Bereishit: God, The Universe, And The Biggest Question You Could Ask
Why Did God Create Me?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Torah tells us about how the universe was created — light, darkness, sky, plants, animals, people — but it doesn’t tell us why. Why did God create the world, and human beings within it? What is our purpose on this earth? How can we achieve ultimate meaning in life? These are admittedly big questions — the biggest questions that we could possibly ask. But a mysterious verse in Parshat Bereishit — a verse that describes, of all things, the Tree of Life — may just hold the answer. (Hint: it’s not 42!) And while the answer is not altogether unexpected, the Torah’s way of teaching us the answer is nothing short of breathtaking.
Hi everybody! This is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to a new year of Parsha videos from Aleph Beta. This is Parshat Bereishit.
Our Parsha opens with the grand story of Creation. In that story, we hear what happens in Six primordial days – but we don’t hear why it happens, at least not overtly. What is the purpose of creation? In the broadest sense of things, what are we, human beings, meant to be doing here in this world?
Why Did God Create Us Humans?
To be sure, mankind, on the Sixth Day, is told he is created in the image of God – and that he is to exercise dominion over the world: He is to be fruitful and multiply; he is to rule over all the animals, the fish and the fowl. He is told he may eat vegetation. But you kind of have to wonder: Is this it? Is it the sum total of our mission, all these things? You know, having lots of kids, conquering the natural world, eating lots of vegetables – don’t get me wrong, it’s all great; but are these our sole paths to achieving meaning in life? Is this it?
The Torah doesn’t seem to tell us more about that question, at least in its opening narratives. But I think that a powerful clue to our larger meaning actually does emerge from our Parsha – in a mysterious, enigmatic verse; and I want to explore that verse with you, here today.
Uncovering The Meaning Of The Tree Of Life
The verse I have in mind describes Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, after they’ve eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:
יְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ
So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life.
So there it is: We’ve got these special angels, these Cherubs, that are ‘guarding the way back to the Tree of Life’. What’s going on with this mysterious verse?
It turns out, if we look carefully throughout the Torah, you can observe that there are echoes, elsewhere, of this phrase – and those echoes, paired with the original verse, have much to tell us about what we are supposed to be doing in the world.
Let’s take a minute to explore these echoes now.
Biblical Parallels To The Tree Of Life
Let’s begin by taking a look at these very special angels, these cherubs. And as we do, let’s play one of my favorite games. Where else do we hear all this again? In other words, besides here, at the entrance to the Garden, guarding the way back to the Tree of Life – do we ever encounter these particular angels – Cherubs – ever again?
So it turns out that we do. We find cherubs one other time in the five books of Moses – and one other time only. We find them in the Tabernacle, in the Mishkan, where two cherubs are found in the Holy of Holies, adorning the top of the Holy Ark.
Now here’s something kind of interesting: 1) When God originally sets up these two cherubs to guard the way back to the tree of life, we hear in Hebrew: ‘vayashken’ mikedem legan eden – which roughly translates as – he ensconces them, he causes them to dwell, these two angels, outside of Eden. So keep in mind that verb: Vayashken. Now go to the next time cherubs appear in the Torah, in the Tabernacle, or in Hebrew, in the... Mishkan. Yeah, that word Mishkan – it is nothing more or less than the noun form of “vayashken” and he enconsed them.
It kinda seems like these two sets of cherubs are connected, aren’t they?
Guarding The Tree Of Life And The Torah
Now, let’s take this parallel one more step, let’s ask this: 2) What, in each case, are these special angels, these cherubs, guarding? In the first case, in the Garden of Eden, they are guarding the way back to the tree life. So, in the second case, what are they guarding? Well, they’re on top of the ark, these cherubs, so clearly, they are guarding what’s in the ark - namely, the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, a thumbnail sketch, as it were, of the Torah’s 613 commandments.
So we’ve got the Tree of Life on the one hand, and the Torah on the other hand. But wait a minute: Here’s something astounding… that phrase, 3) “Tree of Life”, we’ve heard that phrase too somewhere else in the Hebrew Bible, where else have we heard it besides Eden?
Well we hear it one more place, and one more place only. We hear it in the Book of Proverbs. There, we encounter a verse that has actually become quite famous – a verse that describes the Torah of all things: Etz Chaim hi lamachazikim bah… It is a tree of life to all who take hold of it.
