At one time or another, children protest, “I can’t do it! I am ____________!”
How many times have we heard this complaint from children, and indeed from adults? How many times have we said it ourselves? This protest sounds reasonable, but it limits us in extremely dangerous ways.
The question often defines the answer. Worst of all is, “Who am I to do this?” implying that the task should fall to someone else. “Can I do this?” is better, but it still admits to the possibility of failure. The formulation I prefer – and which I try to use myself– is: “How do I do this?” If we are always looking for constructive solutions, we are much more likely to make progress.
The difference comes down to whether people think of themselves as a verb or a noun: are we defined by what we do, or are we defined by what we are? I submit that this issue is at the very heart of the differences between successful individuals, cultures and nations, and those who merely tick the boxes, the quiet billions who live their lives, exist within the boundaries of their nature and nurture, and leave this earth without making much of an impact either way.
It starts with the mind, and with childhood. Of all the bullying by students and categorization by teachers and well-intentioned adults, the most dangerous are the labels that become the excuse for inaction and for the status quo: “I am stupid” is the most obvious, but even simple adjectives describing body type or physical limitations are enough to sap ambition. Everyone remembers that offhand remark from a peer or teacher or parent – the statement about one’s limitations, of not being smart enough or attractive enough. These sorts of statements, which often are classified as loshon horah, “evil speech” in Judaism, inject a slow but crippling poison in the ears of the listeners. We are forbidden from speaking about other people in this way, because such speech constrains what the listeners themselves believe they are capable of achieving.
We are even forbidden to say them about ourselves! When tasked by Hashem to approach Pharaoh, Moshe claims that he cannot do it because of some speech impediment. Hashem replies: ‘Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I the LORD?” but Moshe will not budge. Once a man has it in his head that he is not capable of something, even Hashem Almighty, in a direct confrontation, cannot change his mind! Our own self-perception is often our greatest enemy. In this case, Hashem loses the argument, because he gives in, and Aharon is tasked with the speaking role.
In our own lives, we must take responsibility for not trying to imitate Hashem but to be creative in our own right. Rather than trying to imitate nature, we are called to make things that have never been made before. And it is the showbread on the altar that reminds us that we are partners in creation with Hashem. This section, then, will discuss how we can be creative partners with Hashem, as inspired by the holiness of the showbread.
The Relevance of the Showbread
Placing the showbread on the altar is a commandment that is linked to each week (as opposed to a day), placing the new bread (which was baked on Friday) on the altar each Shabbos. There are twelve loaves, corresponding to the twelve tribes – or perhaps the six days and six nights (or the physical and spiritual aspects of each of the six days).
Bread is also the food which requires the greatest amount of human interaction – bread, like money, does not grow on trees. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth, it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled, the resulting flour aged. Only then can water be added, the mixture is worked, and then the bread is baked. Thus, Hashem provided the materials for the showbread, but only we ourselves could produce (create) it. This assured that our offering was produced at the highest possible level for the altar: our own creative offering to Hashem.
But what does it mean to us today?
I think the answer connects back to the nature of bread itself. Among all foodstuffs, bread is quite different from meat (which can be found in the wild) or fruit, which can simply fall from a tree. This is the reason for the continuous offerings, the commandments incumbent on the entire nation. The showbread is to remind us that we are to see a weekly cycle of work and accomplishment, partnering with Hashem in all of our endeavors. We work with Him to make bread, life-sustaining food for the benefit of mankind. The showbread reminds us of the reasons for our existence: to be creative in the world.
In my home, we have the tradition every Friday night of each person recounting their greatest accomplishment of the previous week – the thing they did of which they are most proud. It could be a kind word or deed, a good grade on a paper, anything that they can look back on with satisfaction.
This is partly what Shabbos is all about: Hashem created the world, and then on Shabbos he rested. So, too, all week long we labor and create, and then on Shabbos we rest from those labors. The commandment of the showbread gives us continuity for each and every week, and then displaying the bread as the accomplishment for the entire people. Tie together a bit more? Flesh out?
Why There are no Pictures in the Torah
The Torah is an extraordinary text in no small part because it devotes many chapters to describing what things ought to look like, but never has so much as an accompanying sketch to help the reader along. It stimulates our own creative juices, rather than our needing to rely on specific instructions. A single picture certainly can be worth a thousand words, especially when conveying an architectural plan. But we are given no pictures or visual aids of any kind.
