The awe and power of diversity

Parashat Bereshit

מַה רָבּוּ מַעֲשֶֹיךָ ה׳

Parashat Bereshit describes God creating the world in two different ways. First, creation culminates with humanity being created through Hashem’s process of thought and word. Afterwards, the Torah describes an alternative creation of humanity. In the second description, humans are created first, formed by God’s divine hands from clay, with God then breathing our neshama, our life-breath, into us through our nostrils. Taken together, both descriptions convey the powerful complexity of humanity and our purpose on earth. These are not contradictory versions of the same narrative. They are complementary perspectives on how to understand and respond to the worlds we inhabit. God used thought and language to create a world pulsating with the vibrancy of life. As such, we are to use language and our imaginations for good and blessing. God also created the world as an infinitely complex series of interdependent ecosystems all attached to the earth. Therefore, so are we to live in a way that is aligned with the rhythms of the natural, sprouting, growing world. 

Of course, much of humanity in contemporary, modern societies has turned its back on these sources of wellness. Creativity all too often serves avarice, regardless of how many people must suffer. Wealth remains in the hands of increasingly small numbers of people, while technological knowledge is applied to the manufacture of sophisticated weapons rather than the protection of the environment, the growing and distributing of food, the construction of dignified housing, and the advancement of medical care.

Not surprisingly, the parasha humanity immediately rebels against the Creator, resulting in the exile from the Garden of Eden. Once out of the garden, the second generation of humanity perpetrates the first act of violence with the patricide of Cain against Abel. That act of uncontrolled jealousy, frustration and rage spawns the hallmarks of culture and civilization. In the generations leading up to the flood, humanity invents agriculture, husbandry, technology, metallurgy, music, architecture, weaponry, and civic government in the form of cities. After the long list of human creativity and progress, chapter 4 culminates with the single verse story of Enoch: Seth had a son named Enoch. At that time, people started calling God by name. 4:26.  People realized that something was missing. The way humanity was shaping, building, developing the world, was not nourishing something deep and dormant within each soul. For all of the progress, all of the means of communication, for all of the technology, for all of the magnificent buildings and music and art and inventive creativity, humanity was starving. Rashi reads this verse very carefully. He notes, according to the midrash, that although people intuitively sensed an emptiness, their attachment to the materialism of the world was so deep and so seductive, that they could only imagine idolatrous prayer, worshipping the work of their own hands: “The word הוחל, ‘started [to pray],’ must be connected in meaning with חולין “profane matters “) viz, calling the names of men and the names of idols after the name of the Holy One, blessed be He — making them the objects of idolatrous worship and calling them Deities (Genesis Rabbah 23:7). Humanity sensed that they were starving their own spirit, but could not help but allow their leaders to seduce them into believing that their false accomplishments counted as sources of genuine holiness.

How could this be? Humanity, created in God’s image, was already after seven generations destroying the world and squandering their position as custodians of God’s expansive garden, having been given the mandate leshomera u’leovdah, “to guard and develop the world.”  I would like to suggest a way of connecting the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge with the diversity of creation. The snake approached Chava and lied to her: Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’” And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad. When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.”  (Bereshit 3:1-6) The snake manipulated the woman. The fact is, she already knew everything the snake said. The snake said, “Once you eat, your eyes will be opened….” But she already saw the fruit and therefore desired it. The snake said, “once your eyes are open you will like divine beings with the knowledge of good and evil.” But the woman already saw the goodness of the fruit. She already possessed that knowledge. Indeed, she knew everything there was to know about that fruit (whether it was a grape vine, or wheat, or pomegranate, or etrog as the rabbis suggest). Rather, in order to take the object of her desire, she allowed the snake to diminish the one significant feature of that fruit, namely, that God told her not to consume it. She knew that too, and was scared of her own inner struggle for self-control. She revealed this awareness by adding a stringency to God’s command, as if to force herself into compliance: “…God said neither eat nor touch that tree…..” God never mentioned touching the tree, only consuming its fruit. 

The question for the women was not one of divine knowledge, but rather of self-knowledge and restraint, self-awareness and humility. What would she do with her passions? How would she choose to discipline and direct her yearnings? That simple act of taking and consuming, and of not being able to tolerate the sacred boundary surrounding that tree, opened the possibility that humanity’s main task towards redemption would be self-awareness, respect and self-control. 

This is precisely the inner struggle that Ramban describes: ונחמד העץ להשכיל כי בו ישכיל לחמוד ונתנה התאוה לעינים והחמדה בשכל והכלל כי בו ירצה ויחפוץ בדבר או בהפכו: “She saw that the fruit was good to eat.” She saw that eating this fruit would give her a certain quality of intelligence. Her eyes and her mind would both become channels for desire, such that one can desire an object and its opposite. In that moment, humanity learned to rationalize, to justify, to enable themselves to consume absolutely anything people desire. In that moment, human beings learned that they could violate the most sacred boundaries without dying. When the man took and ate and then pointed his finger at the woman, humanity learned in addition that we can violate sacred boundaries, see the world as the object of our desires without restraint, and not take responsibility for those actions without dying. We can blame others and survive. 

