Bereishit 2020: Creation and Perfection

How do we humans play into the ever unfolding process of creation? What does it mean to create and form as responsible bearers of Torah?

Bereishit bara elohim et ha shamayim v’et ha’aretz

In the beginning, God created the heavens, and the earth. Bara, created, the verb here, is what biblical grammarians call “perfect tense” meaning it refers to an action that was completed - not ongoing. Then, as we know, God went on to create other aspects of the universe via speech- God said let there be light, and there was light. Each time God spoke going forward, it was not in the “perfect” tense. It was imperfect jussive - meaning an ongoing invitation, one that does not “finish,” but is ever unfolding.

Now, when it comes to humanity, it’s a little more complicated. The first of the two Creation stories of humanity uses the verb “Bara” once again -we are created, finished. The second time it is described, though, an entirely different verb and tense are used - vaYitzeir, and God formed the first human out of the dust of the earth. This time, it is a special grammatical form in Hebrew, called the vav-consecutive, in which an imperfect verb’s meaning is changed to something akin to perfect. It alters the imperfect to appear perfect.

We learn from this that a deep aspect of our basic being is Divine, completed in the image of God, and therefore stable. But then there is the dust that we inhabit, that was formed, Yatzar, from our very environment, from the elements that were created using speech. These elements, our morning liturgy tells us, are in a constant process of creation - m’chadeish b’kol yom tamid ma’aseh b’reishit - God renews the acts of creation every day. We and the world we reside within, are in process always. Continually changing, growing, morphing. We are mutable forms like the endlessly rotating planets in the sky, like the unendingly spinning atoms that make up all material. 

We, then, are beings of motion and change with a stable, Divine core. That stability, that anchoring in the Eternal, is what gives us our creative capacity - that is, our capacity for choice. Later in our Torah portion, the story continues to show us that the freedom for choice led humanity, unfortunately, down a path of bad choices. Choices, our sages tell us, that involved rampant abuse of power. These were the crimes that led to the Flood. 

Rabbi David Kimchi tells us that every single choice the antediluvian ancestors made was based on the yetzer ha ra-  the impulse towards selfishness. The word yetzer is the very same verbal root used to describe God’s imperfect creation of humanity from the dust of the earth. It is the element that filters our ability to make choices, for tov, those that benefit the collective, or for ra, those that benefit only the self.

Kimchi goes on to tell us that God wanted those with power to share that power. God wanted humanity to take responsibility for each other. God wanted humanity to find peace with each other. God, in short, wanted humanity to choose progress towards greater equality and equity. God wanted humanity to choose the yetzer ha tov.

We, today, stand on a precipice not unlike theirs. Each of us senses the fragility of the upside-down pyramid of our economy. We see it in the inability of our government to provide support for those most in need during a pandemic. We see it in the way our systems continue to disenfranchise and harm black and brown people in particular; in the way that the disabled are left to fend for themselves in a system already built without them in mind. 

We see it in the ongoing push towards further imbalancing our environment, which itself causes exponentially more harm to already impoverished and disenfranchised communities. We see it in a parochialism that seeks to build safety for one group on the backs of harm and pain for others.

We, unlike our antediluvian ancestors, have the benefit of the Torah. We can read what went wrong, and learn from it. The choices that were made using the yetzer haRa were based on our ancestors’ fear. Their fear was of losing power, so they sought to continue to concentrate power amongst the few. This concentration of power was an overreach of the bara, of the desire for a finalized state, in the world of yetzer, ever-changing and growing Creation. In the realm of yetzer, things that may at one point be good, tov, for the whole may cease being good when kept for the singular. 

We have to consistently develop and adjust along with the world as it changes, and this is painful and hard. It is especially painful and hard for people with power who find comfort and safety in their individual sense of control. And especially if that sense of power was hard won, on the backs of familial stories of powerlessness. But being part of an ever changing world means that power structures are challenged. 

Those that seek to make things which God created to be imperfect into something constant or unchanging, risk falling into the trap of the yetzer haRa; they risk damaging the collective in the process of enforcing stability for themselves.

What our Torah portion asks of us is to remember both sides of humanity’s creation, and to fuse them together. We must honor the eternal and finished bara, but recognize it serves only as an anchor for the yetzer, our mode of interacting and dwelling with the ever-changing universe. The two together are in constant motion - changing, adapting, becoming, varying. 

Our options are simple: we can choose to act with the collective in mind leaning towards the yetzer haTov, or we can choose to build the world with the self in mind, leaning towards the yetzer haRa. We can try to entrench our individual power out of fear, leaning towards the yetzer haRa, or we can use our power to create equity, equality, and liberty for all people, leaning towards the yetzer haTov. The choices are up to us, and therefore the ultimate outcomes our responsibility. 

Let us honor the bara, the created and finished Divine spark within us, by seeking to bring it into the yetzer, the world which we participate in forming. Let us not allow the fear of personal powerlessness inhibit our work towards sharing this love with all around us. Let us, together with our neighbors, build this world from love.