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Parshat Bereishit

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With the campaigns for the presidency of the United States in full swing people are beginning to imagine the inaugural address that will be delivered this coming January 20. Especially this year, when the candidates offer such different visions for America, rhetoric enthusiasts are expecting whoever wins to deliver an inspiring speech designed to provide a strategy and game plan for the country to move forward.

The challenge for all modern presidents when they deliver their inaugural address is that they are inevitably compared to John F. Kennedy’s classic. As history has so far demonstrated, unlike Olympic records, Kennedy’s address has to date not been surpassed. While most people remember his “Ask not…” exhortation, I would like to focus on a sentence from the beginning of his speech – a sentence infused, simultaneously, with the deep hope and fear that was the product of years of thought and concern on Kennedy’s part.

After his salutary comments, Kennedy described: “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Kennedy truly feared the dangers inherent in nuclear weapons. In his announcement in 1946 that he would be running for Congress, Kennedy stated, “We have a world which has unleashed the powers of atomic energy. We have a world capable of destroying itself.”

According to Richard Tofel, in his book analyzing Kennedy’s inaugural address, Sounding the Trumpet (2005), JFK contemplated for many years whether democracy as an ideology and way of life would be able to survive the challenges of totalitarianism. “With the advent of nuclear weapons, this uncertainty took on apocalyptic overtones…” (p.95). In his 1958 speech to Washington’s Gridiron Club, Kennedy articulated his concerns very clearly. “The question is—whether a democratic society—with its freedom of choice—its breadth of opportunity—its range of alternatives—can meet the single-minded advance of the Communists….Can a nation organized and governed as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Have we got what it takes to carry through in an age where—as never before—our very survival is at stake—where we and the Russians have the power to destroy one-quarter of the earth’s population—a feat not accomplished since Cain slew Abel?”

By the time he delivered his inaugural address Kennedy’s thoughts had developed and he challenged humanity to overcome the man-made threats to the world. The problem was whether the technology had outpaced its moral masters. While Kennedy in 1958 referred to Cain murdering his brother as a dire warning of the stakes at play, one of the broad themes of this week’s parsha captures the essence of the challenge. There are inherent dangers in knowledge when it is used inappropriately – without the metaphoric brakes being there to pace the engine of progress properly.

The Torah relates (2:17) that G-d granted Adam permission to enjoy all the bounty of the Garden of Eden with the exception of the Tree of Knowledge. The commentators throughout the centuries have analyzed the reason for this prohibition. Whatever the actual reason was, it is indisputable that after Adam and Eve ate from the tree, the world was never the same. Not only did death become part of nature’s course, the very knowledge attained through the act of eating hastened the process.

Carefully examining the events which followed Adam and Eve’s sin it becomes clear that they share a common theme. While human beings made tremendous discoveries, invented life-changing technologies and developed an appreciation for the arts, they did so without moral restraint. Rashi explains (4:20) that Yaval, who is credited with technological advances, adapted his engineering technology to build temples for idolatry. Likewise, his brother Yuval, who is credited with inventing musical instruments, did so for idolatrous purposes. Their cousin Tuval Cain, who invented metallurgy, did so in order to provide weapons for murderers.

All three played critical roles in the advancement of human development. Their efforts would probably earn them a Nobel Prize today. But when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge he lost for his children the moral restraints necessary to control knowledge. His descendants used their knowledge for nefarious purposes and helped plant the seeds for the world’s destruction. Not until Noach do we encounter a person who used knowledge in a controlled manner, developing useful agricultural tools and methods. His name derives from the Hebrew word for consolation, for he truly improved the human condition. Unlike the other inventors in the parsha, Noach had no ulterior motives. His was solely to help humankind. Tragically, as we’ll read in next week’s parsha, his efforts were too little, too late to save the world. They were, however, enough to start the world anew.

Leaders must respect and fear the power they hold. When used wisely and with humility, the power can help them advance their causes and make the world a better place. If, however, they fall victim to hubris and abandon all restraint, they will not only destroy their own organizations, but in today’s globalized and interconnected world they will harm many others as well. They should always remember Kennedy’s warning that the power to save, if misused, can destroy.

Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at mdrabbi@aol.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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