Why Is Creation Messy?

Image: Watercolor in bright colors, very messy. Artist: Prawny at Pixabay.

I received a wonderful question yesterday from Channah Yael and her Chavrusot, and thought that today would be a very appropriate day to answer it:

Why did Hashem create life to be messy?
G-d could have done it any way. Why this way?
What purpose does messiness have in our lives
and in the great plan of Creation?

The world is indeed messy. It is deeply distressing sometimes to see how messy it is. This morning I read an article in the Wall Street Journal,  The Children of the Opioid Crisis, about children who grow up with a single parent addicted to opioid drugs. My heart ached as I read about little ones who are traumatized by what they have seen and heard. Even the more fortunate among them – those who have relatives who can step in and care for them – suffer dreadful after effects of physical hunger and neglect.  I want to howl to heaven, Eicha?! – How?! – How can the Holy One allow such suffering of innocents?

So I look to the Torah and our tradition for answers. One answer is that the Holy One created us b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

God said, “Let Us make humanity in Our image, after Our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” – Genesis 1:26.

Then, curiously, this is reinforced by repetition in the next verse:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God created God them; male and female created them. – Genesis 1:27

So the Holy One created each of us, male and female, with the ability – and perhaps the responsibility – to “rule” our fellow creatures. One aspect of this is our intelligence. Another aspect of it is our ability to make choices. We have free will: the ability to choose between two or more possibilities. This concept is so important that the Torah repeats it immediately: we are made in the image of God, all of us; we have certain godlike aspects.

That was at Creation. The Torah does not immediately make clear what God hoped to see after giving humanity this property, but it does go on with the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, followed at length by other choices human beings made, many of them destructive choices.

Eventually, the Holy One gave Torah to us, to inform our choices. (e.g. “Choose life!” – Deuteronomy 30:19) We are still free to make choices. Sometimes we choose what we think is best, only to discover that it did not lead where we hoped. Sometimes we are selfish in our choices, and choose what we want because we want it. Sometimes we are not sure what to do, and make no decision, and that, too, is a choice.

There are other parts of creation that do not have choices, and those are messy too. The laws of nature are immutable, and sometimes result in pain and sorrow: I drop a can of soup, and smash my foot. The soup can and the planet Earth obey the law of gravity. My foot, which got in between them, absorbs the force with predictable results. Even the orderly parts of creation can be messy when they collide!

Our godlike power to make choices makes creation messy. The fixed laws of nature make things messy, too.

I suppose that the great Oneness we call God could have existed alone in splendor, its ruach Elohim [spirit/wind of God] blowing over the tohu v’vohu [chaos]. However, God chose (there’s that word again!) to separate light from darkness and create the world we know. God chose a messy world.

One of the quirks of the literary style of Torah is that it seldom tells us much about motivation. We are left to draw our own conclusions about them most of the time. So here are my conclusions:

I think it is safe to conclude that God did not want a doll house. God did not create a static world in which nothing bad ever happens. The closest thing to that is Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, and even there, the messiness was baked in: human beings had free will.

What I learn from this is that messiness itself is holy, created by God. This messiness inherent to the world is often a puzzle for us to solve. We have been given intellects and hearts to use in solving these puzzles.

Back to those poor children in the Wall Street Journal article: they are innocents who are suffering from the addiction of their parents. Perhaps the parents made bad choices. Perhaps they didn’t: they got hooked on drugs that they had previously needed for an injury. Either way, parents suffer, children suffer, the grandparents who take them in suffer, and society suffers in many different ways. It is up to me, as an observant Jew, to ask what I can do to alleviate the suffering, all the while understanding that I cannot “fix” some things about it. I can only embrace the suffering human beings, acknowledge their suffering, and do what little I can about for them.

Even for the person on the street, someone who may be an addict, whose story I do not know, there are things I can do. I can acknowledge their humanity by treating them as human beings. I can, if I choose (!) give them choices in the form of money: money they may choose to spend well or poorly. I cannot save them. What I can do is recognize what we have in common: we are human, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, and sometimes we suffer.

I believe that it is when I personally make the choice to embrace those suffering people, despite the discomfort that makes them seem alien to me, that I can approach the holiness God hopes for me. And when we do it corporately, as Am Yisrael, we fulfill our destiny as a people.

