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Parashat Bereshit - Vanity and Creation
Marc Chagall

Vanity and Creation

Further thoughts on Parashat Bereshit

by John J. Parsons

This week's Torah describes some of the dire consequences of the "Fall of Man," as Adam and Eve (Chavah) are exiled from the garden, and the very first family of the earth is shown to be tragically dysfunctional.  In a fit of jealous rage, Adam's firstborn son Kayin (Cain) murders his younger brother Hevel (Abel) and becomes an alienated vagabond, banished from his family. God then gave mankind ten generations to return to Him but nothing inherently changed. Finally "the LORD saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every thought devised within his heart was nothing but evil every day. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth" (Gen. 6:5-7).

The Talmud states that even after the great Flood (הַמַּבּוּל) humanity refused to truly turn back to God (as the present state of this world also attests). In light of the ongoing wickedness of mankind, the early sages Hillel and Shammai engaged in a protracted machlochet l'shamayim ("a debate for the sake of heaven") regarding whether it would have been better for humans not to have been created at all...  Hillel argued that it was better that humans had been created, whereas Shammai argued the other way. Finally a vote was called for and the decision rendered was this: It would have been better for humans not to have been created than to have been created. However, since we do in fact exist, we must search our past deeds and carefully examine what we are about to do (Eruvin 13b).


The searching and poignant debate between Hillel and Shammai is not trivial, nor should it be dismissed out of hand.  After all, the great King Solomon, described in Scripture as the wisest man on earth, exclaimed, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכּל הָבֶל / havel havelim, hakol havelim ("Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," Eccl. 1:2). But is life really vain?  Is it truly empty of lasting meaning? Is it, as Shakespeare once said, a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? As William James once arsked, is life really worth living, after all?

It is noteworthy that Adam's second-born son was named Hevel (הֶבֶל), a word meaning "vapor" or "vanity." Perhaps his name was prophetic of his premature death at the hands of his brother Cain, though since Hevel was righteous (Matt. 23:35), it might be better to associate his "vanity" relative to the first family's debased values.  Perhaps his name was given in despair, after all. Can we even begin to imagine the loss of the original paradise? Can we fathom the horror of losing direct fellowship with God? From the perspective of despair Hevel's life indeed could be regarded as entirely vain, though, as Solomon later attests, the ultimate point of life is to fear God and keep His commandments: ki zeh kol ha'adam: כִּי־זֶה כָּל־הָאָדָם / "for this is the whole man" (Eccl. 12:13), that is, the man who is healed from the fragmentation caused by vanity "under the sun." The truth of God is "above the sun" and gives life and healing to the whole man... Hevel may have been regarded as "vanity" in the eyes of man, but his death gave witness to the true worth of life. He was the very first martyr, and the "voice of his blood" called out for divine justice. The voice of the sacrificial blood of Yeshua, however, speaks of "better things" than the justice of God since it imparts mercy on behalf of the sinner... Our hands are collectively stained with the blood of Hevel, but the blood of Yeshua washes us clean (Heb. 12:24). The blood of Yeshua is what gives voice to the love and forgiveness of God...

Of course, Christianity agrees with the School of Hillel regarding the question of whether life is worth living. For example the Westminster Catechism states, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever" (an end, it may be said, that is also man's chief good). Christianity is not a life-denying faith, though it soberly acknowledges that olam hazeh - this world - is very often a vale of tears and a place of testing.  Suffering and affliction in this present age are eschatologically justified as the means of apprehending a greater good. "For our light momentary affliction (θλῖψις: oppression, "squeezing" (as of grapes), "tzuris") prepares us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). This world is not our home, and we are afflicted with hardship while we sojourn in our exile.  Our hearts "groan" (or "sigh," στενάζομεν) to be in heaven with the LORD, though our present state of suffering should be regarded as a temporary and "light" burden that will be fully comforted in the promised world to come.

Vanity has an end, chaverim, and this end affects the entire universe. The prophetic future holds hope that salvation will be literally cosmic in its sweep: "For the creation was subjected to vanity (לַהֶבֶל) not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-21). May that day soon come for us, friends!  יְהִי שֵׁם יְהוָה מְברָךְ - yehi Shem Adonai mevorakh: "Blessed be the Name of the Lord."

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