So when the text reads, “You shall erect the Mishkan according to its manner, as you will have been shown on the mountain,” we should read it as: “You shall erect the Mishkan guided by the inspiration that you have been shown on the mountain.” Which means that the Torah is explicitly inviting the builders of the Mishkan to tap into their own creativity.
The fact that the Torah uses words and not pictures tells us that we are enjoined to think for ourselves, to engage our imaginations, at every level. Being a Jew does not mean obediently going through the steps: it means engaging with Hashem and ourselves in order to jointly build Hashem’s home. The challenge of building is not the negation of the self: it is the responsibility and challenge of both understanding and interacting with a divinely-inspired internal vision and one’s own soul, and building something that is the synthesis of the vision of both Hashem and man.
The Mishkan is not merely holy because it exists: it is holy because we build it. The investment of human capital – both physical and spiritual—is required to build a home suitable for Hashem.
In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Mishkan (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug”: it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Mishkan by mankind to the creation of the world by Hashem: there are many deep and beautiful parallels, from the connections to Shabbos, to “man and woman” mirroring the angels on top of the ark, to a “measure-for-measure” partnership between Hashem and mankind. When we build the Mishkan, we echo Hashem’s own creative act.
The first words of the Torah begin with creation: Bereishis barah Elokim, usually translated as “in the beginning, Hashem created.” Hebrew is a rich language because of all the ways in which things connect one to the next. The word we translate as “in the beginning” shares the source word, the shoresh, with the word meaning “head”. Which means that “in the beginning Hashem created” can also be read as, “In/with the head, Hashem created.”
The creation of the world was an act of imagination – Hashem’s imagination. And so when we create in turn, emulating Hashem’s creation of the world by building His home, the Mishkan, we are to involve our own imaginations, our inner visions. The Torah does not paint us a picture for a simple reason: the Mishkan is not fully designed in heaven. We are to be full partners in that act of creation, engaging both our physical bodies and our spiritual souls in the act of making something new and beautiful so that He may dwell among us.
So Hashem calls us to be creative beings, entrusts us with carrying out our creations with his guidance and our own imagination.
Desire to Create Beauty
The desire to create is embedded in our actions to produce something new. That desire quickens the heart, tickles the mind, and fires up the imagination. The object of our desire which is (at least in all the ways our instruments can measure) “merely” physical somehow engages with and attracts the soul. We want to revel in the experience, immersing in the object of our desire, through every sense we possess: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.
The arts are one area that we think of when we think of creativity. A 2×4 piece of wood is a static thing; it was made impersonally by a faceless machine. But that same piece of wood, worked over a lathe, lovingly handled by an artist, and crafted into a sculpture, is no longer a mere piece of wood. It is more.
Beauty is necessarily dynamic. Ideally, beauty requires the engagement of two living souls, but it can also be the connection between one living soul and the object of a creative act. Beauty is alive, because desire is not a static thing – it must be constantly in motion, an ongoing swirling and fluxing attraction. Even if the beautiful object is static (think of the Mona Lisa), the observer is not. He studies her carefully, noticing different aspects, fascinated in turn by what happens under different lighting, or when he is in a different mood. More than this: I think the Mona Lisa is attractive because the painting has had its creator’s soul poured into it – and the ensoulment of the artist into the art is itself not static.
This is the power of art: something into which creators have poured themselves. We see in that thing the expression of the creators’ souls, their spirituality poured into something which, if it were to be described using purely physical language, may be nothing more than sound frequencies, the way a person moves his or her body, or the result of paint smeared on a canvas.
When someone invests in creating a poem or a piece of music or art, that creator has invested her soul into that object, creating something that can be deep and rich and hypnotically attractive; think of Hashem’s creations in the stunning world around us, as well as His creation of mankind. And man’s creations in partnership with Hashem are no less beautiful (albeit in a different way): think of a symphony, or a Mona Lisa, or a cheerful and engaging toddler.
Of course, not all creations are beautiful just because they have been created: we can make garbage at least as easily as we can create something that is attractive. The challenge is to keep growing, to use our creative powers to advance down a mystical path, instead of merely to create a graven image, a pale imitation of Hashem’s own creations. Our challenge is to make something that has never existed before. That thing is the best kind of beauty of all. It is the kind of art that can touch and inspire and enthrall millions.
This is not merely echoing Hashem’s creations: Hashem has already created the world. Remaking things that have already been made is not human progress; it is mere repetition, like marching in big circles (think of all the pagan conceptions of the world as nothing more than a wheel). When we make things, we are not supposed to imitate nature, Hashem’s own work.
