Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Creation - Plants and Trees With Attitude Problems

[Note: the following is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote for the now apparently defunct Sefer HaBloggadah.]

Genesis 1:11-12 covers the creation of plants. God says make some plants, and the earth makes some plants. The story is three sentences long. One might think this is all pretty simple and straightforward.

Not even close.

A midrash in Bialik's Sefer Ha Aggadah (1:2:32) picks up on one seemingly minor textual inconsistency, and a comment from Rashi picks up on a different textual inconsistency. Juxtaposing these two gives us some pretty interesting conclusions. Let's start with the Torah text, and then discuss our midrash, Rashi's comment, and what we can make of all this.

Here's the Torah:

And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:11-12)

The midrash notes one subtle textual discrepancy in this story. God said to produce "herb yielding seed" but the earth actually brought forth "herb yielding seed after its kind". (That is, the seeds from these plants would themselves grow the same kind of plant.) Here's most of the Midrash:

[T]he grasses applied to themselves an a fortiori argument, saying: If God enjoined "after its kind" upon trees, which by nature do not grow up in promiscuous miscellany, how much more does it apply to us! Immediately each grass sprouted forth after its kind . . . . Then the angel of the universe declared, "The glory of the Lords endures forever; the Lord rightly rejoices in His works!"

Grass with attitude. God says do it one way, and the grass thinks it has a better idea and does it differently.

But things gets better. Here's another textual inconsistency. God said to create "fruit-tree bearing fruit" (עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי), but the earth instead brought forth "tree bearing fruit" (וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה-פְּרִי). Our midrash skips this problem, but Rashi picks up on it. "This implies that the taste of the tree should be the same as the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth] did not do this, but rather: 'The earth sprouted forth . . . a tree producing a fruit,' but the tree itself was not a fruit."

Now the earth has attitude. God's original plan called for the entire tree -- branches, leaves, bark, everything -- to be edible. It would literally be a "fruit tree" that also bore fruit. But the earth decided it had a better idea and made regular trees instead. Rashi notes the consequences for the earth's disobedience. "Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, it, [the earth] too, was punished for its sin and was [also] cursed."

This is remarkable. God issued a simple command to the earth: make some plants and trees. The grass -- after comparing itself to the trees, carefully thinking through the problem, and applying Talmudic reasoning -- decided to improve on God's plan. And then did! (And did so before it was even created. Talk about being an over-achiever.) The earth on the other hand made the opposite move. God wanted super-trees, but the earth just created regular old ordinary trees.

But the most puzzling verse of all is the transition between God's commands and the much modified implementations of these commands: "And it was so." It most certainly was not so. God got very different grass and trees than he had commanded.

So what do we make of all this?

Here's my explanation. The divine plan for creation is not static. It is dynamic and changing, and these changes even include creation's modifications of the divine plan for creation itself.

Also, it means that people have a very important role in continuing God's creation. Contrary to Dr. Pangloss's position, this is not the best of all possible worlds. We can improve things, and we should.

As many people have noted, we see this idea reflected in our shabbat blessings. We bless God for bringing forth bread from the earth. But of course God does not create bread. Nature brings grain from the earth. People then improve the grain and make the bread. And then we bless God for creating the fruit of the vine. Well, God may do that, but we are not eating grapes. We are drinking wine. And people improved the grapes to make the wine. Our blessings make no difference between the the products people make (bread, wine) and the raw materials God makes (grain, grapes), and in fact seems to confuse the two categories.


The reason for all of this, as I see it, is that the divine plan includes the potential to modify the divine plan. Grapes includes potential wine, wine includes prior grapes, bread includes prior grain, and grain includes potential bread. God and people work together, we get some pretty good stuff, and all of this is part of the divinity of all of this.

The Torah notes that we are created in the image of God. And one important idea in Judaism (and other religions; hence the Latin) is imitatio dei: imitating God. God creates and modifies, and so should we.

This process is not limited to the physical world. It applies to halacha as well. God creates law. As I have argued elsewhere, God also modifies law. And so should we. Halacha cannot be a static and unchanging set of legal rules. Instead, it is up to us to create new rules and modify the old ones as changed conditions require changes in the rule. We should not do so out of convenience or laziness, but only to promote the highest ideals of Judaism.

This enterprise, like all such enterprises, must be undertaken with seriousness and careful thought. Note the two endings to our two stories. God rejoiced when the grasses made themselves better, but he punished the earth when it made trees that were worse. We should change things when we need to, but we need to try very hard to get it right.

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