March 31st, 2020

Inspired Living

Before the Beginning

Rabbi Nosson Scherman

By Rabbi Nosson Scherman

Published Nov. 17, 2017

Before the Beginning

Have you ever wondered about our world's many contradictions --- philosophical and spiritual? JWR's latest weekly series, authored by one of this generation's greatest exponents of biblical Truths, raises questions and offers answers. Challenge yourself and walk away uplifted and enlightened.


Prior to creation there was nothing save the glory of G0D. Nothing --- it is a concept that we, creatures in a physical world, cannot even begin to comprehend, just as the blind cannot comprehend the sunset and the deaf a symphony.

Can we conceive of a world without time or space? We can speak of it, think of it, but the truth is that we cannot really imagine phenomena so foreign to our experience. It is illustrative that the most vividly imaginative fictional conceptions of creatures from another planet do not really leave the experience of Mother Earth --- they portray beings that are a montage of living things and laboratory experiments, but there is nothing that is truly beyond experiences of man.

Existence prior to creation is unfathomable. There was no sun nor moon -- they were created on the Fourth Day. There were no angels -- they were created on the Second Day. There was not even light or darkness --- they were created on the First Day.

That seems like a contradiction in terms; if there was no light then there was automatically darkness, for is not darkness the absence of light? No, for even that seemingly basic concept is a product of our earthbound experience.

There was only G0D, incorporeal, omnipresent, without beginning and without end. But G0D wanted to do good to beings apart from Himself, and in order to make it possible for Him to do so, He created a universe, absolutely perfect, with human life. Because G0D is absolutely perfect, He wanted the good that He would confer upon others to be equally perfect. This could be possible only if the beneficiaries of His goodness would be enabled to share in the perfection of His Glory.


His wisdom decreed that simply to create a being and lavish upon him the blessing of his Maker would not be enough, because the person who has not earned reward feels no satisfaction in undeserved gifts. They are the bread of shame, because, rather than make the recipient feel proud that he has been found deserving, he feels humiliated that he is showered with blessings that are not truly his. Thus, in order for the intended goodness to be worthy of the Source of all good, it would have to be of a nature that could be earned by the beneficiary and thus be the greatest possible source of satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness to him.

In order to achieve this goal, G0D desired these conditions: man, His intended creature, had to have free choice; he had to be placed in a setting where he would be required to choose between good and evil; and the choice could not be obvious --- if it were then it would be ludicrous to reward man for choosing well. After all, one does not reward a child for not putting his hand into a fiery oven.

If the superiority of good over evil were too manifest, the choice would become an automatic, instinctive decision, one unworthy of the sort of reward G0D wanted to bestow. The goal could be achieved only if the holiness of G0D were so concealed that it would be possible to err.

If man could live in an atmosphere of conflict between good and evil, an atmosphere where evil was not only plausible but tempting, not only tempting but rewarding, then the successful struggle against seduction would steadily elevate him.

At every stage of his existence he would face new challenges, always struggling against the desires of the flesh and the titillation of the temptation that shouted to him, "In hedonism there is pleasure, in wealth there is comfort, in culture there is fulfillment."

If he could then surmount the "obvious" and cleave to the way of G0D, recognizing that the alluring impediments were nothing more than a mirage, his spiritual growth would be constant, and eventually he would be worthy of the reward that G0D created the universe in order to bestow.


But if G0D is everywhere, and nothing can exist unless He makes it so -- In His goodness He constantly renews the acts of creation every day -- how then can we associate Him with the existence of evil?

In order to understand this, we must redefine good and evil. We think of "good" as whatever gives us satisfaction. To a child, good is ice cream and a bicycle. To an adult, good can be anything from a symphony concert, accumulation of wealth, sensual gratification, sadistic subjugation of others.

Always, one man's good is another's foolishness or evil. The Torah defines "good" differently. "Good" is the presence of G0D; evil is not His absence -- for He is everywhere -- but His hiddenness, the lack of awareness that He is present.

The cardinal principles of Jewish belief are that G0D exists and that He is One. His Oneness implies thatוּי there is no place free from Him.

