I. Before the Beginning
Prior to creation there was nothing but the Glory of God. Nothing – it is a concept that we, creatures in a physical world, cannot even begin to comprehend, just as the blind cannot comprehend the sunset and the deaf a symphony. Can we conceive a world without time or space? We can speak of it, think of it, but the truth is that we cannot really imagine something so foreign to our experience.
Existence prior to creation is unfathomable. There was no sun nor moon – they were created on the fourth day. There was not even light or darkness – they were created on the first day. That seems like a contradiction in terms; if there was no light than there was automatically darkness, for is not darkness the absence of light? No, for even that seemingly basic concept is a product of our earthbound experience.
There is only God, incorporeal – not composed of matter, having no material existence – omnipresent – always in existence – without beginning and without end. But God wanted to do good to beings apart from Himself, and in order to make it possible for Him to do so, He created a universe of human life. Because God is absolutely perfect, He wanted the good that He would bestow upon others to be equally perfect. This could be possible only if the beneficiaries of His goodness would be enabled to share in the perfection of His Glory.
His wisdom decreed that simply to create a being and lavish upon him the blessings of his Maker would not be enough, because the person who has not earned reward feels no satisfaction in underserved gifts – rather than make the recipient feel proud that he has been found deserving, he feels humiliated that he is showered with blessings that are not truly his. Thus, in order for the intended goodness to be worthy of the Source of all good, it would have to be of a nature that could be earned by the beneficiary and thus be the greatest possible source of satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness to him.
In order to achieve this goal, God desired these conditions: man had to have free choice; he had to be placed in a setting where he would be required to choose between good and evil; and the choice could not be obvious – if it would be so then it would be absurd to reward man for choosing well.
If the superiority of good over evil were too manifest, the choice would become an automatic, instinctive decision; one unworthy of the sort of reward God wanted to give. The goal could be achieved only if the holiness of God were so concealed that it would be possible to err. If man could live in an atmosphere where evil was not only plausible but tempting, not only tempting but rewarding, then the successful struggle against seduction would steadily elevate him. At every stage of his existence he would face new challenges, always struggling against the desires of the flesh. If he could then surmount the ‘obvious’ and cling to the way of God, recognizing that the alluring impediments were nothing more than a mirage, his spiritual growth would be constant, and eventually he would be worthy of the reward which God created the universe in order to bestow.
II. Good and Evil
But if God is everywhere, and nothing can exist unless He makes it so – how then can we associate Him with the existence of evil?
The Torah defines ‘good’ differently. ‘Good’ is the presence of God; evil is not His absence – for his is everywhere – but His hiddenness, the lack of awareness that He is present.
The cardinal principles of Jewish belief are that God exists and that He is One. His Oneness implies that there is no place free from Him. The more one is aware of His Presence, the more that place or situation is good.. A church filled with people singing songs of praise and worship, a synagogue filled with children speaking to their Father, a poor hungry family receiving a box of food – all of these are good, because they are manifestations of His existence in the minds and hearts of people. But scenes of suffering and tragedy can also be good if we could but realize that all is part of His master plan. It is when we do not perceive His Presence, when we fail to see purpose and direction in earthly affairs that we live with evil. In short, evil is a condition where God is not seen.
There are situations in life that seem inherently evil: surely the ugliness of man at his worst cannot be described as good. But even they can serve as a vehicle for elevating man. If he surmounts the challenge that they present, then he has become a better, stronger person. The person who lives in a cruel society as Abraham did and remains kind and compassionate, has grown. The one who travels through a deceitful land and remains honest and upright as Jacob did, has grown. Thus, the evil around him served the beneficial purpose of elevating him to further greatness.
III. Man’s Role
The world was now ready for man. To see the light through the mists would not be easy, but it could be done if man were honest in seeking the truth rather than satisfying his animal desires. Because it could be done, man was reqired to do it. Because it was not an easy task, he would be amply deserving of reward if he achieved it. Thus, God satisfied the native of creation: He would be able to present good upon man; but it would not be a cheap, undeserved good. Man could attain it only by elevating the spiritual in himself and by uniting it with the spiritual in creation. He would see the universe for what it was, a camouflage disguising what was truly meaningful and eternal. He would realize that in total immersion in Torah even amid poverty, hunger, and thirst, lay a degree of happiness and contentment in this world that was infinitely greater than any to be found in wealth, luxury, and self indulgence. (see Avos 6:1)
To whatever extent he is able to accomplish that, man attains a degree of perfection that is somewhat akin to that of His Maker. By uniting his intellect with that of God through the study of Torah and by perfecting his deeds through the performance of the commandments, man earns the degree of perfection that it is possible for him to attain, and the degree of reward that God seeks to give.
