The past week has been a trying one for all of us - a week filled with violence and grief and awful things. If you are anything like me, there has been a lot of anger and sadness, a lot of social media scrolling and texting with distraught friends, there have been moments when you just started to cry. That whole week of grief and pain began, strangely enough, on Simchat Torah, one of the most joyous holidays we have. As the book of Lamentations says, "Gone is the joy of our hearts; Our dancing is turned into mourning."
So we go from Simchat Torah, to a week of sadness, and then once again, to the opposite emotional pole which is Parshat Bereshit, the Torah portion that deals with the creation of the universe. A moment when God looked at nothing and made something, and created a world, and inhabited it with plants and animals and humans, something wondrous and amazing that we all could enjoy.
And we also go from joy to sadness, and to joy again, as we as a community and we as a family get to celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of our own. Our mourning is, all of a sudden, turned into dancing once again. It is the opposite poles of the entire range of human emotion, in just seven short days.
Which, considering what God does in creation in just seven days, is perfectly fitting. The world was nothing and void. It was chaos. And somehow, for some reason, God rejected the chaos, and chose order. God rejected nothingness, and instead made something. And then the Torah tells us, on each of the days, that the something that God made was Good.
But one of things that God and the Torah omit in the creation story would seem to be quite essential: Why?
Why did God create the universe? Why did God create humans? For what purpose did that serve for God? And once God creates us, what are we supposed to do?
My father tried to answer this question once in his parental charge to my sister Alissa at her bat mitzvah in 1993. He had just read Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ in preparation for his remarks, and wrote a deep and thoughtful 6 page sermon about the meaning of life and matter and energy and God and existence. And the senior rabbi at Wilshire Blvd Temple in Los Angeles politely told my father ‘Jim, you get five minutes.’ If my dad succeeded in answering the meaning of life in the sermon, I don’t recall - probably because I wasn’t paying attention.
There probably isn’t a better place or time to tell you all the meaning of life than today, on the coinciding occasions of my son Iggy’s bar mitzvah with parshat bereshit, the Torah portion that contains God’s creation of the world. We know this section of the Torah better than almost any other. The majority of folks in Western society can recite the opening verse ‘In the beginning’ from memory. Most knowledgeable Jews can sing the refrains of the afterward to six days of creation by heart, too, since it is the blessing for kiddush on friday that we say week in, week out.
The Torah tells us that the world was created. It doesn’t tell us why the world was created.
So it becomes the work of the rabbis to try and ask the question: why did God create the universe?
To do that they have to deal with an annoying theological problem of their own making - for the rabbis, God is infinite, and perfect. Before creation, there was just God, and God was perfect, and therefore God did not need anything. So when God chooses to create the world, it is not for God’s sake. God needs nothing, not planets or stars or fuzzy duckies or pumpkin spiced lattes or juicy tomatoes with just the right amount of crunch, and certainly not human beings. And thus, the rabbis decide, God created the world as an act of pure hesed, pure lovingkindness. God didn’t need fuzzy duckies or juicy tomatoes, but we like them, and so God made them.
So the rabbis take a stab at the meaning of life by looking at Bereshit. They look at the creation story and see that God made one human, and that every subsequent human is derived from that first human, Adam, and Adam was created betzelem elohim, in the image of God. In the Talmud it says ‘And this serves to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be God, as when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be God, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first man, as all of them are his offspring, and not one of them is similar to another. Therefore, since all humanity descends from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: bishvili nivra haolam - The world was created for me.’
I was twice blessed with the opportunity to learn with the great rabbi and theologian, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the founder of Clal - once when I was in the Jewish service corps called ‘Avodah’, and another time when I was in a Jewish educators fellowship at the Hartman institute. And both times, Yitz as he likes to be called, taught this text - about God stamping humans like coins and that every person must say ‘the world was created for my sake’, and that every human being should look at all other human beings as if the world was created for them. And I have since heard from others who have learned with Rabbi Greenberg, that whenever he teaches a group, he ALWAYS teaches this text.
Greenberg has authored 10 books; he was a student of one of the greatest rabbi philosophers of the 20th, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; he has a PhD from Harvard. He knows a lot of things - a great breadth and depth of torah and philosophy - but he repeatedly returns to teaching this. one. thing. Over and over, to every group he teaches. He does it because it’s so important - because it is a version of the meaning of life - that we should walk through the world believing we have infinite worth, and so does everybody else.
The rabbi that I have been studying more than any other over the past few years is Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, a Mussar rabbi who lived in Lithuania from 1849-1920 and who then lived in Israel until he died in 1927. Mussar is a Jewish school of thought that is intensely committed to personal self-refinement. To Rav Nosson Tzvi, the question of why God created the world is contained in three simple words. ‘Olam hesed yibaneh’ - a world of lovingkindness will be built - which is a quote from psalm 89. The Alter of Slabodka doesn’t translate it that way, though, because, for the grammar geeks amongst us, the word yibaneh could be ‘God builds’ or ‘Humans build’ or, as Nosson Tzvi translates it in the passive tense, “The world is established on lovingkindness - hesed” (Psalm 89).
