A story is told of a group of Kabbalists who wished to write a mystical commentary on the Talmud. They spent years on the project, enlightening the dry, legal text with the illumination of Kabbalah. Finally they completed the project only to discover that it is was much too long. They shortened it, but it was still too long. They tried again, but it was still too long. After several efforts at editing, painfully eliminating every extra word or letter, they were finished. Their commentary was as succinct as possible, only what was absolutely necessary was included, and even then the words were written like a miser doles out money. After checking with a standard edition of the Talmud, they found that they had rewritten the Talmudic commentary of Rashi word for word.
While this story is apocryphal, they don’t write stories like this about anybody else. There was Rashi and there were all the others. Nobody, before or since has matched what he accomplished. Rav Shlomo Yitzhaki (it spells out the acronym Rashi in Hebrew) was born in Troyes, France in 1040. He lived his entire life in the Champagne region, the bulk in Troyes. It was probably during his student years that he began his life’s labor – composing a line-by-line commentary on both the Tanakh and the Talmud.
Both of Rashi’s major commentaries have become essential tools for understanding the two most foundational texts of Judaism. His commentaries almost invariably accompany any printing of the Talmud or the Chumash. His Talmudic commentary went through at least three versions. Apparent contradictions in Rashi (which are unusual but not unheard of) may be due to Rashi changing his mind on some interpretation as he wrote his different versions. Asking questions on Rashi’s commentary and attempting to answer those questions has become one of the primary goals of both Talmudic and Biblical study.
The difficult thing about finding Rashi’s own opinion on something is that he makes every effort to seem to be merely quoting or explaining the words of the rabbis who wrote the Talmud and the Midrash. Once in a while, however, one sees a slight change in the quote from the original source. An extra word, a missing word, a rewording – these subtle variations are where we can glean what was going on in Rashi’s own mind.
One such case occurs at the end of the first section of the weekly Torah reading, the section of Bereshit. Verse 6:6 deals with God’s reluctant decision to destroy the human race in the great Flood. This verse describes God’s regret and grief over having created man, being as they have all corrupted their ways. Rashi brings a Midrash that records a conversation between a heretic and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karha. The heretic asks the question that if God knows all things in advance why should He feel any grief over the failure of mankind? He knew all this was coming from the beginning. Rabbi Yehoshua answers by comparing the situation to a father of a child who celebrates the birth his child even though he knows the child will eventually die. Although he may have to mourn at the death of the child, he still feels joy at the birth since each emotion is appropriate for its time. God, it seems, works the same way.
Rashi faithfully quotes all this from the Midrash. At the end he appends the following words that do not appear in any version of the Midrash that we know of: ‘Even though it was revealed to God beforehand that they would sin and be destroyed, He didn’t refrain from creating them because of the righteous that would come into the world’. The question that must be asked is: why did Rashi add this line?
Numerous approaches have been suggested by the commentaries on Rashi. All involve the premise that Rashi had a problem with the Midrash as it was written and added this line to solve that problem. The problem involved the comparison between God and a person. It is true that man was created in the image of God, but does that mean that God is subject to the same emotional reactions as a human being. Furthermore, a person has a child in spite of the knowledge that the child will die some day, because this is the way of the world. God, however, has no such considerations. If it was all going to fail, why bother creating it all to begin with? To this Rashi answers that there was silver lining behind the clouds – the righteous. They alone justify creation of man.
But this approach has its own problem. If it is true that the righteous justify creation of man, then why should God mourn over the destruction of the wicked if they were never part of the ultimate plan? It seems that it has to be either one way or the other. We can either have God mourning over the fate of mankind because the plan of creation was a failure, or we can have God seeing the ultimate fulfillment of His plan through the righteous. The problem is that Rashi has both.
Perhaps Rashi can be understood with the following twist. God created man with the unique task of using free will to achieve his purpose. Free will has to be free. If God stacks the deck in favor of success then it spoils the whole plan. Nothing would really be accomplished by God pulling on mans’ puppet strings to make them righteous. God, in this regard, has his divine hands tied behind his divine back. The spiritual failures of humanity are a source of helpless grief and frustration for God – there is nothing He can do to rectify those failures, because intervening and manipulating only eliminates free will. It is true that there will be success stories, but they cannot erase the fact that there are also failures. God’s grief is over those inevitable failures that God knew were going to happen, but could do nothing to overcome.