And just as birds and airplanes fly using different mechanisms, Hashem’s creation and our own efforts are similar only in spirit and not in technique. But just because we don’t create in the same way that Hashem does, does not mean that we don’t create at all: an airplane may not work like a bird, but it still flies – and in its own way, very well indeed. Our technology is different from Hashem’s, but they both serve their respective purposes.
If WE SIMPLY DUPLICATE THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY BEEN CREATED, we would be stuck in a repeating pattern, an ultimately static existence. And without dynamism, there can be no beauty. So true beauty requires us to do what Hashem did: create things that never existed before.
Holy creation is creating something that opens up doorways, growing in new areas of personal or communal development. So we are to create things that never existed before, or to procreate, making new people who can in turn improve their lives, the lives of their families and friends, and the world at large.
Art and Making Graven Images
On the Ninth of Av in the Jewish Calendar, we read in the Torah that Hashem’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.
“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand—Hashem wants us to do good. It is not hard to see why acts of kindness and holiness are what we need in order to improve the world, to make the most of our lives.
But why are graven images – idols—such a problem? Of all things we can do or make, why is this one singled out?
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 
Man is insecure. There are many powerful forces beyond our control and our understanding. These forces seem to hold our lives in their hands, and they are fundamental forces like wind and rain and sea and volcano and sun. In turn, they may be influenced or managed by what might be called “higher order gods” – Luck, or Fate, or any of a number of named deities in the Greek, Norse or other pantheons.
In a primitive world, people simply worshipped the natural force itself. Slightly more advanced societies named deities as being in charge of their respective natural component. But it really all amounted to a “cargo cult” of sorts: paying off the appropriate deity by means of sacrifice and suffering would do the trick.
Note that idol worship was tightly connected to doing evil: buying off the deity cost, in sacrificed foodstuffs and children and virgins, not to mention the hearts of vanquished enemies. And if the god was satisfied, then he did not care what men did between them. Might made right. Once the volcano deity got his virgin, the powerful people in the village could go back to whatever it is they liked doing, which usually involved being unkind (to say the least) to others.
This all seems so deliciously unconnected from our modern, technologically advanced world. After all, even the words “graven image,” and the concept of idol worship, sound like a quaint notion from an ancient past. But think about it: are people today really so secure about the Big Bad World that they won’t seek out an idol?
Think, for example, about superheroes in film and television. As religion fades, superheroes have come back into fashion. Some of them (Ironman or Batman) are ordinary men who harness their ambition to become extraordinary. But most have magical powers that make them better than mere mortals. Deities from ancient pagan worlds are coming back as superheroes: Thor and Loki and others.
Why are we attracted to superheroes? For the same reason the ancients worshipped idols: Superman gives us an alternative to taking responsibility for our own world. Who are we to change the world, when there are superheroes out there who are so much more capable than a mere mortal? It is all an excuse for passivity, for choosing to become a cheerleader instead of taking the field.
And here it comes full circle. The problem with graven images are they are external, shared images, but the spiritual path for each person must, in Judaism, be internal. Each person has his or her own unique path, with a conversation—words—at the heart of that internal quest. The Torah has no illustrations, and the prophets never painted. Words engage with each person’s soul.
It is words—the spoken word—that is at the heart of the Torah. Words talk to the soul, not, as do graphics, to the eyes. [hearing versus seeing] People perceive the same words differently, each engaging with their own imagination to give the words life.
Idol-worship represents wasted opportunity for individual development. We must take responsibility for our own lives, whereas a graven image externalizes the responsibility we should be internalizing.
The problem with being a cheerleader is that standing on the sidelines, living a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe, does not grant immortality. We will all die anyway; the question is whether or not we achieve while we are alive.
May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good, not through graven images, but through our relationship with Hashem.
Creativity and Technology
There is nothing about the Torah that excludes reason or inquiry from our lives—on the contrary! Jerusalem does not stand for the view that truth is delivered solely through revelation, but on the view that revelation provides the hard rock upon which any kind of edifice can be built. Revelation is the launching pad for mankind’s hopes and dreams. Reason, and scientific enquiry and technology and engineering, are all useful tools, and change the world. But whether medicine is used to kill the unborn or heal the sick depends not on medicine itself, but on the principles that guide it, on the foundation-stone that is selected. This is what Torah provides for us.
