1:2:14 R. Eleazar b. R. Simeon observed: Why does Scripture at times put earth before heaven, and at other times put heaven before earth? To teach that the two are of equal value.
This aggada is taken from Breishis Rabba I:15. According to that midrash (which is quoted at length in Aggada 1:2:13, Beis Shammai hold that heaven was created first, while Beis Hillel hold that the earth was created first. Beis Shammai bring as a prooftext Yeshayahu 66:1
The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool
and analogize to a king who first made his throne and then is footstool.
Beis Hillel bring as a prooftext Breishis 2:4
When the Lord God made earth and heaven
and analogize to a king who builds a palace, first building the first floor and then the higher floors on top of it.
R. Judah b. R. Ilai brings Tehillim 102:26 as a prooftext supporting Beis Hillel:
Of old You established the earth; the heavens are the work of Your hands
R. Hanin says that Breishis 1:1-2, which one might think support Beis Shammai,
When God began to create heaven and earth
actually supports Beis Hillel, translating the היתה as the pluperfect (“having been”)
the earth having been unformed and void
R. Yohanan quotes the Tannaim claiming that heaven was created first but earth was completed first. R. Tanhuma brings as prooftexts Breishis 1:1 and 2:4:
When God began to create heaven and earth . . . . When the Lord God made earth and heaven
R. Simeon expresses amazement over the controversy, claiming they were simultaneously created like a pot and its lid, bringing as a prooftext Yeshayahu 48:13:
My own hand founded the earth, My right hand spread out the skies. I call unto them, let them stand up
As quoted in our aggada, R. Simeon’s son R. Eleazar argues that they are equal (in a passage that some interpret as supporting his father’s opinion and others as contradicting his father’s opinion.)
Equality of heaven and earth is further justified as the midrash notes that in Scripture
- the order is usually Abraham-Isaac-Jacob but in Vayikra 26:42 Jacob-Isaac-Abraham;
- that the order is usually Moses-Aaron, but in Shemos 6:26 Aaron-Moses;
- that the order is usually Joshua-Caleb, but in Bamidbar 32:12 Caleb-Joshua
- that the order is usually father-mother, but in Vayikra 19:3 mother-father
It is interesting to note that while the prooftexts appear to discuss the equality of heaven and earth from the perspective of God, one gets a very interesting observation when one re-reads this aggada from the perspective of humans. That re-reading suggests that we must give equal importance to actions performed for the sake of the world as we give to actions performed for the sake of heaven – that our obligation to our fellow is just as important as actions done for the sake of heaven. Perhaps, one might suggest, that a mitzva is most glorified when it is done both for the sake of heaven and the sake of our fellow.
[Note: This post was made early and post-dated]