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Rosh Hashanah: Creation of the World and Creation of Mankind

Bible
High Holidays
Theology
Thought and Philosophy

Of the midrashim that describe the creation of the world, one stands out that is short and puzzling. Breishit Raba 3:7 refers to God as the “Creator and Destroyer of Worlds.” This implies that our world is not the first that God created; there were earlier ones He created and destroyed. There is no answer given to the obvious question of why. Different explanations, sometimes contradictory, are offered elsewhere in Jewish philosophy and mysticism. The common premise underlying most of these is that creation and destruction are not dependent entirely on God’s Will.

A verse in Genesis points us to a possible answer: “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on that day He desisted from all His work that God created to make.” (Genesis 2:3). Authors ofmidrashim and commentators have noted that the text does not state ‘made’ in the past tense, but rather ‘to make.’ Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, a senior pupil of The Magid of Mezeritch, wrote: “That God created to make” means that the work of creation, of mending, of completion of the world continues, and is left in the hands of Israel (Maor Einayim, Ha’azinu).

In other words, the creation is unfinished and Israel is assigned the task of completing the job. The trouble is, Man has the potential to be God’s partner in creation, but he is also liable to be His partner in the world’s destruction. A weighty responsibility is placed upon man’s shoulders, and he, like Jonah, runs from it. The question that God poses to man after he has sinned, is asked again and again – ‘where are you?’ – and has assumed an existential meaning in modern times. Man hides from God and from himself. The ‘Hiding of the Face’ is presented in the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel as one of the central difficulties with which man must cope. The essence of the ‘Hiding of the Face’ is nullification of the self, of what is unique and individual in Man. In one of his poems, overflowing with sacredness and pain, Rav Kook writes:

Expanses, expanses
Expanses my soul craves
Do not confine me in any cage,
Neither material nor spiritual,
My soul soars through the heavens,
Walls of the heart will not contain it,
Nor will the walls of deeds, morals, logic or propriety.
Above all these my soul soars and flies,
Above all that can be named,
Above all delight, pleasantness and beauty,
Above all that is exalted and noble.
“I am love sick….” (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, Hadrav, Mevasseret Zion 1998, p.49).

Prominent in this poem is the yearning for freedom, for release from ‘confining walls.’ This is Rav Kook’s interpretation of the Binding of Isaac. Abraham is described as one who was able to transcend all obligations that constrained him. The release from emotional and social constraints allowed Abraham to stand fully before God, (I refer to this at length in my book, Alexander Even Chen, The Binding of Isaac: Mystical and Philosophical Interpretation of the Bible, Tel Aviv 2006, pp. 170-200). representing the peak of tension between the individual and society.

The ability to create something new and original, in poetry, art, faith, or thought, is perceived by Rav Kook as an expression of Man’s divine image, for just as God created the world, Man is also called upon to create. Such creation is possible only when Man is able to expose his innermost soul.

Also Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself (Abraham Joshua Heschel,  God in Search of Man, New York 1955, p. 137). This not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from our Selves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:

Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, New York & London 2005, pp. 30-31).

In this poem, which attempts to depict the bond between God and Man, Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from his Self, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making self-exposure impossible. Exposing the Self is an expression of Man’s divine image. In his book The Sabbath, Heschel posits that time is the process of creation. Time is the dimension in which life is truly lived, for ‘living’ is the ability to change and renew. Therefore, Heschel adds, when we are aware of time we hear the process of creation. Creation did not cease at the end of the first seven days; it constantly continues, and Man has the ability to join in the process or to bring about its end, i.e., death. He writes:

A world without time is a world without God, a world that exists within itself and for itself, a world without renewal, a world without a Creator (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, Tel Aviv 2003, p. 105).

God is the force of creation, of renewal, of life. Man must fulfill his role as partner to the divine power of creation.

Martin Buber also assigns special meaning to the term ‘genesis.’ In 1925, speaking to a group of educators, he claimed that the human race regenerates itself each hour, for at each moment, “what has not been invades the structure of what is, with ten thousand countenances, of which not one has been seen before, with ten thousand souls still undeveloped but ready to develop – a creative event if ever there was one, newness rising up, primal potential might. This potentiality, streaming unconquered, however much of it is squandered, is the reality child.” (Martin Buber, “Education,” An Address to the Third International Educational Conference, Heidelberg, 1925, inBetween Man and Man, Kegan Paul, London 1947, p.83).

All children embody new and unique perspectives on reality. This allows Buber to posit that the world is created anew at each moment, assuming that we let these new eyes see in the new and unique manner that they bring to the world. According to Buber, children regenerate the world; they are the force of constant renewal. The act of Creation is not finished, but Man has the power to continue or end it.


Dr. Alexander Even-Chen is a Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute. He has written numerous articles and books on A.J. Herschel, including A Voice from the Darkness, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Phenomenology and Mysticism (Hebrew), Tel-Aviv.

English Translation: Penina Goldschmidt

Alexander Even Chen is a Professor of Jewish Thought. He earned his PhD in Jewish studies from Hebrew University and rabbinical ordination from The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. As a teacher at the Masorti High School in Jerusalem, he helped develop informal Jewish educational activities, and has served as pedagogic advisor at the Beit Hatfutsot Museum in Tel Aviv.  He has served on the boards of the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel promoting dialogue between the three major monotheistic faiths. Rabbi Dr. Even-Chen is author of 3 books and numerous scholarly articles. His translation into Hebrew of Heschel’s Shabbat will be published shortly. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children.

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