Shabbat Breishit: Mistakes–A Gift From G!d?

Shabbat Breishit: Mistakes–A Gift From G!d?

(Delivered by Student Rabbi Maayan Lev on October 21, 2022)

We’ve made it. The High Holy Day season is over, and we are now returning to our regularly scheduled programming.

This week, we have scrolled the Torah back to the beginning, and start over with the story of Genesis, the Creation of the World, also known as Ma’aseh Bereshit.

A Torah scroll is made with exquisite care. The writer, called a sofer, has many rules to follow in order for the Torah to be kosher. The parchment must be made from the skin of a kosher animal. There is special ink, and a special quill. Some letters need to be bigger, and some smaller. Sometimes the spacing needs to change. The sofer even goes to the mikveh before beginning the work, to be in a state of ritual purity.

Yet with all the work that goes into making the Torah as perfect as can be for us to read, reading it isn’t easy. On the scroll, there are no written vowels, and no punctuation.[1] These things are memorized before reading from the scroll. Memorizing the passages is very difficult. Every year, my Hebrew students ask me, why aren’t there vowels? Why isn’t there punctuation?

As someone who finds it difficult to memorize these things myself, even after my bar mitzvah, I am often tempted to answer them, “It’s because they want us to be stressed out!”

But that’s not the answer I give them. Because tempting as it might be to say that, there is no spiritual value in that answer. And so, I give them an answer that has much greater meaning. I give them the answer that one of my Hebrew instructors gave to me when I was a child:

“We do not expect you to memorize everything perfectly, nor do we want you to.” People hesitate, start phrases over, or make errors when reading the Torah all the time. It’s not just acceptable, it’s accepted. Just like it’s not truly a party until someone accidentally breaks a glass, and we get to say “L’chayim,” I was taught that it’s not a true Torah reading, until the reader makes a mistake.”

I’m sure we’ve all heard this before, but it’s ok to make mistakes. To make a mistake is to be human. We are taught that only G!d is perfect. We are taught that HaShem is “צוּרִי וְלֹא־[עַוְלָתָה] בּוֹ.” In English, this means that G!d is “my Rock, in Whom there is no flaw.”[2]

Whether or not you truly believe in G!d, the point remains. Perfection is not attainable for us. And yet, it seems we try so hard all the time to be perfect.

So often, we expect too much of ourselves. Even when we don’t demand perfection, we demand something too close to it. That kind of pressure really gets to your head. And get, we are told to seek maximum closeness with HaShem, and that means to be as perfect as humanly possible. But just how perfect might that be? It’s hard to say. In theory, all we can say is that it’s somewhere between 100% imperfect, and godly. However perfect we become, it will still be short of G!d’s perfection.

But what if G!d was not truly a “Rock in Whom there is no flaw,” or no injustice? What if G!d was not perfect?

It seems like a very radical question, and even a blasphemous one. I want to assure you, this is purely an exercise in thought, but it is actually one rooted in Jewish texts. It seems like so many sources state that our G!d is omni-benevolent. But actually, there are many competing ideas about G!d in Jewish literature. For example, Maimonides contends in The Guide For The Perplexed[3] that, while G!d is our creator and does indeed exist, the creation story in Genesis is actually a metaphor. And yet, our early rabbis wanted to take things a bit more literally, and by insisting on finding answers for everything, they actually created a very interesting midrash about the story of creation in Genesis Rabbah[4] having to do with G!d and perfection.

After the sixth day of creation, it states in Genesis, “.וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד” “HaShem saw all that HaShem made, and behold, it was very good.”[5] Of course it was good! G!d made it! Surely everything designed by G!d was good! It was only after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that G!d’s creations were not perfect, not before!

