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What Is the Meaning of Life?
Video 3 of 7
Rabbi David Fohrman: Because when you think about the meaning of life one way of conceptualizing that is to ask, what relationship does mankind have to the world around him? What is his place on the cosmos? What we have here in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is two different perspectives on the world, on the cosmos of how it develops, and therefore we're going to have two different perspectives on mankind's place in that cosmos too. We're going to have two different views of man's relationship with everything; man's relationship with G-d, it changes in world 1, world 2, man's relationship with the land, it changes in world 1, 2. Man's relationship to woman, to people outside of him, to vegetation, we're going to have to look at this in the context of both of these worlds, it's two entirely different pictures.
What we need to do now is begin to look at each world carefully and to try to understand our place in each. Let's begin with world 1. It's going to be our focus for the rest of the time that I have with you this week. Let's start with this question, here we are in world 1, that's the world of Genesis Chapter 1, the world that describes G-d as creator without reference to the land and heavens and all that, just G-d creating, wandering what mankind's place in it all is. So maybe a good place to start at least would be to interview G-d? G-d just created mankind here on the sixth day, a reasonable thing to do would be to ask G-d, how do You see man?
We can do this in each of the two worlds, try to ask G-d. Because the Torah in a manner of speaking kind of interviews G-d for us. If you look carefully at each of these two stories world 1 and world 2, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, you will find that in each story G-d actually talks to this man that He has created and tells him something - from at least the perspective of the creator Himself - of what it is that he's doing here in the world. Not only does G-d talk to man in each of these stories, G-d also talks to us, which is to say, the narrator of the Torah talks to the reader of the Torah about man. So we have two things in each story, we have direct communication between G-d and man, where G-d actually says something to man about what he's supposed to be doing, gives him instructions to start things off - and we'll want to look at that. In each story we also have the narrator telling the reader something about man and man's place in the world.
So we're going to call this our little interview with G-d. We're going to in each story ask this question, what is it that G-d says to man and what is that the Torah says about man? Let's start off in world number 1. Okay so here we are in world number 1 again and we're on the sixth day and G-d has just created the animals, and then He decides it would be a good idea to create something called mankind. So right over here we're going to have the Torah talking to the reader - in other words, the narrator talking to the reader about G-d's plan to create man. Vayomer Elokim - G-d says; Na'aseh Adam betzalmeinu kidmuseinu - let's make man, this being, that is going to be in our image. Veyirdu b'degas hayam ub'ohf hashomayim - and he's going to have dominion over the fish and over the fowl; U'babeheima - and over the animals; Ub'kol ha'aretz - and over all of the land.
So this is the first thing that G-d says as He sort of declares His intentions as He creates man. The next thing that happens is G-d goes out and does it. Vayivrah Elokim et ha'Adam b'tzalmo - and G-d then created man in His image; B'tzelem Elokim barah oto - in the image of G-d He created him; Zachar u'nekeiva barah otom - male and female He created them. So there we have it, the first thing that the Torah tells us about man, but it's not really so clear exactly what it is that it means. It's a nice poetic thing to say that man is created in the image of G-d, I mean it doesn't literally mean that look like G-d, G-d doesn't have a body, G-d doesn't have any physical form. So in what sense is it that we're created in the image of G-d?
Here we seem, at face value, to be kind of stuck, because we can philosophize about it, and if you're a reasonably inventive person you can come up with all sorts of possibilities. Maybe it means that man has a soul, maybe it means that man has a little spiritual spark of G-d in him. Maybe it means that man has a really high IQ and he's intelligent just like G-d. Maybe it means that man speaks, can articulate words, he's the only animal that can talk and G-d can speak or communicate His thoughts somehow. There's a zillion different possibilities. So the real question is, is there any evidence from the text itself that would explain exactly what it is that this means? What would it mean to be created in the image of G-d? What does the text think that it means?
The truth is, is that the verse that we just read gives us a clue. Because if we go back to the verse that describes G-d creating man in His image we can play one of my favorite games with it; Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other? The good old Sesame Street game. There are really three things in the verse and one of them doesn't seem to belong. The beginning of the verse says; Vayivrah Elokim et ha'Adam b'tzalmo - that G-d created man in His image. The next idea in the verse is; B'tzelem Elokim barah oto - in the image of G-d He created him. The verse finishes off with; Zachar u'nekeiva barah otom - male and female He created them. So obviously that last piece is the piece that doesn't seem to belong, what does the male and female He created them have to do with creating man in His image? Why is that part of the same verse?
