Genesis reminds us that God chose to make humans despite their fallibility

In one of the many passages addressing the creation of Adam, God wonders pre-creation how to proceed since both wicked and righteous will be brought into the world.

Over and over, the midrash recognises the equal potential for good.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Over and over, the midrash recognises the equal potential for good.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As we begin the book of Genesis, I am continuously struck by how complex the personalities are in the stories. The tension that characterizes people’s ability to choose between right and wrong is exemplified immediately after God creates man and woman.
All choices have consequence, as we find out when Adam and Eve are evicted from Eden and later, when Cain is exiled. The midrashic authors of Genesis Rabbah spend much time wondering why God created human beings, given their propensity for wrong, and often, evil choices.
In one of the many passages addressing the creation of Adam, God wonders pre-creation how to proceed since both wicked and righteous will be brought into the world in the aftermath of this act. He chooses to “ignore” the way of the wicked, collaborate only with His quality of mercy, ignoring justice, and is thus able to create Adam, who originally is both male and female, in His image. In other words, God has to act counter to His own nature.

In the same chapter, another midrash pits four virtues arguing before God for and against the creation of man. Loving-kindness and Charity argue for the creation since humans are capable of tremendous acts of kindness and compassion toward one another. Truth and Peace argue against the creation since humans are equally capable of falsehood and treachery. In response, God hurls Truth to the ground, giving Him a clear majority (2 to 1), as well as providing humans with greater access to Truth. In the end, God creates while the arguing in heavens continues.
By visualizing and anthropomorphizing God in these narratives, the midrashic authors try to understand how God came to create such a flawed being with so much potential for harm, destruction and evil. Yet over and over, the midrash recognizes the equal potential for good and, more importantly, for connection and conscious relationship to God.
It is not surprising that the first two stories in Genesis are of sin. Our relationship with God will continuously be composed of cycles of rupture, reconciliation, consequence, punishment and, ultimately, connection. In all relationships, the ruptured aftermath of hurt, anger and betrayal create space in which growth is possible. As Leonard Cohen wrote in “Anthem,” “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
God remains with both Adam and Eve as well as with Cain after they sin. He even initiates the conversation both times with the word “Ayeka” (or in Cain’s case, – “Where is your brother?”) – prompting a degree of self-reflection, although they all flail wildly about to try and escape such scrutiny.
This week’s Torah portion brings us the flawed heroic character of Noah. It starts with so much possibility. Already at his birth, Noah is marked by his father as a child who will herald the beginning of a new era in man’s relationship with God, bringing respite from the cursed land.
Unfortunately, such relief is short-lived. God chooses to eradicate all that has been created with the exception of Noah, who is special, finding favor in God’s eyes. This being singled out initially finds Noah doing all that God has commanded of him, from building the ark to bringing in the animals as directed. How does Noah find himself at the end of the story drunk, naked and alone in his tent, vulnerable to some ambiguous deviant act on the part of his son?
One clue might be found in the one instance in which Noah deviates from God’s word. God commanded men and women to enter the ark separately. However, when disembarking God specifically commands that they go out in pairs and begin to procreate. While the animals, instantly and instinctively follow this directive, Noah exits as he entered, with men and women separate. He seems unable to conceive of reproduction and rebuilding in the aftermath of such destruction. His first act of creation is not to procreate but to plant a vineyard and afterward, to fall into a drunken stupor. It is the end of his story and there is no growth potential.
There is a midrash, popularized by the commentator Rashi, that wonders about Noah’s nature. Was he great in his time because the rest of the generation was wicked or would he have been greater had he lived with people of greater character? In other words, what makes someone great? Is it nature or nurture? This question will be heightened by the subsequent emergence of Abraham, who comes out of nowhere and yet shows unwavering faith in his belief in God.
There is another midrash that ties together God’s desire to create human beings despite their fallibility. The Torah tells us that Noah walked with God. In a later verse, God tells Abraham to walk before him. A comparison of the texts leads the midrash to conclude that walking before someone is greater than walking with them.
“R. Nehemiah said: He might be compared to a king’s friend who was plunging about in dark alleys and when the king looked out and saw him sinking [in the mud] he said to him… come and walk with me. But Abraham’s case is rather to be compared to that of a king who was sinking in dark alleys and when his friend saw him, he shone a light for him through the window. Said he to him… come and show a light before me.”
Noah’s nature ultimately limited him. In the parable, the king extricates his friend from the darkness, providing him with safety and companionship, but the hierarchy is clear – the king remains unaffected by the friend’s struggle. God offers Noah salvation but nothing more. He is unable, on his own, to seek a deeper relationship with God once he is physically safe, traumatized perhaps by witnessing the power of God’s wrath unleashed on the world.
Abraham, in contrast, represents a completely different model of interaction with God. In this parable, the king is the one sinking into dark alleys and into obscurity. Only the light shone by his friend illuminates his presence. In other words, the king needs the friend to be seen in the world or he will sink into darkness. This parable beautifully illustrates the need of God to be seen in the world. It will be those who walk before Him rather than beside Him that will be working in partnership to shine God’s presence for all to see.  ■

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.