People as the Center of the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

‘Akedat Yitzchak, Third Sha’ar (Conclusion, Week of 13 MarCheshvan): People as the Center of the World

We’re up to the creation of humanity in R. Arama’s review of the ten sayings of creation in the first chapter of Bereshit. He thinks Hashem intended people to unite the upper worlds and lower ones, by combining aspects of both.  

Bereshit Rabbah 8 portrayed Hashem as setting people up in this way to learn the key to eternal life lay in killing their physical sides (“killing” clearly does not mean destroying or denying the physical completely, since people need to live; it likely means some level of discipline or denial of the physical, giving the intellectual or spiritual the upper hand).

The generation of the Flood reversed their priorities, cultivated their upper selves only in the way their lower, physical selves saw as valuable. R. Arama implies we can easily make the same mistake [as, in our times, many do], and is why Moshe Rabbenu warned the Jewish people (Devarim 30;15) he has put before them a stark choice between life and death, good and evil.

Ways to Know People Are Special

People’s good choices affect the whole world because of the central role they play, which is why the verse attributes the creation of the first human to Hashem Himself, as it were. Chaza”l implied as much, R. Arama says, based on their reading of the verse where Hashem decides to create human beings. Although a version of the story appears under the name of R. Yehudah in the name of Rav’s reading of 1;26 in Sanhedrin 38b, R. Arama refers to Bereshit Rabbah 8, in the name of R. Chanina.

The verse uses a plural verb for what it presents as Hashem’s “thought process” before creating Adam, na’aseh, let us make. R. Chanina said the plural is to tell us Hashem consulted with angels as to whether it was a good idea.

I am skipping his analysis of the Midrash’s presentation of a debate between Hashem and the angels as to the pros and cons of making humans, because R. Arama’s main takeaway is how important people clearly are, since Hashem “had to” consult the heavens (personified by the angels, who guide them, as we’ve seen) because people will impact the heavens as well as the earth.

Humans also differ from everyone else in Hashem’s having created just one, not a whole species. For R. Arama, this was done to tell us the potential of each individual. Other sources echo the idea–Berachot 61a envisions Hashem thinking of Chanina b. Dosa as the reason the world was created, and Berachot 6b understands Kohelet 12;13 (ki zeh kol ha-adam, for this is all of man) to mean any person can become so ennobled as to be the focus of all creation.

Humanity bridges the upper and lower realms, and any individual can serve as the bridge which makes it all work.

The Image of Gd, If We Build It

Remarkable as humans are, R. Arama wants us not to mistake the verse’s saying we were created be-tzelem Elokim to mean we are exactly like Hashem. The word refers to our intellectual side, which is similar to Hashem, in some ways, not an exact replica. Yevamot63b shows he’s right, because R. Ya’akov there interchanges the words demut and tzelem. He says whoever refrains from having children lessens the demut, but supports it with a verse which refers to Hashem’s tzelem. Since demut clearly means a likeness rather than an exact image, we must understand tzelem more loosely as well.

He says he will return to much of this in Parashiyot Noach and Balak, so I am skipping it for now, to turn to a different question he raises, why humanity did not get their own day of creation (the question assumes days of creation were linked conceptually, not solely chronologically; had humanity deserved its own day, Hashem could have knocked off work after making the animals, as it were, and waited for the next day).

By grouping them with the animals, Hashem reminded us we must make an effort to distinguish ourselves from animals, it does not happen automatically (as the passage in Bereshit Rabbah with which we opened this time said, we have to kill or control our animal sides to be sure we avoid becoming animals). 

Free Will, Childbearing, and Humanity’s Centrality to Building the World

To do so, we have to use our free will, which R. Arama calls the main part of our nature, and must use the free will to cultivate and then follow our intellectual sides. People who fail to do so are whom Kohelet 3;19 compared to animals (not all people, R. Arama is telling us, certain ones), they die the same as animals and their lives are all hevel.

R. Arama’s focus on free will shows itself again when he comes to the ninth saying of creation, the command to be fruitful and multiply [I pause to be surprised at his calling this a saying of creation, since Hashem does not directly act or call into being any new part of the world; I think R. Arama is seeing Hashem’s words to the first humans as similar to when Hashem tells the earth to bring forth trees, which draws a tantalizing parallel between people and the supposedly inanimate earth].