Here we have our first really good clue. Because my experience at least is that whenever the Torah plays this little game with us; Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other, whenever that happens usually the thing that you think doesn't belong actually belongs. The Torah is actually helping to define the category for you by including the apparently anomalous element. So over here the apparently anomalous element is male and female He created them, which is the great clue, perhaps, as to what it means to be created in the image of G-d. What do males and females do when they interact with each other? They create. They create other human beings. Look at what G-d had just done. G-d had created a human being, and now that human is actually created in His image because it possesses the ability to create other human beings just like G-d. It is a creator just like G-d.
So one tentative conclusion we might reach is that what it means to be created in the image of G-d is to be a creator like G-d. To biologically create like G-d. Now you might just object here on the grounds that man is not actually the only animal, so to speak, that creates itself, other animals also have that ability to reproduce itself. So in what sense is man unique that he is created in the image of G-d? To that we might answer that that may be true but the way that man creates biologically is similar, in a way, to the nature of G-d creating biologically, in that G-d and man are the only sentient beings that create biologically. They are the only ones who understand what it is that they are doing in the act of creation, and can control that act of creation in some ways. It's not just a matter of instinct, it's also a matter of choice. G-d and man are the two self-aware creators in the universe.
And of course there's a difference between G-d and mankind. G-d creates unilaterally, human beings create bilaterally; Zachar u'nekeiva barah otom - male and female He created them, unlike Himself. It's interesting that this comes as a qualifier of Tzelem Elokim, man is only in the image of G-d and not G-d Himself, in as much as G-d creates them male and female rather than single and unitary. G-d is the single and unitary creator, human beings they share the power, they are bilateral creators. G-d divided the power to create, as it were, among them. The power to create is great and fearsome, G-d Himself trusts Himself, so to speak, with that power, but almost as an insurance policy, no individual human being has the great, god-like power of biological creativity. It takes two human beings deciding to make that choice together.
Okay so let's keep on reading in the text because as we keep on reading we're actually going to get not just what the narrator tells us about the creation of man, but we're actually going to get G-d Himself speaking to mankind about now his role in the world. It comes in the blessing that G-d gives to mankind on the sixth day. Let's read it. Next verse; Vayevarech otam Elokim - and G-d blessed them, the male and female, and told them; Pru u'revu - be fruitful and multiply, there's that idea of being creative biologically; U'mile'u et ha'aretz - and fill the land with your progeny. Vekivshuha - and conquer the land. What does conquer the land mean? The next words seem to tell you what that means; U'redu b'degas hayam - have dominion over the fish; Ub'ohf hashomayim - over the fowl; Ub'kol chayah haromesess al ha'aretz - and over all the animals that traverse the land.
So now we seem to get another element. Besides biological creativity, which is the first part of this blessing be fruitful and multiply, man is also told to conquer the world, to have dominion over all the other life forms in the world. But if we think deeply about that how does that happen exactly? Man is supposed to conquer the world, be in charge of all the other animals, but a lot of those animals are much stronger than man.
So imagine there you are hiking in Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park and you come across a grizzly bear. You are pretty high up on a mountain, on one of these mountain passes, there's only one way to go, there's not enough room for the both of you here on this path. You've come between the grizzly bear and the cub, so Mamma bear is pretty angry and she's weighs like 790 pounds. Mamma bear fixes you with her gaze, growls and is about to attack, what do you do now? So imagine you pulled out your Tanach - your bible, and you open up to the page and say, excuse me bear, just hold on for just one second, it says right here, Genesis Chapter 1 that; Vekivshuha - that I am supposed to conquer the earth, I am the master over you. I am smarter than you bear, my IQ is much higher than yours, and it says right here in the Bible that I am in charge of you, bear. So could you please move aside?
That is not likely to work. In man versus bear, bear is going to win. So how did that actually work? Because if you think about it over time it did work, we do master bears, we have bears in zoos, and bears do not have people in bear zoos. How did that actually happen?
