In the beginning, the Lord created the heavens and the earth. (Beresheit 1:1)
The term used in the pasuk for “the beginning” is resheit. The Midrash Rabbah explains that this term is an allusion to the Torah. The Midrash continues and comments that Hashem looked into the Torah in order to construct the universe.
This teaching of the Sages must be carefully considered. The simple meaning of the Midrash defies understanding. Hashem is the source of all truth and wisdom. He does not need to consult any other source to determine His actions. Furthermore, the Torah is His creation. It contains His wisdom. There is no purpose in the Creator’s seeking a blueprint within His own Torah.
The Midrash contains an important lesson in life. Many people are profoundly unhappy. The reasons for their unhappiness vary. Some complain that they are unable to balance their various responsibilities and needs. Others feel that they cannot discover any meaning to existence. Without meaning, their lives seem empty and depressing. It would appear that, for many, the pursuit of happiness presents insurmountable challenges. Why is there so much unhappiness?
Our Sages are responding to this issue. They are telling us that the world has a specific purpose, and it is designed to serve this purpose. Because of its design, we cannot expect to use the resources of our world in any manner that we choose. Let us consider an analogy. Imagine a ball of clay. This is a very flexible medium. The artisan has freedom to mold the clay as he or she pleases. The clay will assume the shape chosen by the artisan. By contrast, a hammer is not nearly as flexible. It is a tool with a specific design. In order for an artisan to use the hammer successfully, he must consider its design. The hammer can be used with positive results to drive nails into wood. Now, imagine a foolish person using a hammer as a toothbrush. We would not be surprised if this individual were unhappy with the outcome.
If the universe lacked specific design, it would be reasonable to assume its resources, and elements could be adapted to any purpose we would imagine. Each person could choose to mold his or her environment to correspond with individual goals and endeavors. Many different lifestyles would offer similar potential for happiness. Our Sages, however, are positing that a design does exits. In this sense, the universe resembles the hammer. It was created as an environment to support the way of life and the values outlined in the Torah. Like the hammer, it works well, if used within the parameters of its purpose. However, if one attempts to use the world that Hashem created towards some other end that is not consistent with its design, frustration is inevitable. This is the meaning of our Sages in their comment that Hashem looked into the Torah in creating the world. He designed our universe as an environment to support the life of Torah. It is this life that is destined to bring us the greatest happiness.
This does not imply that a non-Jew cannot find happiness. The Torah includes a set of laws. These were given to the Jewish people. However, the Torah also includes universal values and a unique outlook. These aspects of Torah are appropriate for all of humanity. They serve as a key, available to all, for finding happiness and fulfillment.
Human Beings are Created in Hashem’s Likeness
And the L-rd said: Let us make humankind, in Our image and in Our likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the ocean, the fowl of the skies, the beasts and all of the earth, and over all that crawls upon the earth. (Beresheit 1:26)
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers an interesting interpretation of the phrase “in our likeness.” He explains that humans partake of the “likeness of G-d” through the unique characteristic of freewill. Beasts respond to stimulus without the ability to choose. Only the human being has the capacity to make choices. In this sense, the human being is like G-d. Sforno goes on to explain that although the human being chooses between good and evil, sometimes choosing the latter, Hashem always chooses the good. The comments of Sforno seem difficult to understand. How can he say that G-d actually has free choice, but at the same time, argue that G-d can only choose the good?
Sforno’s comments contain a deep insight into the concept of freewill. Sforno maintains that freewill does not mean the ability to select a course of action from among alternatives. This definition does not apply to Hashem. Hashem is perfect and His actions must be consistent with His perfection. Instead, freewill means to be the cause of one’s own actions. In other words, freewill is to be able to act free of any outside the influence or external causes.
The human being is unique in this ability. We have the volition to raise ourselves above negative surroundings and choose to follow the path of righteousness. Similarly, we bear responsibility for freely choosing evil. We are responsible for this choice because we have the ability to be the cause of our own actions. Although Hashem only chooses the good, He is uninfluenced by and free of any influence outside of Himself. He alone, is the source of all His actions.
Why isn’t the Universe More Perfect
And the land brought forth vegetation, plants bearing their own kinds of seeds, and trees producing fruits containing their own kinds of seeds. And G-d saw that it was good. (Beresheit 1:12)
This passage describes the emergence of vegetation on the third day of creation. The passage tells us that one element of this vegetation was fruit bearing trees. Rashi comments that the earth was not obedient to Hashem. Hashem had commanded the earth to bring forth fruit trees with flavored wood or bark. According to Hashem’s design, the wood was to share the taste of the fruit. The earth did not obey. It produced trees with flavorful fruit. However, this taste was not characteristic of the wood.
Rashi further comments that the earth was subsequently punished for its disobedience. When G-d punished humanity and exiled Adam and Chava from Gan Aden – the Garden of Eden, He also cursed the earth. This curse was in response to the disobedience alluded to by our passage.
Rashi’s comments present obvious difficulties. How can the commands of Hashem be defied by the earth? Only humanity is endowed with freewill. All other elements of creation must respond to the commands of Hashem! It is also difficult to explain Hashem’s reaction to this disobedience. Why punish the earth? The earth is not responsible for this deviation from the command. Furthermore, it is devoid of intellectual understanding. What is achieved through punishing the earth? It is clear that Rashi is presenting an allegorical lesson. What is the message?
Hashem wished to create a perfect universe. However, His will also dictated that this universe should be governed by natural law. Therefore, Hashem did not instantaneously create the present-day universe. Instead, He designed the building blocks of the universe and developed the universe from these building blocks. In other words, Nature was His tool in the process of creation. He worked through the laws of nature to produce the universe that exists today. This was a step-by-step process. The Torah’s account of creation is a synopsis of the basic developmental steps.
This scenario results in a conflict. Every tool has its limitations. Nature sets limits. Working with the laws of nature as a tool imposes restrictions on the design of the universe. Therefore, Hashem’s will to work within natural law resulted in a universe consistent with these laws. It also produced a universe that was somewhat compromised in its perfection. An example will illustrate this point. Assume I want to draw a square. The perfection of my drawing will be determined by the tools used. A sharp pencil will create a more defined image. A straight-edge will allow for more precision. A decision to restrict myself to a dull pencil and to not use a ruler will impose limitations on the perfection of the final product. Hashem chose to impose a restriction upon Himself. He would design the universe using natural law. This limited the perfection that could be achieved.
We can now understand Rashi’s comments. In the abstract, a tree with flavored wood would be more perfect than the trees that actually vegetates the earth. Rashi explains that the earth could not produce this more perfect tree. This was a result of Hashem’s decision to work within nature. The tree that nature produced was less perfect than the ideal.
Rashi’s comments regarding Hashem’s punishment of the earth are more difficult to interpret. It seems that Rashi feels that Hashem would not have cursed the earth had its perfection been more complete. In other words, Hashem would not have cursed a creation that reflected the ideal perfection. However, the earth did not meet the ideal of perfection. Its trees reflected limited perfection. Therefore, Hashem was willing to curse the earth.
The Purpose of Creation and the Purpose of Prayer
And all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth and all the plants of the field had not yet sprouted, for Hashem had not caused it to rain on the earth and there was no humanity to work the land. (Beresheit 2:5)
Why do we pray? Probably, most people would respond that we pray because we have needs and we turn to Hashem in order to secure these needs. Unfortunately, this motivation often ends in disaster. At first, the motivation leads the petitioner to pray with intensity and sincerity. The assumption of the petitioner is that if one prays properly, Hashem will respond. True, everyone knows that many prayers seem to go unanswered. But the hopeful petitioner initially assumes that this is because these unanswered prayers were not appropriate or that they were not offered properly or with adequate sincerity. This leads to the conclusion that if one is sure that the request is worthy of a response and the prayer is offered properly and sincerely, Hashem will answer.
But this is where the problem arises. Often, the petitioner feels that he or she has fulfilled these requirements. The prayers the supplicant offers are sincere, proper, and appropriate. Yet, the petitioner can detect no response from Hashem. At this point, frustration sets in and the person who recently prayed with fervor and sincerity becomes disillusioned. Prayer becomes much more difficult or even impossible. Prayer is replaced with resentment. Where did things go wrong? How can Hashem expect us to pray with sincerity if so many of our most sincere prayers seem to go unanswered? Why does Hashem command us to pray and then seemingly disregard our supplications? The answer is not simple and requires extensive discussion. But some simple observations may be helpful.
We know that prayer is an act of service to Hashem. Maimonides, in defining the mitzvah of prayer, formulates it as “to serve Hashem daily through prayer.” This formulation suggests that we must revisit the common motivation for prayer. If we pray in order to secure our needs, we are focused primarily upon ourselves. It is impossible to reconcile this essentially self-centered motivation with the concept of service to Hashem. Consider an analogy. You ask a friend to do you a favor and pick up a sandwich for you at the deli. Is it possible to describe the act of making this request as an act of devotion to your friend? Of course not! You are asking your friend to show devotion to you. So, if the purpose of prayer is to secure Hashem’s assistance in satisfying our own needs, prayer is self-serving and not an act of selfless worship. The implication of this analysis is that although it is appropriate to petition Hashem for our personal needs in our prayers, this is not the primary purpose of prayer. Prayer is a form of worship. The central figure in the act of prayer must be Hashem – not us.