Our friend Rabbi Finkel continues
“The whole world, the heavens and the earth and all the constellations, were created with the quality of hesed. And all of their actions are hesed. This quality is the wheel that causes all pathways of the world. By it was the world created, and on it is the world sustained. And the appraisal of humankind is that this is imprinted upon them - this attribute of hesed. Upon it was caused to be constructed all of creation, which was made for humankind, so that humans could learn from it the way of life on earth.”
In other words, for the Alter of Slabodka, the world was created in hesed - it is hesed. God made the world as a pure unselfish act of love, and every fiber of the universe is infused with that primordial hesed. It is the DNA of the universe, and as such, it is the hidden code which human beings are expected to learn and understand and discern.
This is a most difficult week of all weeks to attempt to contemplate the message that the world is constructed on lovingkindness. It seems like such a naive and seemingly absurd message amidst the violence and hate we have endured. That is, however, the point. Human beings’ infinite capacity for cruelty is counterbalanced by our infinite capacity for kindness. We destroy, but we also build. We inflict harm, but we also have the capacity to feed millions. To quote Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel in a different commentary he writes earlier in his book called Ohr HaTzafun - The Hidden Light - ‘HaYezter tzarich leHa’ed b’yotzro’ - ‘the creation needs to testify to its creator’. Humankind is capable of goodness and kindness and creation on the scale of God godself, because humans were made in God’s image.
Most of us don’t feel very kind these days I imagine. We feel angry. We feel hate. We think awful thoughts because we read awful thoughts. Many of us question whether kindness is really just weakness, or if kindness is dead, and must be replaced. That is not what God intended when we were created, and it is not what God intended when God wrote us a Torah filled with a moral code of behavior meant to elevate and ennoble humanity.
War, especially, is the repudiation of ; and the antithesis of kindness. When human beings engage in war, even defensive wars, even necessary wars, the results are still terrible. The thread of kindness, of hesed, though, never disappears from someone in the most distressing circumstances. The well-know Chef Jose Andres, who brings gourmet food to disaster areas and war torn refugees, said in a recent interview that he had been to places where he saw the worst that humankind had to offer, but wherever he found examples of human cruelty, he always found evidence of empathy and compassion there too.
The message for this shabbat is we need to lean into kindness – specifically because, after the week we have had, it is so incredibly hard to do that. We find it easy to be angry, and hard to be kind, and that’s why we have to be kind. It’s easy to give in to anger. It’s easy to blame others. It’s easy to cop out and not care. It’s hard to be kind.
To be fair, it’s not that hard for everyone. One of things I learn most from my kids is the importance of kindness. My son Yigal teaches me this all the time. He is genuinely thoughtful and kind. He worries about his classmates and his sibling. He is quick to give Noa or I a hug when we feel sad. A few weeks ago he went to a movie with his CDS classmates down at the waterfront - a special screening of a movie called ‘A Cure for Hate’, about a former neo-nazi who changed his ways and became a crusader against racism and antisemitism. When the movie was over, and the class had an opportunity to question the filmmakers, Iggy raised his hand and asked about toxic masculinity. He asked, ‘How can I not be a toxic male and instead be kind and compassionate. What does that type of masculinity look like?’ What a question.
The underlying question there, and for all of us, is how can we maintain our compassion, our humanity, our kindness, in the face of a world that is such a mess, such chaos. How are you, Iggy, and the rest of us, supposed to hang on to our kindness as our base norm of what is expected of us as our purpose in life, when the world seems bent on belittling the importance of kindness as naive or unmanly?
Parshat Bereshit comes to tell us that God created the universe as a totally selfless act – out of an abundance of love. Olam hesed yibaneh - the world is founded on kindness. We exist on the kindness we grant to others and the kindness they show us in return, because we are builders out of the destruction, and we are organizers amidst the chaos.
We were created to be kind. Sometimes humans forget that. Sometimes we lose our way. Sometimes we lose our way for a long time on this concept. We always, inevitably, come back to it. When we destroy, we inevitably rebuild. Cruelty will eventually make way for compassion, and chaos is dispelled in favor of order.
When you become a parent, you have lots of hopes and dreams for your children - that they be smart or wealthy or successful or good looking or, in my case, that they play fullback for the US National soccer team. Rabbi Abraham Joshua once said ‘When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.’ I am not that old, Iggy. All your mother and I ask of you, and all that God and Torah ask of us all, is that you continue to be kind.