As we begin a new Torah cycle, starting with Bereshit—“In the beginning”—I’m taking a new approach to this fall’s e-Torah. Instead of focusing on a text taken directly from the portion, I’m going to share thoughts on a midrash—a rabbinic commentary—on the week’s parshah. In our Jewish tradition, we believe that the Written Torah (Hebrew Scriptures) is inextricably bound with the Oral Torah—the corpus of commentary that continues to grow in our own time. I invite you to join me here over the next few months as we journey through the lens of Oral Torah.
This week’s passage comes from Louis Ginzberg’s anthology of Midrash, Legends of the Jews. It suggests that the creation story detailed in Genesis does not constitute God’s first act of formation:
God made several worlds before ours, but ultimately destroyed them all, because God was not pleased with any of them until creating ours. But even this last world would have had no permanence, if God had executed the original Divine plan of ruling it according to the principle of strict justice. It was only after God realized that justice by itself would undermine the world that God tempered justice with mercy, and made them (justice and mercy) rule jointly.
This is an important message for us as we come to the end of our fall holy day season. First of all, it points to the importance of second—and third and fourth—chances. If even God went through a few drafts before successfully creating our world, then we, too, are naturally going to make our share of mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them. As Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
And second, the passage reminds us that a world governed by strict justice cannot endure. Life is not entirely fair—and never will be. If God judged us without mercy, none of us would pass the test. So, too, in our appraisals of others—we should judge compassionately, otherwise we will quickly find ourselves friendless and alone. As the old church billboard warns: “Husbands, if you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”
This week we return to our origins, beginning, yet again, the cycle of Torah with the story of creation. May it inspire us to be more compassionate toward one another.