Between the Lines—Sukkot

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:20

ראה את מעשה האלהים כי מי יוכל לתקן את אשר עותו בשעה שברא הקב״ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך ולא עוד שאת גורם מיתה לאותו צדיק

Consider God's doing! Who can straighten what He has twisted? (Eccles. 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, "Consider My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My world; for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you. Not only that, but you will bring death to that righteous man (Moses)."

After the High Holy Days, I sometimes feel torn between feelings of hope and feelings of doubt regarding humanity's prospects for improvement. At the very least, it helps me to know that our ancient Sages understood this emotional tension.

Perhaps "there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccles. 1:9); that verse and the one quoted in the passage above represent the submissive pessimism within Ecclesiastes. The rest of this midrash, then, adopts a more proactive stance as it imagines God instructing the first human to care for creation. This rabbinic understanding of human ecology asserts that the world is meant to be awe-inspiring, that God created it for our sake, and that we must protect it from irreparable harm.

As much as I cherish this reading of the midrash, its final sentence challenges us to consider the repercussions of humanity's initial and continued failures to uphold God's vision for our role in creation. The midrash points to God's punishment of mortality for Adam and Eve's disobedience, implicating them specifically for Moses's eventual death. This tragic teaching directly connects the Torah's beginning and end in a solemn counterpoint to our upcoming celebration on Simchat Torah, during which we mark the conclusion of one year's Torah readings and the beginning of the next.

This puzzling mix of positive and negative views of our place in nature reminds me of another rabbinic appraisal of humanity. In a talmudic passage (BT Eruvin 13b), the students of Hillel and Shammai debate whether or not humankind should have been created at all. After two and a half years of deliberation, the schools "voted and concluded: 'It would have been better had humankind not been created; but now that humankind exists, let it probe its ways.'"

This year, I find such a blend of "opti-pessimism" strangely reassuring. Accepting that human civilization has long been deeply flawed clarifies my duty to understand this history and to leave the world better than the way I found it. I do not know if this will be enough, but I pray that it will get me started.