The more one is aware of His Presence, the more that place or situation is good. A crowded study hall reverberating with the crescendo of religious study, a house of worship filled with children speaking to their Father, a poor threshold hallowed with a food package that will gladden a hungry family --- all of these are good, because they are manifestations of His existence in the minds and hearts of people.

But the scent of suffering and tragedy can also be good if we could but realize that all is part of His master plan. It is when we do not perceive His Presence, when we fail to see purpose and direction in earthly affairs, that we live with evil. In short, evil is a condition where G0D is not seen.

There are situations in life that seem inherently evil: surely the ugliness of man at his worst cannot be described as good, or even neutral. But even they can serve as a vehicle for elevating man. If he surmounts the challenge that they present, then he has become a better, stronger person.

The person who lives in a cruel society as Abraham did, and remains kind and compassionate, has grown. Thus, the evil around him served the beneficial purpose of elevating him to further greatness.


In order to create the conditions for this type of choice, G0D created a world where His Presence would be obscure enough to enable man not to see it, if he so chose. He subjected his all-pervasive holiness to limitation upon limitation, as layer after layer of material existence built up to disguise and conceal His Presence.

This process was set in motion by G0D and continued until He, in His Supreme Wisdom, determined that it had reached its desired extent.

One of G0D's Hebrew names, Shakai, is derived from the phrase He Who said to His world, "it is enough" (Zohar, Pesikta, Tanchuma). In its plain meaning, it refers to the physical expansion of the earth. Creation began with a single point on earth, the Even Shessiah, the rock in the Holy of Holies in ancient Jerusalem's Holy Temple upon which the Holy Ark rested.

It was given that name for from it the earth "sprang forth." It continued to expand until G0D said, "It is enough." Had He said it sooner, the planet would have been smaller; had He said it later, the planet would have continued to grow. He allowed the process to continue until the mass of earth achieved the proper size and balance of forces it needed to support the quality and extent of life that He desired for it (Zohar).

This is the purely material sense of Shakai. But every physical phenomenon has its spiritual counterpart. The name olam, earth, has a spiritual connotation, and G0D's command "it is enough" applies to this other aspect as well.

The most vital element in creation is spirituality. It is obscured by the material, interlaced with evil, disguised by statistics, logic, and data. But it is man's task on earth to cut away the earthly insulation that prevents the rays of spirituality from warming his soul.

Exodus 3:15 says: This is My Name forever and this is My memorial for all generations. The Talmud notes that the Hebrew word for "forever", is spelled the same word as " to be hidden." From this spelling with its implication that G0D's Name would be "hidden," the Sages derive that I [My Name] am not to be pronounced as I am written. Hence the law that it is forbidden to pronounce the Four-Letter Name of G0D as it is written. There was one exception to the rule that G0D's Name may not be properly pronounced --- ancient Jerusalem's Holy Temple. There, because His Presence was apparent, His Name could be said. Because He was not hidden, His Name need not be hidden (Ritva).


G0D's name is hidden — his very presence is hidden within the universe he created.

This is the meaning of the one limitation after another by means of which He steadily diminished the perceptibility of His holiness, by means of which he made the world an instrument to hide Himself from His creatures.

This increasing extent of hiddenness had to continue until it reached the right state --- the state at which man could be deceived into thinking that there is no G0D save for the dictates of his senses and his lust for power and license, but also the state at which sincere, seeking men could find G0D's presence on earth and in every aspect of life.

When that point was reached G0D said to His world, His process of hiding the Godly Presence, that it was enough. Indeed, we may perhaps be permitted to say that the creation of the primeval "darkness," constituted this very process.


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As mentioned above, darkness was a creation, not merely the absence of light. The foremost commentator, Rashi, quotes the Sages, that during the First Day, light and darkness were intermixed (1:4). Surely if light were present then darkness could not have existed --- unless it was a specific creation that was not subject to the light.

It may well be that, in the spiritual sense, the "darkness" of that First Day was the very limitation that obscured G0D's Presence. It was when the extent of material obscurity had adequately veiled the clarity of spiritual vision that G0D declared an end to the process of ever-expanding darkness.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman is, among many other life achievments, the general editor of ArtScroll, the world's most successful and influential publisher of Judaic titles.

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