Genesis - chapters 1-2
"In the beginning of God's creation of the heaven and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
The phrase "In the beginning" does not address the question when; it is the Torah definition of being. All created existence is perpetually in the beginning. Left to its own devices, creation would fade right back into the void the second the Almighty took His eyes off it, as it were. The Almighty not only created the universe, He must also sustain it by perpetually renewing the work of creation if He wants to keep it going.1
We make this point emphatically in our daily prayers. We begin the blessings of the Shema by declaring "He who illuminates the earth and those who dwell upon it with compassion; and in His goodness renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation."
This way of looking at the world differs sharply from the often advanced theory that the universe parted company with the creator 15 billion years ago upon the occurrence of the Big Bang. The theory goes something like this: No doubt the Big Bang was God's work, but then the laws of nature kicked in; the unfolding universe we inhabit has been shaped by the forces of nature as explained by science. Were this theory true, we would be released from the need to worry about the purpose and meaning of creation altogether. Whatever the meaning and purpose may have been, they are no longer relevant since we are no longer involved with God. He gave us life and existence and abandoned us to our own resources.
"In the beginning" rejects this theory. God must remain permanently involved to keep the universe running. He still takes an active, ongoing interest in the creation process and prevents it from fading right back into the void by ceaselessly injecting Divine creative force. Therefore the search for the purpose and meaning of creation is constantly relevant.2
What is this purpose?
"In the beginning" has an important implication. Constantly renewing means constantly giving; the Almighty is engaged in giving us creation full time, 24/7. Giving necessitates a recipient. As far as we are aware only living creatures have the capacity to enjoy the gift. It is hardly surprising that Judaism maintains that creation is an act of Divine benevolence.3
Consequence of Choices
But all conscious life forms are sensitive to pain as well as to pleasure, to suffering as well as joy. As we know to our cost, the universe we inhabit has pretty equal amounts of both. Why would an omniscient and omnipotent creator who created the universe for the sentient recipient create a world that contains so much pain and suffering? Surely He could have done a much better job!
The answer: God created the world in a perfectible state; a flawed universe with the potential for perfection. The perfect world we expect the Almighty to come up with is available, but we must bring it about through our own efforts.
"See I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil... I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live you and your offspring..." (Deut. 30:15-19).
Careful analyses of this passage leads to the following axioms:
- The world can be perfected through the exercise of free will.
- Free will involves distinguishing good from evil.
- The proper exercise of free will is based on the understanding that choosing good is choosing life and choosing evil is choosing death.
The consequence of correct choices is the perfect world we expect from the Almighty; wrong choices create the imperfect world we presently inhabit.4
This means that dolphins, whales and fruit flies are not the Almighty's intended recipients. Such creatures are incapable of appreciating abstractions like good or evil and therefore have no free will. If they were the Almighty's intended recipients He should have created an already perfect world – not one in need of perfecting. The Almighty declares that the world can only be perfected through the exercise of free will and only the human being has the power to improve the world.5
Perfecting this World
So why did the Almighty put us in a world with the arduous task of perfecting it?
It was no surprise to Him that a world full of pain and suffering was a likely result of allowing man to decide what the world should be like. After all it was the Almighty Himself who implanted the inclinations that made the path of evil-death-curse as attractive to man as the path of good-life-blessing. Even if the pain and suffering in the world are attributable to our own ill advised choices, these flawed choices were certainly predictable to the omniscient Almighty. Does it make sense to give man a perfectible world when it could go either way... man could fail to perfect it; or succeed in perfecting it?
But we must be careful here. On a global scale the preponderance of free will choices may have been consistently bad, but there were many individual human beings throughout history who followed the Almighty's advice and continually chose the good and avoided the evil. They should certainly be entitled to the perfect world the Almighty offered to those who choose the good. Yet these righteous individuals suffer the pain of this imperfect world along with the rest of us. How can a perfectly just Almighty treat so callously the people who followed His advice?
We must distinguish between the individual and the collective to make sense of it all. Indeed, Jewish tradition emphasizes precisely such a distinction. The deserving individuals of history will enjoy the perfect world for all time in the World to Come; when all is ready they will experience resurrection and resume life in a world of pure joy forever. In the meantime their souls wait in Gan Eden, a spiritual world full of joy where their souls experience the taste of the perfect future in the World to Come.6
But this essay is not about individual reward and punishment or the World to Come. It is this world that must be perfected; the next one is perfect from its very inception. All the souls the Almighty intended to create get their opportunity to exercise their free will in this world and add to its perfection. The World to Come will be inhabited by all those who contributed to perfecting the world we have and the quality of the perfection in that world will be the accumulated result of the achievement of all those who chose the 'good' while they had the opportunity to practice their free will in this one.7
So let us resume our search for the meaning and purpose of our perfectible world.