When we study Torah, we realize that the amorality of reason has been exposed: reason has no moral code of its own, and conforms to fight on behalf of whoever happens to be wielding it at the moment.
We can see the weakness of reason merely by looking at our modern world, a world in which mankind’s technological marvels have accomplished so very much, but all the computational logic available to billions of people has not done anything to advance human morality. To the contrary: technology, the product of vast amounts of scientific inquiry and engineering development, is agnostic about good and evil, unable to lend any moral insight at all. Morality is, and remains, a matter to be determined by people alone, and not by computers. People now have more power than ever before, but in an age where people are in love with Reason as a source of answers, we are entirely rudderless in how that power should be used. Indeed, by thinking that we can intuit the Good from what makes us feel good, or by using logic to define the Good, we end up just fooling ourselves. Absolutely any atrocity can be justified in the name of logic.
The Torah approach is to turn this premise on its head; to argue that what mankind does is better than Nature – after all, civilization and technology build complexity, pushing back against the natural entropic decay processes. Modern society considers “pure” physicists or biologists or chemists to be at a higher level than a mere engineer—the “intellectual” fashion is to think that scientists are learning about nature, while the latter merely manipulate it for man’s selfish desires.
And who thinks that pure scientists are superior? Anyone who worships the earth itself, thinking of Mother Earth as some kind of deity. Those who feel the “pure” sciences are at a higher level are trumpeting their allegiances – they believe that earth and nature are not just created by Hashem, but are Hashem “Herself.” That form of idol worship leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today: pure scientists are considered the de facto high priests of the earth-worshipping religions, while those who have learned to improve the natural world through technology, such as engineers, are ridiculed and excoriated for destroying the environment.
Engineers and technologists are not focused on learning about nature, about what Hashem made. Instead, using knowledge gained from the natural world, they emulate Hashem by inventing and creating entirely new things. They may not be scholars of Hashem’s creation, but their work is an elevation of mankind itself, raising humanity through imitatio dei. Just as Hashem created the world, we are meant to imitate Him and complete His creation.
We are supposed to respect human creativity and creations, because Hashem does. When the Jews are slaves in Egypt, we are forced to build the storehouses of Pit’om and Ramses. But in all the punishments of Egypt and its people, these storehouses and their contents are never touched by a plague. Indeed, while everything outside is destroyed by plague after plague, Hashem leaves the buildings entirely alone. There are a lot of similarities between the building of storehouses and the Tower of Babel. A key commonality is the fact that Hashem does not destroy the Tower, or the store houses, or indeed any home that is built by man. Even with the mitzvoh of destroying Amalek, the Torah does not tell us to destroy their buildings or their physical creations.
And throughout the Torah, this seems to be the rule: Hashem may punish people, but He rarely destroys our physical creations, even when our edifices are not built with any holy intention in mind at all. Hashem approves of people building, creating things. And He does everything possible to avoid destroying anything made by human hand.
How Technology and Creativity Work: Experimentation
People do not learn new things in a vacuum. Most commonly, we learn to appreciate them by doing them (think of etiquette or Shabbos), but even valuing something is not the same thing as understanding that thing. When the Jews daub blood on their doorposts in Egypt, it is unlikely that they understand the meaning of the act: they are told what to do, not why it is important. Action precedes understanding.
What is not well understood is that the secular world often works the same way. We often assume that life is like a standard laboratory experiment: we theorize and then test the theory. Invention and creation come after study and knowledge.
But this assumption is wrong. Historian Phillip Glass points out that innovation often works the other way around! Telescopes and spectacles were not invented by scientists, but by craftsman who were experimenting. Scientists came along later and used the technological tools to study the skies.
Likewise, the history of human technological innovation is dominated by human invention, which then enables science – it is not science that enables invention! Such enormous advances for human health as running water, sewage systems, and shoes all predate the germ theory of disease that much later explained how people get sick. The history of medicine is full of examples of medicines that work, but nobody is quite sure why until much later (think of aspirin and penicillin). And forces like gravity, which can be described and modeled very beautifully by science, are still not understood. The lack of understanding has not stopped mankind, from ancient times to the present day, from harnessing gravity in countless human-made machines and mechanisms.
Technology is human creation for the purpose of doing something—not for the sake of knowledge itself.
Science, on the other hand, is often an investigation into the natural world, to understand and explain the energies and masses of the universe, from galaxies to single atoms.
