Olam chesed yibaneh. The world is built with chesed, Lovingkindness. Last night, we studied a text which playfully gave Lovingkindness – the angel named “Lovingkindness,” that is – credit for building us, inasmuch as she took our side in the celestial debate over whether humankind should be created. This morning, we’ll explore another midrash on the phrase na’aseh adam b’tzalmeinu kid’muteinu, less fanciful and, in some ways, more rooted in the value of chesed.
In this interpretation, God’s utterance, “Let us make humankind,” comes at a point in the story when everything else had already been created. Heaven and earth, sun, moon and stars, the grasses and trees, and all of the animals – the crawlers, the swimmers, the walkers, and the flyers – had been brought into existence. In this interpretation, we don’t need to invent a celestial symposium on the merits of bringing humankind into existence in order to account for the first-person plural formulation, “Let us make humankind.” There were plenty of beings to talk to by Day Six. The teaching comes in two related forms. Rabbi Levi has it, bim’lechet hashamayim v’ha’aretz nimlach – “God consulted with the works of heaven and earth.” Rabbi Shmu’el bar Nachman says it a little bit differently: b’ma’aseh kol yom vayom nimlach – “God consulted with everything that had been fashioned, day by day.”
From the Midrash, this line of interpretation makes its way down the generations. Centuries later, Rashi takes it up and learns from it an important lesson in humility: if even God can take counsel with subordinate beings, then maybe our human tendency to certitude and arrogance is something to be on guard against, and not something to be celebrated. It’s a lesson that hasn’t lost its potency in the millennium or so since it was committed to writing.
Fast-forward. By the nineteenth century, a midrash that imagined God taking counsel with earlier life forms took on a new relevance in light of deepening understandings of our origins. Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael, better known by the acronym formed by his name, the Malbim, had read Darwin when he wrote these words:
Everything formed on a given day was incorporated into the things formed on the next day. When God created the human, God included all the elements that were present already from the creation of the animals which preceded humans. “Let us make humankind” uses the plural since the earth brought forth the body, just like the earth brought forth the bodies of the rest of the animals. Vayivra, “then God created,” indicates the creation of the human soul, divine in origin, and unlike anything ever created before.
As with Rabbi Shimon’s interpretation from last night, some unpacking is in order. The Malbim is interested in answering two questions here. In addition to solving the riddle of “let us make humankind,” he also accounts for a shift in language between verse twenty-six and twenty-seven. Where initially we see na’aseh, “let us make,” ultimately we read vayivra, “God created.” In the entire Torah, the verb bara, to create, is only used in reference to God’s creative capacity, while aseh, to make, is something that anyone can do. Thus does Malbim’s interpretation give a nod to the scientific notion of evolution and biodiversity, while simultaneously privileging humankind and positing an entirely divine origin for the human soul. Not an unexpected line of thinking for a human being, I suppose.
This privileging of humankind over the rest of the animals is made even clearer in the words of another nineteenth-century teacher, Mordecai Yosef Lainer, better-known as the Mei Shiloach. Here’s how he interprets “Let us make humankind:”
God first created all of the non-human creatures. Afterwards, the creatures came to understand and recognize their limitations. Alone, they were unable to join their lifeforce with God. It is only through humanity that Creation is joined to Creator. Humankind elevates it all, as is well-known. Inanimate objects send their strength to flora, flora to fauna, and fauna to the One-That-Talks. And the human being uses that strength to serve God. Thus is all the energy which the human receives from the universe- even the energy of inanimate objects – raised up. When the creatures understood what they lacked, they sent their energy upward to help create the human being. And so, “Let us make humankind.” God told all of the other creatures that they should give of their energy and join in creating the human being. Thus would the human contain a portion from all of them.
For the Mei Shiloach, the central position of humanity, and our superiority, is a given. We share so much with the rest of Creation, not only genetically but also energetically. Chiut, or lifeforce (if you’re a yogi or yogini, you know it as prana, if the martial arts are more your thing, it’s chi) courses through us all. And yet, there’s something we can do that no other creature can do: we can talk. We can talk, and tell stories, and then interpret those stories, making meaning of our experience. Many Jewish philosophers have understood this capacity for speech to be the very essence of “the divine image.”
For the Mei Shiloach, our ability to use words and make meaning is what we were put here for. By recognizing the chiut around us and within us and by lifting it up to its divine source, we fulfill our purpose. We couldn’t do it without all of the species that preceded us; they would have been left wanting, their purpose unfulfilled, had we not come on the scene, a masterful blend of earthly matter and the divine gift of language and soul. Prayer, study of Torah, the performance of mitzvot, words spoken in kindness and truth: l’chach notzarnu, for this, we were created.
The privileging of humankind over the other creatures is a prominent feature within Jewish thought. Classical Jewish texts have long understood humankind to be Creation’s pinnacle and purpose. This is hardly a surprise, given who’s doing the writing. And to the extent that we understand our privilege to come with an obligation to care for all that was created before us – to be what the religious tradition calls “good stewards of creation” – it is not a bad thing. But in the interest of cultivating humility, a la Rashi, we might choose to deemphasize the vast differences between us and our non-human relatives, and pay attention to another version of the story: the one told by evolutionary biologists.
In this version, there’s no vayivra elohim to signify the sudden creation of a human soul, unique among creatures. In this version, our capacity for speech and the creating of meaning is the result of the very same process of variegation and development that brought all the other species, in all of their diversity and interdependence, on the scene. No less than fourteen physical traits contribute to our uniqueness. Sean B. Carroll enumerates them in his Endless Forms Most Beautiful, as follows: relative brain size, relative limb length, cranial size and shape, body and thorax shape, elongated thumb and shortened fingers, small canine teeth, reduced masticatory structures, long gestation period and life span, skull in upright position on vertabral column, reduced body hair, dimensions of the pelvis, presence of a chin, S-shaped spine, and brain topology.
Put it all together, and you have the min hamedaber, the One-That-Talks. And sure, it is impressive. And yet. Marine ecologist and author Carl Safina helpfully points us toward the humility that would serve us, and our fellow travelers on this planet, well. He observes that
[l]anguage is more developed in human beings. But some animals can navigate for thousands of miles underwater and return to the river of their birth, or can fly ten thousand miles and return to a nest on an island that’s half a mile wide amid millions of square miles of ocean. That’s vastly superior to what we can do. And if we could do that and other animals couldn’t, we would say we’re superior. But because they do it, we don’t care.
Maybe this is what Truth was warning about, back in the other midrash, in counseling God not to create us. Our capacity for self-deception seems limitless.
We deceive ourselves into forgetting that we are related and connected to all of creation, and then we take our vast abilities and use them to make war on creation. Far from elevating our fellow travelers on this planet, we imperil them, and ourselves. Stewardship gives way to domination, as we forget our interdependence. The results of this forgetfulness are all around us.
With all of the ways in which human diversity is under attack these days, with race, gender and sexuality, religion, national origin, economic attainment, political leanings, and more being used to separate us and diminish us, it’s all too easy to put biodiversity on the back burner. But we don’t have the luxury of choosing where to place our energy. Our choices are killing our non-human ancestors, and ourselves.
The Mei Shiloach concludes his teaching about lifeforce by pointedly reminding us of our interdependence with all beings. He writes:
When human beings need something, all the other creatures stand ready to assist. They understand that when it goes badly for humanity, it goes badly for them as well, as was the case at the time of the Flood. And when it goes well for humanity, it goes well for them, too.
May we remember that we are in the same boat as the rest of Creation, and may our efforts be for the benefit of all beings.