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Parashat Bereishit 5780

October 25, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Bereishit
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

For many years now, I have been intrigued by one particular reading in my synagogue’s High Holiday mahzor (Mahzor Hadash, The Prayer Book Press). Entitled “Continuing Creation,” it says that “our Sages taught, the human being is ‘God’s partner in the work of Creation.’ God and we create together.” It goes on to say: “There is still much to be done: disease to be conquered, injustice and poverty to overcome, hatred and war to be eliminated. There is truth to be discovered, beauty to be fashioned, freedom to be achieved, peace and righteousness to be established.”

This reading’s appeal rests on its nobility: lofty, even holy goals that become the mission toward which we work. In positing us as God’s partners in the work of Creation, this passage invests our lives with a transcendent purpose and significance.

But what exactly does it mean to say that we are God’s partners in creation? Surely the intention is not to compare our creative powers with those of the Creator of All. As the philosopher Allan Bloom puts it, the first time the word creativity was used to describe a human capacity, “it had the odor of blasphemy and paradox. God alone had been called a creator; and this was the miracle of miracles, beyond causality …” (The Closing of the American Mind, 180). The occasional genius among us might be fairly described as creative, but even in such rare instances, what can that creativity offer to the One who said “Let there be light,’ and there was light”? (Genesis 1:3)

For Bloom, humanity’s distinctive capacity is not creativity but reason, through which we can “grasp the whole of nature, and hence (become) akin to that whole” (Ibid.). In other words, reason gives us not only the power to understand things, but also to do so in a larger context that can impart meaning and significance to ourselves and our actions.

Looking at the original source for the mahzor reading quoted above, I think one can make the argument that it is our capacity for reason that makes us God’s partners. That text is the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b. There Rava (or perhaps Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi) teaches that one who prays on the eve of Shabbat is required to recite Genesis 2:1-3 – the passage beginning with va-y’khulu ha-shamayim v’ha-aretz – the heavens and earth were completed. This is in accordance with Rav Hamnuna who said that anyone who recites this passage is considered “as if he became a partner with the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the work of Creation.” As proof, we are taught to vocalize the opening word of Genesis 2:1 not passively (as in “they [the heavens and earth] were completed”) but rather actively (as in “they [God and the one who recites this verse] completed the heavens and the earth”). In other words, ours is not a creative partnership with God, but one in which our role is to help bring creation to completion.

We do so through our distinctive capacity for reason. We examine the record of creation and see it as good (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21, and 31), life-centered (Genesis 1:22 and 28) and touched with divinity (Genesis 1:26-28). We then use our power of reason to understand all that follows to be in accord with that character. Thus stories or commandments that might appear to contradict that character, through the power of reason, are instead reconciled to it. One may cite here any number of examples. My oft-referenced favorite is the commandment to stone the rebellious son (Deut. 21:18-21) – a commandment which the rabbis effectively interpret to be a hypothetical teaching with no practical application (Sanhedrin 71a). One might say they reach this conclusion through creative argumentation. But they would insist they are using reason to unearth the Torah’s true intention which is always toward life and goodness.

Our Torah, whose reading we begin anew this week, is our record of creation – both of the world and of us as a people. Like the act of creation itself, its power is almost limitless. Recognizing this, our tradition has focused this power on goodness, on life, and on reaching toward the divine. It has done so by using reason to complete that record by giving it shape, focus and direction. And in so doing, it has made us God’s partners in creation.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT