Vayera – Mercy and Justice – truth springs up from the earth, justice from the heavens

Vayera 

Then the Eternal said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Eternal. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:20-25)

Justice is at the heart of Judaism from the biblical narrative onwards, and it is understood to be a core attribution of God that we human beings should strive to emulate.

But Justice alone will not create a sustainable world. And here in Vayera we see Abraham challenging God and God’s intended actions against the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Is this how to dispense Justice? Something more is needed….

When we read the two creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis, we see that God’s name differs between the stories. To begin with God is called Elohim – a word that is also used to describe human judges in bible, and it is understood to correspond to the attribute of Justice. In the second story the name of God is YHVH Elohim – Justice is present but so is something else, something in the ineffable and unpronounceable name of God – something understood to correspond to the attribute of Mercy.

Why the additional name? Because anything created only to follow the rules of strict justice is unlikely to survive for long – Justice must always be tempered with Mercy.

The midrash explains thus: “In creating the world God combined the two attributes of justice and mercy: “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be God’s name! ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will be plentiful; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world exist? Therefore I will create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and thus may it endure.'”. [Gen. R. 12:15]

“Initially, God intended to create it with the attribute of Justice. But then He saw that the world cannot exist [with only Justice], so He gave priority to the attribute of Mercy, and joined it with the attribute of Justice.” (Pesikta Rabbati 40)

As the prophet Micah put it (6:8)  “God  has told you, O human, what is good, And what the Eternal requires of you:  Only to do justice (mishpat), And to love goodness (hesed), And to walk humbly with your God”

The bible tells us “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16) but while it commands absolute justice we can see that at the same time compassion and mercy are threaded into the narrative almost all the time. Just as the first creation story has the world made from absolute justice, so there has to be a second creation where that justice is mitigated with mercy. If the world is made with only absolute justice, goes the thought, then no one would survive God’s decrees. And if it were to be made only with absolute mercy, then chaos would ensue if no one was ever going to deal with the consequences of their choices. Hence the intertwining of the two attributes, Justice and Mercy, within God.

In the Talmud there is a discussion about whether God prays and to whom. The decision is that God does indeed pray and that God prays to Godself. And what is the prayer that God recites? “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may suppress my other attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy, and on their behalf restrain my attribute of strict Justice.” (Berachot 7a)

In the story in Vayera, God appears to be in full “Justice” mode. It is Abraham who introduces the notion of mercy. Abraham’s question to God is a masterpiece of critical examination: “Shall the Shofet/Judge of all the earth not Mishpat/Justice”? It is a reminder that sometimes we may have to remind God of the prayer God prays (see above).

In the weekday Amidah there is a paragraph that does just that.

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה לְבַדְּ֒ךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים וְצַדְּ֒קֵֽנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט:

 Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at the first. Remove sorrow and sighing from us, and reign over us You, Adonai, alone with kindness (hesed) and mercy (rachamim); and make us righteous with justice,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה מֶֽלֶךְ אֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט:

Blessed are You, Adonai the Sovereign who loves righteousness and justice.

While the blessing uses a verse in Isaiah (1:26) I will restore your magistrates as of old,
And your counselors as of yore. After that you (Jerusalem)shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City”
to reference the “golden period” of the Judges – before the monarchy was established – a human monarchy which God had not originally planned for and which may be seen as in some way challenging the kingship of God. The final section explicitly reminds God that God should use kindness and compassion in order to bring about Justice, that  Justice only emerges when there is also compassion and mercy.

Justice is our imperative, it drives Jewish thinking in so many ways. This prayer reminds us that without Justice there will be “sorrow and sighing” – the world will not function and people will be ridden over roughshod with no way of protecting themselves.  But Justice cannot exist alone, in a place where there is only justice there can be no mercy. In a place where there is only mercy there can be no justice. And so while the imperative to pursue Justice at all times shapes us, we must be constantly aware to be merciful in its applications.

In the words of the psalmist

חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ Faithfulness and truth meet;
justice and well-being kiss. אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ Truth springs up from the earth;
justice looks down from heaven.

Just as God learns this, then so do we. Just as God acts with both attributes, so must we. It is a difficult road to walk, and just as Abraham was able to challenge God, so too we must challenge ourselves and each other. Justice yes, but mercy always too.

Bereishit -subduing the earth or serving her – not slaves but co-creators to protect and nurture our world

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’  (Genesis 1:28)

The stories of creation found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis provide the foundation for the myth of human ownership of the world; something which has allowed us to feel ourselves permitted to exploit and use the natural world for our own benefit.  And no verse has been quite so powerful in this myth as the one quoted above – translating the verbs as humanity “subduing / ruling / dominating” the earth.

But this reading is, at best, a partial understanding of the texts of Creation, and I would like to offer a more nuanced and less literalist view.

