Sermon: Wenger and Genesis – Rabbi Dr Michael Marmur

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 29 October 2016

It is well known and I hope uncontroversial that one of the greatest exegetical commentators was a Frenchman. Known to us by his acronym Rashi, he lived a thousand years or so ago. He said of the first verses of the Book of Genesis – this text calls out: interpret me! It is perhaps less well known that a pungent contemporary reading of aspects of Genesis has been provided in recent years known less as a commentator than as a manager.

Of all the top flight managers currently at work in the United Kingdom, the one responsible for the most acute insights on this week’s Torah portion is Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal.

I will spare you the impersonation, but here are some of his comments on the early chapters of the Book of Genesis:

“I have not created humans. That is God, if he exists. He didn’t make us perfect so we have to live with that. Even in paradise, Adam was not happy! We are on Earth here so I can understand that people are very demanding.”

“We have to live with exaggerations and I can do that. I honestly never believed that I was God and I’m absolutely completely conscious of that,”

“Religiously, it is said that God created man. I am only a guide. I allow others to express what they have in them. I have not created anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man.”

Let’s unpack some of this. Wenger says that the only true creator is God, who (it is implied) has the only claim to perfection.

The idea of God’s supreme perfection is certainly to be found within the three millennia of speculation about the act of creation within Jewish discourse. Interestingly, it is by no means the only image to be found within our tradition. Indeed, some readings of the creation account make God look remarkably like the manager of a sports team or the director of a play, trying to work out how best to deal with unexpected injuries, offences and dramas.

Take the waters, for example, described  on the second day of creation. In verses 6 and 7 of the first chapter God orders that the waters be divided, some going beneath the skies and some above.

In the Rabbinic imagination, this was the scene of a great crisis. God said, I want you all to split up, and the waters refused. By some accounts it was because they could not bear to be apart, and by others it was because none of the waters was prepared to take the bottom bunk. This, according to some readings, is why of all days the second day is not described as good. Because it was the day on which among other things, conflict was created, and division, and strife. We may perhaps have an answer to the question first asked by Bob Geldof: tell me why I don’t like Mondays.

There is another example of this image as God the manager, the ruffler of feathers and the smoother of ruffled feathers, on the fourth day:

ספר בראשית פרק א

(טז) וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים אֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם וְאֶת הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים:

Some Talmudic sages noted that there is an inconsistency in the verse, since it mentions two great luminaries at the beginning, and then by the end, one is small and one is great. Here is how the Talmud understands the events:

(1) תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ס/ב

רבי שמעון בן פזי רמי כתיב ויעש אלהים את שני המאורות הגדולים וכתיב את המאור הגדול ואת המאור הקטן אמרה ירח לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך אמרה לפניו רבש”ע הואיל ואמרתי לפניך דבר הגון אמעיט את עצמי אמר לה לכי ומשול ביום ובלילה אמרה ליה מאי רבותיה דשרגא בטיהרא מאי אהני אמר לה זיל לימנו בך ישראל ימים ושנים אמרה ליה יומא נמי אי אפשר דלא מנו ביה תקופותא דכתיב והיו לאותות ולמועדים ולימים ושנים זיל ליקרו צדיקי בשמיך יעקב הקטן שמואל הקטן דוד הקטן חזייה דלא קא מיתבא דעתה אמר הקב”ה הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי את הירח

  1. Simeon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And God made the two great lights,2 and immediately the verse continues: The greater light . . . and the lesser light. The moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown’? He answered: ‘Go then and make thyself smaller’. ‘Sovereign of the Universe’! cried the moon, ‘Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller’? He replied: ‘Go and thou wilt rule by day and by night’. ‘But what is the value of this’? cried the moon; ‘Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight’? He replied: ‘Go. Israel shall reckon by thee the days and the years’. ‘But it is impossible’, said the moon, ‘to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons, as it is written: And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years’.3 ‘Go. The righteous shall be named after thee4 as we find, Jacob the Small,5 Samuel the Small,6 David the Small’,7 On seeing that it would not be consoled the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller’. This is what was meant by R. Simeon b. Lakish when he declared: Why is it that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written concerning it unto the Lord?8 Because the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.

