This week’s parasha, B’reishit, famously gives the Jewish view on the creation of the world. Whether or not this is meant to be a scientific accounting, it does seem to be a statement of our tradition’s thoughts on the goals, aspirations, and ideals for the world. While the initial creation story in the first chapter contains many instances of God’s approval, the Rabbis see at least two places where God alters our reality in relationship to God’s original plan. The first change was to insert mercy and compassion into a world initially created based solely on justice. A world based on justice alone, God realized, would be unsustainable. God’s wisdom (as it were) is shown by the first two generations of humanity, both of whom engage in disobedience of God. The second, Cain, goes so far as to undo God’s creation by committing murder. If the world had been created strictly based on justice, God would have needed to wipe out humanity for its crimes rather than forgive Adam, Eve, and Cain. The insertion of mercy into God’s judgement of the world gives all of us a chance to survive and come back from our mistakes. But it also means that sometimes people are not properly punished for their crimes.
A second change in God’s plan was in how God creates people. Two verses, in the first and fifth chapters of Genesis, have a contradiction in describing God’s creation of humanity. The Torah teaches that God created him - the first man - in God’s image, but God created them as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Genesis 5:1-2 similarly states that God created man in God’s image, but created them as male and female and named them “Adam”. More confusingly, the second chapter of Genesis describes God as forming man and then creating woman from man’s side. Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) suggests that God created a single person and later created woman from that person’s side. Rebbi Abahu (3rd century Israel) explains, however, that God thought to create two separate people, but in the end only created one.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (16th and 17th centuries Poland) writes that, like creating the world only based on justice, creating two separate people with wholly individual identities was the ideal. However, the world would not be sustainable if separate people were created simultaneously. People have a tendency to quarrel, to the point of violence and destruction, over the smallest differences. God thus decided to create one initial person in God’s image so that everyone would be forced to admit to the same origin -- and God hoped that this would lead to more peace in the world. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that, because we all descend from the same initial person, no person can claim greater ancestry than anyone else. Further, this also leads us to aspire to close relationships with others -- knowing that we were once meant to be together, we yearn for the recombination of two people into the original one.
As God anticipated, and as we can see in our world today, too often the existence of individual people leads to dominance by one type of person over another. But holding onto the idea of fundamental human unity can be dangerous, too. If we see ourselves only as one person, we can’t draw boundaries, even healthy ones, for ourselves -- or recognize those boundaries in others. If everything came from one original person, someone could abuse this by assuming that others must not have personal space or autonomy. This becomes even more dangerous due to the second chapter of Genesis. Since gender differentiation happens by taking something from the side of the first person - who becomes a man - some people see this as permission for men to encroach on women’s physical space. It is at this point we should remember God’s original plan for the world in our tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein (in Chashukei Chemed Eruvin 18a) explains that the idea was for people to have two independent identities not reliant on one another in any way: physically, materially, emotionally. In believing that God created the world with an intention of individuality but with the reality of unity, we should be inspired to find an appropriate balance between these two poles.
However, finding a balance between unity and individuality, as well as finding a balance between justice and mercy, is difficult. We often swing too far one way. Sometimes our society is too inclined to be merciful towards people who violate others’ boundaries -- we are too quick to forgive such transgressions. In such times, we must remember that our tradition teaches that God’s original plan for the world was true justice. In the same way, people can be too inclined towards the results of a creation story where people were created from a single individual. People are too lax with others’ individuality and personal space. This is particularly and often seen in men’s treatment of and dominance over women and women’s bodies. When the world swings too far to that side -- and I believe it has -- we should recall our tradition’s claim of God’s original plan for the world: multiple people with independent and equally valid identities and separate bodies, owned exclusively by themselves and created by God.
We must find the appropriate balance between respecting individuality and union -- we must make up for giving too much weight to the side of allowing the violation of personal privacy and individuality. I hope we can have both the respect of individual worth, which comes from God’s original plan for the creation of person, and the appropriately timed and desired intimacy and friendship, which comes from God’s eventual choice to create us all from the same person. In the same way, I hope we can find the right balance between God’s original plan for a world of justice, with all the fairness it brings, and the actual world God created, which is one where we eventually learn when it is appropriate to be compassionate and forgive.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb. Joel Goldstein