So why did God create human beings in the first place? To this, Rashi answers that there was a reason. In spite of those failures, there was also the potential for success. Every human being, even those who fail, share in this potential. Even after they fail, they retain this potential. The failures are indeed a cause for mourning, but that potential for spiritual greatness is an equal cause for celebration. Each of these divine emotional reactions is appropriate for a given human situation. Sometimes the situation is so grave that drastic action must be taken, either on an individual or a collective scale. An extreme example of this was the event leading to the Flood. But even within this catastrophic failure lurked the seeds for eventual greatness. Noah was there, prepared to weather the coming storm and to help God rebuild the broken pieces into a new world.
Fulfilling our spiritual potential is the reason we were created. This is our divinely ordained purpose. We were given the tools to succeed, and the knowledge that we have those tools is an essential component of success. The first step in winning a battle of the spirit is the knowledge that the battle can be won. If one goes into the battle convinced that there is no chance of winning, that person is spiritually doomed, at least for that moment. On the other hand, if one truly believes that they have the wherewithal to succeed, that they have sufficient willpower and the intuitive sense to choose the right path, that person is halfway to the finish line. This Midrash, and Rashi’s addition of this crucial element, tells us that our spiritual potential is the cause for God’s joy. It is the silver lining that enables God to weather the failures that flood human history.
Potential. It is a word that contains both hope and disappointment. We all know we have potential, but that very knowledge is the cause of so much grief. If we had no expectations for ourselves, we wouldn’t have to face the inevitable disappointment of failing to live up to that potential. But it is that potential that inspires us to try, to reach for the sky even though we are fully aware that we may fall flat on our faces. It is truly an amazing thing that human beings are able to keep dreaming impossible dreams, to keep striving in the face on daunting odds just because they believe they have the potential to make those dreams come true.
Is this a wonderful thing or a terrible thing? Would it be better to live one’s life with no great expectations and never face the crushing blows of failure, or are we better off trying to be the most we can be because only then will we find out who we can be? For the spiritual seeker there is no question. God will always be there watching, mourning the failures when they inevitably occur, but celebrating our ability to overcome those failures by not giving up. Potential is not who we are right now; it is who we can become. But perhaps who we can become is a more accurate picture of who we are then how we see ourselves at the present. For that potential is how God sees us, it is the scale which God uses to determine our purpose in creation.
What can a person do with potential? It’s not really worth all that much in the job market. All the potential in the world is nothing compared to knowledge or experience. It may matter to those rare people who can see beyond the ends of their noses, but for the most part, potential is just, potential. Being that is it may, there is at least one person who can do a vast amount with your potential. That person, of course, is you. If you know, somehow, that you can do whatever it is that you have to do, it makes the task infinitely easier. In the spiritual realm this unquantifiable factor is even more valuable. In fact, it is almost everything. No matter where you stand on the spiritual scale at any given moment and in any given situation, you always retain the potential to win the next spiritual battle. The deck is never stacked against you so much that the battle is a lost cause.
The reason for this remarkable and sometimes incomprehensible resilience is that no matter what you may have done in the past, you still have the power of free will. Your will, more than anything else, is who you really are. All the other stuff really came from outside, either from your genes, or a fortunate upbringing, or some special training, or just downright luck. But your will is yours and yours alone. Even God has to take a back seat when you exercise your will. It is through this indefatigable power that your potential shows its true colors. Next time you find yourself in one of those spiritual battles that you just know is utterly futile, try the following experiment:
First, pretend that you can actually fight this thing and win.
Next, sense the power of your potential within your soul waiting for its moment of glory.
Finally, use your will to push home the spiritual energy you need to get over the obstacle.
It’s all there inside you, lingering, waiting, hoping.
Food for Thought
If it is true that God can always see our spiritual potential in spite of whatever shortcomings we may displayed, then why did God give up on the generation of the Flood? Are there people who God sees as basket cases that have no worthwhile potential?
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