It is a well known saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But there is one exception: Infants and young children get everything absolutely free. Things begin to cost as we grow toward maturity. As we develop the capacity to harness our reason and learn to discipline ourselves, we are expected to gradually develop the ability to stand on our own two feet. We have no respect for mature adults who need the sort of constant support children require. A successful adult is an independent adult. It is to adults that we make the demand, "pay for your own lunch". Ironically, even when we are in the generous mode and feel like giving things away, we prefer to express our generosity by giving to people who could afford to pay for the things we give them anyway.
And in truth, even the things we give our children have strings attached – we regard the inputs we supply as investments in the future. We joyfully supply them gratis as long as we have reason to anticipate that down the road these inputs will enable our children to go out on their own, build their own lives independently and make us proud. That is what we call nachas.
It may be sad but it seems to be certainly true: we human beings rarely engage in unconditional giving.
The Torah has a simple explanation of why we are like this; we were created in God's likeness.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our own likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animal, the whole earth and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created man in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them... (Genesis 1:26-27)
The Perfectible World
When He created our perfectible world, The Almighty practiced benevolence toward us in the manner that we practice benevolence towards our own children. He gave us this word to teach us the life skills we require to live happily as independent adults capable of standing on their own two feet in the perfect world He had in mind for us.
The parallel to child rearing is not perfect; the Torah is about free will and choices. In our world we have to reach adulthood before we acquire control over our lives and are in a position to make our own choices. We raise children; the Almighty raises adults. Nevertheless, if we examine the choices the Almighty offers us in His Torah, the child rearing metaphor is positively striking.
The Torah's dictates, which are the Almighty's definition of 'good,' encompass the same areas of life we focus on in raising our children.
Kashrut: We teach our children to avoid the foods they are too young and inexperienced to recognize as threatening their health; the Almighty warns us against substances that we do not recognize as spiritually contaminating.
Illicit Relationships: We attempt to teach our children that well balanced people avoid emotionally crippling relationships and chance entanglements with potentially unsuitable people; in the same manner the Almighty warns us that spiritually healthy people must avoid entanglements that are hurtful to others and/or non productive.
Holy days: We attempt to educate our children to devote time to stimulating their minds through meditation and contemplation; the Almighty named Holy days to train us to immerse ourselves into the life of the spirit and devote ourselves to remembering the purpose of life.
Studying Torah: We try to impress on our children the importance of a sound education; the Almighty instructs us to study Torah so that we can know how to improve the quality of spiritual life for ourselves and for others.
Laws of Interpersonal Relationships: It is especially important to teach children that socially adjusted people are disciplined people who curb their natural instincts to fit seamlessly into society; choosing the Almighty's laws condition us to fit into the congregation of the Holy.
In other words, the Torah was given to us to give us the skills we need to outgrow our human limitations and learn how to stand on our own two feet as mature independent adults in the perfect world that awaits us.8
Love and Respect
We all love our babies but we cannot have respect for them. They are utterly helpless – they cannot even communicate their wants; all they can do is wail until we manage to figure out what ails them.
As our babies grow, the limitless unconditional love we extend them becomes linked with respect. A baby is a joy; a teenager who is still a baby is an enormous pain; an adult child who is still a baby is a tragedy and a source of the greatest anguish. If the Almighty wanted to love us like we love our babies he would have put us straight into the perfect world of our dreams.
He put us into the perfectible world we inhabit because He wants to love us in the manner that we love our adult children when they turn out well. There is no greater source of pride or joy in the world than the child that turns into a successful adult. No parent ever tires of such a child's company; any parent would gladly spend eternity in the company of such a child; even the admiration of such a child from a distance gives a parent a warm feeling in his heart.
The purpose of creation in Jewish thought is to produce just such a grownup child; a child who can merit even the Almighty's respect; in the words of Isaiah 49:3: "Israel in whom I take pride."
The Personal Angle
This conclusion is both awesome and exhilarating. On the one hand we look at ourselves and say, "Can I really grow into someone that the Almighty Himself can take pride in? Me?" But on the other hand, there is no other explanation for the world we live in; the Almighty really believes I can accomplish it. I can actually earn His respect; He actually wants to enjoy my companionship through eternity. Wow!
It also gives my life a focus and a purpose. Instead of merely aiming to survive my years on earth as pleasantly as possible without causing harm to anyone, I can actually aspire to make something of myself. People with an important mission and heavy responsibilities rarely consider comfort or even safety. When the lives of others depend on your decisions or even when a million dollars is at stake, who thinks or cares about comfort or convenience?
We human beings are too important to focus on the petty considerations and the minor frustrations of this earthly life. We have the opportunity to grow to unimaginable greatness; we were given the opportunity to become the chosen companions of the Almighty.9
- Maimonides (Fundamentals of Torah 1:3)
- Chafetz Chaim (Likutei Amarim 13)
- Deuteronomy 11:13-21
- Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Commentary on Genesis 3:1)
- Talmud – Brachot 5b; Maimonides (Commentary to Mishnah – Sanhedrin 10)
- Maimonides (Teshuva 5:5; 8:1-2)
- See Maharal (Gevurot Hashem 5-6)
- Maimonides (Commentary to Mishnah – Sanhedrin 10)