To begin – the verbs whose roots are

כבש   רדד  / רדה

Have multiple meanings, but for each of them the base meaning from which subdue/dominate arises is the physical act of treading down/ trampling /spreading out.  It would not be too far a literary stretch in the context of the words coming before – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – to read the next part of the verse as “and stretch out/make pathways over her (the earth), and stretch [your reach] over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing on the earth.  The root כבש

Is used today to describe roads and pathways – the methods by which we extend our ability to travel the earth.

But should this be a “spreading out” too far for some readers, one must also be aware of the context of this verse – both historically in terms of other earlier creation myths, and textually in the Book of Genesis.

Enumah Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, describes the creation of humankind like this:

“Blood will I form and cause bone to be
Then will I set up a “lullu” [savage], ‘Man’ shall be his name!
Yes, I will create savage Man!
(Upon him) shall the services of the gods be imposed
That they may be at rest.”

For the Babylonians, the creation of human beings is about them being the slaves of the divinities, freeing the gods from the actual work of the world.  Human beings would work the earth, and provide the food and drink and other necessities or desires of the gods through sacrifices and libations.

It is this mythic story that informs the biblical creation stories, and some of the dynamic of owner/owned from the Enumah Elish may be found in the biblical text – but this is a very different creation story, with the human being created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, and the self-sufficient God going on to offer the plant based foods for all the newly created beings, both human and animal.

This is also not the only creation story in Bible, and one cannot read the first iteration in Chapter 1 without the second iteration in Chapter 2 – the story of the Garden of Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

And the Eternal God took the human, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

The verbs here are quite different

עבד שמר

Mean literally to serve and to guard/protect.

So even if we took the verbs in chapter one to mean “to rule/to subdue” the earth, here in chapter two that dimension is mitigated greatly. The role of the paradigmatic human being is that of carer for the earth, serving it rather than exploiting it.

Any power of the ownership implied in the first story must now be understood to be that of the obligation to nurture and guard something that is precious to God. To work with God (rather than for the gods) is to have an authority and role in creation, it gives no permission to use or exploit without care or consideration for the earth and its future.

The rabbinic tradition clearly understands this – and reminds us that we are not to exceed our powers, not to selfishly take and exploit and damage in order to meet our own desires and needs – indeed this would bring us back full circle to the Enumah Elish and the selfish greedy lazy and thoughtless gods. Famously in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. “ (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Read together, the two creation stories provide a picture of the complex and important relationship between humanity, God and nature.  God, having created the world to be self-sustaining, is still involved through the work of human beings. We are, as ever, the hands of God in the world. We can manage and care for the natural world, sometimes – as in a garden- having to be creative in order to get the best results. Any gardener will tell about the importance of pruning, of digging up weeds by the roots,  of dead heading or thinning plants – all things that may seem “heavy handed” but ultimately provide the best environment.

Is our role to subdue the world or to spread out within it, causing fruitfulness and the fullness of nature?  I would suggest that the long standing myth of our being the pinnacle of creation meaning we have the right to dominate the world is a misunderstanding at a very deep level. To serve and to protect the earth – it is for this we were created, and this is how we most profoundly embody the idea of our being ‘b’tzelem Elohim”

Bereishit: sottomettere la terra o servirla, non schiavi ma co-creatori per proteggere e nutrire il nostro mondo

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

E Dio li benedisse; e Dio stesso disse loro: Prolificate, moltiplicatevi, empite la terra e rendetevela soggetta; dominate sui pesci del mare, e sui volatili del cielo e su tutti gli animali che si muovono sulla terra.” (Genesi 1:28)

Le storie della creazione che si trovano nei primi capitoli del libro della Genesi forniscono le basi per il mito della proprietà umana del mondo: qualcosa che ci ha permesso di sentirci autorizzati a sfruttare e usare il mondo naturale a nostro vantaggio. E nessun verso è stato così potente in questo mito quanto quello sopra citato, per tradurre i verbi relativi all’agire dell’umanità in “sopraffare, controllare, dominare” la terra.

Ma questa lettura è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, una comprensione parziale dei testi della Creazione, e vorrei offrire una visione più sfumata e meno letterale.

Per cominciare, i verbi le cui radici sono  רדה / רדד  כבש  hanno significati multipli, ma per ognuno di essi il significato base da cui emerge ‘sottomettere o dominare’ è l’atto fisico di schiacciare, calpestare, spargere. Non sarebbe troppo una forzatura letteraria nel contesto delle parole che precedono ‘siate fecondi, moltiplicate e riempite la terra’ leggere la parte successiva del verso come “e allungatevi, percorretela (la terra), e allungate [la vostra portata] sui pesci del mare e sugli uccelli del cielo e su ogni cosa vivente sulla terra”.

