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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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God gives us a model for dialogue

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The beauty of concluding all the holidays that start with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is that we’re able to start reading Genesis again in shul.

Each time we start reading the Torah from the beginning, it provides us with another opportunity to ask familiar questions about God and creation, and to search for more diverse answers. The questions may remain the same, but the choice of answers can indicate our growth.

While reading about the beginnings of the universe, the verse where God discusses the creation of humanity is always an anomaly. The Torah states that God says: “Let us create a human being in our image.” Of course the obvious and recurring question remains: to whom is God speaking? And if we’re able to surmise whom God is talking to, a second question remains: why would God need anyone else’s opinion on the matter?

Rabbinic literature offers many possible explanations to these questions. On the one hand, a sage in the midrash suggests that God is speaking in what we today would call “the royal we.” That is, the holiness of God necessitates using only the formality of language that would distance royalty from commoners. It’s too personal to speak of God in the first person. And yet the very first word God utters to the Jewish people as a collective is the word “Anochi,” “I am,” a clear statement of the personal.

Another opinion in the midrash is that God is addressing the angels, who immediately construct quite valid arguments as to why creating a human being would be a terrible idea. The angels’ arguments focus on issues that define the human condition and that would introduce discord into the created design. Reading this midrash is difficult, because the reader tends to side with the angels. Interestingly, while the angels are preoccupied with stating their case, God creates humanity and then ends the angels’ arguments by proclaiming that it’s a done deed.

The problem is that the question still remains. It seems common among the sages to accept that God is speaking with the angels, but why ask their opinion on anything, especially if in the end their opinion is ignored?

There’s a beautiful midrash that introduces the idea of God modelling for creation how one should deal with decisions. There are always two options to problem-solving. One option is to unilaterally decide and dictate. The other option is to open the door of discourse and consult. This option doesn’t mean you’re handing the decision over to someone else, but rather inviting another voice to become part of the process.

God has consulted with beings who are lesser in stature and intelligence, the angels. It’s a powerful model of true consultation in that it recognizes that every free-willed soul has an opinion to consider.

This one verse opens the door for all human beings to understand that as wise as we think we are, there’s always another voice to hear and another perspective to consider.

This is put beautifully by Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.”

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