This week’s Torah reading is Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8.
“And these are the generations of the
heavens and the earth when they were
created, on the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” (Gen. 2:4)
Imagine a world conducted according to strict divine justice, where punishment is immediately meted out to a person committing a wrongdoing.
We would never have the question of why bad things happen to good people, because an evil act would be stopped in its tracks; after all, any innocent person’s suﬀering would violate the principle of
But if evil could not exist, how would a human being diﬀer from a laboratory rat, conditioned to move down a certain tunnel, jolts of electricity guiding its choices?
For the world to exist with human beings granted the choice to wield either a murderer’s knife or a physician’s scalpel, with human beings not as powerless puppets, God must hold back from immediate punishment.
Compassion must be joined with justice so that the Almighty will grant the possibility of the wicked to repent, the opportunity to those who have fallen to rise once again, and oﬀer the challenge to a fallible humanity to perfect an imperfect world.
Indeed, Rashi, the Biblical commentator, notes that the first verse of Genesis, in describing the world’s creation, uses not the name Y-H-V-H (Hashem), associated with the divine attribute of compassion, but rather the name Elohim, associated with the divine attribute of justice, because initially God intended to create a world of strict justice.
However, God realized that the world could not endure in such a mode, and therefore gave precedence to divine compassion, uniting it with divine justice. This explains, says Rashi, why the verse (Gen. 2:4) that leads this d’var Torah utilizes the divine names Hashem Elohim, combining compassion and justice.
There is, however, a steep price we must pay for this divine compassion and human freedom of choice: the suffering of innocents. If people have the free will to act, then some people will take actions that harm others. And even those who act appropriately will not necessarily see the blessings of their good deeds.
A chasidic teaching provides a different way of reading the first three words in the Torah, which are usually translated, “In the beginning, God created.” Yet the words can also be taken to mean “Beginnings did God create.” This reading provides hope.
Anyone who has experienced significant lifestyle changes — whether repentant Jews, recovering addicts, or marriages between widowed and/or divorced people — understands the significance of the challenge and opportunity of another chance. It is saying that we always have another chance to better ourselves, to redeem the tragedy, to try again. And is this not what beginnings are all about?
True repentance means carving out a new beginning for oneself. Beginnings, therefore, go hand in hand with divine compassion, and divine faith in the human personality to recreate himself or herself and to forge a new destiny. The sinner isn’t shut out forever; he is always given another opportunity through repentance, another possibility of recreating for himself and his immediate environment, a new beginning.
God created an imperfect and sometimes unjust world to allow the possibility of change and growth. The glory of God and humanity is to be found in the opening phrase of the Bible: “God created beginnings” — new opportunities and manifold reawakenings.
Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.