I want to howl “Eicha!?” to the God who made the world this way. Ultimately I do not and cannot understand. But in the moment, I have choices. I have things to do.

 

 

 

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Jewish & Christian?

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - What happened here?
Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – What happened here?

Lately I’ve been asked a lot about Judaism and Christianity – specifically, is it possible to be both Jewish and Christian?

And I know there are people who assert that they are, indeed, both, or who say they are raising children as both.

Here’s my difficulty with that: For a Christian, Jesus of Nazareth is God, and he’s alive. For a Jew, he is not God; he died almost 200 years ago and hasn’t been back.

It’s called “Christian” because in that way of understanding the world, Jesus is (present tense) the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the ultimate revelation of God, and he is, in fact, God.

In the Jewish way of understanding the world, Jesus was a rabbi who was executed by the Romans. There is only One God, and that God is completely, utterly Other: not human, never has been human. There are some Jews who do not believe in any kind of personal God; they identify as Humanistic Jews or secular Jews.

When you have people in a family with different beliefs, it can be complicated. I have relatives, whom I love, for whom Jesus is the Christ. I have relatives who think belief in God is basically fairytales. We love one another, and we deal with one another kindly and with respect. My son does not say to me, “Mom, you sell fairytales for a living” even though I am aware that from his point of view, that’s what I do. My Christian relatives do not say to me, “You are going to Hell,” even though I suspect some of them fear that’s where I’m headed. And I do not preach at them, either.   We coexist with love and occasional amusement.  I like to think that God finds us amusing, too.

If you are considering raising a child as both Jewish and Christian, I would like you to think about a question you may very well get from a child:  Is Jesus alive, or dead? God or not?

This isn’t about Christmas trees. It isn’t about bacon or bagels. There are many varieties of Christian, and many varieties of Jews, but when we say “there’s no real difference” that’s simply not true.

Image: Copyright All rights reserved by AAAPOE and 1China1 Photos at flickr

God or Godzilla?

English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 J...
English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 Japanese film Godzilla. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend recently reported on facebook that her phone autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.”

A lot of people come to my classes worried that:

  • I am going to find out they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to be mad that they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to insist that they believe in “God.”
  • I am going to make a big deal out of any of the above.

The only thing I know for sure about That-Which-We-Call-God is that I agree with Maimonides: whatever I think God is, that is what God is not.

I don’t like to use pronouns for God. God is either beyond all gender or encompassing all genders, and I believe there are a lot more than two genders, so English pronouns are useless.

I find the word “God” increasingly useless because folks come to it with a lot of opinions ready at hand. Some people immediately think about the version of God that blasts people in the Bible. I agree, that person is scary and often immature. That limited image, taken alone, is not what I am talking about when I say, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God.” Remember, we are warned to be very careful about images.

Then there are people who refer to God as “Sky Daddy” or “Giant Sky Monster” or something similar. They’re trying to make the point that taking ancient metaphors literally is silly. I agree with them that taking an ancient metaphor literally is silly, but I don’t like to throw my metaphors out with the bathwater: some things are still useful even when I refuse to swallow them whole.

There is Something about the Universe that calls out for amazement.  That is my God: the aspect of the world that is far beyond me, that leaves me with my jaw hanging open.* I witness it in the power of a terrible storm, and in the smell of a newborn baby. I witness it in acts of selflessness, and acts of courage.

Torah is the record of human beings trying to wrap their minds around it: a dance between The Amazed People and the Object of Amazement. The best way they could come up with to relate to it was to personify it, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore it. They cooked up the idea that they had a Covenant with it, that they were given commandments (mitzvot) to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the Amazingness of the Universe.

Torah is unfinished and in process.  There is always work – human work – to be done to align the commandments with the ideal that they are intended to pursue. In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad point out to Moses that the way Torah law was set up, it created an unjust situation. Moses is not sure. He confers with God, who immediately rectifies the situation. That is a model I can follow: when traditional interpretations of the law are unjust and unkind, then it’s time to come up with something better.

And yes, lots of bad stuff has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. That’s God as an excuse, and after hearing about my friend’s phone, I am going to refer to that “God” as “Godzilla.” The “God” that people cite as their authority for bad behavior is no more than a monster. One might even argue that it is an Idol, but that’s another post entirely.

*If you want to read better writing about this idea of God, check out the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says it all much better than do I.