When God was in the process of creating the world, so the midrash goes, He reached the point when He needed to decide whether to create human beings — would they be good for the world or bad for the world? Would the trouble they would cause be worth the advantages they would bring to creation?
Given the newness of the world — presumably in accord with a divine design — the deliberations over the creation of human beings are surprising. Who is deliberating? Who would argue with God?
One answer, of course, is man — consider Abraham pleading for Sodom, Moses’ insistence that he couldn’t be God’s messenger — but before man was created? Who would have the audacity?
Another answer is that nobody is arguing with God, but that the arguments about the nature of humanity are simply put before Him to make the case either way, whether to create or to refrain from doing so.
And, of course, to a large degree, the entire discussion is largely an exercise of the imagination, at least as compared to one of testimony, since there were no human witnesses to provide an account before the creation of man.
Rabbi Simon (this midrash is stated in his name) describes how the ministering angels were divided on the topic of whether humanity should be created. There were those who argued that God should create human beings, and those who argued that He should not. The midrash describes the differently thinking groups as “factions” and “sects,” so the portrayal is of a hot debate indeed (yes, even absent the eyewitnesses).
(Now, the “ministering angels” deserve a lot of attention in their own regard, given the range of opinions on what angels are, but in this case, we’ll stick to their roles and identities in the text, without raising queries external to it.)
The prooftext for the debate — midrashic interpretations are highly reliant on prooftexts — is a verse from Psalms (85:11):
חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ
“Kindness and truth meet, justice and peace kiss” (translation mine, following common translations of these words).
It’s a strange verse, and stranger yet to find in it the ministering angels who argued for and against the creation of humanity.
But the midrash explains it in context:
“Kindness” says to create man (the singular masculine is used in the Hebrew) — for he does acts of kindness.
“Truth” says not to create man, for he is entirely lies.
“Justice” says to create man — for he does (acts of) righteousness.
And “Peace” says not to create him, for he is wholly strife.
Now, this needs unpacking.
Some questions: For starters, why does each attribute take the position that it does? That’s surely the most important puzzle. Also, what is the meaning of each claim? Are the statements true about the nature of humanity? Furthermore, why are they listed in this order — two disagreements following each other, rather than two statements that concur and then the two that disagree? And then: how is it that Kindness and Justice are in agreement, and Truth and Peace likewise? It would seem, at least on the face of it, that Truth and Justice are cut from the same cloth (more on this below), and that Kindness and Peace are as well (and on this). Moreover, there are unexpected (perhaps) similarities between Kindness and Justice (which appear to be opposites) and between Truth and Peace. So, what is going on here?
To understand this passage, let’s examine each attribute and its claim.
Defining “kindness” is easier said than done, but it involves treating others at least as nicely as you yourself would want to be treated, even if they do not deserve that generosity from you. Kindness argues for the sake of humanity, because people are capable of doing acts of kindness for each other, making their existence worthwhile (according to the attribute itself).
Peace is presumably the experience of everyone doing all possible acts of kindness all of the time. That is, if Kindness is found in a human being’s act, Peace is the sum total of all actions — and it cannot be sustained. Peace is an absolute: either there’s peace or there is no peace. A partial peace may work in geopolitical territorial disputes, but it does not when considering the entirety of humanity’s nature. Even one act of strife shatters the peace — which explains the disdain in Peace’s argument against the creation of mankind. Man is “wholly strife” — because the first and smallest argument will destroy the need for the absolute that is Peace.
Kindness, however, argues for acts of peace. Kindness is the instantiation, if you will — a given instance — of the totality that is Peace.
In parallel, Justice maintains that humanity does acts of righteousness. Righteous or just acts are the opposite of kind acts, in that they are not generous or undeserved; they give a person precisely what he or she is due. And those acts of righteousness justify the creation of humanity — upholding the world on the straight and narrow, as it were. For that, human beings should be created. But Justice is, of course, an “instance” (another instantiation) of the attribute of Truth. And in its absolute form, Truth cannot abide everything that surrounds those just acts. That is, when not everything meets the bar of Justice, then the plane where all is true is destroyed, and Truth, like Peace, is destroyed, unable to sustain any crack to its totality. That is, the moment anything is false, everything is false, as far as Truth is concerned — and because humanity fails at being entirely true, it is seen by Truth as entirely false. Mankind is “fully lies,” in the midrash, because human beings cannot sustain absolute Truth.