Humanity did not die. However, that first generation of humanity introduced alienation, the angst of exile, into our hearts. From that moment, humanity assumed a binary lens through which to see the world, causing spiritual myopia. From that moment, the first human beings started living with spiritual cataracts, unable to see the wholeness of the world that God created. They had already exiled themselves internally, condemned to remain unsatiated by life. No matter how much people consumed, they would always want more. Cain already had no resilience; no stamina; no grit. He assuaged the rage burning below his disappointment and sadness by slaughtering his brother. He must have rationalized that act in his mind by convincing himself that if God wanted the best offering possible, what could be better than sacrificing Hevel? Of course, that is exactly what his offering turned out to be, hevel, i.e., emptiness.

What could possibility counteract humanity’s inability to balance desire with humility, yearning with restraint, passion with reverence? How can humanity ever find the antidote to the unwillingness to live with a sense of awe and respect for sacred boundaries that protect life’s vulnerability? How could humanity ever control itself from destroying the delicate balances of the natural world, or violating the tenderness and fragilities of each other’s neshamot?

My suggestion is that God build the pathway for such a balanced life into the very fabric of creation. My suggestion is that this balance inheres in the words: מַה רָבּוּ מַעֲשֶֹיךָ ה׳, How awesome are all of Your creations, God?!  Indeed, the theme of diversity runs through the narrative of creation. Starting with a simple binary of light & darkness, God ultimately decided to create a world characterized by a magnificent multiplicity of diversities. The diversities of creation emerge furiously and magnificently over those six paradigmatic days. The Torah describes multiple species of animals, plants, insects, and creatures of all sorts. God delighted, “saw that it was good,” in untold numbers of differences. This is the world God wanted us to recognize, to cherish, to protect, to care for, to nourish, and to value. If human beings could not control their desire to pick and eat one piece of fruit, how could they ever care for this world, this cosmic garden whose wholeness is reflected in its multiplicity of differences? 

This struggle rages all around us. Diversities of ethnicity, skin color, culture, sexual orientation, languages, religious beliefs, food, and music, alienate and engender competition, fear and hatred instead of inspire a sense of awe, wonder and amazement. Nothing has changed since those earlier generations leading up to Enoch, and then to Noah. Instead of current societies seeing the world as a large garden tended by a humanity with a shared purpose, civilizations have separated themselves into small lots surrounded by high walls. Instead of recognizing and praising the works of a shared Creator, humanity remains locked in violent struggles for power and control. 

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur described this primal struggle of humanity, an inner struggle that has catastrophic implications for the physical world, and more profoundly, for the cosmic balances that hold reality together in a balance. He wrote:

“The snake told the woman that God knows when you eat from the tree you will become divine with the knowledge of good and evil.” This raises a perplexing question. How could it be that the first human being, himself created by the divine Hand of God, could possibly be persuaded by a snake to sin against the Creator? He could have simply slapped the snake, killing him instantly. In fact, the snake was challenging the human beings with the deepest of existential struggles. The snake was essentially saying: “Is it not the case [since people were created in God’s image], that the entire order of creation rests upon humanity’s decision to distinguish between and choose good over evil? Once humanity would choose goodness over evil, then the sense of alienation and unsatiated yearnings would abate (lit. ‘you would no longer be yearning for food, i.e., you would no longer be consumed by your own appetites.) Once humanity chooses goodness, then the order of creation will be fulfilled and completed, it will become whole, and the world will be repaired. However, since you have done nothing, and you have not eaten from the tree of knowledge, and you have not gained the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, the possibility of choice has not yet entered the world. You need to introduce the human capacity for making choices in order to redeem the world.” However, this was obviously a manipulation, because of course had the human beings not eaten from the tree, that itself would have been their decision, thereby exercising their power of free choice and then redeeming and perfecting the creation. (Chiddushei haRim, page 22)

God created humanity with the power to control our most base instincts. The power to choose life, and goodness, and giving, and kindness, and love lies within us. That is the redemptive power of human self-awareness. The power to choose goodness over evil, kindness over avarice and abuse, trust over mistrust, love over hatred, hope over fear, lies in our neshama, our soul, but requires the strength and fortitude of humility to overcome arrogance and lust. That humility comes from recognizing, celebrating, and embracing the intrinsic quality of diversity that God infused throughout the order of creation, precisely to humble humanity, and to enable us to stand before the Creator’s world and feel the infinite awe of its majesty and power.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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