We should not oversimplify: in developed form, science and technology can and do work together. And there are exceptions, such as nuclear fission, where science postulated something that was tested afterward, following the “accepted” version of how things are supposed to work. But these remain exceptions. Technology, by and large, has led the way. Engineers, those much-maligned junior cousins of scientists, design and develop the computers that scientists use, the software that run those computers, the cars and trains and airplanes that scientists use to attend conferences. Humans were harnessing fossil fuels long before geologists declared that they came from fossils.
Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. He appointed bright people, then left them alone. Over the course of a few years, the moving assembly line organically germinated and grew from the grass roots. The assembly line was such an egalitarian development that the official company magazine did not even recognize what had happened until well after the fact.
It is quite telling that Ford’s executives didn’t even have a name for the assembly line at first, and that the term ‘assembly line’ was hardly used even in the technical press in 1913 and 1914. The Ford innovation wasn’t a research and development goal, nor was it first developed as a theory and then put into practice.
And the process that was begun in the early part of the 20th century continues today. The most productive factories are not those that are designed by great minds on a clean sheet of paper; the most productive and nimble factories are those that involve every worker on the floor, each as free as possible to improve what they contribute to the whole. And then the great minds study what has worked, and use it as the baseline for the next great factory.
From Alexander Graham Bell to the modern discovery of how to extract natural gas from shale, it is not perfect understanding that leads to breakthroughs, but rather accidents and errors (though often aided by persistence).
Human creativity is typically not actually a result of a great thinker in an ivory tower. It is usually achieved through hands-on work: tinkering, crafting and active experimentation. People do, and the doing makes it possible for people to understand.
When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said “na’aseh v’nishmah”, “we will do and we will hear.” And we find that this is the pattern that works best, not just with the Torah, but with many other kinds of knowledge as well. WD-40, the ubiquitous machine spray, was not invented in the mind. Thirty-nine previous formulations were tried, and found wanting. The fortieth worked, hence the name. So much of life follows this process of trial-and-error. And Hashem was our model for experimentation!
Trial and Error
Arguably, teshuvah is actually the oldest complete concept in the world. It is, after all, the first thing that Hashem shows us how to do, through his own creative acts. Teshuvah in our own lives can be defined as confession, repentance and promising not to repeat the deed. Why do we observe teshuvah and how is it related to Creation?
From the beginning. Hashem makes the heaven and the earth, but it was tohu v’vohu, “formless and void.” Hashem does not say that what he made was good. But then He makes light, and the light was good.
Then Hashem divides the light from the darkness, and then He separates the firmament and the waters above and below – heaven and earth. But the Torah does not tell us it is good!
So there appears to be a problem. A separation has occurred. And what is done cannot, apparently, be directly undone – the creation and separation has already happened. Hashem does not undo it! So we learn a simple lesson in how to follow Hashem: when we do teshuvah, we have to actually fix the problem, not merely wish it away.
We know this both from our human experience, and because this is what Hashem then does. He starts creating the conditions for the reunification of the waters. First, He pools the heavens and the dry land, so that there are “anchor” points through which the world can be reunified. That is declared good. And then He creates plants – the first things that start in the land, and reach upward toward the skies. This is life, a force that perpetuates, and can persevere against the rocks and gases and fluids that make up an otherwise-dead physical world. And Hashem sees that this, too, is good.
But it is not enough. Plants cannot, by themselves, reunify that which has been divided. They are good, but it is only a step in the right direction. So Hashem makes the sun and moon and stars, to provide cycles, and begin movements (such as tides) in the right direction. In some respects, it is like a swing, going back and forth. When there is a push to help it along, the swing can reach ever-higher. Hashem provides the daily and seasonal cycles that can put everything on the swing into motion. Then, too, the sun and moon shine their light, their energy, downward. It is a way to share the energy of heaven with the earth, to start to bridge the gap between them. And this, too, is good.
But it is still not enough. So Hashem keeps going. He makes creatures of the ocean, and flying things, providing more upward force for the water and land below. Every kind, and every variety. This too is good. But Hashem is not yet done.
On the fifth day, Hashem does something extraordinary. He starts to combine the growing things. He creates animals, designed to eat the product of the earth, to grow from the grasses that already grow upward. This is also good! The combined effect of the sun and the moon, the grasses, and the animals are able to start to achieve the effect of reunification.
But Hashem is still not done. He then makes mankind. Mankind has the power to combine all of the elevating elements. Man eats both the grasses, and the animals that are “pure” (fully digest plants, and elevate themselves). And then Hashem gives mankind the incredible gift of Hashem’s own creative powers. Mankind then has the power to reunite that which was divided – the heavens and earth.
