Thursday, August 28, 2008

1:2:13-14 “Heaven and Earth” or “Earth and Heaven”

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]


Bob MacDonald said...

Is is possible that one could see Genesis 2:4 as closing bracket to the opening of 1:1? This gives wholeness rather than sequence to the text.

NeilLitt said...

In 2.13, Hillel and Shammai ponder which was created first, heaven or earth. Shammai asserts that heaven came first, but Hillel disagrees, noting that a man does not build the upper story of his house before he has built the foundation. Shammai responds, "According to you, a man should first make a footstool and then make a throne." Hillel's response, if any, has been lost, but well might have focussed on the dignity of the carpenter, who will build a better throne if he has a low stool on which to sit as he does his work or to step upon when reaching for objects that would otherwise be beyond his reach. Today is the 45th anniversary of the building of such a footstool and just look at the height that has been reached by those who stepped upon it! I hope it is not too soon in this enterprise to speak of the role that humans play in how creation unfolds (after all, humans have not entered the picture at this point in our study of creation).

But even if we limit ourselves to the nonhuman aspects of creation, there is much to ponder in the relationship of the footstool to the throne. The atom is surely the footstool to the stars. Within atoms, protons exercise a strong positive force and yet electrons never fall from their orbit to crash into them and explode. Even so, this is exactly what happens when a cold star collapses and becomes a supernova.

We cannot explain these things and we have been advised not to look at the time before and after. The throne is and probably always will be beyond our comprehension. The footstool is what we carry with us as we wander through this plane.

Bob MacDonald said...

Even the first word is whole. Though it begins without its head (the first letter alef), it has a head in it and ends with the last letter (taf). And though it exists as word before the house is mentioned, it has an ending that reminds us of the sofit that seals the house. So in the beginning is the end. It is as if the Creator said - it is done, but also said, give them time for they cannot learn everything at once. The first word is an argument for patience.

Richard Friedman said...

The midrash excerpted in Sefer HaAggada is an archetype of disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (note: not necessarily a dispute between Hillel and Shammai the individuals, but between their schools). Beit Shammai were the idealists and theoreticians, Beit Hillel the pragmatists.

In the current dispute, the temporal order of the creation of heaven and earth is a metaphor for the metaphysical primacy of the ideal and the mundane. Beit Shammai start with the ideal and try to apply it in reality, (thus heaven was created first and earth after -- the chair is primary, the footstool secondary). Beit Hillel start with the here and now and try to move towards an ideal (thus earth came first and heaven after -- the second story is more elevated, but it is predicated on the ground floor).

Then R' Shim'on seems to reject this way of thinking. (BTW, in Iyov's quoting of the midrash's citation from Isaiah, he omitted the last, critical, word of the verse. It says, "... let them stand up _together_ -- the last word is what purportedly shows that the two came into existence simultaneously.) Maybe for R' Shim'on, placing the sole focus initially on heaven risks despair (as one realizes that nothing could live up to those ideals), or risks living an ivory-tower life, and placing the sole focus initially on earth risks aimlessness. For him, one must see the actual and the ideal simultaneously, from the beginning.

Richard Friedman

anotherqueerjubu said...

Richard comments that this midrash can be seen as the archetypal Hillel/Shammai debate. What follows their debate though is an opinion from another sage that isn't about whether heaven or earth was created first, but that they are of equal value.

The next passage, 2:15 seems to change the subject entirely by saying that the inhabitants of the earth wonder about their true nature. This is pretty funny actually, since the previous passage — as in fact the entire volume — is a demonstration of the true nature of the inhabitants, which is to wonder, explain and disagree. There will always be a Hillel style school and a Shammai style school (as this jubu notes the teaching of dependent origination) and they will always be equal.

Further, that underneath these disagreements is something much more basic — the unformed void that we are all afraid of.