Based on Maimonides’ characterization of prayer, we can certainly understand the elements of praise and the expressions of thanks that are included in the prayers formulated by our Sages. But despite these elements of praise and thanks that are included in the daily prayer services, it is difficult to reconcile the characterization of prayer as worship with the overall format for prayer established by our Sages. The central component of our daily prayer is the Amidah. Most of the blessings of the weekday Amidah consist of requests. We ask for knowledge, health, redemption, restoration of the Temple, and many other needs. We are urged by our Sages to personalize these requests and insert into the proper blessing personal needs. For example, in the blessing for health, we are to add a special prayer for specific individuals that are ill. How can we reconcile for this emphasis on requests with the characterization of prayer as a selfless act of worship?
In order to answer this question, we must begin with an analysis of human nature. If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that human nature is fundamentally self-centered. We work towards being sensitive to others and being empathic, but we cannot easily overcome our fixation with ourselves. Each of us must deal with the challenge of self-centeredness. We see ourselves as the central figure of our own universe and must struggle to make room for the needs, wishes, and desires of others. This phenomenon of human nature makes it difficult to be aware of G-d. We take for granted His kindness and benevolence. We feel entitled and must struggle to appreciate Hashem. An even greater battle is required to recognize Hashem – and not oneself – as the true center of all reality.
Yet, the Torah regards this struggle as an essential element of human perfection. We are expected to break out of our self-centeredness. We are required to respect the rights of others as being on par with our own rights. More fundamentally, we are required to recognize Hashem as the pivotal element of all existence and the true center of the universe. To our Sages, one of the basic measures of human perfection is the degree to which a person breaks out of the personal, self-centered, subjective reality, and grasps the objective, G-d centered reality of the universe. How can we make this transition from the self-centered to the G-d centered view of reality?
Part of the solution is outlined by our Sages in their comments on our parasha. These comments are quoted by Rashi in his commentary. The Torah explains that although Hashem created vegetation on third day of creation, the vegetation remained dormant until the sixth day. On the sixth day Hashem caused it to rain and the dormant vegetation sprung to life and covered our world. Our Sages asked: Why did Hashem wait until the sixth day to fully develop the lush covering of the Earth? The Sages respond that before the sixth day, humanity did not exist. No human being had yet been created who could appreciate the wonderful blessing of rain. On the sixth day, humanity was created. Adam realized that the trees and plants needed rain, and he prayed for rain. In response to Adam’s prayer, Hashem brought forth rain and the vegetation sprang to life.
Why did Hashem wait for Adam’s prayers? Why did Hashem not create humanity in a world that was already fully developed? The message of our Sages is that Hashem wanted to help humanity gain an appreciation of Hashem’s kindness, benevolence, and our dependence upon Him. In order to accomplish this, Hashem granted rain in response to Adam’s request. Adam was required to first ask – to recognize his dependence upon Hashem. Only then did Hashem respond with the rain that Adam had realized he needed to exist.
These comments provide a moving insight into the purpose of prayer. When we turn to Hashem to make our requests, we recognize our dependence. We cannot know whether we will be answered, or even what form an answer might take. But we submit to Hashem and acknowledge His central role in providing all that we have. We are forced – if we pray with sincerity – to recognize that His gracious kindness is not an entitlement. We are required to – at least for a few moments – see the universe as it really exists and not through the lens of our innate self-centeredness.
There is another astounding comment of our Sages on this week’s parasha that further develops their remarkable perspective on human nature and the fundamental definition of human perfection.
And the heavens and earth were completed and all of their components. (Beresheit 2:1)
This passage describes the moment at the advent of the first Shabbat. The passage is the first verse in a set of passages we recite each Friday night before reciting the Shabbat kiddush. Our Sages comment that when a person recites this set of passages, one becomes Hashem’s partner in the work of creation. How does the recitation of a few passages from the Torah make a person Hashem’s partner?
First, let us consider the content of the passages. Essentially, the passages acknowledge that Hashem created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. This seventh day, He blessed and sanctified the Shabbat. In reciting these passages, we acknowledge Hashem as creator. We affirm the sanctity of the Shabbat as a memorial to creation.
If through making this acknowledgment we become Hashem’s partners in creation, then we can deduce an amazing insight into the purpose of creation. Of course, we cannot fully understand Hashem’s motives for creation. His motives are an expression of His unfathomable divine nature. But we can derive from the comments of our Sages some limited insight into their understanding of the purpose of creation. If our acknowledgement of creation elevates us into a partnership with the Creator, apparently an element of Hashem’s design was to create a universe in which human beings would perceive Him. Our Sages are telling us that when we recognize Hashem as the Creator and center of all existence, we realize an element of the divine plan in creation.
This outlook once again indicates the fundamental importance of prayer. Just as when we recite this paragraph, so too in prayer we acknowledge our dependant relationship upon Hashem and recognize His centrality in our universe. Midrash Rabbah, Sefer Beresheit 1:1.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:26.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:11.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefillah, Introduction.  Mesechet Avodah Zarah 8a.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 2:5.  Mesechet Shabbat 119b.