The answer is, if you look historically, we did it through technology. We made tools. First it might have been a bone that we used as a club and then a sharpened bone that we used as a spear. Then bows and then arrows and cages and guns and machine guns and all sorts of things, until we really did dominate everything. Tool making, to dominate the earth, to bend it according to your will, to take its natural resources; iron ore, copper, all of those things, and to make them into what we want to make them into. That's technology and it's a community project, it's a kind of communal creativity. No individual builds a 747, it's what we do when we come together. Individual human beings, male and female, come together to create biologically. Masses of human beings come together to create technologically. And it is a kind of creativity, there's a Hebrew word for it, the Hebrew word is Melacha. Interestingly, it's the language that describes G-d's creativity when He created the world.
If you look at story number 1 of creation, G-d's creativity is cast in terms of Melacha. When G-d rests on the seventh day He rests from all the Melacha that He did. What was that act of Melacha? It really was that same kind of thing. In a way, it was proto-technological creativity, it was the Divine version of technological creativity. It was, if you had to strip it down - and this by the way is the Halachic definition of Melacha - Melechet Machshevet - the idea that Melacha is inseparable from the idea of mind. That's what Melacha is, it is - on the one hand it is mind, it is deciding what you want with mind, and then acting with your hands - at least the way the humans have it - acting with your hands to make it so. So G-d doesn't have hands, but that's what G-d did in the universe, G-d conceptualizes, I want X, and then goes and makes X.
If you think about it, through the process of creation, there's very little that's created something from nothing. There's the beginning, in the beginning G-d creates the heavens and earth, but if you look at what happens after that G-d is not doing that. He is moving stuff around, He's forming it, He's positioning things, He's taking what was and creating higher and higher levels of complexity. That really is the process of Melacha. The planning with mind and then acting so as to make those plans come true, to mold the world around me into the way I want it to be. G-d molded the universe as creating the world, and we, little creators - creators not with a capital C, but a small c - we create too, when we mold our world to suit our desires. And that allows us to conquer that world, that really is the birth of technological conquest. It's how in the end we made zoos for bears and bears didn't make zoos for us.
Let's keep on reading in the text. The next thing that G-d says to man; Hinei natati lachem et kol eisev zore'ah zerah - see, I have given to you all of the grasses that gives seed; Asher al pnei kol ha'aretz - on the face of all the land. V'et kol ha'etz asher bo pri etz zore'ah zorah - and all of the trees that give fruit, that have seeds in them as well. Ul'kol chayas ha'aretz ul'kol ohf hashomayim ul'kol romess al ha'aretz - and I have also given that resource to animals, G-d says, and to the fowl. Et kol yerek eisev l'ochlah, vayehi kein - I gave them all vegetation and it was so.
In this final part of the blessing G-d talks to man about his food source. He's going to eat vegetation; the grasses of the fields, the fruits of the trees that give seed. But He tells him something else also, He tells him that that same food source is going to be there for animals too. The message; you got to learn to share. As much as you may be master you've got to be a benevolent master, to some extent you've got to rein yourself in, you can't take over all the resources, they're meant for the animals too.
Let's stand back and think about this last thing that G-d tells man about food. You're going to have all the vegetation, all the grasses of the fields and ultimately, man looks at not just the animal world that we talked about before and dominates it, but the plant world also. Man dominates that world, the world of food for him. This world of vegetation. Ultimately, the agricultural revolution will come along and man will take his tool-making prowess and will find ways to cultivate the earth so that he doesn't just have to be a gatherer, he can be a farmer. Man's creativity as applied to the world of animals and to the world of vegetation truly makes him master over this little world that G-d has entrusted him with.
Even though animals and man share the same food source, which is vegetation, the way animals relate to that food source is different from the way that man relates to it. If you look carefully when man eats all of the fruits of the field, over and over again the Torah will say; Zore'ah zarah, zore'ah zarah - the fruits that gives seed and the grasses that gives seed, those are the food for man. Then, when it talks about animals it talks about; Yerek eisev - the vegetation of the field, but it doesn't mention the seeds, even though obviously vegetation has seeds too. So man and animals are eating the same thing but the idea of eating seeds is something that is emphasized over and over again when it comes to man, but not when it comes to animals.
