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Parashat Re’eh 5773 — 07/31/2013

Parashat Re’eh 5773 — 07/31/2013

See, I put before you today a blessing and a curse. That blessing: when you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your Gd, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your Gd… (11:26-8)

I call Heaven and earth to witness today, that I have put Life and Death before you, the blessing and the curse.  You shall choose Life, so that you and your offspring may live… (30:19)

I am the Lord, and there is no one else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things.’ (Isaiah 45:7)

And Gd saw all that He had made and behold – it was very good!  (Bereshit 1:31)

And, behold, it was very good … And, behold, it was good [in the Book of Genesis] alludes to the creation of man and the Good Inclination, and “very” alludes to the Evil Inclination. Is, then, the Evil Inclination “very good”? It is, in truth, to teach you that were it not for the Evil Inclination, no one would build a house, marry and beget children. (Kohelet Rabba 3:15, quoted by R. Ari Kahn in his column on MiOray haAish [5760])

The Lord above made liquor for temptation, to see if man could turn away from sin… (Rodgers and Hammerstein, My Fair Lady)

As we have pointed out on a number of occasions, the Torah is full of “if only” incidents.  If only Adam and Eve had kept their hands off the Tree of Knowledge.  If only Moses had spoken to the rock (the second time) instead of hitting it.  If only they hadn’t made the Golden Calf.  The underlying theme behind all these incidents is: “if only” Gd hadn’t created us as imperfect beings, we wouldn’t have had to deal with all the other “if only”‘s!  Yet our Sages tell us that not only did Gd choose to create us this way, it is specifically that aspect of our existence that He declared very good.  What is so great about sin, punishment, suffering and death?

I suppose that technically one might argue that if Gd wants to create at all, then the objects He creates are just that – objects, finite, bounded in space and time.  Since Gd is infinite, perfect, wholly Good, then the creation, in order to be different than the Creator, must have opposite qualities – finite, imperfect, a mixture of Good and Evil.  Yet this only pushes the question back a step: why did Gd create to begin with?  It also leads to another question, a very personal question for all of us: now that we have been created, what should we be doing with our lives?

I think the answers to our two questions are bound up with one another.  First, we must make a disclaimer – nobody can presume to know for certain why Gd created, or for that matter why Gd does anything in creation.  Our tradition tells us that Gd created in order to shower His benevolence upon us, and Ramban, in a famous passage (Commentary to Ex. 13:12), contends that we were created in order to recognize Gd as the Creator and ourselves as creations.  In other words, according to Ramban, the purpose of creation is to provide a platform for human beings to grow out of their limitations, and become in some sense infinite, if not bodily so, then certainly on the level of the mind and the perceptions.

Now, presumably, Gd could have created us with this infinite perception to begin with, yet He did not choose to do so.  Instead, Gd created us imperfect, but with the ability, through self-discipline, to perfect ourselves.  In the words of our Sages, Gd created the inclination towards evil (that is, our imperfection), and He created Torah as its antidote (that is, the path by which we may perfect ourselves).  Our Sages give us a reason to hang our hats on at any rate: Gd wanted us to have the opportunity to earn perfection, by using our free will to follow Gd’s commandments.  Thus, in our portion, Gd tells us, See, I put before you today a blessing and a curse.  And in a month we will get the second part of the statement: You shall choose Life, so that you and your offspring may live… .  In other words, we were created imperfect, susceptible to choosing improperly and therefore earning for ourselves the curse and death.  But we were also given the ability to refine ourselves to the point where we can choose the blessing of life (and this must be taken to mean the life of the spirit, as even in the case of the greatest saint, the body dies).  Somehow, the very fact that the ability to choose improperly exists gives greater significance to those instances where we do not choose inappropriately.  We feel the accomplishment (and we have all had this experience in some way and in some context in our lives), and apparently it brings delight to Gd as well.  Gd, I am sure, would be quite bored if all He had were automata.  In line with the theme we have been considering over the past few weeks, perhaps we could say that the individual input we have in creation is specifically the use of our free will, as that is the aspect of our personalities that is most Gd-like.  And this is input that Gd values most highly, as it is the only input in creation that He has chosen not to compel.

And this, I believe, is why our Sages say that Gd called the Evil Inclination very good.  For were it not for the Evil Inclination, no one would build a house, marry and beget children.  The Evil Inclination is what prods us to act in Creation.  The Evil Inclination is the personification of our separation from Gd, our evaluation of ourselves as independent entities.   With the help of Torah we can complete the circle that begins with Gd, swings out into creation, and returns to re-integrate with Gd.  For this we were created.  If only we will be strong and persevere, we will earn great reward, and Gd Himself will help us.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 9

Mishnah 9 is too long to quote in its entirety.  It tells the story of R. Yose ben Kisma, who is approached by a sincere gentleman, who tries to recruit the Rabbi to come live (and presumably become “pulpit rabbi”) in his town.  R. Yose replies that even were he to be given all the material goods in the world, he would not abandon the spiritual path he is on (I would only live in a place of Torah).  The Mishnah goes on to describe that our material wealth does not follow us to the spiritual realms (Furthermore, when a person passes away, he is accompanied not by silver, gold, precious stones or pearls, but only by Torah and good deeds.)  Ultimately, this is the choice we are all faced with.  We are souls, but we dwell in a body.  The soul can only take pleasure in spiritual accomplishment, while the body is constantly pulling in the other direction.  This is the blessing and the curse, the eternal life of the soul or the body, which will die and decay.  R. Yose ben Kisma chose life.  So should we!