In his view, the mitzvah is to bear children by choice and as a function of the command. Animals breed instinctively and instinctually, I think he is implying, and there’s every reason to think people would have done the same. Hashem tells them to have children to insert a freely chosen element, to help people realize they should build the world as a matter of choice and forethought.

R. Arama’s choice of a tenth utterance of creation is as surprising as the ninth, and again puts people in the center of creation. He says Hashem’s telling Adam and Chavah they could make use of all the grasses and trees to feed themselves and their animals was the last piece of setting up a working world.

The Jury’s Out on the Goodness of Humanity

Once done with creation, R. Arama brings up a question many had asked in his time, why Hashem does not look at man and say ki tov, it was good. The consensus prior to R. Arama attributed the omission to the possibility people will make poor choices, leading to lives Hashem would not characterize as goodSince Hashem will only be able to ascertain a person’s goodness at the end of his/her life, there could be no anticipatory ki tov [R. Arama does not comment on what seems odd to me, these commentators’ assumption the ki tov would mean each individual human. Perhaps because Hashem created only one human to start, they thought seeing Adam as ki tov would have read as Hashem saying each individual human would be good].

Bereshit Rabbah 94 conveys a similar idea when it says Hashem does not link the Divine Name to a human during his/her life, lest s/he later make poor choices. Iyov 15;15 has yet another version, Hashem does not trust those most sanctified to Him, which R. Arama understands is also because they may change. Bereshit Rabbah 9;5 says the Torah of R. Meir had the words tov mavet, death is good, instead of tov me’od, yet another formulation of the same idea: once people pass away, and we can be sure they were righteous their whole lives, we can be sure they were good.

Creation of People Was Very Good

R. Arama’s collection of supporting sources makes clear he agrees with the idea, but does not think it can apply to the ki tov questions. None of the other times Hashem said ki tov expressed certainty the item in question would always function well, so why read it that way for humans? Ki tov would have meant only the creation of human beings was good, they had the potential to be good (or great), and then the free will to take advantage of what is good about them (or not).

He suggests instead the verse’s reference to Hashem seeing all of creation as tov meod included humanity. The animal side of people had already been called tov that day, so when the verse said tov meod after Hashem created people (the only item created after the animals), the words upgrade the previous tov. creating people can partially mean Hashem was upgrading the previous tov.

[This makes more sense in conjunction with his earlier view of the centrality of human beings. The verse clearly says tov meod was Hashem’s retrospective view of all which had been created. Since R. Arama thinks people are the focus of all of what was created, the pronouncement of goodness of the whole would apply especially to the crucial central part].

The Gd of Nature and of Divine Intervention

The last of R. Arama’s points about the creation story we will have space for relates to the use of the Divine Name Elokim throughout. Other versions of Hashem’s Name, such as the combined Hashem Elokim (the first Name being the four-letter one often symbolized in English as YHVH) or the four-letter Name on its own, come only later.

A Midrash said Hashem originally planned to create the world using din alonestrict justice (the Name Elokim). When Hashem saw people could not survive such a world, He incorporated rachamim, mercy, the four-letter Name. R. Arama identifies the idea of din with running the world completely according to the laws of Nature. The strictness lies in Nature’s indifference to individual needs or cases; Nature goes as it goes.

The mercy of the four-letter Name stems from its addressing each case more directly and specifically. When a person or people need Nature to change (to interrupt a drought, let’s say), it’s the Attribute of Hashem which takes the more prominent role.

They are clearly not separate or opposing aspects of the Creator, which is why the Jews on Mount Carmel, I Melachim 18;39, react to Eliyahu’s bringing fire from the sky by saying Hashem hu Ha-Elokim, Hashem Who changes Nature at will is the same as Hashem Who put Nature into place at all (which is why we chose that expression to close our Yom Kippur services, because it reminds us of this key proposition).

The natural and miraculous are all one, he wants us to understand; how the world works depends only on what’s needed at a certain time and place.

With three utterances devoted to people (itself a bit surprising), R. Arama has made clear the focus he thinks the Torah places on their role. With free will and a heavenly intellectual side, people have the potential and responsibility to populate the world in the right way, as part of channeling their physical sides to Hashem’s proper service.

Next time, we’ll start the fourth sha’ar, which talks about Shabbat. Once we finish Shabbat (the last piece of Creation, in a sense), I hope to step back and review R. Arama’s view of Creation. I had hoped to do that this time, but the material turned out to be richer than I had expected, and Shabbat is a part of Creation, so we’ll do it then.

I hope.

About Gidon Rothstein

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