Again, maybe the reason for that has to do with the great difference between man and animals, which is that man knows what it's doing when it eats vegetation, animals just do it instinctively. Man's domination of vegetation is so complete that it dominates the vegetation's ability to reproduce itself too. If you think about what we ultimately like most, ultimately man is going to develop bread. Bread is taking the seeds of the grasses, the kernels of wheat, and then pulverizing them and building food out of it. But what we're building food out of we have to understand, we have to use our mind to cognize, is actually the seeds of others. Our domination of the plant world is so complete that we dominate their ability to reproduce itself. Not only do we kill the grasses in order to eat them, we actually can kill off their ability to have the next generation too.
Which again, is this fearsome power. Animals have that power too, but not really, because they don't realize what it is that we're doing. We realize and therefore we can have some control, and indeed, we must have some control. We can't dominate entirely, we need to make room for others to share this food source too.
So if we had to summarize the whole kit and caboodle here we're getting the following picture. Here is man, this biological creator that's Pru U'revu, and he dominates technologically in his ability to dominate animals and to dominate vegetation. But there's a kind of technological domination over the biological creativity of other species such as vegetation too. So it all comes together in this way in which man creator, both biologically and technologically, truly does dominate the world, he is a little god on earth. He's there to imitate G-d his Creator (capital C) by being creator (small c).
So if that concludes our little interview with G-d, G-d speaking about man and G-d speaking about man and G-d speaking to man in world number 1, so what have we learned? We've learned a key cornerstone in what it is that man is doing in the universe. He is there to imitate G-d. G-d is the Master Creator but man is a creator in his domain too, has been given the ability by G-d and the space by G-d, to exercise his own creativity in the world. So maybe we can just pack up our bags, and say that's it, that's man's purpose in the world, he's there to create, to exercise his gift of creativity. He's there to dominate the world with his tool-making prowess, to invent new kinds of technology, to go where no man has gone before. To compose violin sonatas, to be a sculptor, to start internet start-up companies, to be creative in all of its various manifestations. And indeed it feels good to create, it feels wonderful, you feel accomplished when you create, and part of that sense of accomplishment perhaps comes from the fact that it is a cornerstone of what it means to be human. It is our place in the cosmos to create, to be little creator (small c) in a world, in a universe, in which is there is large Creator. To imitate G-d in that way.
But is that all? Is there something more? Is this view of man, in our place here, in our goal here, incomplete?
Well world 2 will have its answer for that. World 2 will describe man in entirely different terms, paint an entirely different picture of what it is we're doing here. But even sticking within the boundaries of world 1, it seems to me that there are implications of being a creator, and if we unfurl those implications we will refine what it is that we mean by our purpose is to be creative, or our purpose is to create. Let me try to start that with you here.
Implication number 1, so let's think about this, here I am, I am man in the world and I'm creative, so maybe my job is to just be creative, is to just do everything? It feels so good to try to just create and create and create, the more I create the better. Ah, but here's the problem, man is created in the image of G-d, he's not just created as a creator, his creativity is an expression of something, is an expression of being god-like in some way. There is a large Creator with a capital C and I am small creator with a small c. So there's an implication there, being a creator who himself is created. Because if you think about it, there's two ways to be little creator. One way to be little creator is to ignore big Creator and just kind of do your own thing. But another thing you could do is to use your creativity as a way of relating to large Creator, to the Creator who is the Master of it all. After all, it's a path to understanding.
You see the more you understand and the more you develop your own ability to create, the more you really appreciate the absolute, awe-inspiring wizardry of the Master Creator. How would it be possible to truly appreciate G-d without having a little spark of G-d within you, that you could develop, to then stand back in awe one day and look at the heavens and just be breathless and say wow, look at what You've created, Master. That brings us to the next verses, because the next verses in world number 1 introduce us to the Sabbath. G-d creates the world in six days but on the seventh day He rests. Later on in the Book of Exodus we will be commanded to rest too every seventh day in commemoration of the fact that there is a Master Creator, that you are a creator but you're creator with a small c, you must recognize that there is a Creator with a big C too. Your observance of Sabbath will be a way in which you manifest that recognition.
