It’s quite perplexing to consider, but think: Would the world have been better if humans were not created? Well, this is an actual machloket between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel (Masechet Eruvin 13b). Without delving into the philosophical underpinnings of this specific Gemarah, it raises an important discussion on the purpose of creating man.
In Parshat Bereishis, the Torah relates each stage of the world’s creation, beginning with light and darkness, continuing with the heavens, water, land, birds, fish, land animals, and the like. After each completed phase, it is noted that Hashem saw it was good, attesting to everything aligning with Hashem’s vision.
The last stage is when Hashem creates humans, briefly mentioning our function in the world. Interestingly enough, at its conclusion, instead of saying that Hashem saw it was good, the pasuk says, “And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Bereishis 1:31). This seems to suggest that the humans are what turned the world’s status from “good” to “very good.”
What could it be about humans that elevated Hashem’s creations to the status of “very good?”
According to Rabbi Nachman in the name of Rabbi Shmuel, “good” refers to the yetzer tov (good inclination) and “very good” refers to the yetzer harah (evil inclination) (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7). This understanding is further echoed by the Ramban in his commentary on the pasuk.
This all seems preposterous! What could be good, let alone “very good,” about the existence of the yetzer harah?
The sun, moon, ocean, animals, trees, and every part of the creation preceding humans are each good. All of them are inherently aligned with Hashem’s will; they have no element of free choice. The sun rises and sets, the animals graze and breed— they can do nothing but do exactly as Hashem wants.
It is a fundamental tenant of Judaism that Hashem embedded humans with free choice, the ability to decide our own actions. A tree cannot choose to act as anything but a tree, nor can the ocean elect itself to an alternative way of functioning—they can only act in accordance with Hashem’s will. At first thought, it seems like that would be the ideal, but that is far from true.
Rabbi David Aaron captures the profundity of this idea very well. If there is a rich, generous man who has a natural desire to give charity, when he donates money to the homeless, it is good and admirable. This fellow is instinctively good with philanthropy and has no inner conflict about sharing his riches; in a way, he can do nothing but give charity as it is second-nature to him.
We would be remiss, however, to identify this as the greatest good. The greatest good involves the immense struggle where we ultimately triumph over our yetzer harah, making the conscious decision to do good; good results from choice, not instinct.
Should we lie or tell the truth? Should we speak badly or kindly? Should we do the right thing or the wrong thing? Each and every one of us has the ability to choose good. The yetzer harah positions the obstacles in our lives so we experience a true battle. It is only through the struggle with evil, where we ultimately do good by our own volition, that we achieve the greatest good possible: being good by choice.