In all creation, only man has unlimited freedom of choice. The forces of nature have no such freedom. The natural forces are under the control of angels who serve as the intermediaries in carrying out God’s will. We find references in the words of the Sages to the angels of the sea, the angels of individual nations, even the angels of blades of grass. These angelic ministers carry out God’s dictates throughout the universe. The only exceptions are the people of Israel and Eretz Israel, both of which have greater holiness and are, therefore, guided only by God Himself.
The Jewish people began to attain this degree of holiness through the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Until the time of the Patriarchs, all men were equal both in their calling and in their opportunity to achieve the heavenly goal set for them. But the ten generations up to Noah, failed to achieve their mission, and the ten generations from Noah to Abraham failed again, until Abraham founded the nation that would become God’s chosen one. Eretz Israel is the ‘center of creation’ in the material sense, and it is the center of holiness on earth, as well. (Ramban)
Despite the laws of nature and the angels who carry them out, there is a power higher than them – man. For it was given to him through his free choice, to make nature yield to him. Throughout the Torah are sprinkled blessings that will come to man if he makes the Torah his love and the commandments his pursuit.
It is not at all surprising that man can sanctify himself and earn the blessings of holiness through immersion in spiritual pursuit. That souls can cleave to God after they leave their bodies, or that righteous beings can be rewarded with the superhuman height of prophecy is not at all surprising: spiritual attainment is deserving of spiritual reward. But rain, prosperity, security, triumph over enemies? Why should the study of Torah or the performance of commandments affect crops, bank accounts, and battles? This is one of the great miracles of creation: For that reason the Torah declines to promise spiritual rewards instead of material ones; the first are understood, the second could never be fathomed had not the Torah made them plain.
It is clear, therefore, that man’s deeds are not statistics in a personal ledger. They can split the sea and stop the sun, water the desert and silence a cannon, because the world’s existence is founded in the spirit of God. It is covered and camouflaged, but without it there is no universe, for without God’s Presence – open or concealed – nothing can exist. Man can unite himself in thought and deed with that Presence. When he does so he has fulfilled the purpose of creation, and creation bends to his needs.
IV. More Worlds Than One
Even in this world of obscurity and hiddenness, there are still many levels of existence – many worlds. Can one say that the great and holy sage and the most extreme criminal inhabit the same world? Do the intellectual and the aborigine live in the same world? A person’s world consists of far more than sand and sea – in essence the physical peculiarities of his existence are no more important than the brown paper bag in which a treasure may be wrapped.
Just as there are parallel lines of existence between righteous and wicked, so, too, there are higher worlds than any we can conceive of. The Sages tell us that there is a Holy Temple in heaven that awaits the final redemption of Israel when it will descend to earth. It is not a building of brick and mortar. There is a spiritual Temple which will one day become clothed in physical form and take shape on earth just as the Torah of black fire on white fire took the form of parchment and ink and earthly commandments. There is a physical Garden of Eden and there is a heavenly paradise – the first is the physical manifestation of the second. When Jacob returned to the land of Canaan, he saw a company of angels and named the place Machanaim, twin camps. Ramban explains that there were two camps – one, a company of angels on high; the other, Jacob’s company below. The one below was the human complement of the one above – except that it was greater, because creation came into being to serve it and to be influenced by it.
All of this is part of the creation in which we live: limitation upon limitation, level after level. Each person lives in his own world with the responsibility to climb to a higher one and the danger that he will stumble and fall to a lower one. Each person can be knocked off course by the angelic enforcers of the laws of nature, or he can rise above them and bend them to his greatness. He can be one more earthly creature, hardly rising above animal life, or he can become the fulfillment of God’s wish when He created heaven and earth and said “Let Us make man”.