The pleasing sense of calm, balance, and harmony in the Creation narrative is striking. Whereas creation begins in wild mixture, chaos, and darkness, G-d creates light and distills it from darkness. He divides the waters into upper and lower, organizes oceans and land, creates and classifies trees and plants. Day and night receive different organizing celestials and they begin the further task of dividing day from night and marking days and years. The sea receives its life forms, the sky its own; the land finds many types of beings. G-d creates humanity in His image, “male and female, He created them.”
All of this order is good: The light is “good,” the division between land and water is “good,” the different plants are “good,” the celestial lights are “good,” the animals are “good.” In fact, upon reflection, all that G-d did was “very good”: V’hinei tov me’od (1: 31).
It is more than a little surprising that when we compile this list of that which is “good,” we do not find human beings on it. Sun? Good. Avocado trees? Good. Fish? Good. People? Maybe.
Why does G-d not call human beings, made little lower than angels, in the words of the psalmist (8:6) – arguably the crowning glory of all creation – “good”?
This is a fundamental question, as it comments on the very creation and direction of humankind.
The answer to our question involves another, equally foundational question, which should inform our entire experience of the coming year of Torah reading in shul.
The question is:
What is the goal in studying Torah? Why do we need it? What does G-d wish to accomplish with it?
“Why Torah” is a question that receives much treatment in our tradition, much too much for us to cover in one article. We’ll limit ourselves, for now, to the approach of the Rambam:
The Torah as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body. As for the welfare of the soul, it consists of people acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacity…. As for the welfare of the body, it comes about by the improvement of their ways of living one with another….
The True Law, Torah ha’emet… comes to help us with these two perfections at once. That is to say, it addresses the welfare of one person with another through the removal of oppression and through inculcating in them a noble and esteemed character…. And it provides correct outlooks through which ultimate perfection can be achieved (Guide of the Perplexed 3:27)
The purpose of Torah is to make us pleasant and good as individuals and as a society, much as the rest of creation is so properly proportioned and pleasant. What G-d does for the rest of creation through the harmonious organizing of chaos into balanced and musical order, He does for us through instruction. Day and night, fish and fowl, flora and fauna; these are all beautiful things, each enmeshed in splendid synchrony, singing the particular song that can be produced only by nature.
The heavens tell the glory of God; the sky elaborates on His handiwork (Psalms 19:2). G-d delivers this gift, creation both balanced and beautiful. We achieve the same pleasant balance through Torah: “G-d’s Torah is wholesome; it steadies the soul” (ibid. v. 8).
But to understand the role that Torah plays in the human drama is to understand that it would not do for us to be unreservedly called “good.” As much as Torah is itself without blemish – as much as it is useful, helpful, and pleasant – it cannot do the work for us:
In the words of my rebbe, of blessed memory, Rav Nachum Rabinovich: G-d “gave us only the keys to wisdom; everything else is in the category of zil u’gemor (go and study)” (Mesilot Bilvavam p. 12).
That is to say, G-d gave us the car, He gave us the keys to the car, but He will not make us drive. That is up to us. Having created us in His image and having blessed us with free will, with the ability to know good from bad, He left us to realize this potential. One is reminded of the opening scene to Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, when the main character is asked what makes America the greatest country in the world. He responds: “It’s not; but it could be.” What makes humanity the crowning glory of all creation? Nothing. But we could be. Nothing makes us good. Not G-d, not Torah. Nothing except our graciously granted free will. “And G-d said, ‘See, humankind is unique from all, differentiating between good and bad’” (Gen. 3:22).
So why, when He calls so many things “good,” does G-d not give us this enviable appellation? Because we are not necessarily good. How can we become so? Only through that unique wisdom we begin to study anew this week.
If we are going to open Torah again, we must do so with a sense of what it’s for. To again take from my rebbe:
“Torah’s purpose is not only to grant to humankind wisdom and not even only to teach people how to fulfill the mitzvot… A person who studies Torah and wisdom does so in order to engage in an act of self creation, the true creation of a personality – that is to say, the design of the very soul of that person” (ibid. 12-13).
This self-design is the purpose of returning to our great book, indeed, our entire heritage, once again, for another year of study. We look inside to plumb and discover our own depths, to find and meet the person who might yet be, if only we could find the wisdom and the will. If we do that, we will rightfully earn our place on that list that opens the very book of all creation. We will rightfully be called “good.”