By Michael Berkson, BATY (Temple Beth Am, Framingham, MA)
It has been three and one-half weeks since NFTY-NE December Institute 5772, but that is not long enough to forget the incredible friends and lessons that I cannot wait to rejoin at NFTY-NE’s next event (MANTY’s Winter Wonderland is only three weeks away!).
This Institute’s theme was “Takes and Mistakes.” The event included several programs teaching the participants how mistakes are important because they are the best learning opportunities. One program that I found especially enlightening was the faculty led program, or Shiur. The focus of the Shiur was biblical mistakes: each faculty member prepared a discussion of a different story from the Torah that involved a mistake that we as Jews can learn from.
I was in group 4 for this program, along with my friend Zoe Summit, who happens to be the NFTY-NE regional president. One of our faculty group leaders led a discussion of the story of Adam and Eve. Our group leader briefed us on the story: God told Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then God created Eve, whom the serpent persuaded to eat from the Tree, and as punishment God banished them from the Garden of Eden.
At the end of the story, our group leader asked us, “What is the mistake?”
The obvious answer is Eve’s choice to eat the apple from the Tree. However, whose word did Eve have to go on? Not God’s. Since God created Eve after warning Adam about the Tree, Eve had no way of knowing that any Divine Being commanded Adam not to eat the Forbidden Fruit. Therefore, she simply had to choose between Adam’s word and the serpent’s. And how could she have known whose word was better if, having not yet eaten from the tree, she could not yet discern good from evil?! Our awesome Shiur group just brought this program to a whole new level, and “my mind,” as Zoe put it, “was just blown.”
So if Eve’s decision was not a mistake, then what was? Our group leader suggested that maybe there was no mistake. God was simply testing Eve—not a pass-or-fail test, but an experiment. God wanted to see how Eve would respond so that God could deal with humanity accordingly. And it is because of Eve’s decision to have Knowledge of Good and Evil that humankind left the Garden, became fruitful, and multiplied; the human race has grown beyond those first two people because of Eve’s decision.
After we finished this discussion, the group leaders all rotated. Our next group leader led a discussion about the story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers whose competition for God’s favorite sacrificial offering led to Cain killing his brother in a fit of jealously. After our group came to the consensus that the mistake of the story was Cain’s impulsive murder, our group leader posed another question:
“What would have happened if Cain had controlled his anger and not killed Abel?”
This really got group 4 thinking. First, what were the consequences of Cain’s actions? Adam and Eve’s last remaining son was cursed by God as punishment for the murder of his brother. Next, we wondered how that affected what would become the human race. We then remembered that God flooded the earth, sparing Noah, because the entire world was evil. Could this be because the entire world descended from a man who was cursed by God? And does that mean that, had Cain not killed his brother and received the curse, Noah would have lived among a world made up only of righteous people? Had that been the case, would God not have sent a flood to destroy humanity? Our group leader’s one hypothetical question opened up a whole new can of worms that our awesome, insightful group was dying to explore.
But at this point, we were stuck, so Zoe and I approached Rabbi Matt Cutler, a long time NFTY-NE faculty member, to see how much further he could take us in our hypothetical biblical rewrite. Immediately Rabbi Matt brought up an important point, something Zoe and I had not considered: we had forgotten the influence of God in the situation.
We as Jews essentially believe that God is all-powerful. We also believe, especially as Reform Jews, that the Torah is not to be taken simply at face value; the stories in it have important moral lessons to be learned. Therefore, Rabbi Matt suggested that if Cain had not killed his brother, God would have tugged humanity’s fate in a different direction, so that somewhere some other biblical character could teach us that killing is immoral and that it is important to control our anger and jealousy.
Rabbi Matt then brought up a moment in biblical history that our group had not reached yet: enslavement in Egypt. Maybe, if God had never sent a flood as Zoe and I previously hypothesized, the Hebrews would never have become slaves in Egypt. However, God would have manipulated the fates of the descendants of Abraham so that they wound up as slaves in Egypt some other way. This slavery was important to God because without slavery, the Hebrews would never have known or appreciated freedom. God wanted the Hebrews to experience this freedom because God wanted to give us a reason to renew our faith, in a renewal that was so holy and awesome that it would carry the Jewish people for millennia: all the way to December Institute 5772 and beyond.
Shiur is always one of the major programs that I look forward to every Institute. And I think that it is because of the incredible people leading the program groups. Faculty members like Rabbi Matt do this stuff for a living; they teach Jewish values at home as well as in NFTY. I love Shiur because of the intellectual, eye-opening, enlightening discussions that members of NFTY-NE faculty bring to the table.