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Satisfaction and Temptation

Sermon: Beresheet 5776 / 10 October 2015

October 15, 2015

This morning’s parshah stands as one of the great literary tragedies: in just over five chapters, we go from a world that is טוב מאד,“very good,”[1]  to one so evil, so full of violence and inhumanity, that God sees no choice other than complete destruction and a fresh start. Reading parashat Beresheet raises the question of whether we could ever return the world to a state of טוב מאד and, if so, how we might achieve that goal. To answer that question, we must carefully examine the root causes of humanity’s downfall.

Things start out well enough. Having created the world and its inhabitants, and seeing them as טוב מאד, God sets up the first humans in the Garden of Eden. The garden is lush, with flowing rivers and plenty of trees. Only one tree lay beyond reach: “the tree of knowledge of good and bad.”[2] Eden held a life of contentment, one of tilling, tending, and spiritual contemplation.[3]

While it can be hard for us to really imagine life in Eden, it’s not hard to picture life for Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden: “By toil shall you eat… By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”[4] However we understand God’s reaction to Eve and Adam taking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge — curse, punishment, or merely a description of natural consequence — the verses at the end of chapter 3 offer a reasonable approximation of life as it continues today: struggle, competition, discontent. In contrast to Eden’s bounty, the post-Edenic world suffers from profound scarcity.

The consequence of that scarcity shows up most clearly in the story of Cain and Abel. While the Torah never supplies a motive for the crime, and indeed even omits from verse 8 crucial details that might have helped us understand the circumstances that led Cain to murder his younger brother, the ancient Rabbis offer several plausible causes for conflict.[5] Ultimately the significance of these midrashim lies not in determining the facts of the case but in recognizing the common element in all the explanations: the events that set Abel’s murder in motion began with a conflict over scarce resources.

From here, it’s not a big leap to the end of the parshah: already we see, in chapter 4, a picture that resembles our own world. We, too, live in a world of conflict over scarce resources. We, too, live in competition to get what we can before someone else grabs it. In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist, a global hunger activist, writes:

We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of… Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already lacking something… This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.[6] 

Most shocking — and yet quite apparent once we look for it — we find that the perception of scarcity and its impact on human behavior holds true regardless of one’s objective financial situation.[7] It’s not hard to think of examples — whether celebrities or people we know personally — who have plenty and yet their hunger for more knows no bounds. I don’t mean ambition, which we can define as the quest for advancement in the service of technological, humanitarian, social, or spiritual development, but rather the lust for more for its own sake. How do we explain the persistence of a scarcity mentality even when the material circumstances do not justify it?

Twist points to three “toxic myths” about scarcity that inform our beliefs and hold us back from achieving a sense of satisfaction and contentment — and echoes of all three appear in our parshah this morning.

The first toxic myth: “There is not enough.” The starting point of scarcity, this myth redefines everything in terms of acquisition. What I have — no matter how much I have — becomes, by definition, insufficient; consequently, even if I am able to attain more, as soon as I possess it that “more” becomes “not enough.”[8] 

I went to a Jewish high school, which brings with it the perennial struggles of a height-challenged basketball team. Our team was decent, at least in the very small parochial-school league we played in, but we were never going to the playoffs. Still, there was dignity even in defeat for a team that played its heart out week after week. Once in a while, however, our Yeshiva Lions faced the demoralizing prospect of an opposing team whose coach, despite a lead in excess of 30 points, would push his players to shoot and shoot. Only the fear of “not enough,” a deeply ingrained mentality of scarcity, could make a grown man think it’s not enough to win by 20 or 30 points when you could run the lead up to 40, 50, or 60 points. For what? Did the team win more by humiliating their opponents? But that is how the toxic myth of “not enough” warps our sensibilities.

Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, in his Torah commentary Or HaHayyim, sees this same mindset at work in Eve’s conversation with the serpent. The serpent asks, “Did God really say: you shall not eat any tree of the garden?”.[9]  We know, Eve knew, and we might well presume that the serpent knew, that this was not true. And yet, the Or HaHayyim writes, as soon as the serpent directed Eve’s attention to the Tree of Knowledge, it became as if she had been commanded against all of the trees — because she no longer desired the many trees permitted to her, only that one tree God had set off limits.