So we might say for starters that the inclusion of Sabbath here as the seventh day, as the final act, as it were, in world number 1, even though man is not yet commanded to keep the Sabbath but it's just inclusion here. The idea of G-d's Sabbath is itself sort of beginning to unfurl one of the implications of being creative, which is that it's not just about me creating and creating and creating and creating, as a matter of fact at some point I stop creating in recognition that there's a creator above me. Meaning to say, that I can use my understanding of what it is that I do as little creator to begin to actually build some kind of relationship with the Almighty. A relationship that at the very least has the component of admiration in it. If I imitate the Almighty, I can have an appreciation of who it is that I'm imitating. I understand You a little bit, I'm in awe of what You've created, I don't want to supplant You, to get rid of You, I revel in living in a world in which there is Big Creator, He's my role model. Every seventh day I rest in deference of that understanding that You are there Big Creator and I am, after all, just little creator.
But interestingly or fascinatingly, Sabbath stands for two kinds of recognition, Sabbath is about a deeper kind of recognition too. It's not just recognizing what's above me, it's also recognizing what's below me. Look at G-d's experience of Sabbath in Genesis Chapter 1. If all Sabbath is about is about recognizing a creator above you so G-d can't recognize a creator above Him, what was the meaning of G-d's own Sabbath? G-d loves the Sabbath, He's so excited about it, the verse tells us; Vayevarech Elokim et yom hashevi'i vayekadesh oto - that G-d blessed the day and then He sanctified the day. That's remarkable, because it's the only insight we ever get anywhere in the Torah about sort of what it's like to be G-d. The whole Torah is not really about that, the Torah is about the record of G-d's relationship with us, typically speaking. We get very little insight into what it's like to be G-d in His own, numinous solitude, but what we do get is one little inkling into what it's like to be G-d, into G-d's own appreciation, His own exuberance over the Sabbath.
Vayevarech Elokim et yom hashevi'i vayekadesh oto - He was so excited He made Himself a holiday, He blessed it, He sanctified it - you can imagine G-d up in the heavens making Kiddush - He was so thrilled; Ki bo shovas mikol melachto asher barah Elokim la'asot - because on this day He rested. What was He so happy about? What, because He finally had a vacation? How hard was it for Him to create a world? He's an all-powerful being, how difficult is it for an all-powerful being to create a world? He really had to rest afterward, that's why He was so excited?
But it wasn't about vacation, it was about the consequences of rest, what rest did. In a deep kind of way rest was G-d's final act of creativity. It's described - the Sabbath is - in our Friday night prayers in a strange way as; Tachlit shamayim va'aretz - the very purpose of creation of heaven and earth is Sabbath. What do you mean the very purpose of creation is Sabbath? Purpose of all of the things I do when I work is just vacation? No, no, no. What Sabbath is, is not vacation at all, it is conferring independence upon that which you've created. You see, as long as I am creating I am connected to the thing that I'm creating. It's not really separate from me. So as beautiful as it is, it's not yet independent and it doesn't really exist separate from me yet. In rest, a commitment to stop creating, I let go and I finally let the thing be what it is. Finished or not it is what it is and I let go, and that is the final act of creation, letting go.
It's true for Big Creator with a capital C, and it's true for little creator too, in all sorts of ways. The artist who can never stop painting, what happens eventually when you add just another curlicue and another curlicue? Eventually the canvass it's just a mess, the painting collapses under its own weight. The carpenter who can never stop whittling down the new bookshelf, eventually the bookshelf collapses. All creativity in order to really work, to be effective, has to stop and G-d knows this better than anyone how seductive creativity can be. We're seduced by it, it's godly to create, but if you never stop, paradoxically it's not godly at all, creation turns into destruction.
Save for the Sabbath. The Sabbath is where G-d models what it is to be a disciplined creator, a creator who respects creation, who can let creation go and be independent from Him. It's the great lesson of godly creativity - the Sabbath is. The Sabbath is all about respect, when we human beings observe it we respect our Creator in the sky, we say, we're only creator with a small c. And it's not just respect above, it's respect below too, we respect that which we create, we may dominate the earth, but we too can let go. We, like G-d, are committed to disciplined creativity, we will not allow creation to become destruction, we will let go.