Thus, Truth argues against mankind, while the instantiation of Truth, Justice and its righteous acts, want human beings to exist.
The parallels between Truth and Peace on the one hand (the absolutes), and Kindness and Justice on the other (the instances) now make sense — with the absolutes arguing against human beings and the impossibility of ever being wholly Peace or Truth (and therefore never being either), and the instances ignoring the complete platonic plane, as it were, of the attributes, and appreciating what human beings can accomplish by taking (many) actions, within their limits.
And the contrasts between them are clear as well — Truth cannot abide the undeserved generosity of Kindness (it’s not True!), and Peace is impossible if the only acts are those of Justice, with no niceness of generosity to smooth the harsher stance of what is deserved. In this way, the instantiations and the absolutes line up as one would expect — Justice with Truth and Kindness with Peace.
The ministering angels, as attributes, thus make their positions known. But in case you thought God would be swayed by their claims about mankind and its potential (or lack thereof), God surprises.
What did He do? He took Truth and threw it to the ground. There’s a prooftext for this too (of course): וְתַשְׁלֵךְ אֱמֶת אַרְצָה (Daniel 8:12) — literally, Truth was sent to the ground.
Could God have been rejecting Truth? The ministering angels thought so. They protest — and without division among their ranks: What are You doing? You’re disparaging Your own calling card, as it were — Your own essential trait of Truth — which appears in the list of the 13 Attributes of God.
But God knows better. Truth will bloom from the ground, says the midrash — and the prooftext is the next verse in Psalms, immediately after the verse that presents the arguing attributes.
But isn’t Truth an absolute? How can it “bloom”? And from the earth, no less? That seems messy — perhaps the antithesis of the Truth that cannot abide generosity, the absolute Truth that is destroyed by even a tiny white lie.
The answer lies in God’s actions, of course — for in being thrown to the ground, Truth literally grows. It becomes more than it was — a more robust Truth that emerges from the complications of the capacity for human life.
The sages identify God’s approval of not only creation, but the creation of man, with word play. The Hebrew word for man (meaning mankind, as above, of course) is אדם – Adam, the first man who takes center stage in the first couple of chapters of Genesis. Rearranging אדם produces מאד – me’od, meaning “very.” And then the midrash reminds its readers of God’s survey of all that He had created, and His assessment that it was טוב מאד – very good. Or perhaps, with the switching of letters: טוב אדם — man is good, and existence, indeed, is good for man. (Note here also the tacit polemic against the idea that “man is bad from his inception,” though it is really, a topic for another day).
The midrash, with all the attributes’ claims and arguments, the enhancement of Truth, and the sages’ word play, still is set preceding the creation of man, however. We know the end-game, it would seem, but how is it to be resolved? Once Truth blooms from the ground, then what? Moreover, is God really beholden to any of these attributes, even His rehabilitated Truth?
The midrash concludes with a resounding “No.” For all the while that these angels were deliberating amongst themselves: God. Created. Man.
Says the midrash: What are you arguing about? כבר נעשה אדם – man is made already.
And in these few words, the midrash makes a profound theological point. Because the rabbinic collection of Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, attaches this text to the biblical words: “נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו” A simple translation yields: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness,” which provokes the theologically astute reader to ask: Who’s “WE” Kemosabe? Isn’t God the sole creator? Who is joining Him in creating mankind?
One possible answer is that God was alone, and the phrasing was simply the “royal we.” Another is Rashi’s position that God was talking to the angels — but Rashi fundamentally sharpens the question of whether God had a partner in creation. Which is where this midrash answers its resounding “no.” Only God created mankind — look, those ministering angels were busy arguing amongst themselves; they weren’t even consultants; it was all God.
But Rashi lived 600 or 700 years after this midrash. And Rashi was very well-versed in Midrash. Why would he suggest that “נעשה” means “let us make,” and not the “is made” of the midrash? Because the plain sense of the text implies the plural. Rashi uses Midrash to interpret the plain sense of the text, but rarely to springboard off it. The efforts of the midrash to springboard here, however, yield a profound theological stance regarding the impossibility of any lesser power playing partner to God.
Together with a note of humor and perhaps a little jaundice regarding the never-ending deliberations of design-by-committee.