Or HaHayyim’s insight leads directly to Lynne Twist’s second toxic myth about scarcity: “More is better.” While this myth emerges in response to the first — if there is not enough in the world, then it’s better for me to have more — Twist notes that this myth ultimately “drives a competitive culture of accumulation, acquisition, and greed that only heightens fears and quickens the pace of the race [for more].”[10] Our Sages of Blessed Memory pushed back against this myth when they taught, איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו, “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his portion.”[11] “No person dies possessing even half of what he desires,” they write in Kohelet Rabbah; “If he has one hundred, he wants to make it into two hundred, and if he has two hundred he wants four.”[12] We are left to conclude that while rich might be a quantitative description, wealth is a state of mind. Each of us, no matter our objective financial situation, has the choice to see ourselves as “wealthy” — if we choose to be content with our portion, and give up the never-ending chase for “more.”[13] 

The third and final toxic myth of scarcity, and the most pernicious, is the belief that “It is what it is” – that we can’t do anything about the first two myths. This myth is the strongest, because it is so easy to make a case justifying it, and also the most dangerous because it blocks the way to addressing the first two.[14] No surprise, then, that the entire story of parashat Beresheet, and indeed the whole Torah, directs itself against this myth. The overwhelming message of the Torah is that human beings possess the intrinsic capability and the moral imperative to make value-based decisions. Commenting on the role of the serpent in our story, the great 19th-century rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes:

Whatever animals do is in accordance with their instinct… For animals, this instinct is Divine guidance operating within them. What animals do in accordance with their instinct is good, and any act from which their instinct restrains them is bad. Animals can not err; they have only their one nature, whose call they must heed.[15]

In other words, animals are fundamentally amoral; from our perspective, a snake bite or a goring ox might be undesirable, but from the animal’s perspective it is simply what the creature is compelled, by its God-given nature, to do.

But humans, Rav Hirsch writes, are fundamentally different:

[A human must] opt for the good and shun evil out of his own free will and sense of duty. Even when he gives his physical nature its due, he must do so not because of the allure of his senses, but out of a sense of duty. Even when he takes physical pleasure, he must act in moral freedom.[16]

When Lynne Twist writes that “We have to be willing to let go of that’s just the way it is… to consider the possibility that there isn’t a way that it is or a way that it isn’t. There is the way we choose to act and what we choose to make of circumstances,”[17] she speaks of the same “moral freedom” that for Rav Hirsch defines the meaning of humanity. The very purpose of our existence, beginning this week with the story of Creation and continuing through all of the mitzvot in the Torah, is to overcome these three toxic myths and replace the mentality of scarcity with satisfaction and contentment.

From that perspective, we can better understand God’s response to Adam and Eve. The end of chapter 3 — effectively, the fulcrum at the center of this morning’s story — reverses the paradigm. Initially, the first humans are placed in a Garden of plenty — and they choose scarcity. God, in describing that world to Eve and Adam after their sin, merely ratifies the choice they have already made; “If you want to live in a world defined by scarcity, so be it.” But the end of this week’s parshah is far from the end of the Torah. Just as our first ancestors, in a place of abundance, could nevertheless choose scarcity, so can we – despite living in a world defined by scarcity – choose abundance. That is the call of moral freedom; that is the call of a life lived in service of God and service to humanity; that is the call of the mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom


[1] Gen. 1:31.
[2] Gen. 2:16-17.
[3] cf. Gen. 2:15.
[4] Gen. 3:17-19.
[5] Beresheet Rabbah 22.7.
[6] Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 44-45.
[7] Twist, 47.
[8] Twist, 49-50.
[9] Or HaHayyim, Gen. 3:1.
[10] Twist, 50.
[11] Pirkei Avot 4.1.
[12] Kohelet Rabbah 1.13.
[13] Cf. Shlomo Yahalomi, Pninei Avot, 4.1.
[14] Twist, 53.
[15] The Hirsch Chumash, tr. Daniel Haberman (New York: Feldheim, 2009), Gen. 3:1.
[16] Hirsch, Gen. 3:1.
[17] Twist, 55.