So when we add it all up we begin to get a picture of man's place in the cosmos in world number 1. Man is little creator, small c, G-d is Great Creator, capital C. Man imitates G-d in how he creates and ultimately, man will imitate G-d in how he rests. Man, the creator, how does he relate to the world, how does he relate to land? Land - the world is his great sandbox in which he does all his creative stuff. Man, the creator, how does he relate to woman? He relates to her as his great partner in creation, they're both Tzelem Elokim, they're both created - neither has the ability really to create biologically on their own. Together they will create children and those children will themselves come together in vast communities to create some more technologically, will build tools to be able to truly master the land. But all of this mastery ultimately will come to naught unless man can learn to be a disciplined creator as G-d is, unless man can learn to let go.
There's stories later on in the Bible in which man failed to learn this. The Tower of Babel is one of those stories, creativity gone awry, creation and creation and creation that snowballs and snowballs with no end or no limits in sight, and in the end humanity itself is sacrificed at that altar. If there is at the end of the day one great imperative that emerges from the idea that man is created with the spark of the Divine, that he is a creator himself, that imperative is respect. Respect of that which I do create, respect of that which is below me, respect of the land, the ability to let go, the ability not to destroy all the resources. To be able to have that proper distance and to be able to not be swallowed in the drive to create until you consume all and nothing is left. Respect above; there is a Master Creator above me. By creating myself I am in relationship with that Master Creator, I am beginning to understand the marvels of what He has done, I am imitating Him because to imitate Him is the greatest form of respect. You are my role model G-d. It's a kind of relationship I build with You,
And respect not just above and not just below, but respect across as well. To my fellow human beings, because who are they? The paradigm starts with man and woman. When man looks at woman who does he see? He sees someone with that same, incredible spark of the Divine, that mysterious ability to create like he can, his great partner in creation. If he sees the Divine in her as he sees in himself then respect is mandated between them, he cannot crush her, he cannot use her, they are both little gods on earth, and one cannot subvert the other.
Just a bit later on in the Book of Genesis, we have a verse that prohibits murder long before the 10 Commandments, in Genesis, by what rationale does it do so? Shofech dam ha'odom, b'odom damo yishafech - one who spills the blood of man his blood shall be spilled. Why? Ki b'tzelem Elokim asah et ha'odom - because G-d created man in His image. There is something of irreplaceable value of man, immense, ultimate value, in each of us. Every single one of us, when you look around the room; blue eyes, brown eyes, Caucasian, black, Chinese, high IQ, low IQ, inverted, extroverted, it doesn't matter, there's a little spark of the Divine, there's little creator in all of them, ultimate value. And that ultimate value means I need to keep my distance, I cannot use you as a means to my end. Each of us are ultimate ends in and of themselves, and therefore respect is the great mandate of world number 1. Respect above, respect below, and respect across. It's the great implication of being little creator in the world.
So all of this is one view of man's place in the cosmos. It begins with a drive that's one of the deepest drives implanted within humanity, the drive to be creative in all kinds of ways. It expresses itself biologically in sexuality, one of our deepest drives. It expresses itself in all kinds of ambition, whether it's building an internet startup company to whether it's being a farmer and plowing the land. An artist, a sculptor, a capitalist, our creativity unfurls itself in so many ways. But at least by implication here the inclusion of Sabbath at the end, the later proviso against killing, referencing the idea of Tzelem Elokim implanted within all of us, all of that points to something else too. It's not just about creating and creating ad nauseum, it's about respectfully creating, disciplined creativity, creativity that can and must come to a halt in rest. The balance between rest and creativity, that's the secret source of world number 1. To respect the Master Creator, to respect fellow creators, to respect the sandbox, the world itself in which we all create.
This is man's place in the cosmos in world number 1, but it's not the whole story. There's another great story to be told, another story of the cosmos itself, and of man's place within it, and that is the story of Genesis 2, of world number 2, in which everything looks different. A world in which what G-d says about man and to man has nothing to do with Tzelem Elokim - with being in the image of G-d, but with something else entirely. We'll come back and look at that story and how that story adds to the mystery of the meaning of life when we return next week.
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