Bereshit: Earth Before Heaven

The other day I was leaving the grocery store and noticed that the last thing you see in a supermarket checkout line is always the magazines. There, just past the gum, and positioned right at eye-level so you can see them while you check out. The covers always depict impossibly gorgeous people in impossibly beautiful clothes doing impossibly glamorous things. I like to think of them as fun-house mirrors, reflecting back to us both our own wishful thinking and not so subtly the yawning chasm between our self-image and what these magazine editors tell us we are supposed to look like. The life captured in these magazines teaches that our rooms are always clean and washed in sunshine, that we can improve our golf score with a few secret tips, that we can build a new deck, or make a gourmet meal for twenty-five people at the same time and all in less than thirty minutes! All you have to do is open the cover and turn the page and the wisdom of the ancients is there. 

Every one of these magazines is trying to sell you a small piece of perfection. All of them play into the quiet dissatisfaction that you might feel between what you dreamed your life being and what your life actually is. The most pernicious of the magazines do not twinge your dissatisfaction, but your insecurity or your secret shame as a parent, a business person, or a homemaker, by trying to sell you a solution or give view into a dream house that can never be your own. 

They try to sell you a little piece of heaven. 

There are some in our world who set perfection as life’s goal. Whether it’s the house or our BMI, or our career, the idea of perfection gives us a goal to strive for every day of our lives.  In philosophy this is called telos, or being goal-directed. We sacrifice so much for our personal goals. We suffer for them in the hopes that when we achieve them, some form of vindication or redemption comes. The idea of heaven for many people captures these goals and tells us that if we can’t achieve them in our lifetimes, we can realize them after we are gone. Heaven is seen as a reward for life, a place where life is more real and more vivid than it is here. Which is what many of these magazines try to do with airbrushes and touch-ups.

 They try to  sell you a little piece of heaven. 

But real life is not like that. We all live, we all strive, we all fail, and we all break. That’s what makes us human beings, and that’s what unites us as human beings. One of the secrets of life is that it is our brokenness that connects us more than our ideas of perfection. It’s the messiness and our shared vulnerabilities that connect us more than any glossy magazine cover can really capture. 

As the Torah begins again, in this week’s parsha, Bereshit, what kind of world does the Torah reflect back to us? In the second chapter, which we read this week, we find the interplay of the real and the ideal – the earth and heaven. “Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created, on that day when God created earth and heaven.” (Genesis 2:4)  If you look closely, in a single moment, the Torah shares with us two opposing worldviews. The first half of the verse seems to indicate that God created heaven before earth, while the second half of the verse indicates that God created earth before heaven.   

This might seem esoteric, but it’s from these details that rabbis try to imagine which takes priority in our lives, the pursuit of heaven or the fullness of the earth? In the midrash, the two major founding schools of thought, the House of Shamai and the House of Hillel, debated this very point. For Shamai, heaven comes first, pointing to the need for perfection, for establishing goals, and for fulfilling God’s plan on earth. For Hillel, the earth takes primacy, understanding the need for holy moments, for connection, and for fullness of life.  (Bereshit Rabba 1:15

So which shall it be?  Heaven before earth or earth before heaven? 

In the Jewish worldview, this life, as broken and messy as it is, is the only life that matters. We follow the House of Hillel in all but three rulings. The Torah never imagines a world other than the one you have.  None of the characters is perfect, in fact many are terribly broken people. As nice as Hollywood makes out the Exodus story to be, it is filled with strife and inner conflict. The Torah is not a glossy magazine, trying to show you a perfect life. It is the Book of Life itself, reflecting back to you your brokenness and messiness. It never tries to sell you heaven, only the earth and the fullness thereof.

 I’m reminded of a story that my friend and teacher Rabbi Ed Feinstein taught me:  

After years of living outside the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve heard God’s call to them, saying, “I want you back. I’ve made a terrible mistake. Come back to the Garden and become perfect and immortal.” The weary couple traveled for days over the trails they blazed back to the gate and to the Garden. There they saw the spinning fiery sword that bars entry into paradise. Upon their approach the sword slowed and its fires turned into an ember.  

Adam looked at Eve, at her crows-feet, at her soft body and gray hair. He thought of her struggles to give birth, raising a son who murdered his brother, and the unending struggle to mourn a child. Eve looked upon Adam with his furrowed brow and gnarled hands from scraping the earth trying to bring forth food from thistles. She thought of his fatherhood and his partnership and that he never gave up on life even until this moment.  

And now, here, at heaven’s gate, with the opportunity to erase it all and start over, they looked into each other’s eyes and held hands. And they turned their backs on paradise, and walked back down the path and enjoyed an evening cup of tea. 

There is no life more real and more vivid than this one. There is no substitute for living — on this day when instead of putting heaven before earth, we put earth before heaven. 

Shabbat Shalom

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