Her, or maybe his, name is Garranga’rreli. She or he is greatly to be feared. One day a group of people were sheltering under an overhanging rock. A woman had a child on her hip. The child was hungry and tired and it kept crying. To soothe it the woman went to find a sweet lily root and that pacified the baby for a while. But when night came it began to cry again. In her tiredness, and in the dark, by mistake the woman gave her child a sour lily root, whose taste made the child bellow with upset.
Garranga’rreli, the rainbow serpent, hates noise. She, or he, erupted from his, or her, nearby resting place in the water hole and ate everyone in the camp. Later, relatives of the eaten came to the rock and painted the rainbow serpent across its walls. For thousands of years children have been taken to this wall to see Garranga’rreli for she, or he, has a lesson to teach. The elders of the tribes explain that the woman with the baby was a single mother. The baby cried and no-one helped her. She made a mistake, because she was tired and no-one helped her. So the children see the great rainbow ark of the serpent spreading across the rock face at the centre of what is today Kakadu National Park, in the Northern Territories of Australia, and they learn the importance of community, of helping others.
Across the Red Centre of Australia there are many such rock paintings, some thousands of years old, some from the twentieth century. And all tell a different story that teaches the next generation how to behave.
Zoli and I stood in front of this painting of Garranga’rreli last month. And I said to Zoli: “Wow, this is the Torah, for the First Nations of Australia, written on rock.” All these paintings are another version of the stories and laws written in our Torah scroll. And I thought of you Josh, a long way away in England, learning your Torah portion about our Jewish serpent, about Adam and Eve and of what that story comes to teach us.
Today is all about beginnings. From today, you are now counted as an adult in the Jewish world. It is truly a new beginning for you. And in synagogues all over the world this Shabbat Jews are reading from the first chapters of the Torah, from parashat Bereishit, the Torah portion that describes the beginning of the world and the start of the human story.
In the first chapter of Genesis, just before the section that we read this morning, God creates by speaking. God spoke and light emerged; God spoke and the sky came into being; God spoke and the land appeared; God spoke and vegetation grew; God spoke and the sun, moon and stars filled the sky; God spoke and animals walked the earth; God spoke and humanity came into being. God creates out of language, out of words.
On the fifth and sixth days of creation God suddenly does something new – God blesses what has been created. Nothing before this point has been blessed; on the fifth day animals appear and on the sixth day more animals and us. It is sentient life that God is blessing. First God creates us from words and then God blesses us with words. And God creates us, says the text, btselem elohim, in the image of God. We humans reflect the divine image of God the Creator.
In the nineteenth century an archaeologist discovered an amazing set of seven stone tablets in the ruins of Nineveh, in Iraq. They turned out to be an ancient Babylonian creation story, which is now known by its very first words Enuma Elish, which means “When skies above.”
Enuma Elish tells how Apsu and Tiamat create, out of chaos, all the gods and the goddesses that rule the earth. And all these gods fight with one another until one god, Marduk, rules over them all. This Marduk then creates humanity and after humanity has been created, in the seventh tablet all the gods rest.
In both style and content there are many similarities to our Genesis story. It seems clear that the Israelite creation story comes from the same source as this ancient story. But the difference between the Genesis story and Emuna Elish is striking. The God of Genesis uses words, and not war and weapons, to establish the world out of chaos, before God rests on the seventh day. And, perhaps most revolutionary of all, where Marduk creates humanity to be enslaved for the gods’ personal use, God creates us in God’s divine image to be partners in creation. The Babylonian myth speaks to what is most base in us. The brilliance of Genesis is that it turns all that around and exhorts us instead to seek the divine spark that resides in each one of us.
