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 Parashat Bereishit: What in the world?

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PostSubject: Parashat Bereishit: What in the world?   Sun Oct 07, 2007 9:13 am

Parashat Bereishit: What in the world?

By SHLOMO RISKIN

There is a story about a man who provided a tailor with fabric and his measurements, requesting a suit.

The individual waited one month, two months, and finally barged into the tailor complaining: "It only took the Almighty God seven days to create the entire universe, so why must I wait six months for one paltry suit? The craftsman smiled. "If you wanted the same kind of mess as this world is, you should have told me in advance, and you would have gotten your suit a long time ago!"

To be honest, this world doesn't appear to be a place of either truth or fairness, in which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

Alongside the talmudic view that "there is no death without sin and no suffering without transgression," which implies that a righteous person who suffers must not be wholly righteous, and a wicked person who prospers must not be wholly wicked (B.T. Berachot 7a), exists the view that "there is no reward for performance of the commandments in this world" (B.T. Kiddushin 39b), that only in the afterlife are the righteous fully rewarded and the wicked completely punished.

Perhaps the most outspoken expression of this view is recorded in the name of Rava, a third-century Amora: "Our lifespan, our children and our sustenance are not decided by our merits but rather by luck. And so the lives of Rabbah and Rav Hisda, two equally righteous sages, were radically different: Rav Hisda lived to be 92, Rabbah to be 40; the house of R. Hisda celebrated 60 weddings in one year, the house of Rabbah mourned at 60 funerals that year… And while the household of R. Hisda fed their dogs the most expensive bread, the household of Rabbah fed their people the coarsest, and even that was not to be found" (B.T. Moed Katan 28b). Luck refers to the often-blind rules of physics and nature, of genetics and climate.

And so, when the Talmud speaks of "three books" which are opened on Rosh Hashana; of the wholly righteous who are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, of the wholly wicked who are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and of those people neither here nor there and whose merits (or lack thereof) during the Ten Days of Repentance decide their fate, the Tosafot Commentary insists that this passage is referring to the world to come.

And the famous Vilna Gaon agrees, adding that the awesome Unetaneh tokef prayer of "on Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on the Yom Kippur fast it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die… who by fire and who by water…," Rav Amnon is referring to this world of happenstance and luck, and so even the angels tremble during that period (Shulhan Aruch Orah Haim, 582, 24).

As Rav Haim Vital explains, God is a being of consummate love, and so must have an "other" to love. This "other" must be endowed with free choice, freedom even to do that which God would not want him to do. But the price of such a world is that it is not necessarily fair; good people may suffer and bad people may prosper. The Talmud notes that at the start of every month the Almighty Himself (as it were) brings a sin offering for having created such a difficult place (B.T. Shavuot 9a).

But if such are the ground rules of this world, where is God to be found in it? A first response is given by our portion of Bereishit: "And the Lord God formed the human being dust from the earth, and He breathed into his/her nostrils the breath of life, and the human being became a living creature" (Gen 2:7); and as the holy Zohar and the first chapter of the Tanya record: "All those who exhale, exhale from the very essence of themselves." Hence, the eternal God within us elevates us to the position of partners; it endows us with the ability to choose, to love, to create. It ensures continuance when our divine souls return to the God who gave them; and it gives us the responsibility of perfecting an imperfect world under the Kingship of the Divine.

And God is also in history, since He guarantees that despite exiles and persecutions the Jewish people will never be wholly destroyed, that He will never forget His covenant to restore us to our homeland, and that all of humanity will accept Him (Lev. 26: 42,44; Isaiah 2, and many more).

For despite reality's function as "other," God nevertheless remains within it, albeit from behind a curtain, albeit from within a cloud, albeit from within a dark glass. After all, God can always "step in" and perform miracles, can always respond to prayers. It is up to us to seek Him out by performing His commandments, by listening for His great voice which never ceases [Deut. 5:18], and by developing the souls within us to perceive the omnipresent messages around us, from the perfection of a snowflake to the optimism of a child's laughter.

And God is with us to strengthen us in times of need. A story is told of a sage who was shown his past in review, seeing his life's journey as two sets of footprints in the sand. In his dream he acknowledged that one set belonged to God, who had "walked" with him. However, when he had experienced times of trouble, he saw only one set of footprints, and became disconcerted; where was God when he really needed Him?

"The one set of footprints are Mine," came the Divine voice. "At those times I carried you."

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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