But Genesis Rabbah tells us this is not so. Rabbi Abbahu asserts that G!d actually created many worlds, but G!d destroyed the previous ones that were not good. Rabbi Pinchas claims that Rabbi Abbahu derives this idea from the fact that the Torah states that HaShem found our world to be “tov m’od, very good,” because this world, unlike the other ones, was G!d’s best work.[6]

Think of G!d as a potter, as in the Yom Kippur piyyut (liturgical poem) Ki Hineh KaChomer. If G!d is the most skilled potter that ever was, then it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that maybe G!d is a perfectionist. Even self-critical. Only the very best makes the cut. Anything less than perfect, and G!d would start over.

We often inherit our traits from our parents, or extended family members. If all humans are descended from G!d, then how can we demand perfection of ourselves, when even our Creator makes mistakes?

If we are to imagine, if only for a moment, that G!d makes mistakes, then there is actually an even bigger lesson to be learned from it. Because if G!d, an extraordinarily talented Creator, was so hypercritical that G!d was determined to see the flaws even in great works, G!d would never have a moment of peace. Could G!d ever accept that sometimes something can be beautiful, despite all its flaws? Would G!d ever want to nurture a creation like that? A very close reading of the text in Genesis 1 would suggest that even before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Perhaps the only thing that was not perfect about this world, was us!

Almost every day, HaShem created something, and the text tells us that “G!d saw that it was good.”[7] The things created on the sixth day are split into two sections: first the animals, and then humans. On the sixth day, after creating the animals the text states that “G!d saw that it was good.” But after creating humans later that same day the text states that “G!d saw that it was very good.”[8] Many take this to mean that it was humans that were the deciding factor that turned the world from “good” to “very good.” But actually, that text doesn’t state that G!d saw humans as good at all!  Rather, the text specifically refers the phrase “very good” to G!d’s view about the entirety of creation, from day 1 through day 6, combined. Never were humans mentioned specifically as “very good.”

This doesn’t mean that we as humans aren’t actually good. Humans, at least on the whole, are very good! But we aren’t perfect. If we continue to use the metaphor from Genesis Rabbah, if we weren’t a perfect creation, then why didn’t G!d destroy our world and start over? Perhaps it’s because G!d realized that when you demand perfection at every waking moment, you will never be satisfied. Everything, even the best designs, can be improved. The work never stops. You have no time to enjoy yourself. No time to rest. No seventh day. No Shabbat. The lesson is, at some point, enough is enough.

Good enough, can actually still be great! Even when G!d decided to destroy the world with a flood in next week’s parashah, it was only a partial reset. Though lots of people and animals perished, the core of the world survived.

And so I ask again as we begin our Torah anew: “Why do they make the Torah so hard to read?” It’s because we’re meant to mess up.

The opening chapter of the Torah states that we are created in G!d’s image: b’tzelem Elokim. If parts of us are a reflection of G!d, and we take these lessons to heart, then we must realitze that, yes, we should strive for the best, but nevertheless we should  see the beauty in it even when something doesn’t turn out exactly the way we envisioned it. It is perhaps summed up best in a well-known English saying that reminds us of the fourth day of creation. “Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you will land among the stars.”

Shabbat shalom.

 

[1]How Is the Torah Made?Chabad, editors at  www.chabad.org. and Shekel, Rabbi Michal. “The Making of a Torah Scroll.” My Jewish Learning, at www.myjewishlearning.com.

[2] Psalms 92:16.

[3] The Guide for the Perplexed, written c. 1190 in classical Arabic, is Maimonides’ major work of theology. It tries to reconcile rabbinic thinking with Aristotelianism by finding rational explanations for biblical events. It remains a widely admired and studied work to this day.

[4] Genesis Rabbah is a midrashic work containing homiletical interpretations of the biblical book of Genesis. It proceeds by interpreting virtually every word of every verse with the exception of genealogical material and some other matters deemed unnecessary to interpret. It was written between 300 and 500 C.E., with additional material inserted later.

[5] Genesis 1:31.

[6] Genesis Rabbah 3:7.

[7] Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25.

[8] Genesis 1:31.

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