Faith in humanity, chance for redemption

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is a Community Chaplain at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and teaches at B’nai Amoona, Kol Rinah and Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. 

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

The creation narrative at the beginning of the Torah presents the creative activity of God, punctuated with proclamations of goodness. But on the sixth day of creation, the day on which humanity is created, the Torah tells us that “God saw all that God had done and behold, it was tov me’od —very good.” 

Bereishit Rabbah, the fifth-century midrash on Genesis, teaches that me’od, the word for “very,” is spelled mem, alef, dalet, and that because the word for “humanity,” adam, is spelled with the same letters but in a different order, tov me’od must mean that humanity is what tipped the scales over into “very good.”  

We quickly move to the first transgression and exile from Eden, the first fratricide, and the Torah portion ends with: “Adonai saw how great was human wickedness on the earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” (6:5).

So, which are we: “very good” or “nothing but evil?”

Our sages explored this question through midrashim on Genesis 1:26, the verse introducing the creation of humankind. God said: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” 

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“Rabbi Simone taught: At the hour when the Holy One of Blessing came to create the first human, the angels formed groups and parties, some of them saying, ‘Do not create him!’  and some of them said, ‘Create him!’ This is why it says in Psalm 85: ‘Loving-kindness and truth fought each other; justice and peace combated each other.’ Hesed/Loving-Kindness says, ‘Let him be created, for he will practice loving-kindness.’ Emet/Truth says, ‘Do not create him, for he is made up of lies/falsehood.’ Tzedek/Justice says, ‘Let him be created, for he will perform righteous deeds.’ Shalom/Peace says, ‘Do not create him, for he is full of strife.’ What did God do? God took truth and cast it down to earth.…Thus it is written (Psalm 85:12): ‘Let truth rise up from the earth.’ ” (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5) 

Defining the human being as all good or all evil is beside the point. The Torah teaches us how to live in the world —not that we are good, but how to do good. When Cain is disappointed that his offering was not accepted by God, God advises Cain: “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do good, there is uplift. But if you do not do good, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4:6,7)

And here lies the hopefulness of Torah and its view of humanity. We are neither purely good, nor are we irredeemably bad. Despite God’s words about humankind’s propensity for evil, the Torah views humankind with hopefulness because our behavior is not fixed. Our free will gives us tremendous potential. 

Our capacity to forge a path toward redeeming ourselves is lifted up in this week’s Haftarah

“I created you, and appointed you, a covenant people, a light of nations —opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7). 

Isaiah’s world is also a broken world. He speaks to a Jewish people who know the great darkness of destruction and exile. But the response is for us to be bearers of light. This is not because the Jewish people are fixed by nature to be an or goyim —a light of nations. We are not intrinsically better than anyone else; Isaiah calls us deaf and blind. 

But as we struggle to free ourselves from all the ways we are  captive, and as we open our eyes and ears to the call of justice, the possibility of redemption is placed before us. 

And so we are presented in this first week of our Torah reading cycle with the possibility of chaos —tohu vavohu –the possibility of great evil and lies and strife —but also with the possibility of order, light, justice, love and kindness. And in this unfolding world, we are privileged with partnering with God to make the world tov me’od —very good.