This is not God the infallible creator, the Special One – to use the language of football managers – but rather God who is trying to manage, trying to work out the consequences, intended and otherwise of the creative impulse. Note by the way, that in this story two luminaries are locked in a struggle for power, one trumps the other – little has changed. Although in the Bible the whole thing ends with a power-sharing arrangement.

In our day, human creativity is often divided into four categories: fluency, flexibility, originality, elaboration. We can think of them as brainstorming, codeswitching, innovation, embroidery.

The God I believe in is not fixed to the role of a winner of battles or all-knowing superhero. Rather, by accepting that I – that we – are not the ultimate source of fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration – we may hear the call of the God of fluency and plurality, the God of flexibility and openness to new paradigms, the God of originality and possibility, and yes also the God of elaboration, of maintenance, of embroidery.

At least according to some readings of our text, God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. While, as Rabbi Wenger has reminded us, we are not God, it is worth pointing out that for us too great creativity does not only come out of what we have, but also out of our sense of , our yearning for, perhaps our rage about, what we lack.

Let’s stick for a moment with the connection between creation and embroidery, the inflection point and needlepoint. In a parallel version of the creation account, in Psalm 104, God is described thus:

ספר תהילים פרק קד

(ב) עֹטֶה אוֹר כַּשַֹּלְמָה נוֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם כַּיְרִיעָה:

Wraps light as a garment, and stretches out the heavens like a tent.

Here is another perhaps subversive image of the creative God, creating the fabric of existence. We are not God. We don’t create ex nihilo. But we do create out of what is there and what isn’t. Plenty and lack are our tools, substance and absence.

Wenger insists he is not creative, but rather he just provides a platform for the creativity and beauty inherent in others. Actually, this is surely one of the great expressions of human creativity – allowing it to burst forth in others.

Ethan, you are surrounded by profoundly creative people, who in art and literature, medicine and training, through voice and heart, are committed to that blend of humility and creativity.

You wear today a garment, embroidered by your savta. She has embroidered prayer  shawls for all her grandchildren and other members of the family too, and her connection with this ritual item goes back over seventy years, when the guards in the concentration camp where she and her mother were inmates would only allow the women to wear underwear cut up from tallitot, from ritual shawls. Decades later, she found that the creation of bespoke shawls, each telling the story of the portion read on a special day, was her way of creating height from depth, wrapping light out of the darkness.

Ethan, those who know and love you in your family and community wish you creativity. Will yours be the creativity of a Mozart, of whom it is said that fully-formed musical ideas would just flow? Or that of Beethoven, whose manuscripts are full of corrections and erasures? Will yours be the creativity of fluency, of flexibility, of originality, of elaboration? Your portion is creation. In the years to come you will work out your own commentary, you will manage it your way.

Arsene Wenger has admitted he is not God. Who are we to argue with him? God has so far refused to comment. These acts of recruiting, nurturing, mentoring, organizing, pacifying, deploying, changing – these are human acts of creativity. So are canopy-spreading, wrapping, and beautifying. Imagining God is beyond our capacity. We are invited to imagine our best selves, and to work for a world in which all can experience fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration. We are not God, but we are invited to  take on roles, as managers, as wrappers of cloth.

These and other acts of creativity should be celebrated and valued in a world of nihilism and destruction. In a world where one luminary tries to trump the other, we should value the creativity of peacebuilding. In a world where a religious object can be debased out of cruelty, we should celebrate the creativity and action which can redeem a cloak from darkness, and wrap us in light.

How did Rabbi Wenger put it? “I have not created anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful.” He’s wrong – to facilitate, and motivate, to allow what is beautiful to be spread out like a garment, that is also to create.

May all of us on this Shabbat of creation be wrapped in light.