Yoni Mozeson
Yoni Mozeson

Reimagining bad as good

 You thought greed, brutal kingdoms, and even the inevitable, death and taxes, were bad. Give them another chance.

The discussion stems from a question concerning what exactly God thought was so “very good” about the world He created. At the end of the 6th day, right before Shabbat, the Torah declares:

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹקים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד “And God saw all that He did and behold it was very good” (Bereshis 2:31)

The Midrash offers many explanations. Among some of the most unexpected is the notion that ‘death’ was “very good.”The Midrash then questions why Adam, indeed all of Mankind,  had to be punished so severely with losing their immortality. One answer is that God saw certain characters that would inhabit the world. To have these people live forever would be insufferable. They ruined it for Adam.

 צָפָה הַקָּבָּ”ה שֶׁנְּבוּכַדְנֶצַר וְחִירֹם מֶלֶךְ צוֹר עֲתִידִין לַעֲשׂוֹת עַצְמָן אֱלָהוּת

[the reason death was instituted was because] “God saw that Nevudchadnetzer and Chiram the king of Tsor would one day declare themselves to be gods” (Midrash Rabbah 9:5)

By declaring themselves as gods they are interfering with the destiny of the world which is to recognize that there is one true God. Not to mention the fact that God likely wanted to shorten the time people had to suffer under the rule of these megalomaniacs.  

Why couldn’t death be just for the bad guys

The Midrash asks for a more fair arrangement. Why do we have to lose immortality because of a few wicked people? Of course, this solution presents a huge theological problem.  It would completely destroy the critical mechanism upon which the world works – free will.  Imagine if it was obvious to everyone that bad things, like death,  only happen to bad people. The Midrash, however, mentions a different reason why selective immortality would not work. Evil people would try to game the system and act good just to avoid death. Interestingly enough, it’s assumed that the threat of death would not make bad people become genuinely good. Rather, the Midrash is conveying the idea that truly evil people are sure that no one could possibly possess goodness. Anyone whom god thought was “good’ were just faking it better than everyone else.

Of course death has one obvious, positive, feature. It has the potential to motivate people to make more of their lives. 

Suffering, failure, hardships – it’s all good

Seeing the potential good in life’s downturns, is a consistent theme in the Midrash. God is hiding and wants Mankind to seek Him out. If you need help in realizing that this is what you are supposed to be doing, God will give you clues. The more you ignore God’s signals, the louder they get. Life is a series of tests that enable you to grow and live a more noble existence. The end game is to worship God from love because you feel God’s love for you.

This relates to another candidate for what God considered “very good” about the world – the יֵצֶר הָרָע – evil inclination. Not only is it a catalyst for growth, the Midrash feels life as we know it would come to a grinding halt without it. 

שֶׁאִלּוּלֵי יֵצֶר הָרָע לֹא בָּנָה אָדָם בַּיִת, וְלֹא נָשָׂא אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא הוֹלִיד, וְלֹא נָשָׂא וְנָתַן 

”If it wasn’t for our ‘evil inclination’ no one would build a home, get married, give birth or engage in business.” (Bereshis Rabbah 9:9) 

This Midrash is acknowledging a sobering fact that our motives are rarely 100% pure. We are human. Everything we do fulfills our own emotional needs. This dovetails with a story in the Talmud. The Rabbis decided to end Mankind’s strong desire for idol worship. (They had to give up prophecy in the process.) Once that was in practice they thought that people had a better chance at leading a more moral existence if they could mitigate their strong sexual desires. However, not long after implementing this change in human nature, reports reached the Rabbis that chickens had stopped laying eggs. The Rabbis settled for lessoning the sexual desire just enough that: 

וְאַהְנִי דְּלָא מִיגָּרֵי בֵּיהּ לְאִינִישׁ בְּקָרִיבְתֵּהּ. “a person is no longer aroused to commit incest with his close relatives” (Yoma 69B). 

What could be “very good” about brutal kingdoms

Interestingly, one version of Midrash Rabbah says וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, זוֹ מַלְכוּת הָרוֹמִיִּים  “Behold what is ‘very good’ is the Roman Empire.” and another version says וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, זוֹ מַלְכוּת הָארץ “Behold what is ‘very good’ is the great Empire.” Perhaps the words “Roman Empire” were censored because the Midrash asks in wonderment what could possibly be good about the Roman empire. The answer is that even a brutal world power imposes a rule of law which keeps its citizens from acting lawlessly. 

True the Roman empire imposed an albeit brutal  form of law and order which is necessary for society to function. However a world power also advances many critical functions of the world. The pursuits of agriculture, architecture, and medicine often make great strides under t great empires.  Nevertheless, most people in the world are involved in a myriad of mundane tasks. The largest commentary to Midrash Rabbah, Yefei Toar,  quotes from the Rambam (Maimonides) in his lengthy introduction to Mishnayot. He notes that only a small minority of people in every generation actually know what their purpose on earth really is.  However, what God had in mind is to create a society in which different people had different roles. This would allow those who want to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of wisdom to do so without getting bogged down in mundane tasks.

על כן נמצאו שאר בני אדם לתקן אלו המעשים הצריכים אליהם במדינה כדי שימצא החכם צרכו מזומן ותתישב הארץ ותהיה החכמה מצויה. 

Therefore, these other people came into existence to take care of these activities that are required for the country (world), such that the sage will find his needs at hand and that the earth will be inhabited and wisdom be found.”

Reimagining bad as good

There is a common thread behind all the answers that the Midrash gave to the question of what God meant when he said “behold it was very good.” They seem to include everything that helps individuals reach their potential.  No matter how painful it is along the way.

We can therefore redefine the verse we quoted at the beginning:

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹקים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד (Bereshis 2:31):

God looked at this world and saw how fair it was that the very same tests that make someone good, can make someone bad. 

 And God thought this was “very good.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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