Genesis: Rerolling the Torah Scroll

IRolling the Torah Scrollf G-d is “perfect,” as Judaism says, what prompted Him to create the universe? What void was He seeking to fill?

The answer provided in Jewish Mysticism is that G-d desired marriage. Marriage necessitates the existence of someone distinct from yourself with whom to share your life, a union of husband and wife. G-d chose humanity as His bride. According to the Kabbalah, the High Holiday season is the annual experience of the cosmic matrimony between G-d and humanity.

-Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson
“Souls in the Rain”
Commentary on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

It is impossible to decide whether in Judaism supremacy belongs to halacha or to agada, to the lawgiver or to the Psalmist. The Rabbis may have sensed the problem. Rab said: The world was created for the sake of David, so that he might sing hymns and psalms to God. Samuel said: The world was created for the sake of Moses, so that he might receive the Torah (Sanhedrin 98b). (p.340)

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism

Genesis. The very familiar and very confusing Biblical rendition of God’s creation of the universe, our planet, and man and woman. Why did He create all of this and us? In a previous blog post, I took a rather dim view of creation, given how things have turned out so far, and if I were standing at some sort of cosmic reset point, where God were about to create time and space all over again for the first time, I might say to Him, “Do you really want to do this? You know how it turns out.”

Indeed, we do know. God gives man and woman exactly one thing to do and they blow it. Put another way, long before God gives Moses the Torah, with its 613 mitzvot for the Children of Israel, He gave only one to Adam. If a mitzvah contained the same intrinsic meaning for man in the first days of the Garden as it does for a Jew today, then this one task, to refrain from partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was not simply a matter of obeying (or disobeying) God, but something that Adam and Eve actively participated in with God as part of a cooperative effort. God, speaking from a Jewish perspective, is just as “bound” to the mitzvot as man.

Heschel (p. 361) illustrates the importance of a mitzvot to a Jew this way:

Just as salvation is the central concept in Christian piety, so does mitsvah serve as a focus fo Jewish religious consciousness.

That sentence, more than any other in Heschel’s book, should send shivers down a Christian’s spine. Any believer knows just how much they value their salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. But Christian, whether you understand it or not, a mitzvah to a Jew is every bit as important to him as your salvation is to you. The difference is that, once you accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, your job is done. Accepting salvation upon yourself is a passive act. God does it all by grace. By contrast, a Jew is always in motion with the mitzvot, acting upon the world and working with God to make it a better place. It’s not as if failing a mitzvah puts the Jew’s soul at risk or that grace isn’t in operation every single moment (to put it in Christian terms), but performing the mitzvah is the active ingredient in any Jew’s faith and life.

In fact, it is said “Without mitsvot one is naked” (Genesis Rabba 3,7). It is thought that one does not perform a mitzvah so much as one “acquires” it. A Jew might say “Adorn thyself with mitsvot before Him” (Sanhedrin 17a) as if the mitzvot were clothing. That is how Heschel (pp. 362-3) can come to this statement:

The supreme dignity of mitsvah is of such spiritual power that it gained a position of primacy over its antonym, namely, sin or averah. Even the sin of Adam was described as loss of mitsvah. After the forbidden fruit, we are told, their eyes were unclosed and “they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). “One mitsvah was entrusted to them, and they had stripped themselves of it.” (Genesis Rabba 19,17).

Knowing all of this, why did God create the world? Why did he create man? For marriage? For the supreme union between man and God? My, how we made a mess of things early on in the relationship and continue to do so. As Rabbi Yonah writes on the Jewlicious blog:

Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world to infuse it with goodness. However, this stands in contrast to the world we see. Even with the rose-colored glasses of privilege and faith in humankind, we have to admit that the world is full of misery and suffering. Finding God in this mess becomes difficult, if not impossible, for many of us.

failurePerhaps this terrible condition of the world is the only environment where humanity could exist for any length of time. We were going to fall. It was a matter of God deciding whether or not we should be given life, not whether we would fail in that life or not. Perhaps God’s boundless love would never have been understood or appreciated unless we were still loved by Him after we completely failed.

As we learned recently from Yom Kippur, God made time in such a way that it can be rolled back to the beginning. All wrongs can be made right. All hurts can be healed. We can be as we were “in the beginning”. The intensity and whirlwind of activities that mark the Days of Awe are about to collapse in on themselves and suddenly, time will be rolled back to Genesis even as Torah scrolls are rolled back to the beginning.

I haven’t experienced the joyous highs that most people have who celebrate this time of year, but my experience is unique and my situation has a limited context. Although I am a Christian, I am not a typical cog in that machine, nor do I fit into the Jewish world because of my faith. I have read through many Torah cycles, but this year, going back to the beginning is like making a fresh descent into the abyss of man’s failure without being able to see his future.

How did Abraham arrive at his certainty that there is a God who is concerned with the world? Said Rabbi Isaac: Abraham may be “compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the palace? he wondered. Until the owner of the palace looked at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, Abraham our father wondered, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world.’ ” (Genesis Rabba 39) The world is in flames, consumed by evil. Is it possible that there is no one who cares? -Heschel p.367

There’s a well-known idiom in Hebrew that says, “Yeridah Letzorech Aliyah” meaning “descent for the sake of ascent”. I am descending into Genesis and will once again watch man fail God. Each day that I live, I live the life of a man who has failed God. But as the days and weeks progress and the Torah scroll is rolled further into Genesis, I pray that this will also be an ascent for the sake of my descent. Man has failed God and yet is still loved by God. However tenuous it may seem to me just now, that means there must be hope.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:13-14

Good Shabbos.

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