Beresheit: Revision and indecision in the creation narrative

Beresheit: Revision and indecision in the creation narrative

One of our basic tenets of faith is that God is omniscient. That is, He is all-knowing. God just doesn’t “make mistakes.” And yet, a Midrashic tradition cited by the classic commentator Rashi at the beginning of this week’s portion (indeed, the beginning of the entire Torah) seems to belie this very notion!

“God (Elohim) created – not ‘Hashem created,’ for in the beginning it occurred to God to create a world governed by the attribute of justice. He subsequently saw that such a world could not endure, so He introduced the attribute of mercy, and combined it with the attribute of justice.”

According to the midrash, God’s initial blueprint was for a world governed entirely by justice and truth. This is derived from the Torah’s usage of the term “Elohim” in Genesis 1:1, a description of God which usually connotes divine justice. When God saw that such a system was unsustainable, that a world governed entirely by justice would, due to all of the world’s imperfections, wilt and crumble before it ever got started, He decided to incorporate the attribute of mercy. In the new world order, our world would be governed by the combination of truth and justice on the one hand, and compassion and mercy on the other.

At first glance, it seems as if God here had an initial plan for the world, but changed His mind; that due to unforeseen circumstances He shifted course, and implemented a different program for the world.

Clearly however, such an approach is untenable. Are we to believe that God had an initial plan and then regretted His initial decision? Doesn’t God’s omniscience run counter to such a possibility? The finite mind of a human often takes one approach, and after a period of time realizes that approach is flawed or decides on a different course of action, or through a process of trial and error finds the appropriate solution. But in the decision making process of an all-knowing God, there is no room for equivocation. Is there?

Perhaps this midrash should be understood not as God changing His mind, but as God initially, and intentionally, providing the blueprint for an ideal world. Optimally, the world should be governed with divine justice; with truth. Such a world, where everyone does what they should be doing, would be completely perfect, without any need for compromise or concession.

But while this is the ideal world, we were not ready for it; such a world could not survive. The world had to be created with incorporating the attribute of mercy. But all of creation, with humanity as its epicenter, is charged with growing and developing the world, making it more perfect so that it may reach its ideal state. It is through the world with mercy interwoven in its fabric that we may seek to achieve a more perfect world of justice and truth. So, in essence, we have here not an initial thought followed by a change in course, but rather a stated goal followed by a path by which to get there.

Remarkably, some understand the subsequent episode of the sin of Adam and Eve in just such a way. Could it really be possible that God created human beings so that they may dwell in the Garden of Eden, and because they betray the will of God the entire divine plan for the world is altered, and the course of human history is drastically changed? Could it really be that this wasn’t the divine plan? As one midrash has it, certainly not. “A specific time was given to Adam as to when he would enter The Garden of Eden, and specific time was given as to when he would exit the Garden of Eden.”

Humankind was placed in The Garden to show that, based on their capacity for spiritual attainment, that is where they ultimately have the potential to reach. That is the goal towards which they should strive. But those qualities are not yet fully developed, so Adam and Eve could not remain there.

On the heels of a meaningful and hopefully inspiring yom tov season, we have just been given a glimpse of spiritual clarity and what our potential for religious growth and achievement truly is. At the outset of Creation, our tradition teaches that the way of humanity should be one which is goal oriented. Beresheit provides us with the blueprint to continue to strive towards those goals, making the world ever more perfect and more just, so that we may ultimately arrive back in the Garden of Eden of old.