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Creation: Ethical Lessons

This week, we begin the annual Torah reading cycle with the reading of Parashat Bereshit. The very first chapter of Bereshit, the account of creation, remains for us an enigma. Although there is a midrash (an allegorical statement) from our Sages, “Turn it over and over, everything is in the Torah,” it is not to be taken literally. Our great scholars throughout the ages studied all areas of science intensely. They made recourse to the insights from the best scientific minds of their generations. Rather, the midrash is guiding us to realize that ultimately there can be no contradiction between the correct understanding of the Torah and the workings of the natural world. They both have the same source, the Creator of the universe. If they seem not to be harmonious, we do not properly understand the Torah, science or both.
However, our Rabbis find important ethical lessons in the story of creation presented by the Torah. One, in particular, is mentioned in the 5th chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers: “With ten utterances the world was created. What does this come to teach us? Couldn’t the world have been created with one utterance? This was to exact punishment form the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances and to bestow good reward upon the righteous who sustain the world that was created by ten utterances.” The Torah is a book about the proper way of life, דרך החיים. What is its message for our lives?
The notion of ten utterances comes from the 9 times the Torah states, “And He (God) said…” in the first chapter together with the very first word in the parsha “in the beginning.” We don’t know how God created the universe but the Mishnah is revealing that there were 10 basic processes involved. Our appreciation for the existence of the universe then must take into account the complexities of its existence. This idea can be applied to our lives. Of course, we must express our gratitude to another person for something they did for us. But our thanks takes on greater appreciation when we consider all of the steps the person had to go through to bring it about. This idea finds a similar expression in the “Dayenu” song we sing at our Pesach Seder. Every step God took for our liberation from slavery in Egypt is recounted no matter how incomplete each individual step was on its own.
Another lesson for our lives also presents itself from the creation story in the Torah. Pirkei Avot presupposes a person’s quest for perfection as a human being. Self-perfection is a strong motivator but it is also a selfish motivator. There is a higher level of motivation. It is based on a person’s commitment to reality outside of the self, or what philosophers call “objective reality.” In this realm, a person sees that the world has an existence in its own right. The objects that exist and their relation to other created existences are the vehicles by which every person can gain insight into the workings of the natural world. They, in turn, lead him back to a recognition of the Creator.
In this framework, anyone who purposely destroys an aspect of the creation has no regard for or appreciation of the objective framework. If he did, he would see how every aspect of creation is necessary for every human being’s perfection. He would strive with all his might and energy to preserve the world just as it was preserved for him. The complexities, the ten utterances, are necessary to the process of all human perfection regardless of the time period in which the person is living.
God says, “We can use this world but we must also preserve this world.” (Bereshit 2:15) This charge by God is not because we are essentially ecologists. The world is not like a museum where “you can look but don’t touch.” Rather, the Torah’s idea is that we recognize that just as the details of existing objects help us see the wondrousness of the universe and the Creator, so we must take care and make sure future generations have the same opportunities afforded to them. They too are part of God’s creation and require the very same advantages we have. We cannot, therefore, allow the destruction of a part of creation regardless of what we get out of it. As part of our personal perfection, we must be concerned as well with being in line with the will of the Creator. Part of His will, as revealed in the Torah, is the continued existence of the world so that those coming along after us may use it to perfect themselves just as we used it to perfect ourselves.

As we begin the Torah reading cycle this week, let us renew our commitment to understanding and safeguarding God’s universe. In this merit may Hashem continue His protecting care and blessings on the nation of Israel, Jews and God loving people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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