Torah from around the world #186

By Rabbi Tirzah Ben-David, Shir Hatzafon Progressive Jewish Community, Copenhagen, Denmark

“In the beginning”… the ancient Israelite account of creation presents us with a vision of infinite possibility. It pinpoints the unrepeatable, and unsustainable, instant when everything is potential, because nothing yet exists.  All artists know this moment, and they also know, with a sinking heart, that their work will never truly capture their vision, that something will always be distorted, narrowed, lost. Did this same anguish afflict God?

The tally of our lives seems to imply that it did.  The heirs of cosmic plenitude, we so often find ourselves reduced to a lonely apartment, a hospital bed, a photograph.  We live in a culture of despotic success that is haunted by anxiety and failure. Did God build this into the system, or did we?  And if God is somehow there with us, to comfort us in our darkest moments, is it because we have dragged ‘Him’ down with us, or because ‘He’ has, in ‘His’ infinitude, always been there waiting for us?

According to Genesis, God was pleased with creation. He found it good. But not perfect. Or predictable. Even in Eden we were already one step ahead of God. We escaped from eternity into time, and then everything was again up for grabs. The deepest wisdom of Genesis is that we can’t eat our cake and have it – we can’t be both human and perfect, both free and safe. We abandoned the eternal childhood of perfection for the joys and perils of adult insecurity.

The traditional response of Rabbinic Judaism to this dilemma has been to opt for caution, for maximum damage control. This is perhaps the guiding motive of Halachah, the ‘fence around the Torah’; the ever- narrowing of the margin for error. In the process the vast, anarchic Tree of Life was trimmed to the dimensions of a high garden hedge. It’s over two hundred years now since the first Reformers poked their heads over that hedge and considered the challenging vistas beyond.

But our other ancient Jewish tradition, the Kabbalah, unites creation with apocalypse. Largely abandoning Genesis, it imagines both a ‘singularity’ – the defining moment when God made space for the universe, and reality as we know it began – and an eternal, on-going process in which we are God’s partners. More than partners: we are redeemers and repairers of God’s flawed creative vision, as well as its victims. Because things went wrong from the start. We didn’t quit Eden, Eden collapsed around our heads in the fireworks of a cosmic miscalculation, and we’ve been helping God to pick up the pieces ever since. We all know it as Tikkun Olam.

This is of course an account of kabbalistic creation theory whilst standing on one leg, but it captures, I hope, the essential breathtaking audacity, the sublime chutzpah, of our greatest speculative minds.  And it reaches far beyond speculation; it can touch our lives and feed our spirit and our imagination. Behind the arcane teachings we perceive an inspiration and purpose which may light our dark places.  To be needed is everyone’s greatest need. To be needed by God cancels at a stroke all our calculations of success and failure, of fame and obscurity. The sheer scope, the excitement, of the idea alters our perspective forever.

Playing safe has rarely saved anybody. Every tradition, whether it’s two hundred years old or two thousand, must earn its keep each day. Timidity is not modesty and arrogance is not courage; but the courage to play a modest part in a great cosmic enterprise may sustain us when all else is lost. Rabbi Tarfon, as far as I know, was not a kabbalist, but his words are appropriate: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it…” (Avoth, 2:16).

Our potential is not diminished; we have the work of creation in our hands. We are, eternally, God’s new beginning.

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