Parshat Bereshit: Doing and Being

The year is 1954. Years before the Israeli masses began streaming into India, Azriel Carlebach, the legendary editor of the newspaper Maariv, traveled to India and summarized his experiences in his book “India – a Travelogue.” Carlebach understood well the difference between Western and Eastern worldviews. He quotes a discussion with the Indian prime minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, in which Nehru pointed out to him the gap between Western and Eastern cultures:

We mentioned the political difficulties that were apparently hard to overcome, and I let slip, by the way, that “The question is, what to do?” He gave me a long look… and said, “You see, that is a question characteristic of a European…” “Why?” I wondered. He answered: “An Indian would ask: What to be…?” (Azriel Carlebach, India- A Travelogue, Tel Aviv, 1956, p. 266)

The difference between “to do and “to be,” in this intercultural comparison is the difference between the wish to change reality and the ability to accept it, between dynamic activity and acceptance that does not seek to change reality, between preparation for the future and recognition of the presence of the present. From an existential point of view, the distinction is between self-definition as an answer to the question “What do I do?” and self-definition as an answer to the question “Who am I?”

The land of Israel is located at the meeting point of East and West, and this geographic-historical fact has deep spiritual meaning. In Judaism there are conceptual elements that correspond to those associated with Eastern philosophies, as well as elements which are essentially those of Western thinking. The great spiritual message of Judaism, in my eyes, lies in the combination of the elements, the unification of “being” with “doing.”

Was the world created twice?

The distinction between “being” and “doing” and their combination can be traced to the creation story. The Torah tells the story of creation twice; in the first chapter of Genesis the description of creation is divided into days, whereas in chapter 2, the story centers on the figure of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The traditional commentators found varied ways to understand the repetitions and differences between the two accounts (the outstanding examples in the previous generation are Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his “Lonely Man of Faith,” and Rabbi Mordechai Breuer in his various writings). Some see the double description as an expression of the complexity of reality and its multiple facets, and others see different expressions for God’s providence over man and the world.

I want to suggest that the difference between the stories as the difference between the fundamental existential approach to life as “Doing” as opposed to “Being.” These terms are not external to the Torah – they appear in the text itself, are the foundations of the Genesis narrative, and the relationship between them returns throughout the Torah.

In its first description of creation, the Torah presents us with a story of “doing.” Man is created in the image of God, and his purpose is to rule the world: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over all living things that tread on land.” (Genesis 1:28) The language of creation is “that God created to do.” (Genesis 2:3)

adam and eveThe second story, in contrast, describes an existential state of “being.” Adam lives in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, and the rationale for Eve’s creation is that “it is not good for man to be alone” (2:18) In the former narrative, the connection of man and woman is aimed outwards – they must change reality through reproduction, and are commanded to multiply in order to rule the world. In the latter description, conversely, the connection of man and woman is aimed inwards, and the numeric direction is opposite – two become one: “And Adam cleaved to his wife and they became one flesh.” (2:24) Man and woman together answer the problem of human loneliness – the experience of oneness is the peak of their connection.

As in the two descriptions of creation, the two approaches of “being” and “doing” permeate Jewish life. The Jewish week is divided into two: six weekdays of action: “Six days you shall work and do all your labors,” and afterwards, one day of rest: “And the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God, you shall not do any labor.” (Exodus 20:9-10) The obvious question is: Is the distinction between “doing” and “being” an admission of life’s duality, such that each value negates the other? Must we choose between a life of “doing” and a life of “being?” Are these two sides of our life impossible to bridge?

The Torah presents these two values in two separate stories of creation in order to clarify each element on its own. But the bottom line is that “doing” and “being” are not two separate things, but rather one matter with two faces. In our lives we often feel the need to separate these two elements, but a dynamic life synthesizes the two in a mutual productivity, a harmony between “being” and “doing.”

The Taste of the Tree like the Taste of the Fruit – Rav Kook and Tom Sawyer

The possibility of determining what arose in God’s thought when God prepared to create the world is fascinating. At the beginning of Genesis chapter 1, God commands the earth to grow “fruit trees producing fruit,” but the earth grows “trees producing fruit.” (Genesis 1:11-12) Rashi, based on the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (5:11), explains: “Fruit tree – that is, that the taste of the tree would be like the taste of the fruit, and the earth did not comply.” The insubordination of the earth towards its Creator is known in midrashic literature as “the sin of the earth.” What is the significance of this sin? Why is it so important that the tree itself have a taste?  Rav Kook (Lights of Repentence, 6, 7) explains the connection between the tree and the fruit as an allegory for the relationship between the “ends” and the “means” – the fruit represents the goal, whereas the tree stands for the actions taken to reach that goal. The Creator of the world intended that the tree itself would have a good taste, that taste would not be limited only to fruit. We can conclude from this that, ideally, actions themselves have intrinsic value, and are not just preparatory steps towards a goal.

Boy  painting the fenceAn anecdote from Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, illustrates Rav Kook’s teaching well. In one chapter, Aunt Polly punishes Tom by making him repaint the fence around their yard. Aunt Polly symbolizes the reality in which “the taste of the tree is not like the taste of the fruit.” Only the “fruit,” the whitewashed fence, has value, while the action of whitewashing, the path towards achieving the goal, is a punishment.

Tom, on the other hand, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his youth, comes to a different understanding of the ideal life, and reveals the secret to his friends. The path is not just an intermediary or a curse, but rather a blessing and a bounty. This new understanding enchants his friends so much that by the end of the story they pay Tom for a chance to participate in the whitewashing of the fence.

The words of the midrash that Rav Kook quotes contain a great secret of life. In spiritual language, the spiritual goal is defined as “awakening.” The founding assumption is that it can happen that a person’s life passes by while they are still asleep. The binary states of “sleep” and “wakefulness” relates to a person’s awareness, and the way in which they live their life. To a large degree, the lack of awareness of life stems from the wandering of a person’s mind to the past (thoughts of what has happened to her) or to the future (ruminations on what she can expect). People are not present in the one place where life actually passes – the present. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” A “sleeping” person is not present in the present, while an “awakened” person succeeds in focusing and truly being present.

The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life

Now we can understand Adam’s punishment at the time of his exile from the Garden of Eden. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge produced within Adam and Eve a change in consciousness. Their eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil; everything in their lives was now either good or evil. The opening of their eyes, which enabled a more mature view of the world, is also the punishment which they received, a punishment which is essentially in their consciousness. Reality did not change, only Adam’s relationship to it did. Immediately after the expulsion from Eden, with the words: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread,” (Genesis 3:19), God describes the existential struggle predicted for Adam’s life. An initial reading indicates that these words describe Adam’s curse, but isn’t it possible that the immense effort that we put into existing and living could be not a curse but a connection to the essence of life and its meaning? Rabbi Nachman of Breslov refreshingly comments that the word “sweat” is composed (in Hebrew) of the first letters of the verse in Psalms 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Likutei Moharan 2:6). Specifically in the sweat Rabbi Nachman finds blessing and joy for man.

Live Life to the FullestThe curse of “the sweat of your brow” is dependent on man considering sweat a curse. But if man understands that sweat and hard work can serve as the key to a meaningful existence, the sweat becomes a blessing. The connection to the Tree of Life, which was lost with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, can be attained through our consciousness if we undo the curse of “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” and can translate it into the blessing of “This is the day the Lord has made.”

Possibly, we will then march one small step closer towards the fixing of our disconnected life, in the direction of a more unified existence. The Jewish message combines both powers – the power to “be” and the power to “do” – in life itself.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Avinoam Stillman.

Rav Dr. Yakov NagenRav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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