Technological Progress and Moral Development (Sermon for Parashat Bereishit) September 27, 2013

        We are finally back to normal!  After a month of both solemn and joyous celebrations, we are observing our first ordinary Shabbat since last June.  In fact, however, no Shabbat is ordinary.  Every Shabbat is a special day of rest and peace, of learning and prayer.  Every Shabbat is a break from daily toil and the struggle for our daily bread.  Shabbat is an opportunity for spiritual and physical refreshment, for a break in the mundane, for a few hours of intellectual and emotional empowerment, as we spend time learning about our sacred Tradition as well as ourselves.

         This week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, is the parashah in our holy text.  Since we re-rolled to Torah yesterday during our celebration of Simchat Torah, we start again at the beginning.  That does not mean, however, that our insights into the text are mundane, for each time we read Torah we learn something new.  Allow me to share with you something new I have learned from the study of commentaries, something that seems obvious but is quite profound.

         One of the ways we learn about the uniqueness of the Torah is to compare it to Mesopotamian religion of the time.  According to their ancient myths, the Mesopotamian gods founded civilization and gave humans the skills of agriculture, animal husbandry and the ability to build cities.  Humans were simply the recipients of these gifts.  Every aspect of human society was decreed by the gods.[1]  In contrast, we learn in the Torah that Cain, Adam and Eve’s son was the first to build a city.  Several generations later, three brothers, descendants of Cain, Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval Cain, invented the herding of animals, music, and metallurgy. Another descendant, Enoch, invented the worship of God while Noah planted the first vineyard and Nimrod built the first empire.  In the Torah, in contrast to Mesopotamian myths, humans are the creators of their own culture.

         Yet is the Torah telling us something in addition?  Cain, the builder of cities, is also the first person to commit murder when, in a jealous rage, he murdered his brother Abel.  Perhaps the Torah is telling us that “the culture humans develop is profoundly intertwined with violence.” [2]

         The father of the inventors, Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval Cain, Lamech, is best known for his boasting (Genesis 4:23-24) of killing a boy.  Bible scholar Derek Kidner explains, “Cain’s family is a microcosm:  its pattern of technical prowess and moral failure is that of humanity…Lamech’s taunt song reveals the swift progress of sin.  Where Cain had succumbed to it (4:7), Lamech exults in it;  where Cain has sought protection (4:14-15), Lamech looks round for provocation; the savage disproportion of killing a mere lad for a mere wound is the whole point of his boast.”[3] 

         What is the Torah trying to teach us?  “Seven generations of achievement have passed since Cain’s killing of his brother, and yet, Lamech teaches us, people are more bloodthirsty, not less.  Progress in civilization and progress in cruelty are manifestly not mutually exclusive.  People can adore Mozart even as they murder innocent children…the Jewish view is neither that human beings are inherently good nor inherently bad.  The Jewish view is that human beings are inherently complicated, pulled in many directions at once, capable of breathtaking kindness as well as horrific and staggering indifference.”[4]

         If we lived a hundred years ago, before the start of World War One, and we attended a service at the Eutaw Street Temple, we would read from the progressive and optimistic Union Prayer Book and may have heard a sermon about the moral and technological progress of humanity leading towards the Messianic Age.  Just two years later, any progress towards a better world was shattered in the trenches of Verdun and the fields of Ypres as the technological marvels of artillery, machine guns, and poison gas killed young men by the hundreds of thousands.  Any idea that technological advancement equals moral progress never survived Auschwitz.  The same civilization that extolled Bach and Beethoven built the extermination camps. 

         We live in a complex society in which we debate how many rounds a clip in an assault rifle can contain as well as how to prevent the Syrian government from killing its own citizens with poison gas.  It seems that we are technological giants and moral midgets.  Yet there is more to the story than this sad commentary.  Today, in contrast to other eras, we recognize that all of humanity is linked together, that what happens in Darfur and Syria is a commentary upon us, that we have a responsibility not just for our families and the Jewish community, but for all people, whether those who live in Baltimore’s inner city and those who live thousands of miles away.  In today’s global society, in which communication is instantaneous, we understand another very important lesson that we learn from Cain-that we are, indeed, our brother’s keepers.  We have an obligation to care for the Jewish people and for all humanity.

        Amen and Shabbat shalom

[1] Commentary of Bereishit by Rabbi Shai Held, 5774.

[2] Ibid, page 2.

[3] Ibid, page 3.

[4] Ibid, page 4.

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