And now Hashem is done, and He can rest. It is not that He has finished the creation of the world (it is up to us to do that). And it is not that mankind has healed the rift between heaven and earth that Hashem created – because even now, thousands of years later, we have not yet achieved it. But Hashem has put into place all the ingredients that could do the job for Him, even though the actions would be up to mankind. And so He rests.
In the beginning of the Torah, Hashem has given us the blueprint for our own lives: that we are supposed to create and do, and then stand back and judge whether what we have done is good or not. And while we cannot “unmake” the mistakes we have made, we can and should work diligently to improve and, if need be, to fashion the tools that will eventually repair the rifts in the world. In a nutshell, the purpose of our existence is given to us in the first chapter of the Torah.
If mankind’s job is to heal the rift between heaven and earth, why then does the Torah not go straight from the creation of Adam and Chavah to Kayin and Havel? What would have happened if Adam and Chavah had not eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What was Hashem’s purpose in putting Adam and Chavah in the Garden, and giving them the choice of eating of the fruit?
Hashem had made a rift, a division. And he wants to heal it, but He never unmakes something that He has made – any more than we can “unsay” something that we should not have said. And so as a corrective to the rift that He created, Hashem makes things that will grow upward: plants and animals and mankind. And he gives man His own powers – we are made in His image, with Hashem’s own spirit in us. This is essential: we are neither animals, who must act within their natures, nor are we angels, who must adhere to Hashem’s program. We are given free will, just as Hashem has free will. But the outcome of both divine angels and human technology is the same, which is why the Torah uses the same grammatical root: “melochoh” is mankind’s technology, and a “malach” represents Hashem’s version of technology.
Part and parcel of that free will we have is that our minds, our understandings, create our own reality. What we choose to see is our reality. And so if we choose to see Hashem, then He is there in our lives. And if we do not see Hashem, then we can just as easily explain the world as a series of fortuitous events and coincidences, entirely subject to the laws of physics. We live our lives according to our beliefs: religious people sometimes make different decisions than atheists do, because religious people are guided by the reality that their beliefs create for them.
This is not dissimilar to the question about whether a glass is half full or half empty. Both are objectively true statements, but they may lead to radically different decisions. Someone who chooses to see nature, for example, as beautiful and majestic, is much more likely to go on holiday in the Alps than someone who sees nature as a powerful yet impersonal force, cruelly indifferent to whether someone lives or dies. Both sets of observations are true, but they lead to very different choices.
Indeed, our beliefs allow us to discern patterns, picking them out from an ocean of vast data. Though it may be true that a table is actually almost entirely empty space, only loosely knitted together by atoms that are themselves bonded with spinning and tunneling electrons, nevertheless, for our mundane purposes, the table is a solid and stable surface which we can use. Our beliefs help us make sense of all the data, and to extract what we think we need to know in order to make decisions. We start with our senses, but it is our thoughts, words, and deeds that form the world in which we live.
As Hashem made us in His image, the reality we construct using our divinely borrowed power of creation becomes our reality.
Hashem made a world that was divided, that was comprised of dualisms. And He put in place the living things that could unify those dualisms, and mankind was given the divine power to see the world, and to create our own reality. And Adam and Chavah were not ashamed at all by their actions, since they had no knowledge of the dualisms!
Hashem created things before he assessed whether they were good or not; in the same way, we are supposed to use our eyes not to lead us to what we want, but instead to evaluate what we have done after the fact. Thus, na’aseh v’nishmah is a lesson in how mankind is supposed to create new things. Make it, test it, break it, then try again.
What does it mean that action precedes understanding? It teaches us that creating new things is actually a prerequisite for knowing Hashem’s creations. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Our own creativity unlocks a window into the creations that preceded our own.
And the process of creation, failure and success, has been performed by countless people for millennia. Blacksmiths and coopers and glass blowers may be replaced by millions of independent software writers, but the principle remains the same: emulating Hashem’s creative acts is not reserved for the brilliant few in their academies, but is, instead, a profoundly grass-roots activity. Anyone who is willing to try something new can invent. And anyone who is open to believing that their actions and inventions can be important, can take the time to document what they have achieved, and then share it with others.
It is increasingly clear that we do not have a world in which the elite few do the thinking for everyone else, but instead a world in which vast numbers of individual people and small teams can—and do—invent new things and debunk old and erroneous assumptions.
