Sunday, August 31, 2008

1:2:32 - Plants and Trees With Attitude!

Genesis 1:11-12 covers the creation of plants. God says make some plants, and the earth makes some plants. The story is three sentences long. One might think this is all pretty simple and straightforward.

Not even close.

Our midrash here picks up on one seemingly minor textual inconsistency, and a comment from Rashi picks up on a different textual inconsistency. Juxtaposing these two gives us some pretty interesting conclusions. Let's start with the Torah text, and then discuss our midrash, Rashi's comment, and what we can make of all this.

Here's the Torah:
And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:11-12)

Our midrash notes one subtle textual discrepancy in this story. God said to produce "herb yielding seed" but the earth actually brought forth "herb yielding seed after its kind". (That is, the seeds from these plants would themselves grow the same kind of plant.) Here's most of our Midrash:

[T]he grasses applied to themselves an a fortiori argument, saying: If God enjoined "after its kind" upon trees, which by nature do not grow up in promiscuous miscellany, how much more does it apply to us! Immediately each grass sprouted forth after its kind . . . . Then the angel of the universe declared, "The glory of the Lords endures forever; the Lord rightly rejoices in His works!"

Grass with attitude. God says do it one way, and the grass thinks it has a better idea and does it differently.

But things gets better. Here's another textual inconsistency. God said to create "fruit-tree bearing fruit" (עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי), but the earth instead brought forth "tree bearing fruit" (וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה-פְּרִי). Our midrash skips this problem, but Rashi picks up on it. "This implies that the taste of the tree should be the same as the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth] did not do this, but rather: 'The earth sprouted forth... a tree producing a fruit,' but the tree itself was not a fruit."

Now the earth has attitude. God's original plan called for the entire tree --- branches, leaves, bark, everything --- to be edible. It would literally be a "fruit tree" that also bore fruit. But the earth decided it had a better idea and made regular trees instead. Rashi notes the consequences for the earth's disobedience. "Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, it, [the earth] too, was punished for its sin and was [also] cursed."

This is remarkable. God issued a simple command to the earth: make some plants and trees. The grass --- after comparing itself to the trees, carefully thinking through the problem, and applying Talmudic reasoning --- decided to improve on God's plan. And then did! (And did so before it was even created. Talk about an over-achiever.) The earth on the other hand made the opposite move. God wanted super-trees, but the earth just created regular old ordinary trees.

But the most puzzling verse of all is the transition between God's commands and the much modified implementations of these commands: "And it was so." It most certainly was not so. God got very different grass and trees than he had commanded.

So what do we make of all this?

Here's my explanation. The divine plan for creation is not static. It is dynamic, and it includes creation's modifications of the divine plan for creation. We have a very important role in completing and continuing God's creation.

As many people have noted, we see this idea reflected in our shabbos blessings. We bless God for bringing forth bread from the earth. But God does not create bread. He only brings grain from the earth. People improve the grain and make the bread. And then we bless God for creating the fruit of the vine. Well, God may do that, but we are not eating grapes. We are drinking wine. And people improved the grapes to make the wine. Our blessings make no difference between the the products people make (bread, wine) and the raw materials God makes (grain, grapes), and in fact seems to confuse the two categories.

The reason for all of this, as I see it, is that the divine plan includes the potential to modify the divine plan. Grapes includes wine, wine includes grapes, bread includes grain, and grain includes bread. God and people work together, and we get some pretty good stuff.

The Torah notes that we are created in the image of God. And one important idea in Judaism (and other religions; hence the Latin) is imitatio dei: imitating God. God creates and modifies, and so should we.

This process is not limited to the physical world. It applies to halacha as well. God creates law. As I have argued elsewhere, God also modifies law. And so should we. Halacha cannot be a static and unchanging set of legal rules. Instead, it is up to us to create new rules and modify the old ones as changed conditions require changes in the rule. We should not do so out of convenience or laziness, but only to promote the highest ideals of Judaism.

This enterprise, like all such enterprises, must be undertaken with seriousness and careful thought. Note the two endings to our two stories. God rejoiced when the grasses made themselves better, but he punished the earth when it made trees that were worse. We should change things when we need to, but we need to try very hard to get it right.


David A.M. Wilensky said...

Excellent post! Very enlightening.

And what do we th

NeilLitt said...

On Wednesday, chillul Who? quoted from a teaching of Bar Kapara that began with the formulation "Were it not written in plain text in the Torah, it would be impossible for us to claim that . . ." Now, today, Bruce observes that ". . . the most puzzling verse of all is the transition between God's commands and the much modified implementations of these commands: 'And it was so.' It most certainly was not so. God got very different grass and trees than he had commanded."

Moshe Halbertal spoke at Princeton last year on how the rabbis employ the phrase "were it not written . . ." precisely when they are about to teach what was not written. I wonder what he would make of the grass and trees attempts at a seemingly identical maneuver. Thank you Bruce! I love your post.

Bruce said...

Thanks for the comments.

Chazal (the Talmudic rabbis) were very wise when they chose to introduce new legislation in the guise of interpretation. This provided a clear link to earlier forms of Judaism in a time when the one central Jewish practice (Temple sacrifies) was no longer feasible because the Temple had been destroyed, and new forms of Jewish practice (rabbinic rulemaking, prayer, synagogues) were on the rise. These changes left the rabbinic leaders open to the charge that they were inventing a new religion, not continuing Judaism. After all, Christianity had started out as a Jewish sect with some changes from traditional practices, and it quickly became a new religion.

The rabbis avoided this problem by doing exactly what neillit notes: linking new ideas to old texts by clever (overextended?) interpretations.

Diane said...

I am another blogger in Bruce's "group" (we have another blog together), so I just wanted to put in my two cents' worth on our weekend segment. I hope someone who reads this comment is reading the aggadot in Hebrew -- that may enable the person to help out a bit. My comment is about 1:2:35, "R. Simon said: There is not one herb without its own constellation (mazzal) in heaven, which slaps it and says, 'Grow!'"
Before starting this project, I had encountered a similar quotation, always attributed vaguely to "the Talmud," saying, roughly, "For each blade of grass, there is an angel whispering, 'Grow, grow!'"
Now, these two snippets, one right there in the book and one much more apocryphal, are similar enough that I can't help but think the latter derives from the former. But an angel is most assuredly not a constellation or a star -- and slapping is not whispering!
To give just a few preliminary thoughts, the kinder, gentler "whispering angel" version suggests a loving Providence, while the "slapping constellation" version suggests a Universe conspiring for our growth and edification, which often comes painfully. Both of these, I think, are useful sentiments as we enter into Elul.