October 22, 2008
A ‘Clue’ about creation
Parshat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
I loved this game as a kid. When we started to play, I realized Clue was a great metaphor for creation -- the story of how we came into being, the greatest mystery of life. And like Clue, the one thing that is not a part of the creation story is "why"? Why did any of the suspects commit the crime? Why did God create the world? Why are we here in this life?
We cannot and should not look to the Bible for the origin of the universe, but rather, according to Aviva Zornberg, a modern genius of biblical scholarship, we should look to Genesis as "describing the potentialities of purpose.... What is given at the beginning challenges the human to the self-transformations that will him/her, in spite of everything, to stand in the presence of God" ("The Beginning of Desire," p. 36; egalitarian language in italics is mine).
From the beginning, this existence is intimately connected to our relationship with our Creator. For without the breath of life, the divine gift that enables us to come alive, we would only be dust and dirt, a clump of earth with no distinguishable character. The mystery of life dwells in the fact that while we might get closer and closer to understanding how the world came into being, we will never be able to solve the question of "why."
For that, we need our faith, our traditions, our Torah and our God. The purpose of religious life, therefore, becomes what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called the answer to the most profound question that faces us. This is not an answer to the question of origin, but rather an answer to the question of meaning.
We are facing a world today that, according to Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, is more dangerous and seemingly out of our control that at any other time in recent history. Our economic crisis and global poverty, Darfur, global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- just to name a few -- are all challenges we must confront. And yet the language of creation, the mysterious words of Bereshit come to remind us that all is not lost or hopeless. Since the beginning of time we have found ways to kill and dominate each other; according to the end of the parsha this week, we have been evil and mean spirited since the very beginning. However, the message of God, through the language of the Torah and the lessons of Genesis 1, teaches us that we are meant to be partners with the Divine, meant to figure out different and holier ways to coexist with one another, and that compassion, love, justice and peace will always win out in the end. That is what it means to be created in the image of God, betzelem elohim, as we are told in Bereshit. The road back to Eden winds through all people, and tikkun olam (repairing the world) is our universal path to replanting the very Garden that we were evicted from, back to the place God called tov meod (very good). That is the essence of my theology and how I understand Rabbi David Wolpe's powerful new book "Why Faith Matters."
There is a famous midrash surrounding the creation of the human being in Genesis 1 that has always intrigued me. The Torah indicates through the plural language, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness" (Genesis 1:26), that God consulted with someone or something before creating us. Most of the commentators think that God talked to the angels, the heavenly court, for advice on the creation. However, one powerful midrash from Genesis Rabbah 8:5 teaches the following in the name of Rabbi Simon: "When the Holy One came to create the first human being, Love said, 'Let the creation occur, for this creature will do loving things.' But Truth said, 'Let the creation not occur, for this creature will be all lies.' Justice said, 'Let the creation occur, for this creature will do justice.' Peace said, 'Let the creation not occur, for this creature will only be contentious and not peaceful.' What did the Holy One do? God took Truth and hurled it to the Earth."
This is a confounding midrash, for why did God only hurl Truth to the ground when we see that Peace also argued against creation?
One answer, from the Kotzker Rebbe, teaches that when we are not seeking our own personal truths, then peace will be possible. While this is a good answer, we can go even further. Ultimately, we would like to live in a world with all four of these characteristics: Love, Peace, Truth and Justice (the latter three are what Pirke Avot calls the pillars of the earth). But before we can get there, we must seek to create a world based on love and justice first. From that place, peace can occur and then, if we are lucky, we can identify truth.
That is the meaning of life, the great mystery that God puts before us. Can we live with the love and compassion for all, with justice for all? And just like the game Clue, we might understand the "who, what, where and how," but we need Divine help and guidance to grasp the "why." Love and Justice offer us a doorway into answering that question. May we pursue them, live by them and seek to spread their healing power throughout the globe, starting right here in our own hearts.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (www.pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.