We know that Hashem wants us to create new things as a pathway to holiness, because we are commanded both to walk in Hi ways, but forbidden to make any image or thing of a plant or animal found in nature. That leaves us with needing to create things that did not exist before! The Torah does not tell us what that thing is, because if it did so, then the idea behind the creative act would not be fully our own! Hashem gives us the tools, but just as He conceived of and created the world, so, too, we are to do the same to complete the world, Hashem’s creation.
Modern technology has done wonders for our lives. In everything from agriculture to transportation to electricity and domestic machinery like washing machines, the best outcome of all is that we have time. We have, in a sense, moved much closer to life in the Garden of Eden. In the Western world we may wear clothes, but they are inexpensive enough that even the poorest people own more than a single set. Food is no longer a desperate concern, nor is housing.
In a nutshell (and as widely commented on and explained by our sages), the technological acts of building Hashem’s home, the Mishkan, are comparable to the divine acts of creating and directly manipulating the world. The Torah is telling us to be creative, and to embrace creativity – all in the service of holiness.
The Most Holy Offering
There are eight offerings for the consecration of the Mishkan, Hashem’s home among the Jewish people. Though we often tend to take commandments like OFFERING sacrifices as things we are (or were) commanded to do, without much thought for what the offerings actually mean, those of us who read the Torah as divine in origin know that there are no coincidences.
The offerings used to consecrate the Mishkan are each different – but one stands out. The Torah tells us that of each of these offerings, only one of them is “most holy” – the last one, the offering of flour and oil.
Why? Why, of all of these offerings, is the offering of meal and oil the holiest of them all?
I think the answer is as follows: of these eight offerings, seven are animal, and the eighth is vegetable in origin. But it is not merely vegetable: both flour and oil require significant human investment into the natural world: wheat needs to be planted, weeded, harvested, winnowed, milled, etc. And the existence of oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of the vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. The end product is highly nutritious and energy rich, usable as a food and fuel. In the Mishkan and Temple, oil was used for both: an ingredient in edible offerings, as well as to light the menorah.
The reason the Torah says “And when any [soul] will offer a meal offering to Hashem,” the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal, but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! NOT CLEAR—WHY ANY IS NEFESH
And in this case, the meal offering is connected to the eighth day: the day after Shabbos. What is special about the eighth day? Seven is the number of nature in the Torah (as the world was created in seven days).7 But the number “eight” is used to connect man and Hashem. So we have the circumcision on the eighth day, as well as the offering of the first-born animal on the eighth day. Similarly, after seven days of inauguration of the priests, it was on the eighth day that the priesthood was consecrated and started the active service between man and Hashem. Many sacrifices and festivals that were involved with establishing a connection between man and Hashem were also called for the eighth day. The day after Shabbos is the day in which we work, and build and grow in the physical world. It is the day where, by the sweat of our brow, we work to improve the natural world, to make flour from grasses, and oil from olives.
In this reading, the Shabbos is the completion of the world. But the eighth day, Sunday, is the day that is “most holy” because it is the day when we roll up our sleeves and work, investing our own souls in our labors. Sunday is the day when we start preparing the showbread for the next Shabbos. The Sabbath day happened all by itself (and is never called “most holy” in the Torah). The work that we do to grow, create and preserve our relationship with Hashem is most beloved by Him, and is, like the meal offering, most holy in His eyes.
Another understanding of “most holy” is to look at “firsts”: from first fruits, to firstborn children and cattle, the Torah makes it clear that the way to thank Hashem for our creative blessings is to dedicate our first creations to His name; making and offering the showbread is one important way to show appreciation for our creative blessings. These are called kodesh kedoshim, “most holy.”
Creativity and Its Constraints
It is the ability to work with the theoretical “What If?” that make us capable of changing ourselves, of growing beyond our nature and nurture, and become truly capable of exercising free will. And people who exercise their free will are, in their way, the most powerful force in the universe. We are not hotter than the sun, or exert more gravitational force than planets – our power lies in something much more elusive, something that might even be called magical: coupled with our free will, we are endowed with the power of spiritual creation.
This is not a world in which we can paint by numbers. Life is messy and sticky. In any situation, we make decisions based on inadequate and subjective information, and there is very often no clear “right” or “wrong” answer. There are, instead, decision points that open up a range of possible outcomes, outcomes that cannot be accurately predicted by man or machine. This is the real world of people, as unpredictable and, well, human, as we are.
So Hashem makes the world, and he puts humans on it. Nature has its range of rules, and its complexities and homeostatic systems, but there is nothing within Nature that is like man: unlike anything else we can observe, man is capable of being a purely unpredictable force.
This is, for much of the world, not actually the dominant model. In most cultures, man is in fact quite predictable, and we can reasonably accurately extrapolate from the past into the future for peoples across Asia and Africa for most of human history. This is a direct result of the religions and cultures that dominate those regions: cultures that reward the notions of harmony and subjugation of the self for the greater good.
It is Judaism and its children—Christianity in all its forms and even, at least in early days, Islam, that broke open the mold. The Torah gives us the prototype, Adam, a man who is capable of chaotic action, of doing things that are unpredictable and irrational. And Adam is infused with a divinely-inspired power to change the world with nothing more than his words: he names the animals and his wife; he and his offspring cultivate and herd and build and invent. The Torah tells us that the learning process was brutal: they were at least as likely to get things wrong as they were to get them right. Adam did not act for the greater good.
The Torah’s moral code starts with the basic rudiments of civilization, things like condemning murder and rape. But even with Kayin’s murder of Havel, every single story and lesson in the Torah is presented not simply as “right” and “wrong” but instead is told with nuance and depth, with full awareness that the players did not have all the information, and they made decisions without knowledge of the outcome. How, for example, was Kayin supposed to know that Havel would die?
In this, however, we have an advantage that the characters in the Torah lacked: the Torah itself. By studying the text, there is a great deal we can come to understand about our own lives, and the decisions that we make every day. We can learn, for example, that time spent reflecting or praying can be very valuable in avoiding making poor decisions. Imagine that Yaakov tells his mother, when she asked him to disguise himself as Esav, “I hear you, but I think I just need a few minutes to consult with Hashem first.” Rebekkah, the woman who sought advice when the twins in her womb were fighting, would hardly have rejected the request. A few minutes of Yaakov’s thoughtful prayer may well have led to a different outcome.
So, too, Aharon could have asked for the time to consult with Hashem, when the people demanded a golden calf. The people who were agitating for Aharon to do something were frightened, but they were not openly seeking idolatry. It may well have been that Aharon, after prayer, would have found a different path.
In the Torah, creativity and productivity are good things in themselves. The following verse tells us, however, that we need to recognize that even good things will have unintended consequences and potential detrimental results.
When you build a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.
This is common sense, right? “Be safe” is the message. And the example given is protecting people on flat roofs from falling off the edge.
Except that this is not reflective of a close reading of the text. We don’t believe that there are any extra (or missing) words. The issue is that the text does not read: “Thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof,” which is what it would say if the Torah is merely telling us to make sure our roofs are safe.
Instead, the verse starts with “When you build a new house.” Which begs a simple question: why are we commanded to make our roofs safe when a person builds a new house?
Indeed, the same Torah tells us to make an elevated altar for which there is no parapet – a priest might well fall off the edge. And so we have a related question: What is the difference between the altar and the new house?
I think there is a shared answer: building a new house, unlike buying one that already existed, or building an altar from divinely-delivered specifications, is a more creative act on the part of the builder.
Which would mean that the original verse should be understood in a broader context. It is not really about ensuring that roofs have parapets. Instead, the Torah is telling us that when we engage in a creative act, we need to think about and mitigate the potential downsides of that creative act. A modern analogue would be that engineers who build bridges or buildings should be careful to try to make them safe.
Our free will is meant to be a result of consideration, and some degree of consultation. Otherwise it can all slide into chaos and destruction. Decisions are not obvious, and life is messy.
What do most people do when faced with real free will? They run and hide. Consulting with others requires the ability to take criticism. Considering one’s own life forces each of us to acknowledge our failures. Doing this while still persevering is very challenging even for the greatest people.
While most people do not unlock their creative potential, those of us who are cognizant of just how powerful our thoughts and words and deeds truly can be, need to remain mindful of our own limitations: caught up in the moment, even the greatest people can do very stupid things. [BRING IN SHOWBREAD?] MAKING THE SHOWBREAD REMINDS US THAT WE ARE CALLED TO WEIGH THOSE OPPORTUNITIES RATHER THAN RUN FROM THEM. YES!
This is such a huge part of this reason for Jews: we know that each person can be the reason for the creation of the world, and we ask ourselves: “How can I be worthy of that valuation?” It is at once an empowering and terrifying question.