In a classic feel-good story, a fraught or challenging situation resolves itself, one way or another. The end of the story is predictable and reassuring: “And then they lived happily ever after.”
And while we are consciously aware that such is the stuff of fairy tales – and not of real life – the notion still seeps into our lives. It is why weddings are more celebrated in the public eye than are marriages. Similarly, it is why many focus their careers on achieving a happy and contented retirement. Both are focused on the moment of arrival at the pinnacle, of having achieved the Great Goal, where everything else is a smooth and happy downhill ride. In the popular imagination, the coming of the Messiah is very much a “Happily Ever After” moment.
But is that what G-d really has in mind? Or indeed, ever had in mind?
Let’s start with the text:
When G-d is done creating the world,
God saw all that had been made, and found it very good.
Note the language. “Very good” sounds kind of like “perfect,” right? After all, G-d made it, so maybe it is supposed to be perfect?
We might think that, if the story ends there. But it does not. All that G-d made was “very good” – but that is not where the story ends – it is just the end of the beginning, where G-d rests. G-d then hands the world to mankind, and sees what we do with it. The entire Torah follows after this first chapter, and after that, the rest of human history to the present.
The declaration that something is “very good” seems to mean nothing more than the ingredients are in place, that there is enormous potential, ready to be unlocked. It means that G-d, having done His part, tells us to roll up our sleeves, and finish His creation. “Very Good” translates into “Hard Work.”
We have another clue in another verse in the Torah that includes the word “very” and “good.”
The maiden [Rebekkah] was very goodly of appearance.
Rebekkah was by no means perfect, or finished. Instead, she represented, like the world at its creation, enormous spiritual potential. Rebekkah was to become the mother of Jacob and Esau, two dynamic men, men who altered the world forevermore.
Interestingly, the combination of words only occurs three times in the entire Torah, providing a clear linkage. It also might help us better understand the episode of the spies. When Caleb and Joshua try to convince the people to not be afraid, they tell them:
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבַ֤רְנוּ בָהּ֙ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֔הּ טוֹבָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃
“The land through which we have passed to scout it; that land is very, very good.
If we connect this to the story of creation and Rebekkah, we realize that the people are not being told that Canaan is perfect, or represents some kind of utopia or Shangri-La. On the contrary! They are being told that, just as with the world at the end of creation, mankind has to roll up our sleeves and take it from here. The land was not perfect, not at all! What it had was potential. (This may also help explain why the people were angered by the report: they did not want hard work – they wanted Happily Ever After).
In this way, Canaan is being described as a do-over for the creation of the world, another opportunity for people to try to start again to create a holy society, where people aspire to love others and G-d.
Which comes full circle: in the Torah, there is no static perfection, no promise of a “happily ever after.” Instead, “very good” refers to potential, the opportunity to achieve great things, but only after deep and sustained investment and risk by mankind.
It is up to us to continue G-d’s work and improve the world!