The Torah: A Blueprint for Creativity

October 16, 2020
By Beth Mordecai
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The Torah: A Blueprint for Creativity

There is a Far-Side cartoon that depicts God creating the world. In it, God is seen wearing an apron and chef’s hat surrounded by all of the necessary ingredients to create the world. Shaking a container labeled “Jerks” onto the Earth a thought bubble appears from God’s head that reads “Just to make things interesting”.

The image of God as cosmic chef or maybe even mad-scientist is a common one. A little of this, a little of that and voila! The world! But is that how our tradition views the creation? How exactly did God know how to create the world?

To some this may be obvious. God, being an omnipotent deity, simply knew that this was the way the world needed to be in order to work properly. To others, the question itself may be heading towards the heretical. One does not question the origins of the universe. And even if that were proper, we in our human deficiency could never understand God’s plan.

Our great sages of history however were very interested in questions like this. In their interaction with other cultures – primary Greek and Roman– they wondered how their worldview compared to the prevailing culture. Was their Judaism compatible with the world around them or distinctly countercultural?

One of the earliest drashot in Breishit Rabbah – a collection of midrashim from the Talmudic period – responds to this question and I think that response is particularly important for our contemporary lives as Jews.

The midrash begins with a scene that imagines the Torah speaking:“I was God’s tool of craftsmanship in creating the world. In human practice when an earthly king builds a palace he does not do so from his own skill. Rather he hires an architect. And the architect does not build from his own head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the rooms and the doors. Thus God looked in the Torah to create the world.”

The midrash is saying that not only is the Torah the blueprint of the universe, but that God needed to look into Torah to create the world.

In some ways this is a shocking message – that God, all knowing and all powerful, would create the world in exactly the same way that we might create anything today, by using instructions. Moreover, this midrash might challenge a widely held belief that considers God to be unlike humans in most ways. I want to suggest that this Midrash is teaching us something profound about Torah and how we might use it in our own lives.

The midrash teaches us that the ultimate instrument for creativity is the Torah itself. Since it was the primary divine tool for the very first acts of creation, it necessarily remains a powerful implement for innovation and advance.

A Torah that is put to use in light of this midrash can be a Torah that is always at the cutting edge, always relevant, and always responsive to new and changing circumstances. The image of a God that looks to Torah for creative inspiration can be a model for us in our own evolution as Jews and as a community. It shows me that each time we open our Holy Torah we are engaging not only in an act of study but in an act of creation.

The Torah represents many things to us. It is the record of the historical encounter between God and the Jewish people. It is the account of how we became a nation with a unique covenantal relationship with the Holy One of Blessing. It contains stories of our ancestors that inform and guide our lives as contemporary Jews. It is the storehouse of our sacred Laws and Traditions.

And because we honor and revere the Torah to such a high degree, we rightly are very careful to protect it – not only with the physical Torah scrolls themselves, but also with the content material to be found in its parchment. Sometimes this desire to guard the Torah can stifle creativity.

The Rabbis of the midrash sensed this as well. Their response could have been to express notions of a static, unchanging Torah. Instead they put Torah as the very origin of creativity itself.

On this Shabbat Bereishit, after an intense period of the High Holidays with their promise of a fresh start, and as we begin anew the sacred cycle of our Torah reading, I encourage us all to make 5781 the year of the creative Torah, activating this notion in our Jewish realities to use Torah to create our individual worlds just as it was used to build our shared one.

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