La radice כבש oggi è usata per descrivere strade e percorsi, i metodi con cui estendiamo la nostra capacità di viaggiare sulla terra.

Ma se questo dovesse essere un “allargamento” eccessivo per alcuni lettori, si deve anche essere consapevoli del contesto di questo versetto: sia storicamente, in termini di altri miti della creazione precedente, sia testualmente, nel Libro della Genesi.

Enumah Elish, il mito babilonese della creazione, descrive la creazione dell’umanità in questo modo:

“Formerò il sangue e farò esistere l’osso

Quindi creerò un “lullu” [selvaggio], “Uomo” sarà il suo nome!

Sì, creerò un uomo selvaggio!

(Su di lui) saranno imposti i servizi degli dei

Che possano essere in pace.”

Per i babilonesi, la creazione di esseri umani riguarda il fatto che essi sono gli schiavi delle divinità, liberando così gli dei dal lavoro reale del mondo. Gli esseri umani lavorerebbero la terra fornendo cibo e bevande e altre necessità o desideri degli dei attraverso sacrifici e libagioni.

Questa storia mitica, presente nel contesto in cui vennero scritte le storie della creazione biblica, e alcune delle dinamiche proprietario/proprietà dell’Enumah Elish possono essere trovate nel testo biblico, ma questa è una storia della creazione molto diversa, con l’essere umano creato ‘b’ tzelem Elohim’ e il Dio autosufficiente che continua a offrire alimenti a base vegetale per tutti gli esseri appena creati, sia umani che animali.

Questa non è nemmeno l’unica storia della creazione nella Bibbia, e non si può leggere la prima iterazione nel capitolo 1 senza la seconda, la ripetizione nel capitolo 2: la storia del Giardino dell’Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

E l’Eterno Dio prese l’uomo e lo pose nel Giardino di Eden perché lo coltivasse e lo custodisse.

I verbi qui sono abbastanza diversi: שמר עבד, significano letteralmente servire e fare la guardia, proteggere.

Quindi, anche se abbiamo considerato i verbi nel primo capitolo per significare “governare/ sottomettere” la terra, qui nel secondo capitolo quella dimensione è notevolmente mitigata. Il ruolo dell’essere umano paradigmatico è quello di prendersi cura della terra, servendola piuttosto che sfruttandola.

Qualsiasi potere della proprietà implicito nella prima storia deve ora essere inteso come quello dell’obbligo di nutrire e custodire qualcosa di prezioso per Dio. Lavorare con Dio (piuttosto che per gli dei) significa avere un’autorità e un ruolo nella creazione, non dà il permesso di usare o sfruttare senza cura o considerazione alcuna la terra e il suo futuro.

La tradizione rabbinica lo comprende chiaramente, e ci ricorda che non dobbiamo eccedere i nostri poteri, non dobbiamo prendere egoisticamente e sfruttare e danneggiare per soddisfare i nostri desideri e bisogni, in effetti questo ci riporterebbe al punto di partenza dell’Enumah Elish e gli dei egoisti, avidi, pigri e sconsiderati. Notoriamente nel Midrash Kohelet Rabbà leggiamo:

“Guarda il lavoro di Dio: per chi può raddrizzare ciò che ha distorto? Quando l’Uno, Santo e Benedetto, creò il primo essere umano, Dio lo prese e lo condusse attorno a tutti gli alberi del Giardino dell’Eden e disse: ‘Guarda le mie opere, quanto sono belle e lodevoli! E tutto ciò che ho creato, è stato creato per te. Fai attenzione a non corrompere e distruggere il mio mondo: se lo corrompi, non c’è nessuno che lo ripari dopo di te.’” (Kohelet Rabbà 7:13)

Lette insieme, le due storie della creazione forniscono un quadro del complesso e importante rapporto tra umanità, Dio e natura. Dio, avendo creato il mondo per essere autosufficiente, è ancora coinvolto attraverso il lavoro degli esseri umani. Siamo, come sempre, le mani di Dio nel mondo. Possiamo gestire e prenderci cura del mondo naturale, a volte, come in un giardino, dovendo essere creativi per ottenere i migliori risultati. Ogni giardiniere parlerà dell’importanza della potatura, dello scavo delle erbe infestanti dalle radici, della selezione o del diradamento delle piante, tutte cose che possono sembrare “pesanti” ma alla fine forniscono l’ambiente migliore.

Il nostro ruolo è sottomettere il mondo o spargerci al suo interno, causando fecondità e pienezza della natura? Suggerirei che l’antico mito del nostro essere l’apice della creazione, nel senso che abbiamo il diritto di dominare il mondo, è un malinteso a un livello molto profondo. Siamo stati creati per servire e proteggere la terra, ed è così che incarniamo profondamente l’idea del nostro essere “b’tzelem Elohim”.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer