A Biblical Photo Album

I would like all of you to take a moment, and think about a photo album that you have at home that marks a specific event. It could be from a wedding, a birthday party, a vacation, a bar or bat mitzvah, or something else entirely. Flip through that album in your mind, remember the moments that it records. Remember the feelings that you had on that day, the people that were with you, the significance that that day has to you even now, years later.

Rosh Hashanah similarly marks an anniversary. We say in the liturgy today: היום הרת עולם, today the world was born. According to the rabbis, 5776 years ago, the world was created. The description of that creation in the first chapter of Genesis is majestic. It is perfectly organized. Each day something unique is created, which perfectly leads into what will be created the next day.

Unlike the creation myths of other cultures, this is a peaceful story. In the Babylonian myth, the world is created out of the destroyed corpse of a defeated god. In the Egyptian myth, the world is fertilized by the body of a god. In Canaanite myths, the world comes about through the conflicts between the different gods.

But not so in our story. Our story is clear, and we repeat the essence of it every morning in Pseukei D’zimra, the Verses of Praise: God is מי שאמר והיה העולם, the one who spoke and the world came into being. Our world was created through the deliberate and intentional actions of God. It was not violent, it was not messy. It was done in the way that things should be done.

And this is how our major events are preserved in our photo albums. When we think back to a wedding, we focus on the graceful walk down the aisle. The smile on a person’s face. The articulate and meaningful words that the rabbi spoke. We remember how everyone came together, and what a perfect moment it was.

What we don’t focus on, what we don’t see when we look back on these moments, is everything that doesn’t fit with that image. We leave out the stress in the weeks and months leading up to the event. We ignore the problems that happened behind the scenes. We disregard the disasters that in the moment felt like they would ruin the entire event. We don’t take pictures of those moments, and we certainly don’t put those pictures into the album.

Creation and Destruction: A Midrash

The Midrash tells us that the same is true with the story of creation. The story that is preserved and sanctified in the Torah is not the whole story. It leaves parts out. It preserves only what it is that we want to remember, and gives us an image of Creation that is peaceful and intentional.

But according to the Midrash, this leaves out most of the story. At the end of the first day of creation, the Torah says ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר, “And there was evening, and there was morning.” Rabbi Yosi bar Simon read this, and argued that the word “and” indicates that there was something before that moment, otherwise the Torah could have simply said יהי ערב, “there was evening.” Noticing this, the smallest of grammatical points, he concluded that there was something before the Creation described in Genesis.

Following on this point, Rabbi Abbahu tells us that God was “בורא עולמות ומחריבן עד שברא את אלו” “creating worlds and destroying them, until God created this one.” Over and over again, God tried to create a world that was satisfying, that met whatever Divine criteria existed. And over and over again, God was disappointed. Using some very impressive exegetical reasoning, and a creative application of different codes in the Bible, we learn that this process continued 974 times, until we reached the moment of ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ “God created the heavens and the earth.”

974 times, God created worlds and destroyed them. Each time, there was something about the world that wasn’t quite right. The midrash doesn’t tell us what the problem was with each of these worlds, but something was so catastrophically wrong with each of them that God thought it would be better to destroy everything and start from scratch, rather than try and fix the problem.

Until God reached world number 975 – this world. The question that we have to ask, is: What makes this world so special, so much better than all the worlds that came before it?  If we look around at our world, it certainly doesn’t seem perfect. We have wars, natural disasters, hatred, fear – all sorts of problems. So what if there is nothing special about this world, nothing that makes it better than the preceding 974? Maybe God just got tired of starting over, looked at our world, and said “Good enough!”

Shevirat HaKeilim: Creation and the Broken Vessels

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous kabbalist who gave us our modern idea of Tikkun Olam, proposed a different understanding of our world. He looked around, and saw the same problems that we do. He thought to himself, how can this be? God is both good and all-powerful, what is all of this suffering doing here? He developed a perspective on Creation that completely reshapes our understanding of our world, and of our place in it.

When God created the world, God placed emanations of divine light into ten different containers. But the containers were not strong enough to hold the light, and they shattered, and the pieces were lost throughout the world. Luria understood our role, as Jews, to be finding all of these shattered vessels, and freeing the sparks of light that was trapped inside. Every time we fulfill a commandment, we free a spark of that divine light. Every time we act rightly in the world, we free a spark. Only when we complete this task, and all of the light has been returned to God, will the Messianic era begin, and the world will become the place that it ought to be. This also helps to explain the long wanderings of the Jews, because we need to travel to all the places in the world where the shattered vessels are hidden.

This World Pleases Me: The Good in Creation

This could be the end of the story, God stopped with our world, either because God was sick of banging the Divine Head against a brick wall, or because we have arrived at a world where the brokenness was part of the plan. But the Midrash ends differently, and challenges both of these interpretations. After God created this world, Rabbi Abbahu tells us, God said: “דין הניין לי” “this one pleases me,” “יתהון לא הניין לי” “those ones did not please me.” There was something about this world that pleased God more than any of the others that came before it. And we know this, because God finished every day of Creation by saying that it was Good. There must have been something good that pleased God in this world.

What pleased God about this world? Maybe it was the light that was created on the first day, in all of its many colors of the spectrum. So many that we are not able to see them all – an idea that should give us a sense of humility, light was clearly not created solely for our benefit. Maybe it was the sky that was created on the second day, the vast expanse that is our window into the rest of the universe. Or the variety of landscapes that exist in the world that we can enjoy and admire: the oceans, mountains, forests, and meadows. The sun, the moon, and the stars that give us light and beauty in the night sky. Or the fish and the birds that were created on the fifth day – the schools and flocks which swarm together in perfect choreography. Or perhaps it was the animals on the sixth day, the endless variety of life that fills every corner of the world in perfect balance.

Or maybe, what pleased God, was us. We, alone out of everything that God created, have the ability to choose our actions. We have the ability to reason, to think, to plan, to empathize and to care. We have the ability to try, to strive to imitate God. We can create things that have never existed before, and we can shape the world around us. All too often we use this power indiscriminately, and cause damage rather than healing, but that cannot take away from the good that is within our power.

What’s Gone is not Lost

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a 20th century rabbi who was killed in the Holocaust linked these two ideas. He proposed that the vessels that were shattered in the creation of our world were the leftover pieces from the hundreds of worlds that came before. The destruction of the previous worlds was not complete, they became the material used for the creation of the next world. God took the failed attempts, and used them to try and make a better world. Each world was built on the one that came before it, and maybe each was a little better.

This idea is reassuring. It says to me that what came before is never completely lost. Countless times, I have heard people say that every atom in our bodies was once part of a star somewhere else in the universe. That we are all connected, and part of a vast eternity that came before. Shapira’s interpretation presents the same idea. Each world is connected to the one that came before it, we are all linked to those around us, and to those who came before. Our loved ones who are no longer with us are not only kept alive in our memories, but they become part of the world itself.

Our Challenge:

But this idea of Rabbi Shapira’s is also a challenge. It challenges us to try again when we are dissatisfied with what we see around us. And try again, and again, and again. If God was willing to create 975 worlds, each time hoping that it would be the one that God wanted, then surely we can make the effort to nudge our world into a better state. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we are challenged to try and fix the mistakes that we have made over the past year, and also to work to solve the problems that we have inherited from past generations. Whether it is to free the divine sparks that are trapped in the world, or to make life better for the people in it, we have an obligation to try and make the world better.

These midrashim teach us that the world will never be picture perfect, it will never be the photo album that we want it to be, but eventually we can arrive at a world about which we can say: דֵין הַנְיָין לי – This one pleases me.