Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grand Scheme or Plan C? / Parshat Lech Lecha

The Lord said to Avram: Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Upon these words, Avram sets foot into history, the progenitor of the People Israel, God’s first covenantal partner. Were the People Israel and the covenant at Sinai part of God’s grand plan from the beginning? If we view these from the perspective of Torah alone, we came into being to serve God’s larger purpose once God realized what humanity was like. But seen through the eyes of the Rabbis, the Jewish People was part of the Grand Scheme before the world was created.

First, Torah’s view: God created people to live in the Garden of Eden forever. Imagine eternity in Club Med, but with only one other person, no responsibility, and no moral discernment. God thinks the people have everything, but Eve recognizes that an essential component of her humanity is missing. Without moral discernment, she and Adam are just more sophisticated versions of the other animals lumbering around the Garden. The Tree of Life keeps them alive, but it is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that will permit them to become truly, fully, and genuinely human: creatures with moral discernment, free will, and the capacity to choose good over evil. Eve eats the fruit, feeds it to Adam, and thereby gives life to all humanity. But life must now be lived outside the Garden, where conditions are tough. God’s Plan A has failed: people cannot live meaningful lives without moral discernment and prefer being fully human to being immortal.

So God inaugurates Plan B: life outside the Garden. There, human ambition and aggression take over and humanity descends into an abyss of violence and corruption. God has placed no restrictions on human behavior. No surprise then that evil is ubiquitous. God decides to wipe out all life save a representative sampling to repopulate the world: Noah, his family, and the animals are brought onto the ark. Plan B is washed away in the waters of the flood.

God institutes Plan C after the Flood waters recede and life is reestablished on earth: God chooses one man – Abraham – and grows him into a family, and grows the family into a nation, and makes a covenant with that nation at Mt. Sinai, giving them a Torah – a constitution designed to teach them how to behave with compassion, pursue justice, and build a society in which the most vulnerable are protected rather than victimized, and all people have the opportunity to live lives of decency and holiness. From this perspective, the Jewish People are Plan C, a thought that arises in the mind of God as a corrective to the problem of humanity out of control.

God births humanity in the Garden of Eden, and like every parent, God does not know precisely what they will be like, nor how they will behave, until they grow and develop and show their true colors. Like every human parent, God must adapt God’s strategy for dealing with them, experiment on occasion, and change course when a strategy does not work well.

Now the Rabbis’ view: For our Sages, the Jewish people were part of the Grand Scheme from the beginning. Midrash Beraishit Rabbah 1:1 tells us that the word “beginning” – as in “In the beginning God created” – is code for “Torah” and signals that Torah was used as the very blueprint for creating the universe:
The Torah declares: I was the working tool of the Holy One blessed be God. In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, "In the beginning God created" (Genesis 1:1), "beginning" referring to the Torah, as in the verse, "The Lord made me as the beginning of his way" (Proverbs 8:22).
In other words, the Torah precedes Creation. God pulls Torah out of a back pocket, unrolls it on a table, gazes into it, and uses it to create the universe, just as an architect uses a blueprint, or as a chef uses a recipe.

This raises some interesting questions:
  • Does it matter if we are Plan C to convey God’s teaching and healing to the world, or whether we were part of the Grand Scheme from the beginning?
  • How does the distinction between being part of the Grand Scheme, and being Plan C, impact our relationship with the world?
  • Stepping back, we might also ask: Do you believe that the Jewish People have a mission in the world? If so, what is it? Alternatively, does the idea of a Jewish mission to humanity bother you?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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