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October 8, 2010
A Commentary On Creation
Rabbi Ira F. Stone

The story of creation that we read in the Torah recently is well known. Among the most obvious characteristics of this story is that it is told twice. Or there are two stories. Critical scholars of the Torah have suggested that the two stories are separate recensions of two ancient Israelite accounts of the creation. Traditional scholars suggest that the stories are actually one. The first representing a macro view ending with the creation of humans and the second a micro view of that creation of humans. I do not have the credentials to challenge the critical scholars but the traditional scholars seem to me to exhibit greater sensitivity to the nuances of the text. However, they too seem to miss what is most obvious about the difference between the two stories: The first represents a world without a yetzer hara while the second chronicles quite precisely the appearance of the yetzer hara. In the first story the motif word most present as it unfolds is tov, “good.” “And God saw that it was good” or, in the case of humans, “very good,” establishes what I would call the hegemony of the yetzer hatov, as well as its temporal primacy. The world comes into existence as an expression of the yetzer hatov. Keep in mind that I translate yetzer hatov as the necessity and capacity to serve the Other and the yetzer hara as the necessity and capacity to serve the self. Clearly service of the other precedes service of the self, but just as clearly, the emergence of human kind requires the emergence of service of the self. Only with this understanding and in this context can we make sense of an equally well-known Talmudic debate:

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel in dispute; the former asserting that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions. (Eruvin 13b)

This debate can only be read as a commentary on the original creation stories with which we began. The question that Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai are debating is not the question of creation per se, but the question of the yetzer hara. Would it not have been better to end the story with a world that was “very good,” that is, a world that was entirely suffused with yetzer hatov and therefore, by definition a world without people as we know them? That this was no simple matter to decide is evident from the terms of the story. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai spent two and a half years in debate on this subject?! Who were Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai? To say that they were the disciples of Hillel and Shammai is obvious. They flourished as separate schools of rabbinic ideology from the early first century onwards through the revolt against Rome and in the aftermath of that war. They were survivors who had seen the depths of evil that people could sink to and while they were clearly still men of faith, it is equally clear that their faith had been shaken. The faith that had been shaken was their faith in human beings and only by extension their faith in the possibility of making the goodness of the first creation story manifest without eliminating the source of the evil that would eventually evolve out of the characters in the second creation story. So we can understand their anguished argument and the fact of its longevity. Perhaps it was an argument that had to take place over time, interrupted by trips to shelters and caves in order to escape the Roman Legions. And we can understand the despair and disheartenment that expressed itself in their final vote: better that human beings had not been created! But if we understand that their vote was not a vote on the existence of human beings per se, but rather a vote on the existence of the yetzer hara, that is, they did not and would not and could not reject the first creation story but only wished to reject the second creation story, then we can perhaps better understand the wry compromise they reached in voting against the yetzer hara rather than voting against human being and creation itself. “but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions.”

There is still a debate evident in the compromise! Should a person examine his or her past deeds or future actions? Which one is more likely to help control the selfishness and self-absorption that characterizes our understanding of the yetzer hara? Perhaps we need a bit more direction from the sages of the Talmud in order to answer this question.

Rabbi Yitzchak said: “A person's yetzer hara grows stronger from day to day, as it is written: “Only evil all the day.” (Gen 6:5) Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish said: “ A person's yetzer hara grows in strength from day to day and seeks to kill him, as it is written: “The wicked watches the righteous and seeks to slay him” (Psalm 37:32) and were it not that the Holy One of blessing was his help he would not be able to withstand it, as it is written: “The Lord will not leave him in his hand, nor suffer him to be condemned when he is judged.” (Ibid:33) The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: If this repulsive wretch (the yetzer hara) meets you, drag him to the Bet HaMidrash. If he is of stone, he will dissolve, if of iron he will shatter into fragments. 'If he is of stone he will dissolve,' for it is written: “Everyone that thirsts come you to the water,” (Isaiah 55:1) and it is written: “The waters wear the stones.” (Job 14:19) 'If he is of iron he will shatter into fragments' for it is written: “Is not my word like fire? Says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)

This selection from Talmud Sukkah 52a-52b suggests the solution to the apparent quandary or disagreement embedded in the compromise vote between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Only at and through study at the Bet HaMidrash can and must one both investigate the past and examine the future. That is the miracle of education. True teaching, the kind of teaching that the Rabbis were willing to entrust the fate of humanity to, can dissolve the deeds of the past and shatter the hubris that often charts our future actions. It can breed the gratitude that is at the heart of creation story number one: we are not responsible for our own being but owe our existence to Another, and simultaneously breed the humility required to avoid the worst possibilities of our natures that are implicit in creation story number two: each person we meet is potentially and actually our teacher. As long as we are learning from them we are in “the Bet HaMidrash. Those who understand both of these facts can truly be our teachers and in their presence we are always within the Bet HaMidrash .

This commentary is in honor of my friend Beth Huppin, winner of a Coventry Award in Educational Excellence.

This week's commentary was written by
Rabbi Ira F. Stone,
who has been Rabbi of Beth Zion Beth Israel in Philadelphia, PA since 1988. Before coming to Philadelphia he served as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, Washington for nine years.
Rabbi Stone is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara where he received a BA in Religious Studies. He attended the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and graduated from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1979 with a Masters of Hebrew Literature.
Rabbi Stone is a lecturer in Mussar, at the Philadelphia Mussar Institute, a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of Mussar into daily practice and daily life.

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