban. ‘And it’s only one family out of tens of thousands,’ a friend said as we sat last week in our Succah. ‘Whoever saves one life is as if they saved the world,’ we all replied.
Just that is our predicament: we stand at the interface between life’s wonders and its horrors. There, too, lies our responsibility. What can we do to help or save one person, one child, one living thing, one tiny corner of the earth?
The Torah does not state that God regrets making the world; God is sorry only because of the way human beings behave. But God, tradition tells us, longs to rejoice in creation once again. What can we do to make that happen in one more child, one more parent’s heart, even in the free flight of the birds? That’s the everlasting challenge those first five columns of the Torah bequeath to us.