By Joanne Harmon
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1 – 6:8), tells the Creation story. In it, God creates the world, the natural elements, animals, and humans—as conscience beings. And from humankind’s first moments, we fail.
“Perfect is the enemy of good,” an aphorism often attributed to Voltaire, seems to apply at this moment. God, of course, is perfect, but what is created in God’s image—we humans—is not necessarily so. We are fallible—tremendously so.
Bereshit marks the beginning of the annual Jewish Torah reading cycle, the beginning of humankind, and our seemingly inherent ability to get things wrong. In fact, it would seem as though our first attempt at almost everything is flawed—maybe not maliciously so, but, well, in a human way.
Do we always fail because we are trying to match our efforts against those of God? However humble we may be, is that not our intention, to be like our Creator?
The metaphor of the creation story and our inevitable fantastic disappointments are elements we seem to return to again and again in modern literature: Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” are just two examples, among many, in which humans try to create in God’s image. Aldus Huxley’s “Brave New World” and almost the entire oeuvre of George Orwell’s written work plays upon the themes of a perfect society ruined by its own intentions.
Films, too, regularly appropriate aspects of Bereshit as part of their narrative. For example, “Ex-Machina” reinvents “Prometheus Unbound” from a female android’s perspective. The so-called Eden turned in on itself or discovering its true reality appears generally as part of some sort of dystopian anthology. “The Terminator,” “The Matrix,” and “The Hunger Games,” offer a few examples of such a dystopia, and there are countless others. We just don’t get it right, again and again.
Why do we keep telling ourselves this story and thus reiterating our failure within in it? Why is consciousness of this weakness so important that we ruminate on it—even in popular entertainment?
Perhaps it is to remind ourselves that no matter what our advances—environmental, philosophical, or technological—even as we create, we are often capable of even greater destruction.
The Eternal said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”— (Genesis 6:3)
God understood, after many generations, that we humans would not “outgrow” our flaws, but instead of wiping us off the earth entirely, the Eternal gave us a limited lifespan—planned obsolescence if you will— making us aware that we are limited, fragile, and not ever-present as is the Creator. Yet we still strive to achieve, and perhaps we try even harder because of our short, little lives.
Is that why we humans rush to identify the next generation that will take on tasks at which we, the previous one, has failed? First there was the Greatest Generation, followed by the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials or Gen Y, Gen Z, and now Generation Alpha. “Alpha” denotes them as the first generation born in the 21st century, and, as children of the infamous Millennials, burdened with so much expectation, even in their labelling. Good luck to them!
And so, the cycle perpetuates. We embrace and encourage this theory again and again—in ourselves and in all that we create. Think of each new generation of technology. Just as we may be prone to wait in line or online for the next edition of a product, does God favor each new generation as it comes into being, presuming that the flaws of the previous version have been resolved by the conscious review of them by the members of that previous generation?
One can only hope.
This perspective, however, presents a solely negative view, as if we need only to rebel, reject the actions of the previous generation, and we may automatically do better. It can be likened, too, to a pendulum, swinging wildly from one generation to the next—not only negative, but dangerous as well.
Where does the concept of L’dor v’dor | לדור ודור from generation to generation, a constant refrain in Jewish theology, fit into this scenario? From one generation to the next, precious gifts and legacies are passed down—Torah, wisdom, and Israel, the spiritual center of the Jewish people.
As a friend and colleague recently reminded me:
Even though human beings are fallible, we are still capable of accomplishing great and worthy things, and even influence God Himself. Abraham was able to influence God in regard to destroying Sodom. Moses influenced God in regard to destroying the Jewish people following the Golden Calf.
She went on to share this teaching with me, which she read many years ago in this article in “Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation”:
“Fortunate is a generation,” remarks the Talmud, “whose leaders must atone for their sins.” This does not mean, the Talmud assures us, that we should desire wicked leaders, but that only a generation whose leaders overcame their own flaws can genuinely inspire their subjects to act likewise. (Horayot10b)
“There are no perfect characters in the Bible,” she said in closing. “We can relate to these figures because of that, and they can even inspire us.”
So, as one generation challenges the next—“Do better than we have…leave the world better than you found it”—might we not say that the only way to learn, to be greater, and even to motivate this upcoming generation, is simply to keep reading (and watching) the Creation story, seeing it as God’s cautionary tale and the ultimate user’s guide for our lives? Obsolescence, yes, but with a larger plan in mind.