Fascinating. Every time the cherubs appear, they are guarding a Tree of Life. The first time around, they guard the original tree of life; the second time around, they seem to guard a replacement tree of life. 4) The first time around, the cherubs are grasping a sword. With it, they threaten us; they keep us away from the tree of life. But not so, the second time. The second time, that sword is gone. Instead, the the cherubs over the ark, they open their wings, as if they are sheltering us within the world of the second tree of life, within the world of the Torah.
It is as if God is saying: You humans – you’re banished from my special place, from the Garden of Eden, and your access to the first Tree of Life is lost. But should you ever want to build me a new special place – by all means, please do! And you know, if you do that, I’ll bring back my cherubs. Those same cherubs that kept you away from the original tree of life will give you access to a second, replacement tree of life. They will shelter you and protect you, as you seek to embrace the Torah.
But Studying Torah Doesn’t Make You Live Forever
Okay, so all of this is intriguing, I hear you saying … but there is a problem with that analogy, isn't there? In what sense, really, is the Torah to be considered a tree of life? Learning it doesn't guarantee that you will live forever, right? So doesn't the analogy kind of fall apart then?
Well, I think the analogy actually works. I want to share with you an idea that I first heard from a great teacher of mine, Rabbi Joseph Liebowitz. Consider immortality. Being eternal. Mysteriously, we crave this; we want to cheat death somehow. We don’t want to just evaporate into nothingness; it makes all we worked for for all these years feel kind of meaningless. But Rabbi Leibowitz argues that there’s actually two ways to cheat death; two ways to get what we crave out of ‘eternality’ so to speak. One way is to actually be eternal. But the other is: To live a mortal life; but to live that life in connection with the eternal.
Y’see, God – the Eternal One – is the deepest reality there is. He’s the undying, immortal, source of all life. When you learn the Torah, you adhere to it, you love it – you embrace, you take hold of the Almighty, this source of all life. We hold on to the eternal. Indeed, that metaphor used by that verse in Proverbs is so wonderfully ironic, isn’t it? It is a tree of life to all who grab hold of it. I mean think of God. He is the most ethereal being in the world. You can’t see Him. You can’t touch Him. It is impossible to grab hold of Him, to cling to Him, at all.
You know, when you love someone, you want to embrace them. And with God that seems so elusive. It seems like that part of a relationship – to embrace God, to hug Him – isn’t something that we, as humans, can ever do, can ever have.
And yet, the verse in Proverbs, it tells us: We can have that aspect of a relationship with God.
‘Cause God gave us His words, His thoughts. He told us His stories. He put something of His values in writing, in a book called the Torah. By jumping into that book, by studying it, by immersing ourselves in it in an attempt to fathom its riches – we grab hold of the Eternal. We embrace God’s great story.
And in doing so, we find a little bit of an antidote to death. Yes, life is fleeting, it does end, but we are not unmoored. We are not living meaninglessly. You know Prudential Insurance – back when I was a kid – they used to have a tagline, as they displayed an imposing image of the great Rock of Gibraltar, rising over the endless sea: Own a piece of the rock, they said. Well, if we can’t own a piece of the rock, we can hold fast to the rock. We can live our lives connected to the Eternal, embracing the Source of all existence – and in so doing, we can feel that our lives, though destined to end, are grounded in the deepest reality there is. Our lives can deeply matter.
Why Did God Create Me?
As we were banished from Eden, we lost our chance to achieve immortality; we lost access to the Tree of Life, and with it to God’s Haven on earth, the Garden of Eden. But in that moment, we also gained an opportunity: To eventually create a haven for God on earth, with our own hands. We call it the Mishkan. To build a place for Him in our world, to invite Him to inhabit it. In the center of that haven, we would place a new Tree of Life – the Torah itself. It would be a tree we could study, we could learn, we could contemplate, we could do our best to live by. And in this way, we would take hold of it.
These things: Making a place for God in our world; inviting Him to live with us; and all the while embracing Him, by reveling in the delights of His Book – this is the real deal. It is how we cope with – and even redeem -- our banishment from Eden. This is what we are supposed to be doing in the world.
With this video here today, we here at Aleph Beta are launching a new round of Parsha episodes. Which means we, together with you, are committing ourselves to a new year of embracing this Tree of Life – studying the Torah, reveling in its mystery, embracing its beauty; tasting its delights. Come join us in this quest. It will be, I’m sure, quite a journey.