Josh, I have known you all your life. I know you to be a great guy, funny, warm, smart and brilliant at sport. So if I had one message for you this morning it would be never to forget that divine spark, that little bit of the image of God, that hides within you. Well, that sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? I think it means that, as a Jewish adult now, you should use all your abilities not just for yourself but for others too, as I am sure you will. Being partners in creation with God means that we have a duty, an obligation, to leave this world a better place than we found it. A duty to help God to bring creation closer to perfection. Choose your battles Josh, choose how you want to make this world a fairer place for the people who live here. Like all of us, you will only be able to do what you can. But the point is, if we all do what we can, if we all strive to make this planet a more humane place then our individual efforts add up to something that can alter lives. In one of our sacred texts, Pirke Avot, the Chapters of the Ancestors, Rabbi Tarfon says: “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.” So I challenge you Josh on your Bar Mitzvah – how will you help us to change the world in a small way? You don’t have to answer that now. But never forget that, as a Jew, it is part of your job description.
But Genesis is also realistic. It knows it is not easy to live up to that divine image. And so immediately following the Creation story comes the story that you read today, a story of human suffering. Adam and Eve are created on the sixth day; but on that same day they betray the trust of God and are expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Midrash, a story from the rabbis, tells us that Adam was expelled from Eden in the twilight time just before the first ever Shabbat. Out in a dangerous new world he was safe, as long as Shabbat lasted. But at twilight on Saturday he began to fear that the snake would return to kill him. So God sent a pillar of fire to protect and comfort him and to remind Adam that, despite everything, God still loved him. Adam stretched out his hand towards the fire and blessed the One who creates the light of the fire. He blessed or, the Hebrew word for light, which was created on the first day.
We think of light as emanating from the sun, but according to Genesis the sun was not created until the fourth day, so the or created on the first day is a miraculous light that comes directly from God. The or that God sends to Adam at the end of the first Shabbat is a sign that God’s light, God’s presence, God’s love, never leaves us, however far we stray. Enuma Elish knows nothing of this divine love and compassion. Every Saturday night many Jews perform the Havdallah ceremony, to mark the end of Shabbat. They stretch out their hands towards the light of a braided candle and they make the same blessing as Adam did on that first Shabbat. So, week after week we are reminded by the candle light that God put love into the world. And I believe that that love shows itself by how one human treats another.
The final line that we heard this morning reads: “And God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” The Hebrew for skin is Or, spelled ayin vav reish. The Hebrew for light is Or, but spelled aleph vav reish. The two words sound the same and so another midrash tells us that, even as they are being punished, God is clothing them, not in animal skins, but in divine light.
Our tradition could not say it more clearly: that part of ourselves which is made in the image of God, that divine light, is always with us, we are clothed in it, if we care to search for it. In our lives we have a choice: do we behave towards each other like the gods of Enuma Elish with war, weapons and slavery? No, we must never abandon the search for the divine image in every human face, however painful that may sometimes be. Josh, never forget in your life that we must use words, those building blocks from which creation springs, in order to solve the problems that exist between us as individuals and as nations, words and not fists, words and not weapons. Josh you are blessed to speak two languages fluently. Use those words carefully to help us build that better world we all want. Our central prayer as Jews is the Shma, which means “listen” or “hear”. The Shma reminds us we must listen to, really hear, each other’s voices, whatever religion we are, whatever nationality we are. Like God, we need to try and show love to every human being, whoever they are.
You are so fortunate that you are becoming Bar Mitzvah in this fantastic, caring, Reform community that has managed to build this beautiful synagogue that is ecologically sensitive and which is constructed from materials from sustainable sources. It is a modern building designed not to damage God’s creation. As a Reform Jew you have the choice to live within our traditions and still to be fully a part of the modern world. So keep studying our ancient, and yet very modern, Torah and also be open to the wisdom of the Aboriginal people of Australia or whatever other culture takes your fancy. But if you can, remain an active part of the Jewish community, wherever you find yourself. Pirke Avot also says: “Don‘t separate yourself from the community.” We will always be here for you. And I am sure that you will also play a part in many other communities – sporting, scientific, artistic – who knows? Surprise us! Just do the most that you can with the gifts that God has given you.
Today is a day of celebration! Mazel tov! Enjoy, party, have fun! And tomorrow start changing the world!
For it is possible to change our world for the better, for individuals and for nations, but only when you and I work to make it happen. God creates the light, it is up to us to stretch out our hands towards it. Josh, as God blessed the world, as Adam blessed the light, so may you always be richly blessed. And may you always give many blessings to others in return.