Bereishit. Begin, again.
It is curious that we don’t begin reading Bereishit on Rosh HaShanah. It is, after all, the start of the year and is also Yom Har’at Olam, the day the world was born, surely an apt time to read the story of creation.
Instead, we wait until the end of the cycle of Tishreifestivals to launch ourselves into Genesis, where, between the dramatic events at the start of first book (the creation and expulsion from Eden) and the end of parasha cliff-hanger (in which God decides to destroy humanity), we encounter a long list of lives. What are we to make of Jared, Methuselah and Kenan, each of whom we are told lived for more than 900 years? What can we understand from the twenty-plus names of Adam’s descendants?
The Torah includes two lists of antediluvians: the first are the descendants of Cain, credited with establishing cities, creating weapons and discovering music. This grouping is paralleled by a second, more detailed list, which recounts the details of the descendants of Seth, Eve’s third son. This second list is a series of careful calculations, noting when each man fathered their first child, the years they lived after that point and the total length of their lives. Are these lists of long-lived ancestors included as a form of veneration, or is there is something else going on here?
As anyone who has tried to create, write, draw or make something probably acknowledges, it is easy to give up, to throw away your first attempt and start again. So it could easily have been with God and the newly created world. It didn’t work out – let’s rip it up and just start again. But that isn’t the Genesis narrative. God, the Torah shows, didn’t give up on humanity when Cain brutally murdered Abel, when Lamech behaved horrifically, nor when humanity created cities (perceived as degenerate places) or developed metal weapons. Instead God, patiently waited through ten long generations before making the decision to focus on the best and scrap the rest.
There is an important message for us here. We live in a society in which we are all too quick to demand instant results, to dismiss those who don’t succeed first time around. Whether in sport, politics or our personal lives, our human lack of patience is ever present.
Each autumn, as summer begins to fade, we take the same journey, re-living the excitement of creation and a new world, before we see that world descend into tragedy for ten generations. This could be depressing, but in our post-Yom Kippur state we can find inspiration from this long list of names. We too have made mistakes, but we don’t need to let our past failures doom us. With patience, we can find a way to salvage the best from our past. Perhaps is it only in our post-Yom Kippur, post-atonement state that we are ready to read the Bereishit narrative of a re-start, and be in a position, like God, to begin again.
Marc Shoffren is the head of Alma Primary, an inclusive Jewish school in Finchley. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti and father of two exceptional daughters.