By Shlomo Riskin
“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, for a moment, a world conducted according to strict Divine justice: punishment immediately meted out to a person committing a wrongdoing. What kind of world would this be? On the one hand, 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 Divine justice. Thus, the Nazi soldier’s hand would wither in the process of unsheathing his knife to harm a Jewish baby, and the individual’s voice would be silenced before he was able to articulate a word of slander.
On the other hand, if evil could not exist because of the all-encompassing powers of Divine justice, 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 but rather as potential partners with the Divine, God must hold back from immediate punishment.
Compassion (rahamim) must be joined with justice (din) 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 par excellence, notes that the first verse of Genesis, in describing the world’s creation, uses not the Divine name “Y-H-V-H” (“Hashem”), associated with the Divine attribute of compassion, but rather the Divine Name “Elohim”, associated with the Divine attribute of justice, because initially The Holy One, Blessed be He, intended to create a world of strict justice.
However, the Almighty realized, as it were, 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 essay utilizes the Divine Names “Hashem Elohim,” combining the Divine attributes of 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.
In fact, the Talmud declares, ‘there is no reward for the fulfillment of commandments in this world’ [Kiddushin 39b], leaving Divine reward and punishment for the afterlife. In effect, Divine compassion allowing for free will and ultimate repentance must enable individuals to do even what God, in a perfect world, would not allow them to do!
In accordance with this theology, a Hasidic teaching provides an alternative way of reading the first three words in the Torah, ‘Bereshit bara Elohim,’ usually translated, ‘In the beginning God created…’ Since there is an etnachta (‘stop’ sign; semicolon). cantillation underneath the third word in the phrase, the words can also be taken to mean, ‘Beginnings did God create.’ This reading provides hope and optimistic faith even in a world devoid of reward.
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.’ Free will, the concept of making your own choices, implies that sometimes mistakes will be made and tragedies will occur.
But instead of Divine justice descending as a bolt of lightning, Divine compassion emerges to absorb the lethal voltage. Holding off Divine justice is saying 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 him/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 re-creating for himself and his immediate environment a new beginning.
Thus, in the Torah’s opening word, Bereshit (“beginning”), we find not only the theme of the Torah, but of the entirety of existence: God created an imperfect and sometimes unjust world to allow the possibility of change and growth. If change weren’t possible, if human behavior were as fixed as that of all other mammals, then there would be no need for, and no uniqueness within, human beings. The glory of God and humanity is to be found in the opening phrase of the Bible: ‘God created beginnings’ – new opportunities and manifold re-awakenings.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.