There has been an increasing trend in people showing an interest in spirituality over the past few years. According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2017, about a quarter of all adults in the United States now consider themselves ‘spiritual’, up eight percentage points over the course of five years. This has been broad-based growth occurring among men and women of all races and crossing the boundaries of age, education and political affiliation.
This trend has also been well documented in several countries including Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom by scholars who are both sympathetic to traditional religious beliefs as well as those who describe themselves as secular. Much has been written on why this is the case but this trend has also given birth to other questions such as: how does spirituality interrelate with the physical world in which we live? Are they mutually exclusive? Does living a spiritual lifestyle by definition mean rejecting the physical and material world?
Perhaps these are the very questions raised in the opening words of the Torah as we restart the cycle of the weekly portion with the timeless words of Bereishit, the Beginning. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1,1). There is a slight but significant change in the wording which, in a manner of speaking, makes the world of difference. In the following chapter, the order of creation is switched as the Torah writes “On the day that God created earth and heaven” (Genesis 2,4). In the first verse it seems clear that the heavens were created first, yet just a chapter later it seems equally as clear that the earth was the first to come into existence. Were the heavens created first or the earth? More importantly, does it even matter?
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 1,15) highlights that this confusion is not new. The order of creation was disputed over two thousand years ago by the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, two schools of Jewish thought which debated Jewish practice, ethics and theology at the beginning of the first century and who are largely responsible for shaping much of the Oral Law as we know it today. The House of Shammai claimed that based on the first verse in the Torah, it is clear that the heavens were created first; whereas the House of Hillel maintained that the earth was created first – citing as their proof the second chapter of Genesis. But why the argument? And again – why does it matter?
One of the most influential contemporary Chassidic masters, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, who led the dynasty of Slonim until his death in 2000, shares a deep insight that sheds light on this disagreement as well as why the order of creation should be relevant to us. Rabbi Berezovsky was a prolific writer whose works gained critical acclaim across the Jewish world. His magnum opus, the ‘Nesivos Shalom’, is one of the most celebrated volumes on Jewish thought in recent history. In it, he writes that the creation of heaven and earth in Genesis refers not only to heaven and earth as we know it but also to the all-encompassing heavenly and earthly worlds in their own right. The ‘heavens’ refer to the spiritual world and all that it contains and the ‘earth’ refers to the physical world with all that it contains. Hillel and Shammai are not arguing about historical facts or textual interpretation; they are laying out a path for humankind to follow.
The questions now take on a much deeper meaning as Hillel and Shammai attempt to solve a challenge presented by the narrative of the creation of the world. What is the primary way to fulfil one’s potential and create a relationship with the Almighty? According to Shammai, it is to put the spiritual world first and focus only on that dimension and according to Hillel the physical world must be put first and used to reach our goals. The solution, however, lies in how this Midrashic disagreement concludes. Fascinatingly, a later sage called Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai follows up the discourse with a reply to both schools saying “I am amazed how the founding fathers, Hillel and Shammai, can argue about the creation of the world, I would say to both of them that heaven and earth were created as one!”
The Nesivos Shalom points out that Shammai and Hillel both clearly agree that the end goal of this world is to fulfil one's true potential and build a meaningful relationship with the Almighty. What they are arguing about is what road to take and where one should put their primary efforts. Hillel maintains that the way forward is to focus on the physical world and use that as a resource and Shammai disagrees, maintaining that all efforts need to be focused on the spiritual. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai then clarifies that when it comes to spirituality and the spiritual world, the only way to really achieve perfection and create a meaningful relationship with the Almighty is to embrace both the physical and spiritual worlds and use the power of both to harness the true potential of humanity to light up the world. Whichever comes first, the only way to ultimately bring the world to perfection and reach our potential is to combine both the spiritual and physical worlds, and unify them in the service of the Almighty. As Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, heaven and earth were created as one.
- October 15th 2020