There is a midrash that God created many worlds before the world of Genesis, building up and then tearing down numerous versions before settling on one that fulfilled the divine creative criteria (Gen. R., 3:7). Given the constant reminders of how broken, flawed and often morally bankrupt this world is and can be, both in the Torah and in our own experience, the notion that our world is the one that finally pleased God may feel downright discouraging to us, shaking our faith in the Torah’s morality altogether—not to mention God’s creative capacities. But rather than jump straight to understanding God’s satisfaction with this world as a stroke against the whole biblical project, I would like to suggest that this midrash—and the corresponding reasons why our world deserves to continue in God’s estimation—may actually begin to reveal for us one of the Torah’s most fundamental lessons about the relationship between creativity and morality. And we first find that lesson in this week’s parsha.
Just ten generations after Adam and Eve, our world is so sunken into moral depravity that God appears ready to destroy yet another iteration of Creation. Indeed, only a few chapters after the story of creation, Parshat Noach presents a great flood of destruction, and the flood that comes does seem to build on the midrash about God’s disposal of disappointing pre-Biblical versions of the world. But the fact is, we must admit, that in this moment when our world appears to be on the verge of being discarded, the story of Noach ends up not being the end of the world at all, but rather a step forward for life and humanity. And so we must ask, what is so different about the world that we live in—the world of the Hebrew Bible—that God decides not to terminate it and start over again?
First it bears acknowledging that of course the flood is truly devastating. God’s nearly putting an end to all life, rather than the entire universe, may not feel to us like much of a departure from the trial-and-error creative process that is described in the previously cited midrash. Even God’s selection of one righteous man named Noah to be the shepherd of continuing life on earth might not seem to outweigh the wholesale destruction that takes place in our parsha. But however counterintuitive it may be to consider, on a deeper level it seems that rather than a re-play of the divine ritual of wiping the slate clean and starting fresh, Parshat Noach represents a radical break from tradition. So, again, what keeps God from starting over again entirely? Has God learned something new? What exactly accounts for the change in policy?
The beginning of an answer, I think, can be summed up in one word: covenant. From Noah to Abraham to Sinai to the wedding chuppah, covenants represent the core unit of Jewish morality. To the extent that morality is based on promises we make, whether to ourselves or to others, covenants represent sacred signs of binding and loving ethical commitment. Nietzsche grounded our entire ability to take moral responsibility for our creative actions in the idea that the human being is “an animal with the right to make promises” (italics in original).[i] We may not usually think of covenant as a principle of creativity, but that is what our parsha is all about.
“I will maintain My covenant with you,” God says to Noah after the flood. “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). In this promise to Noah, God codifies the fundamental notion that creation is a covenantal enterprise, acknowledging the moral bond between God and all of Creation. God vows never again to destroy all life or to consider discarding this world, and in return humanity receives the universal Noahide laws.
Whatever may be qualitatively different between our particular version of the world and the ones that our midrash tells us came before, the arc of the narrative of the creative process writ large now shifts to the moral relationship between God and humanity—a relationship fused together through mutual responsibility and commitment to creation. As partners in creation, God and humanity will now aim to preserve the world through their covenant, persevering through any short-term challenge or disappointment along the way.
With the introduction of this concept of covenant, we learn two dramatic lessons about the relationship between morality and creativity in the Torah. First, we see that creativity, even in solitude, often requires the covenantal values of trust, hope, commitment, and endurance to persevere through many ups and downs of inspiration. The previously discussed midrash about God creating and discarding many worlds before settling on ours may thus be understood as a portrait of the creative grit necessary to hold a covenant made with oneself: the disciplined creator refuses to give up, persisting through the false starts and lackluster drafts that are often necessary on the way to successful creation.
Second, this covenantal revelation introduces the idea that genuine creativity often involves partnership and collaboration. It is like love, requiring relentless recognition of the Other. In this case Parshat Noach becomes a story about God fully embracing the idea that being the Creator carries with it the need to move beyond the complete isolation and loneliness of Oneness. The covenantal relationship between God and humanity does not take away from God’s supremacy and uniqueness of course, but while the relationship’s parties cannot be considered equal, they both become understood as indispensable members of an “everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures” (Gen. 9:16). God realizes the moral, and indeed creative, necessity of honoring the otherness of Creation.
In this way we see the Torah’s position that the highest forms of creation take on independent lives of their own, beyond the control of the creator. This is an idea that recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible, and will be a subject of discussion in future weeks. But it bears mentioning now especially, because perhaps at the most basic level, Parshat Noach is a story about God’s finally accepting and acknowledging human freedom. We see the implications of free will clearly in Parshat Bereishit, yet between Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel freedom is more of a strict, almost unfair, liability—a matter of tragic ignorance, instinct, error, and neglect. Only now, after God has witnessed the potential toxicity of free will degrading into a downward spiral of mutual mistrust, transgression and conflict in human society, do we see explicit recognition of the reality of human freedom—for good and for ill—and the resulting necessity to appeal directly to our better potential.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks identifies this key difference between Bereishit and Noach in a remarkable observation that is essential for our discussion: in both the first account of creation and in the chapters immediately following the flood, one key word appears seven times; in Bereishit the word is “good,” and in Noach the word is “covenant.”[ii] While the physical world may be considered well ordered and good, the social world requires values and moral agreements in order to become good. The relationship between creativity and morality in the Torah thus becomes richer and more precise as creation shifts from being characterized as simply good to being explicitly understood as not necessarily but possibly good.
The responsibility of creators to honor the independence of their most successful creations highlights the essential moral weight and power of creativity, in sending something new, for better or for worse, out into the world. In the case of the relationship between God and us—the creative partner created with the radical endowment of freedom—God’s impulse to correct for the world’s flaws through abortive destruction becomes morally untenable, and covenant becomes morally critical as a creative principle. Although God technically reserves the capacity to destroy the world, and we may surely fail to follow through on our end of the bargain, both parties’ integrity becomes bound by enduring trust in the other’s constructive, rather than destructive, capacities. Humanity’s independence and freedom is thus finally appreciated as a sign of both God’s creative success and the potential for Creation’s continued improvement.
God’s choice not to discard this particular version of the world is therefore not so much settling for the world as it is, as fully seeing its reality and committing to believe in and strive toward making it the world that it should be. Indeed, the Torah may very well be telling us that a perfect world without the possibility of moral failure would itself not be possible; the idea is logically inconsistent. Insofar as true creativity by definition implies the independence of the created from the creator, the creation of a world with genuinely free creatures must carry the potential for immorality.
That is why Jewish mysticism teaches—through the concept of tzimtzum discussed briefly in last week’s commentary—that the creation of the world entailed the fracturing of the world; God made room for the world and was no longer completely alone, establishing order and separation between different elements including between the Creator and Creation. Significantly, this image is also the theological foundation of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam or healing the world. And as we move further from the story of creation, the process of making the world a better place does of course become one of the chief concerns of the relationship between creativity and morality. That process begins with the story of Noach, demonstrating that because we cannot guarantee the goodness of creation, we must safeguard and try to maximize it through a covenantal system based on mutual responsibility and trust.
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 57.
[ii] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Beyond Nature,” Covenant & Conversation 5775 on Ethics (Oct. 25, 2014).